Via erstwhile debate compatriot turned awesome academic Steve Maloney, I discover the “weak man” argument, which actually seems far more prevalent than the better-known straw man. Making a straw-man argument, of course, involves misrepresenting a position opposed to your own so that you can beat up on it easily. The Internet makes it somewhat harder to do this credibly because people expect that you actually link to an instance of the argument you’re attributing to your opponents. With a “weak man,” you don’t actually fabricate a position, but rather pick the weakest of the arguments actually offered up by people on the other side and treat it as the best or only one they have. As Steve notes, this is hardly illegitimate all the time, because sometimes the weaker argument is actually the prevalent one. Maybe the best arguments for Christianity are offered up by Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine, but I doubt there are very many people who are believers because they read On Christian Doctrine. Probably this will be the case with some frequency, if only because the less complex or sophisticated an argument is, the easier it is for lots of people to be familiar with it. On any topic of interest, a three-sentence argument is unlikely to be very good, but it’s a lot more likely to spread.
“Weak man” arguments also seem much easier to make in good faith. If you’re having a friendly debate, and someone offers up three arguments, and one of them has glaring problems, then of course that’s the one you jump on first. But it also meshes with an unfortunate psychological bias that I’m finding more and more grating lately: It seems that most people genuinely have no idea what people with very different views actually think. A shocking number of folks on the left seem to be under the impression that apparently well-educated libertarians have somehow never encountered the idea of a “collective action problem” or “imperfect information.” And in fairness, you run into libertarians who think that progressives are all just innocent of elementary microeconomics. This is one reason I’m not entirely persuaded that norms of cross-linking will keep online discussion from devolving into a series of echo chambers: There’s strong incentive to link the other side’s worst arguments. (Scroll down to that post from earlier—if you’ve got ten minutes to write, the easiest thing to do is beat up on the dumbest, most outrageous thing you heard today.)
A related pet peeve: Watch your media stream for rhetorical questions where the upshot is “but where do you draw the line?” or “then doesn’t this unsavory implication logically follow from my opponent’s position?” In 9 of 10 cases, I’ll wager the person making that move hasn’t made any kind of serious effort to think about how a partisan of the view being critiqued might actually draw the line or resist the unsavory implication. I’m not talking about subtle, nuanced arguments that you’d encounter reading a book by someone defending the position. I mean, stuff any ordinary person ought to come up with immediately if they sincerely ask themselves “what does a sane defense of this view look like?” One reason we don’t do this is the tendency to make ideology and identity. So “pro-life,” “environmentalist,” “conservative,” “foreign policy realist,” stop being “positions I might hold if I were convinced of such-and-such” but inscrutably different types of human being, to be studied with the tools of anthropology or pathology if at all.
Addendum: The debate over Sotomayor, incidentally, is a good example of why “weak manning” isn’t necessarily fallacious or disingenuous. There were some thoughtful critiques of her approach to judging getting made by some of the conservative lawbloggers, but they didn’t have a great deal of currency. What you did see people repeating over and over again was profoundly confused nonsense about how Sotomayor had a “60 percent reversal rate.” So you had people patiently (and then not-so-patiently) explaining, for the millionth time, that the “60 percent reversal” was based on the tiny fraction of her opinions to be reviewed by the Supreme Court, and that this was actually a below-average ratio for cases that make it before the Court. Stuff like this wasn’t the best argument anyone had against Sotomayor, but it certainly made sense that people wanted to get this kind of confusion out of the way before tackling any of the more intricate arguments.