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Straw men, shills, and killer robots

Indulge me, please, for digging into some rhetorical terminology. In particular, I want to try to sort out what we mean when we call something a “straw man.”

Here’s an example. Recently, psychologist/Harvard superstar Steven Pinker wrote an NYT op-ed, “Mind Over Mass Media,” contesting the idea that new media/the internet hurts our intelligence or our attention spans, and specifically contesting trying to marshal neuroscience studies in support of these claims. Pinker writes:

Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how “experience can change the brain.” But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience.

Please note that nowhere does Pinker name these “critics of new media” or attribute this quote, “experience can change the brain.” But also note that everyone and their cousin immediately seemed to know that Pinker was talking about Nicholas Carr, whose new book The Shallows was just reviewed by Jonah Lehrer, also in the NYT. Lehrer’s review (which came first) is probably best characterized as a sharper version of Pinker’s op-ed:

There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.” One particularly influential study, published in Nature in 2003, demonstrated that after just 10 days of playing Medal of Honor, a violent first-person shooter game, subjects showed dramatic increases in visual attention and memory.

Carr’s argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn’t making us stupid — it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.

I also really liked this wry observation that Lehrer added on at his blog, The Frontal Cortex:

Much of Carr’s argument revolves around neuroscience, as he argues that our neural plasticity means that we quickly become mirrors to our mediums; the brain is an information-processing machine that’s shaped by the kind of information it processes. And so we get long discussions of Eric Kandel, aplysia and the malleability of brain cells. (Having work in the Kandel lab for several years, I’m a big fan of this research program. I just never expected the kinase enzymes of sea slugs to be applied to the internet.)

Now, at least in my Twitter feed, the response to Pinker’s op-ed was positive, if a little backhanded. This is largely because Pinker largely seems to have picked this fight less to defend the value of the internet or even the concept of neuroplasticity than to throw some elbows at his favorite target, what he calls “blank slate” social theories that dispense with human nature. He wrote a contentious and much-contested book about it. He called it The Blank Slate. That’s why he works that dig in about how “the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience.” Pinker doesn’t think we’re clay at all; instead, we’re largely formed.

So on Twitter we see a lot of begrudging support: “Pinker’s latest op-ed is good. He doesn’t elevate 20th C norms to faux-natural laws.” And: “I liked Pinker’s op-ed too, but ‘habits of deep reflection… must be acquired in… universities’? Debunk, meet rebunk… After that coffin nail to the neuroplasticity meme, Pinker could have argued #Glee causes autism for all I care.” And: “Surprised to see @sapinker spend so much of his op-ed attacking straw men (“critics say…”). Overall, persuasive though.

And this is where the idea of a “straw man” comes in. See, Pinker’s got a reputation for attacking straw men, which is why The Blank Slate, which is mostly a long attack on a version of BF Skinner-style psychological behaviorism, comes off as an attack on postmodern philosophy and literary criticism and mainstream liberal politics and a whole slew of targets that get lumped together under a single umbrella, differences and complexities be damned.

(And yes, this is a straw man characterization of Pinker’s book, probably unfairly so. Also, neither everyone nor the cousins of everyone knew Pinker was talking about Carr. But we all know what we know.)

However, on Twitter, this generated an exchange between longtime Snarkmarket friend Howard Weaver and I about the idea of a straw man. I wasn’t sure whether Howard, author of that last quoted tweet, was using “straw men” just to criticize Pinker’s choice not to call out Carr by name, or whether he thought Pinker had done what Pinker often seems to do in his more popular writing, arguing against a weaker or simpler version of what the other side actually thinks. That, at least, is a critically stronger sense of what’s meant by straw men. (See, even straw men can have straw men!)

So it seems like there are (at least) four different kinds of rhetorical/logical fallacies that could be called “arguing against a straw man”:

  1. Avoiding dealing with an actual opponent by making them anonymous/impersonal, even if you get their point-of-view largely right;
  2. Mischaracterizing an opponent’s argument (even or especially if you name them), usually by substituting a weaker or more easily refuted version;
  3. Assuming because you’ve shown this person to be at fault somewhere, that they’re wrong everywhere — “Since we now know philosopher Martin Heidegger was a Nazi, how could anyone have ever qualified him for a bank loan?”;
  4. Cherry-picking your opponent, finding the weakest link, then tarring all opponents with the same brush. (Warning! Cliché/mixed metaphor overload!)

Clearly, you can mix-and-match; the most detestable version of a straw man invents an anonymous opponent, gives him easily-refuted opinions nobody actually holds, and then assumes that this holds true for everybody who’d disagree with you. And the best practice would seem to be:

  1. Argue with the ideas of a real person (or people);
  2. Pick the strongest possible version of that argument;
  3. Characterize your opponent’s (or opponents’) beliefs honestly;
  4. Concede points where they are, seem to be, or just might be right.

If you can win a reader over when you’ve done all this, then you’ve really written something.

There’s even a perverse version of the straw man, which Paul Krugman calls an “anti-straw man,” but I want to call “a killer robot.” This is when you mischaracterize an opponent’s point-of-view by actually making it stronger and more sensible than what they actually believe. Krugman’s example comes from fiscal & monetary policy, in particular imagining justifications for someone’s position on the budget that turns out to contradict their stated position on interest rates. Not only isn’t this anyone’s position, it couldn’t be their position if their position was consistent at all. I agree with PK that this is a special and really interesting case.

Now, as Howard pointed out, there is another sense of “straw man,” used to mean any kind of counterargument that’s introduced by a writer with the intent of arguing against it later. You might not even straight-out refute it; it could be a trial balloon, or thought experiment, or just pitting opposites against each other as part of a range of positions. There’s nothing necessarily fallacious about it, it’s just a way of marking off an argument that you, as a writer, wouldn’t want to endorse. (Sometimes this turns into weasely writing/journalism, too, but hey, again, it doesn’t have to be.)

Teaching writing at Penn, we used a book that used the phrase “Straw Man” this way, and had a “Straw Man” exercise where you’d write a short essay that just had an introduction w/thesis, a counterargument (which we called a “straw man”), then a refutation of that counterargument. And then there was a “Straw Man Plus One” assignment, where you’d…

Never mind. The point is, we wound up talking about straw men a lot. And we’d always get confused, because sometimes “straw man” would mean the fallacy, sometimes it would mean the assignment, sometimes it would be the counterargument used in that (or any) assignment, sometimes it would be the paragraph containing the counterargument…

Oy. By 2009-10, confusion about this term had reached the point where two concessions were made. First, for the philosophers in the crowd who insisted on a strict, restrictive meaning of “straw man” as a fallacy, and who didn’t want their students using fallacious “straw men” in their “Straw Man” assignments, they changed the name of the assignment to “Iron Man.” Then, as part of a general move against using gendered language on the syllabus, it turned into “Iron Person.” Meanwhile, the textbook we used still called the assignment “Straw Man,” turning confusion abetted to confusion multiplied.

I probably confused things further by referring to the “iron person” assignment as either “the robot” — the idea being, again, that you build something that then is independent of you — or “the shill.” This was fun, because I got to talk about how con men (and women) work. The idea of the shill is that they pretend to be independent, but they’re really on the con man’s side the entire time. The best shill sells what they do, so that you can’t tell they’re in on it. They’re the ideal opponent, perfect as a picture. That got rid of any lingering confusion between the fallacy and the form.

Likewise, I believe that here and now we have sorted the range of potential meanings of “straw man,” once and for all. And if you can prove that I’m wrong, well, then I’m just not going to listen to you.

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