State your case

In response to this post about rent-seeking, Z A employs a few rant tactics that I think are common barriers to productive discussions. He (assuming Z A is a he) starts with a straw man fallacy.

Economics being the dismal science that it is, I still do not ascribe to the notion that all points are valid and that any moron on the street that tries to form a thought or opinion about the macro-economy has a valid or sound point.

No one, but Z A, has made this argument.

However, if ‘any moron on the street’ expresses an unsound thought or opinion about the macro-economy (or anything), I think it is more productive and compelling to explain why their point is unsound rather than discounting it because of who they are.

As my Mom would say, if you can’t say anything nice, it’s best not to say anything at all. That’s a good rule. I’ll modify to promote productive discussion. If you can’t or are unwilling to show why a point is unsound, don’t say anything at all.

Z A then moved on to explain why he values credentials:

Knowing what someones credentials are in most any case does help in knowing how much they have actually studied that subject.

However, it does determine whether their reasoning is sound or not.

I’ve been in my share of discussions that degraded to a battle of finding credentialed folks who agree with your position, then onto the crediting and discrediting of those credentials. That’s simply not productive.

I agree with what commenter, Grant Davies wrote in response to Z A:

I have always found it more important to weigh the value and the validity of what is presented…

An argument from authority or appeal to authority is a common fallacy (something where the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises).

The key form of this fallacy is assuming something is right because an expert says so, but the expert isn’t really an expert in that field.

A second form of this fallacy is assuming something is right because an expert says so, but the topic is something where there is not a great deal of consensus. This is where you get into the ‘battle of experts’ on issues that have experts on all sides.

I believe there is a third form of this fallacy, as well. Experts can be wrong. Experts, after all, are people, so they are subject to the same biases, preferences, simplifications and groupthink as the rest of us.

Experts may well be right about something. I don’t discount what they say just because they are experts. However, I have enough experience with experts being wrong that I have learned that skepticism is useful.

If something is true, I want to know why it’s true, not who believes it’s true or what credentials they have. What’s wrong with that?

Later, Z A wrote:

I could write for hours about the incorrect assumptions and arguments on here but what good would it do if the people I am writing to do not have clue one about real economic theory and thought or the history of those things?

Z A chose to write nine similar paragraphs on my blog about this subject. How did it advance the discussion on the topic?

Why not simply choose just one of these incorrect assumptions, state his case on why he thinks it’s incorrect and perhaps teach us a few things. Or, perhaps, maybe someone would respond to his points and he could learn something. My guess is that the latter is what Z A fears the most.

 

Straw man army

Much political debate nowadays is one side putting up a straw man fallacy while the other side tries to dismantle it — all of which takes away from productive discourse.

A straw man fallacy is usually an absurdly inaccurate representation your opponent’s position — so absurd that it’s easy to defeat, or knock down, like a ‘man made of straw’.

We begin using straw men right about the time we start talking.

“Mom! Brother called me a booger!”

“Brother, quit calling your sister a booger.”

“I didn’t. I told her she’s a selfish snot, because she will not share her toys with me.”

“Sis, we’ve discussed this. Share.”

Sis, won’t tell Mom what her brother actually said. She intuitively knows that her selfishness will not gain her much sympathy from Mom. Best leave that part out and turn make it seem her brother made an unprovoked malicious comment.

Using a straw seems to imply one of three things.

1. You know, like Sis, that your opponent’s position is stronger than you’d like it to be, so you carefully avoid the truth and construct the straw man.

2. You expect your target audience to be dumb and not recognize the straw man.

3. You’re dumb.

Most political ads are straw men. “My opponent wants to destroy something or the other! Don’t vote for him.”

These campaigners hope that you’re dumb and that the army of straw men they construct will sway your vote their way.

It must work to some degree. Straw men still exist. Unlike Mom, enough of us don’t call BS and request that the campaigners address the real positions.

Keep your eye out for straw men in this election season.

“Romney Hood” Straw Man

In logic lingo, a straw man fallacy is a false and easily defeated representation of your debate opponent’s position.

A real straw man is easy to beat in a fight. It has no muscles or awareness to counteract your advances. I could tell you that I beat up “Mike Tyson” if I named a scarecrow Mike Tyson and beat it up. You would be right to be skeptical of my claim. If you cared enough, you might ask me some follow-ups, like are you talking about THE Mike Tyson?

Similarly, a straw man argument is easy to refute. Creating a straw man version of your opponent’s position is a common and natural argument technique that we’ve all used or encountered since we started talking.

Common examples conservative-types encounter include you have no compassion. Or, you just don’t care about poor people. Sometimes it’s a little more subtle. I can see your point, buy my conscience won’t let me support your position. 

Obama’s recent characterization of his opponent’s tax plan as Romney Hood, or the opposite of Robin Hood, is also a good example of a straw man argument.

To make this characterization, Obama leveraged the analysis of a third-party that took liberties at guessing Romney’s full tax plan, identified actions they believe Romney would take when he discovered that his plan wouldn’t work and, assumed it wouldn’t work. In other words, Obama beat up Mike Tyson.

Beware of straw men during this election season.

Trying Too Hard

Kansas City Star sports columnist Jason Whitlock started a new venture today, writing columns about politics.  His first piece, Beck, Palin adopt tactics of Jackson, Sharpton was a swing and miss.

Whitlock has made a couple forays into political writing in the past and I was impressed.  I thought he demonstrated clear-thinking and open-mindedness.

But, equating Beck and Palin with Jackson and Sharpton is an epic fail that lacks any basis in fact or reason.

To make his case, Whitlock fabricated straw men (i.e. false) representations of Beck, Palin and Limbaugh and tried to connect those with actual tactics of Jackson and Sharpton.

Example of Palin’s straw man:

Gal Sharpton (Sarah Palin) travels the country stoking the fears of white Americans telling them their country has been stolen by a mixed-race president.

It seems like it would be easy enough to produce at least one example to back up this accusation.  None are provided.

Compared with Sharpton’s actual incident:

We’re witnessing a disproportionate backlash from Sharpton’s unrepentant Tawana Brawley hoax…

It would be refreshing to see Whitlock take a calm approach to address what Palin, Beck and Limbaugh actual positions, rather than creating and attacking the false positions.

Whitlock writes:

Backed by major media outlets and choosing demagoguery over reason, Beck, Palin, Limbaugh and their imitators are growing in influence and seemingly pushing for anarchy by baiting racial distrusts…

Another accusation without facts.  And, it couldn’t be further from the truth.  Choosing demagoguery over reason? Pushing for anarchy?  Baiting racism?  Utter nonsense.   This demonstrates that Whitlock hasn’t done a minute of research to substantiate his viewpoint.  His editors should have pointed this out immediately.

I guess Whitlock isn’t interested in the truth.  From this absurd column, his interest appears to lie in the same place as those he accuses – making money.

Good luck with that.  I may give him a couple more chances based on the quality of his previous work, but if he just wants to put his spin on the same fiction that bounces around the airwaves, it’s not worth my time.