The Straw Man Will Get You Every Time
In the meantime, I have pulled myself together just enough to bring you the first in a series of posts on logical fallacies. Like the grammar posts, the fallacy posts will turn up now and then when I need something less horrifyingly long to write and/or want to take a break from the modes. An understanding of fallacy will come in handy when you're writing persuasively, so pay attention.
A logical fallacy is a sort of tool that helps a writer cheat on an argument, filling in holes with falsities, evasions, or truly imbecilic bits of "reasoning." Many writers believe they have presented well-reasoned arguments when what they have actually done is litter a paper with fallacious statements that deserve to be clubbed about their ears until they stop moving. The most common of the fallacies have names: red herring, straw man, ad hominem argument, circular reasoning, and so on. Politicians know and love them all. You should know them too, though once you do, you should probably leave them to the politicians.*
Today, I'm going to discuss my, and probably your, favourite: the straw man fallacy. The straw man is beloved of all undergrads everywhere, probably because it is so bleeding convenient. Unadulterated evil often is.
Imagine your prof has set you an essay on global warming.** You happen to believe that what you think of as the "fuss over global warming" is much ado about nothing,**** and you construct an argument that revolves around this belief. In your first paragraph, you include the sentence:
The idea that the planet is liable to be destroyed any day now because of the simple existence of the SUV is absurd.
You are here presenting a counter-argument and preparing to pick it to pieces. There's only one problem:
What sane person would argue that the "simple existence" of the SUV will cause the planet to be "destroyed any day now"?
The straw man fallacy constitutes the presentation of a counter-argument that is absurd, easy to refute, and usually non-existent. Think of it this way: if you were a medieval squire and your master-at-arms decided to train you in sword-play by having you hack at a man constructed out of straw, you would soon become very good at stabbing scarecrows to death. The first time you had to fight a real opponent carrying a real sword and actually doing his best to behead you, you would be in trouble.*****
Straw-man arguments are tempting to create because they make proving a thesis so damned easy. It is not difficult to argue that the SUV is not going to cause Earth to explode tomorrow. It is not hard to claim that a strong Canadian dollar will not lead to a second Great Depression. Setting up your imaginary opponent as hysterical, unreasonable, and wrong is a simple process, but it is also an unfair one and will lead to your readers taking you--not the opponent--less seriously. To refute a straw-man argument, a real opponent will only have to say, "I've never claimed any of that garbage."
Make sure that you have a real counter-argument. If it's a convincing one, you'll have to work hard to refute it. Many writers rely on straw men because they simply don't want to work hard. Wake-up call: there are no short cuts. You want to learn how to argue convincingly? Stop trying to cut corners. You're not fooling your readers; you're fooling yourself.
1) I've finally got around to creating an e-mail address that a) doesn't have my real name in it anywhere and b) does not include the name of a character from Winnie-the-Pooh.****** You can find the contact link in my profile (at least one person already has). Those who long to tell me what a horrible person I am for metaphorically slapping poor undergraduates upside their metaphorical little heads but don't want to leave public comments can now get started.
2) It's that time again. It is, in fact, time for some updates on
The Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour
The plagiarists have been busy this week. They are making me really, really angry.
essays on the impact of reading writing and speech
To be fair, this person could simply be doing perfectly legitimate research for a paper. To be considerably less fair, she probably isn't. Most legitimate researchers would search for articles, not essays, and they would do so on article databases designed for the purpose. This little toad is searching for essays. She also has no idea how to do a Google search. Most of the plagiarists don't (see below for one truly wonderful example).
Hello, people: the words "on," "the," "of," and "and" are not helping you here. Why are you including them in your search? Are you insane as well as evil?
essay show how bilbo is a hero
This one comes from the young gentleman who gave us "thesis and example in body paragraph about bilbo hobbit" and "bilbo such a hero transition to next paragraph in the hobbit." He hit the main page again. If he actually read it, he probably saw me insulting his search terms. Hello, Hobbit Boy: do you ever give up? Why has it taken you two weeks to find anything on this subject to steal? The Internet is strewn with information about heroism in The Hobbit. You are not simply a cretin; you are a persistent cretin. Go away, sir.
elizabethan photo paragraph of writing describing it
What the hell is an Elizabethan photo? There were no cameras in the Elizabethan period! Y'know those pictures of Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and Sir Walter Raleigh and all those people you see all over the place? Those are paintings.
