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The Weak Man

July 1st, 2009 · 26 Comments

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.

Tags: Academia · General Philosophy · Sociology



26 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Doug // Jul 1, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Weak man arguments compose about 90% of all professional blogging from what I can tell and maybe 90% of the 10% of personal blogging which is legible in the first place.

  • 2 Caleb // Jul 1, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    In my experience, it is impossible to convince a person of anything unless they are innately persuaded of it already. The argument merely brings the internal persuasion to the level of conscious thought.

    Therefore, I contend that positions such as the ones you mention are indeed “inscrutably different” to other genuinely thoughtful, intelligent human beings.

  • 3 Steven Maloney // Jul 1, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Thanks for the link! I just want to say the real academic star here is Rob Talisse from Vanderbilt. I HIGHLY recommend his books.

  • 4 B. Kennedy // Jul 1, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    It is nonsensical to attack an opponent’s strongest argument, just as it is nonsensical to bum rush the fortress’ front gate. The strongest argument is often the one with the fewest actual implications.

    If you were in an argument based on results and your topic were for example abortion, would you attack the argument there is an inherent right to do with your body as you please, or go after the people who subvert the law to provide abortions to minors without police notification (http://www.liveactionfilms.org/) as a means to prove it inherently morally catastrophic?

    The first is a strong argument because it is airy-fairy theorycraft, allowing you to go into notions where this is and is not the case. The second is a “weak-man” but also has immediate consequences. Its morally indefensible nature is what makes it an easy target, to the degree no one actually argues for it. Yet apparently it holds enough sway to be an actual policy.

    The results of a particular set of values are more important to most non-philosophical people than their intellectual underpinnings. That is why most people believe they know what others, usually their political opposites, think. If they seem to ignore the disaster their overall position invites, it is difficult for people not to believe they have their opponent pegged.

    I of course stand guilty as charged, being the eternal cynic of all things media and government based on my experience of what they do and do not treat objectively.

  • 5 JustinOpinion // Jul 2, 2009 at 8:37 am

    @B. Kennedy: Likening a debate to an attack, then yes it is only logical to go after the weak points in your enemy’s defenses.

    But I think the notion here is that using debate purely as a means of attack, or even just persuasion (a.k.a. “to get your way”) is corrosive to honest intellectual discourse. A truly productive debate (I submit) is not an argument but a conversation: a back-and-forth where both sides learn about the issue, think deeply, and could in principle be convinced.

    In cases where people are honestly trying to uncover “the best answer,” then the shortcut of picking on the weakest arguments isn’t helpful. You would then be ignoring the truly salient issues.

    The insight I take from this is: attacking weak points is fine if you’re trying to rally the troops in your echo chamber, or sound smart, or “win” in some sense. But it is a kind of fallacy in the context of debate being about getting at “the truth” or at least “the best answer.”

  • 6 Ewe // Jul 2, 2009 at 8:59 am

    Our political discussions are suffering from an extreme drought of good faith. There are probably some underlying reasons that have something to do with the revolution in communications which makes it impossible to modify your argument for different audiences and basically hold a range of different positions; the internet also empowers fringe voices who may inject vitriol in what used to be a civilized, if stale, exchange of ideas.

    A related phenomenon is one that you have commented before: picking the most loathsome or extreme person or version of the argument on the other side and using them as representative.

    For example: out of hundreds of thousands of tea party protestors, a few are found to be carrying racist anti-Obama signs. Therefore, it is racist to oppose taxes. Or racist to oppose Obama. Or racist to drink tea. Or something.

    Good epistemology requires that you consider the strongest argument on the other side. Or what if the proverbial stopped clock was right for that time of the day? Hitler was a vegetarian, you know.

    People need to pretend that they were high school or college debaters. If you were assigned to argue the opposite position of the one you initially hold, what would you say?

    Alas, it looks like reason is but the slave of the passions.

  • 7 Emily // Jul 2, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    @JustinOpinion Exactly right on. I think a lot of times people see “debates” in that high school Aff-Neg point-scoring light, which invites a certain entrenchedness and attacking mindset. Maybe what we need is more “discussion” than “debate.” (Oh, but then those identity-ideologies are just too much fun to let go of sometimes, aren’t they?)

    @B. Kennedy: “If they seem to ignore the disaster their overall position invites, it is difficult for people not to believe they have their opponent pegged.” Seeing only the supposedly “disastrous” implications of the other side is part of the lack of genuine understanding being decried here. Few people, I’d imagine, hold a position without believing (often with some kind of factual support) that the real-world implications will be positive or correct.

    @Caleb–I dunno about that. There’s such a thing as an information gap and as being persuaded by new facts. True, the more contentious the issue, the more biased information and internal persuadability come into play, but still.

  • 8 RickRussellTX // Jul 2, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    “The answer is not hypocrisy… The answer is to dialogue constantly.”

    — MC Lars & Ill Bill, “The Dialogue”

    Unfortunately, people looking for “the best answer” are confined to the pages of academic journals [sometimes] and Research TV. That kind of debate doesn’t sell commercials or ad space.

