Respectful Insolence

President Straw Man

Now here’s something you don’t see every day: a news analysis article pointing out a politician’s love of a logical fallacy:

WASHINGTON – “Some look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude that the war is lost and not worth another dime or another day,” President Bush said recently.

Another time he said, “Some say that if you’re Muslim you can’t be free.”

“There are some really decent people,” the president said earlier this year, “who believe that the federal government ought to be the decider of health care … for all people.”

Of course, hardly anyone in mainstream political debate has made such assertions.

When the president starts a sentence with “some say” or offers up what “some in Washington” believe, as he is doing more often these days, a rhetorical retort almost assuredly follows.

The device usually is code for Democrats or other White House opponents. In describing what they advocate, Bush often omits an important nuance or substitutes an extreme stance that bears little resemblance to their actual position.

He typically then says he “strongly disagrees” — conveniently knocking down a straw man of his own making.

Bush routinely is criticized for dressing up events with a too-rosy glow. But experts in political speech say the straw man device, in which the president makes himself appear entirely reasonable by contrast to supposed “critics,” is just as problematic.


My jaw just about hit the floor when I read this. As Chemjerk said, “What amazes me about this article is its mere existence. You often see stories about the tactics of politicians, but you rarely see a news item that dissects a disengenious tactic so boldly.”

As regular readers know, skepticism and critical thinking are major themes of this blog, which means that pointing out straw man fallacies is a frequent activity of mine, whether they are used by creationists, alties, supporters of the paranormal, or other varieties of pseudoscientist or pseudohistorian. Basically, a straw man argument is the refutation of a weaker argument than the one that one’s opponent has actually proposed. Most commonly, it involves either paraphrasing one’s opponent’s argument in highly weakened form or misrepresenting it completely in such a way that it is more radical or less nuanced, attributing that weaker argument to him or her, and then refuting that argument. The weaker argument is the “straw man” that is knocked down in place of one’s opponent’s true argument. The use of the straw man argument can represent either dishonesty or merely sloppy thinking (or a combination of the two), and it is one of the most common logical fallacies I (and most others interested in skepticism and critical thinking) encounter. As Julian Baggini puts it:

Although the misrepresentations characteristic of straw men can be willful, often they simply reflect how little effort people make to understand their opponents’ points of view. We like the world to be clear cut and simple, made up only of black and white. If we attribute hopelessly inadequate or repugnant views to others, the virtues of our own commitments seem obvious. But if we grant that our enemies have an arguable case, then our own views suddenly do not seem so unassailable, and our opponents not so clearly on the side of the devil.

What’s so remarkable about the AP article that I cited above is that misrepresenting an opponent’s argument using a straw man is a time-honored tradition in American politics that dates back to time immemorial, so much so that it is generally hardly ever noticed when politicians engage in this particular logical fallacy. It’s just considered part of the business, something that all politicians do to one degree or another at one time or another. Indeed, the straw man argument is an essential tool of political spinmeisters. Even before I saw this article, I had gotten the impression that this administration had had even more of a tendency than previous ones to use logical fallacies, particularly the straw man argument. Bush was particularly fond of this one during the 2004 election:

Running for re-election against Sen. John Kerry in 2004, Bush frequently used some version of this line to paint his Democratic opponent as weaker in the fight against terrorism: “My opponent and others believe this matter is a matter of intelligence and law enforcement.”

The assertion was called a mischaracterization of Kerry’s views even by a Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Of course, Republicans will retort, “Democrats do it too” (or “liberals do it too”), and indeed Democrats and liberal politicians do to some extent. (And, predictably, conservative bloggers are already claiming that Jennifer Loven–the writer of the AP article–does it too.) However, at least to my perception, they do not seem to rely on the straw man nearly as heavily as the President and his flacks do. Indeed, one thing that has never ceased to amaze me is the sheer artlessness and unimaginativeness of most of the straw men arguments that the President likes to keep repeating, making it shocking to me that they seem to have worked so well for so long. This all leads me to ask: Are the President’s straw man arguments intentional misrepresentations designed to deceive or are they an example of such broad oversimplifications that they reveal either a lack of critical thinking skills or perhaps even a contempt for the American people? Or do they represent a mixture of these factors?

Does it really matter which one it is?

And, no, I don’t think I’m using the logical fallacy known as the false dichotomy, either.

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Comments

  1. #1 AlanW
    March 21, 2006

    Slightly OT, but I think related, is the administration’s policy of rewritting history and moving the goalposts. Most recently, we have Rumsfeld’s opinion piece http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/17/AR2006031701797.html in which he said:

    “The rationale for a free and democratic Iraq is as compelling today as it was three years ago. A free and stable Iraq will not attack its neighbors, will not conspire with terrorists, will not pay rewards to the families of suicide bombers and will not seek to kill Americans.”

    IIRC, the rationale for invading three years ago was to destroy the (non-existant) WMDs, not nation-building. Why doesn’t the media expose the adminsitration on these falacies?

    PS, IMHO, Rumsfeld is wrong anyway – consider Hamas in Palestine and the extremist Islamic fundamentalists who won the elections in ALgeria in the 90′s and it is obvious that democracy is not a guarentor of peace and good relations.

  2. #2 Abel PharmBoy
    March 21, 2006

    I was very excited to see the article and Jennifer Loven’s mainstreaming of the concept of the straw man argument. I’m hoping that the broad blogging on this article will result in more submissions for The Skeptics’ Circle. (BTW, I personally liked the original title of your post and its play on Kayne West’s post-Katrina quote).