Admittedly, this person could quite innocently be searching for dissertations on J. R. R. Tolkien'sThe Hobbit. I'm expecting probably not, however.
descriptive essay about my aunt
You, Ms. Plagiarist, are the human incarnation of Laziness. She's your aunt. Go have tea with her. Take her for a stroll through some garden somewhere. Describe her yourself. Why would you have to steal a description of your aunt when you could actually write it yourself in about thirty seconds, you oozing, bottom-feeding piece of animate slime?
process analysis essay on sandwich
The process analysis essay on the construction of a sandwich is a favourite first-year set topic. It is probably fairly easy to plagiarise. That said...it's a sandwich. All you have to do is describe how to make one. Why are you incapable of going to the kitchen, making yourself a sandwich, and recording the steps? It will probably take less time than it will for you to find and plunder someone else's description, and you'll get a sandwich out of it.
thesis statement of batman essay
This wart is the second Filthy Plagiarist who has been set a Batman topic and has decided not to use his brain. You get to write on Batman. On Batman! What is wrong with you? Why are you not writing on Batman? I shall smack you!
4 page concept essay on aliens
The "aliens" topic is almost as popular as the "Batman" topic. This idiot has actually specified how long her stolen essay has to be. Have fun with that, Nasty Thing Stuck to the Bottom of my Shoe.
expository essay on the importance of having integrity
AH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA *snort* *gasp* HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!
examples of introdction [sic] of an essay on how to begin writing a essay describing a room to someone who has never s
This search term goes on for so long that it actually exceeds my statcounter's ability to contain it. I expect the last two words were originally "seen it," though given this plagiarist's capacity for long-winded Googlocity, there may have been more.
Dear little plagiarist...you don't know how to use Google, do you? You are trying to steal your essay, and you don't even know how. I wish you luck. You're going to need it.
an observations essay about parakeets birds
Here's an idea for you:
Go observe a bloody parakeet.
One further note:
Inevitably, people are starting to play with my statcounter, entering ludicrous search terms just to see whether they can bring up my site. Some of the searches above may be from such people, though I don't think so; I can generally tell when someone is a repeat visitor. A couple of my online acquaintances did spend a happy half-hour fiddling with Google one evening; they found my blog with search terms ranging from "kem abuses sandwich devotees" to "kem is really batman and bricks sandwich devotees resulting in their impending doom," not to mention, "kem is canada's merciless monster."*******
However, my favourite of these attempts came from a person from Pennsylvania who had visited the site nine times before. This enterprising reader found the blog with a number of fairly ordinary searches such as "plagiarize frodo friends" and "useful descriptive essay writing phrases," then ended with, "mock Kem the Merciless plagiarize."
This search record may constitute the first ever instance of Satire Via Statcounter.
Nicely done, faithful reader...nicely done.
*A rather learned drinking game might involve a political debate during which all the watchers took a sip every time a politician used a logical fallacy. Everybody would be roaring drunk in no time.
**Profs and teachers are always setting essays on global warming and the abortion debate and other such hot-button issues.*** They only realise how terribly foolish they have been once they are two or three sentences into the first paper.
***Long, long ago, when I was in high school, the hot-button issue of the day was euthanasia. When I trotted this example out before a bunch of high-school students last year, they looked at me as if I had gone mad. I had to explain the term, which they had never heard. I must be Getting Really Old.
****An opinion I do not share, by the way. Like many fervent Canadian environmentalists, I was brought up in BC. I learned to recycle cardboard before I learned to walk. When I went to Kalamazoo for a conference a couple of years ago and found myself in a university that had no recycling bins, I suffered. Oh, how I suffered.
*****Probably the really fatal kind.
******Not that I have anything against Winnie-the-Pooh. I love Winnie-the-Pooh. Mostly, the problem is that I never check that address.
*******One of the terms was much, much dirtier than any of the others. Let's just say that it involved the words "fingers" and "wet" and leave it at that.
straw man fallacy
One of the characteristics of a cogent refutation of an argument is that the argument one is refuting be represented fairly and accurately. To distort or misrepresent an argument one is trying to refute is called the straw man fallacy. It doesn't matter whether the misrepresentation or distortion is accidental and due to misunderstanding the argument or is intentional and aimed at making it easier to refute. Either way, one commits the straw man fallacy.
In other words, the attacker of a straw man argument is refuting a position of his own creation, not the position of someone else. The refutation may appear to be a good one to someone unfamiliar with the original argument.
To understand the example of the straw man fallacy I will present here, I suggest you first read my entry on the unconscious mind and identify what my arguments and positions are in that essay. The straw man I am going to present was created by Karl Tyler of England in a review of The Skeptic's Dictionary posted on Amazon.com.
In a world where the flow of information that daily assails us has turned into a veritable tidal wave, the process of debunking myths, snake oil salesmen and the like not only makes fun reading, it also provides a valuable service - BUT ONLY when it is done well.
In this case, the book unfortunately tells us little more than what groups/ideas have earned the author's vitriolic displeasure. What we DON'T find out is what has really shaped the contents of the book, and this despite the fact that there is solid evidence that in numerous instances the views and claims are based on indirectly obtained, and often wildly off beam, information rather than on solid investigation.