    You often see the weak-man argument convoluted with the one-way-hash problem. In that case, I don’t decide which part of your argument to attack purely on the basis of its rhetorical “strength”, but I decide which part to attack based on whether the concept is comprehensible to the audience.

    For example, there might be many legitimate complaints about (for example) ice-core evidence for atmospheric composition that serves as one of the basic pillars of the enhanced global warming argument.

    But ice core evidence has no traction in popular culture, so I fall back to the failures of computer models instead. Everybody knows computers never work right!


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  • 10 Jason // Jul 2, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    I think Bill Kristol used something similar to this in his criticism of Todd Purdum’s piece. Rather than taking on some of the more salient aspects of the article, he picked the weakest, most dubious _looking_ point of a lengthy piece to demonstrate its lack of veracity.

    It’s not even that he picked the weakest point, just the one that _appeared_ weakest.

  • 11 Jon // Jul 2, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    I’ve ong thought that the problem was the prevalence of lawyers working on behalf of various interest groups, individuals and organizations. Lawyers are trained to advocate, not to engage in reasoned debate, and they are more concerned with “winning” than with trying to find the “best answer.”

  • 12 limits of discourse « It would have been devastatingly beautiful. // Jul 6, 2009 at 1:11 am

    […] 5, 2009 Although I am loathe to link to something written by a libertarian, Julian Sanchez’ explication of the ‘weak man’ argument seems to be of sufficient interest.  Referring to Yvonne Raley and Robert Talisse’s 2008 […]

  • 13 The Sotomayor Rorschach « Wintry Smile // Jul 15, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    […] entering office has been shoddy at best.  Perhaps what we have is a negative consequence of the weak man argument that Julian “logical fallacies” Sanchez alerted us to. Possibly related posts: […]

  • 14 The Sotomayor Freakout « Wintry Smile // Jul 15, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    […] entering office has been shoddy at best.  Perhaps what we have is a negative consequence of the weak man argument that Julian “logical fallacies” Sanchez alerted us to. Possibly related posts: […]

  • 15 06-Sep-2009 | MohanArun.com // Sep 6, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    […] The Weak Man Argument or Getting Duped: How the Media Messes with Your Mind. A variant of the ‘Straw Man fallacy,’ the ‘weak man’ doesn’t misstate a rival’s position like a ’straw man,’ but instead chooses “the opposition’s weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack.” Originally proposed by Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin here. (pdf) […]

  • 16 If we add ONE more strawman to this pile, we’ll be in serious danger of a brushfire » Postmodern Conservative | A First Things Blog // Dec 1, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    […] no conspiracy!” and “in whose interest would be a conspiracy?“. Julian Sanchez refers to this as the “weak man” argument. It’s lazy, intellectually dishonest, and doesn’t convince anyone who […]

  • 17 The 12 days of global warming - E.D. Kain - American Tory - True/Slant // Dec 2, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    […] there’s no conspiracy!” and “in whose interest would be a conspiracy?“. Julian Sanchez refers to this as the “weak man” argument. It’s lazy, intellectually dishonest, and doesn’t convince anyone who doesn’t […]

  • 18 Två saker | Sänd mina rötter regn // Dec 7, 2009 at 4:37 am

    […] det scenario som är det mest pessimistiska. Så personligen tycker jag att det är något av ett weak man-argument. I vilken fall som helst så har Manicore en poäng i sin kommentar att det nog är […]

  • 19 The Weak Man Argument | anotherpanacea // Mar 9, 2010 at 10:50 am

    […] read. In it, Talisse and Aikin propose a variant of the “Straw Man fallacy,” the “Weak Man.” The Weak Man fallacy doesn’t misstate a rival’s position like a ’straw […]

  • 20 Balloon Juice » in search of concrete teaching statistics // Aug 5, 2011 at 5:13 am

    […] is no way to get at the truth. Edunihilism is a strawman, or at best, a very rarely encountered weak man. And, incidentally, I’m not even sure his conclusions proceed logically from his premise. […]

  • 21 ゴヤール // Jan 20, 2012 at 2:31 am

    s no conspiracy!” and “in whose interest would be a conspiracy?“. Julian Sanchez refers to this as the “weak man” argument. It’s lazy

  • 22 Neuroscience: Repelling Attack | Cows and Graveyards // Nov 24, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    […] above passage is emblematic of a classic “weak man fallacy.” (yes, I just linked to Julian linking to me, deal with it, America.) The argument above […]

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  • 25 Stop Feeding the Trolls | Pursuit of Truthiness // Jul 22, 2016 at 3:12 pm

    […] political polarization is partly due to how the straw man / weak man fallacy is amplified by trolls. Many actual news stories are about the outrageous thing some random […]

  • 26 Karwowski 2018: Blood and Hair Aluminum Levels, Vaccine History, and Early Infant Development: A Cross Sectional Study vaccinepapers.org // Aug 3, 2018 at 1:18 am

    […] so is committing the selective attention fallacy or weak man fallacy (another explanation of the weak man fallacy).  So, I write about Karwowski 2018 because vaccine promoters say Karwowski 2018 is an important […]