  3. #3 coturnix
    March 21, 2006

    What was the original title?

  4. #4 Orac
    March 21, 2006

    Given that I think that Kanye West is an arrogant twit, your mentioning him makes me glad I changed the title. ;-)

    As for what the title originally was, just look to the URL, which I didn’t change.

  5. #5 Johnny Vector
    March 21, 2006

    So when’s the movie coming out? All the President’s Straw Men, I mean.

  6. #6 wolfwalker
    March 21, 2006

    AlanW wrote: “IIRC, the rationale for invading three years ago was to destroy the (non-existant) WMDs, not nation-building.”

    You don’t recall correctly. Replacing the Saddam regime with a democratic one which would not threaten regional stability was always one of the stated reasons for the invasion.

  7. #7 Ali
    March 21, 2006

    I don’t know if it was always one of the stated reasons; it certainly wasn’t one of the emphasized ones. But I’ll concede that the domino theory has long been in place, albeit not so public.
    /OT

    Ah, the straw man; valued friend to hucksters since time immemorial.

  8. #8 Joseph Hertzlinger
    March 21, 2006

    I distinctly recall a Presidential speech just before the invasion of Iraq calling for more democracy in the mideast.

    As for the straw men

  9. #9 Orac
    March 21, 2006

    Joseph,

    Consider this:

    Therefore, Straw Man arguments often attack a political party or movement at its extremes, where it is weakest. For example, it is a straw man to portray the anti-abortion position as the claim that all abortions, with no exceptions, are wrong. It is also a straw man to attack abortion rights as the position that no abortions should ever be restricted, bar none. Such straw men are often part of the process of “demonization”, and we might well call the subfallacy of the straw man which attacks an extreme position instead of the more moderate position held by the opponent, the “Straw Demon”.

    Or this alternate technique of setting up a straw man:

    Present someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, refute that person’s arguments, and pretend that every upholder of that position, and thus the position itself, has been defeated.

    And then, of course, there’s the common technique of stripping an opponent’s argument of all its subtleties or leaving out qualifications, of which abundant examples were provided in the article. For example, that’s what Bush did to Kerry’s position about terrorism, which was more complex than how Bush represented it. Similarly, his referring to some Senators who opposed the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security as “not interested in the security of the American people,” leaving out a crucial bit of information that it was not the Department of Homeland Security that they opposed but labor provisions in the bill that got rid of usual civil service protections for the new Department’s employees, was a straw man. Ditto when he portrayed skeptics of his educational testing program as opposed to holding schools accountable when it was in reality the cost and intrusiveness of the program that made them balk.

    Bush and his Administration use these sorts of obvious straw men all the time.

  10. #10 Roman Werpachowski
    March 21, 2006

    PS, IMHO, Rumsfeld is wrong anyway – consider Hamas in Palestine and the extremist Islamic fundamentalists who won the elections in ALgeria in the 90′s and it is obvious that democracy is not a guarentor of peace and good relations.

    Anyone calling recent elections in Palestine “democratical” is wrong. Hamas was buying and intimidating voters on a large scale, while the second party was reeking with corruption. The elections were democratical only in a name.

    As to the Algeria, what brought more chaos and brutality: the election of islamic parties or the subsequent annulment of the vote?

    Democracy may be troublesome at times, but in the long run it IS the best guarantee of peace and stability we have.

  11. #11 Jillian
    March 21, 2006

    It’s worth noting that the response “Democrats do it too” is yet another fallacy…Tu quoque is not considered a legitimate response to a criticism.

  12. #12 Ali
    March 21, 2006

    Present someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, refute that person’s arguments, and pretend that every upholder of that position, and thus the position itself, has been defeated.

    Rush Limbaugh has made a career off of this one.

  13. #13 Chris Noble
    March 21, 2006

    I think that many cases are unconcious and unintentional.

    The natural reaction of people is to focus on the worst advocates of the opposing side and react to these people as if they are representative of a much more complex debate.

    I think it is a natural tendency that even the best of us have to watch out for.

    PS. Just because it is a logical fallacy doesn’t mean you can’t get elected using them. People use them because they are effective rhetorical tools

  14. #14 Roman Werpachowski
    March 22, 2006

    It’s worth noting that the response “Democrats do it too” is yet another fallacy…Tu quoque is not considered a legitimate response to a criticism.

    But for the foreign observer like me, it does undermine the credibility of the critics. The fact that the Democrats did not come up with any coherent scenario for Iraq (point me to one if I am wrong), which was really apalling during the 2004 presidential campaign, doesn’t help their case.

  15. #15 Roman Werpachowski
    March 22, 2006

    At least Americans have alternatives: http://www.amconmag.com/2006/2006_03_27/cover.html

  16. #16 KeithB
    March 23, 2006

    The strawman is alive and well on AirAmerica.

  17. #17 Shygetz
    March 24, 2006

    Yep, it sure is, as well as on Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, and just about every other show that makes its living off of partisanship.

  18. #18 Dorothy
    August 19, 2006

    Jeff Foxworthy – an example of such broad oversimplifications that they reveal either a lack of critical thinking skills or perhaps even a contempt for the American people? .(Alties?)

    Lions…
    Tin Men…
    Straw Men and then…
    Muslims and then…(Jews)

    Gestapo couldn’t of put it better than you have!

    Your biography must be “The Oz behind the Nazi’s”

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