In short, we are offered prejudices posing as objectivity.
Take the rejection of "the unconscious mind", for example.
The book provides a lengthy, even tedious, pseudo-scientific discussion of how "science" has failed to demonstrate the existence of the "unconscious" mind as described by Freud, Jung and Tart, and then leaps to the unsupported conclusion that therefore there is no such thing as the unconscious mind (emphasis added).
I must admit to Karl and the world that leaping to conclusions is one of my favorite exercises, but I have neither leapt nor crept to the belief that there is no such thing as the unconscious mind. It is not quite accurate to state that I reject Freud's notion, Jung's notion, and Tart's notion because science has failed to demonstrate the existence of any of their notions. It would be more accurate to say that I reject Freud's notion because the empirical evidence regarding trauma and memory mostly contradicts it. I reject Jung's and Tart's notion that the subconscious mind is a reservoir of transcendent truths not because it is metaphysical and thus false, but because I don't find it useful or convincing as an explanation for anything it supposedly explains. Mr. Tyler might well have criticized me for misleading the reader by claiming that there is no scientific evidence for this metaphysical position. Of course there isn't. There couldn't be. Metaphysical claims by their very nature can't be supported by scientific evidence.
Mr. Tyler states my position as being there is no such thing as the unconscious mind. Yet, in the third paragraph, I say "It would be absurd to reject the notion of the unconscious mind simply because we reject the Freudian notion of the unconscious as a reservoir of repressed memories of traumatic experiences....it seems obvious that much, if not most, of one's brain's activity occurs without our awareness or consciousness. Consciousness or self-awareness is obviously the proverbial tip of the iceberg."
I also state that "there is ample scientific data to establish as a fact that some conscious perception goes on without self-consciousness." I present four examples to support this point: blindness denial, jargon aphasia, blindsight. and oral/verbal dissociation. Mr. Tyler does not address these claims at all, though they clearly imply a belief in the unconscious, although quite a different kind of unconscious than Freud or Jung envisioned. I refer to this aspect of unconscious processing as "lost memory," "fragmented memory," or "implicit memory" and cite the work of Schacter and Tulving, who came up with the latter term. Mr. Tyler, continuing with more straw man argumentation, says that "we clearly have a capacity for mental processing which is something rather more sophisticated than just 'lost memory', as this author suggests." In other words, he suggests that I have not only rejected the unconscious mind, but I've rejected the conscious mind as well! Of course we have a capacity for acts of mental processing beyond those associated with the aforementioned perceptions without self-consciousness.
Mr. Tyler apparently thinks that by proving I reject belief in the unconscious mind (which I don't) and in the conscious mind beyond those involving conscious perception without awareness (which I don't), he has shown I am wrong. It doesn't take much evidence to support his claim that I am wrong since he is refuting a rather moronic position that he has misrepresented as mine. His premise consists of the statement: "you really don't need to be a rocket scientist to recognise the validity of the notion of an 'unconscious', or 'out of conscious' mind." In other words, the straw man is so obviously false that no refutation is even needed.
I can only guess at why Mr. Tyler misrepresents my position. There really isn't enough said that is clear and specific to figure out what motivates him. He says things like "the book unfortunately tells us little more than what groups/ideas have earned the author's vitriolic displeasure." But this just tells us that I write mostly about ideas I dislike (which is another misrepresentation). He writes that "there is solid evidence that in numerous instances the [author's] views and claims are based on indirectly obtained, and often wildly off beam, information rather than on solid investigation. In short, we are offered prejudices posing as objectivity." Unfortunately, Mr. Tyler's evidence for my "indirectly obtained" views (whatever that might mean) and my "prejudices posing as objectivity" is his claim that I deny the existence of the unconscious mind (which I don't).
Tyler claims that my book "provides a lengthy, even tedious, pseudo-scientific discussion of how 'science' has failed to demonstrate the existence of the 'unconscious' mind as described by Freud, Jung and Tart." He is certainly entitled to claim that the work of Daniel Schacter is pseudoscientific, but he ought at least try to explain what he means by pseudoscientific and why he considers pseudoscientific what everybody else in the psychological community considers scientific.
Tyler says that my "argument presupposes that nothing is 'true' until it has been scientifically validated. Which is a bit like arguing that Australia didn't exist until the first white explorers discovered it." The analogy is a distraction. I do presuppose that no empirical claim is true until it has been scientifically validated. That's why I reject Freud's claims about the unconscious as a reservoir of repressed memories that cause behavioral and mental disorders. The empirical evidence doesn't support his claim.
