Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Drawing Straws (Red Herrings Part 24)

Part 24 of Red Herrings covers still more responses to arguments that distract from the argument rather than address it directly. This week, the straw man.

Straw Man

The Economist reports Mitt Romney’s stump speech about President Obama, in which Romney says,
Just a couple of weeks ago in Kansas, President Obama lectured us about Teddy Roosevelt’s philosophy of government. But he failed to mention the important difference between Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama. Roosevelt believed that government should level the playing field to create equal opportunities. President Obama believes that government should create equal outcomes.
Of course, Mitt Romney is lying. As the article goes on to say, “Barack Obama doesn't ‘believe that government should create equal outcomes’ any more than Mitt Romney believes that 1% of Americans should have all the wealth while the rest get nothing, or that companies should fire all their American workers and send their jobs to China because Americans are overpaid and lazy.” Instead, Romney is attempting to reframe a discussion on income inequality in a way that is more advantageous to his own arguments.

This is an example of the Straw Man fallacy. Instead of arguing with what a person actually says or believes, the responder creates a distorted version of that argument and attacks that, instead.

Straw man arguments take the following form:

1. Person A holds position X.
2. Person B disregards certain key points of X and instead presents the superficially similar position Y. Position Y is distorted from position X in varying ways, including:
a. A direct misrepresentation of the opponent's position. 
b. Quoting an opponent's words out of context — i.e. choosing quotations that misrepresent the opponent's actual intentions.
c. Presenting someone who defends a position poorly as the main defender, then refuting that person's arguments — thus giving the appearance that every upholder of that position (and thus the position itself) has been defeated. 
d. Inventing a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs which are then criticized, implying that the person represents a group of whom the speaker is critical. 
e. Oversimplifying an opponent's argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.
3. Person B attacks position Y, concluding that X is false/incorrect/flawed.

There may well be honest and legitimate reasons to attack Position X, but attacking Position Y instead is always dishonest.

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