I don't really discuss why I reject the notion of the unconscious mind as a reservoir of transcendent truths in the entry on the unconscious mind. One has to read my entries on Jung and Tart for that argument. Tyler might find it interesting to remember that Jung also rejected Freud's notion of the unconscious mind. True, Jung didn't reject it for lack of scientific evidence, since he seemed to be more interested in intuition and anecdotes than in scientific studies. But he rejected it nonetheless.
In my entries on Jung and Tart, I think the careful reader will find that I don't reject their metaphysical theories of the unconscious because they're metaphysical and therefore false. I reject them because they're fuzzy and I don't find them very useful. They aren't very clear and they aren't needed to explain anything. So again, Mr. Tyler has created a straw man. I leave it to the reader to figure out how this straw man is like arguing that Australia didn't exist until the first white explorers discovered it.
Tyler claims that my book "studiously ignores the fact that 'scientific' knowledge is itself a highly moveable feast - what seemed to be proven/disproven yesterday may well turn out to be disproven/proven tomorrow." More of the straw man here, though I must grant him that "studiously ignores" is an admirable turn of phrase.
Perhaps the key to what motivated Mr. Tyler to misrepresent my arguments and positions can be found in his curious reference to a professor and an experiment.
Fact: numerous experiments carried [sic] by Prof. Robert "Pygmalion in the Classroom" Rosenthal have shown that students can accurately predict a teacher's perceived effectiveness (as rated at the end of a complete semester) on the basis of just three 2 (TWO) second video clips.
So what process do they use to make that evaluation?
How can they be so accurate?
What yardstick(s) are they using to make the evaluation?
We have no idea, because the processing takes place OUTSIDE of the conscious mind.
If I understand Mr. Tyler correctly, he is saying that Rosenthal has solid evidence that a significant percentage of students can accurately predict on the basis of just a two-second video clip what rating the teacher will get from the students at the end of the term. I would have to agree with Tyler that such processing is unconscious and that it has nothing to do with implicit memory, despite Mr. Tyler's claim that this must be my position (another straw man distortion). [As an aside, while I am not familiar with this particular study, other studies done by Rosenthal have demonstrated the powerful effect of first-impressions on subsequent judgments. My guess is that he would explain the accuracy of the student evaluations as a result of the snap judgments they made. That is, the students prime themselves to find a teacher effective or not by their initial judgments of what the teacher's going to be like. In short, the student's snap judgments are self-fulfilling prophecies.]
Tyler concludes with a couple of general, disparaging comments about my book:
This is the sort of book that greatly appeals to dilettante cynics, offering broad grounds for scepticism regarding numerous topics by way of a host of half-baked 'facts' which the reader isn't expected to check out for him/herself.
He doesn't mention any other specific "half-baked" facts. I suspect this is because his reading of other facts in the book is analogous to his reading of the unconscious mind entry. If anyone did bother to check his claims against what I actually say, Mr. Tyler would be revealed for what he is: one who misrepresents another's positions and arguments, which he then proceeds to knock over with slam-dunk refutations.
His final comment is most telling:
One measure of a truly useful critique is that BOTH sides (or ALL sides) of the story are presented and compared so that the listener/reader can reach their own conclusions. But don't worry - you'll find nothing that open or constructive in this volume.
More straw man. If Tyler will read the introduction to my book he will find that I specifically advise the reader that The Skeptic's Dictionary is not a "critique" or critical evaluation of all sides of the issues presented. Mine is a book for skeptics, aimed at providing skeptical arguments and references to the best skeptical literature.
As far as I know, I have never corresponded with Mr. Tyler, so I have no idea why he would so misrepresent my book in order to post his "review." I put review in quotes because he hasn't reviewed my book. He hasn't even reviewed the single entry he focuses on. He's critiqued positions I don't hold and goals I don't have. Why? I think the most charitable explanation is that he hasn't read the whole book and what he has read, he hasn't read very carefully.
But Mr. Tyler's review does serve one good purpose: It is an excellent example of the straw man fallacy.
NewCardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, claims that Richard Dawkins and others have argued that evolution proves there is no god. It does not require much of an argument to show that that notion is absurd, which is the cardinal's position. However, neither Dawkins nor any other atheist I'm aware of has ever held such a position. The cardinal is refuting an argument nobody holds. Dawkins's position is that evolution makes atheism intellectually respectable or something to that effect. That is, evolution fits nicely into a naturalistic worldview. We're all aware, atheists and theists alike, that there have been logically coherent metaphysical views that incorporate both the supernatural and evolution of species.
Many atheists would argue that there is no need for an appeal to the supernatural in order to explain the existence of the universe or the evolution of species on our planet. A god is an unnecessary hypothesis. Being unnecessary doesn't make it false. We're aware that Occam's razor doesn't prove no god exists, even though a god isn't needed to explain anything.
lesson 10: control group studies
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