Saturday, August 23, 2014

Good Arguing: the low-hanging fruit

So I've talked in the last few posts about making good arguments by addressing the substance of your
opponent's position rather than attacking irrelevancies. I described the practice of strawmanning, which is constructing an inferior version of the argument you're trying to demolish because it's easier, and how that shouldn't be mistaken for actually defeating the position you oppose.

But what about when you're addressing a whole group of people who share a belief, and you deliberately choose to address only those who are saying the worst things, making the worst arguments, if they're bothering to make arguments at all? That is, what if you only pay attention to the low-hanging fruit? Is that also a kind of strawmanning?

Well, yes and no. It could be, but not necessarily.

Because here's the thing-- life is not philosophy. Philosophy is what humans do when they get time to stop and think without anyone trying to kill them or ruin their reputation, when there's food on the table and a bed to sleep in and there are no pressing issues at hand like legislators trying to pass laws that make it illegal to do things like philosophy. Steelmanning, for that matter, is something philosophers do when those philosophers are feeling particularly chill. An angry philosopher cannot be counted upon to steelman. Even though they should.

In real life, people are constantly making terrible arguments for terrible things, and horrifyingly, many of those people are influential (I would say "They're called 'politicians,' but politicians are merely the most visible of this sort). When that happens, it's important to point out those terrible arguments and say "Look at this stupid, hateful thing this person is saying," to minimize the potential ideological damage they can cause.

That's what a lot of bloggers do, and I respect them like crazy for doing it, because it's a tiring, endless, and often thankless task. My friend Ed Brayton has been pillorying terrible arguments on religion, science, and politics on his blog since 2003, or maybe longer. And he's never going to run out of material, because there will never not be people making these arguments. Often the same ones, for years upon years, sometimes re-skinned in order to continue arguing badly for a slightly different position. That's fighting the good fight. I don't believe in a Lord, but if I did, that would be the Lord's work. You know the quote usually attributed to Mark Twain, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes"? We will always need people who help the truth put on its shoes.

There is something incumbent upon these pickers of low-hanging fruit to do, however. If you're going to do the-- again, very necessary-- task of addressing the worst arguments out there for the sake of diminishing their power, you must be careful to not pretend that these are the only sort of arguments that people who hold that position, people in that same ideological group, are capable of making. Unless, of course, they are.

What I'm saying is that you should not effectively straw-man people who hold position X as a group by deliberately choosing to destroy only the arguments of people who agree with position X but are crap at supporting it, and then acting as if you have defeated position X itself by doing so. You have not proven, for example, that man-made climate change is a lie by laughing at people who think that every time you drive somewhere, a polar bear starves to death. These people are wrong, but they do not speak for the truth or falsity of man-made climate change. Proving that there are environmentalists who are idiots does not prove that environmentalism is idiotic. Tugging at the low-hanging fruit doesn't bring down the tree.

Which is why, if you are asked to evaluate the merits of a position in general rather than to address specific arguments in favor of it, I'd say you are obliged to not restrict yourself to considering only the worst arguments. In fact, you really should ignore those arguments entirely and focus on the best arguments, because it's only fair to consider a position invalid if no valid arguments can be made in support of it. It's not the fault of someone who holds a legitimate position if there are people who share that position and are troglodytes, mentally or morally or (as is often the case) both.

Like steelmanning, this is not always easy to do. It's really, really tempting, especially when considering an issue that is personally relevant, to pick out the loudest and most obnoxious of those who oppose your position and make them the standard-bearers for the other side. But that is the seed of prejudice, isn't it? That's how people come to believe that all members of ideological group X are stupid or immoral by virtue of holding X position, on the grounds that some members of that group are stupid/immoral. That requires ignoring the existence of the more intelligent or moral members of that group and their arguments in order to maintain the belief that position X is untenable.

But it goes against our tribalistic impulses to think this way. It feels good to have ideological kindred who are in the right, and those who oppose us who are wrong, placing individuals on one side of that line or the other and leaving them there. Alliances of this sort are shaken up all of the time when it's discovered that somebody has views in common with people in that group, and that group isn't this group, but it still matters because people in that group are horrible and this group is good. Oh, you're a vegetarian atheist feminist...who owns guns? Go to hell! Gun-owners are a bunch of angry psychopaths. None of your other positions matter now.

Some of that tribalism and low-hanging fruit picking was, disappointingly, on display by Daniel Dennett in this article on Richard Dawkins's pattern of stirring up enmity on social media:
I thought Richard’s responses were right on target. If some radical feminists (and others) think that all rape is equally bad, do they think it is not quite as bad as murder? If so, are THEY condoning rape? And if they think rape and murder are always equally bad, they really have lost their bearings and do not deserve our attention. Richard has been immensely important.
The problem is, most of the people I saw reacting with hostility to Dawkins's tweet that "“Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think," didn't think that at all. For that matter, I didn't actually see a single person claim that all rape is equally bad, "radical feminist" or no.

What I  saw was a lot of people saying things more along the lines of Ashley Miller's position, which was basically to point out that making blanket declarations about the relative significance of other people's suffering (out of nowhere, as in a tweet) as a supposed attempt to deliver a lesson on logic is a really callous and bizarre thing to do. Especially when those declarations might arguably be factually incorrect (i.e., that some victims of aquaintance rape, which is the majority of rape, actually suffer more than they might've if raped by a stranger, because of perception and treatment by others after the fact, and having to live with the violation of trust that acquaintance rape represents). And of course, that has precisely nothing to do with whether Dawkins has been "immensely important" or not. It seems clear that Dennett's only intention was to support his friend, and the most expedient way to do that was by picking some seriously low-hanging fruit.

Which is, I hasten to point out, a more reasonable assumption than to say he was simply strawmanning. You could say that literally nobody, anywhere, was claiming that all rape is equally bad. That Dawkins was strawmanning in constructing this person who allegedly holds this position, and then Dennett joined him in beating that strawman to death. But when you're talking about a position rather than a specific argument or person, you can pretty much count on there being somebody out there who does authentically hold it. I'm sure there are people out there who think all rape is equally bad. I'm equally sure that they're the least important people to consider when answering the question "What do you think of the criticism of Richard Dawkins's tweet?"

Again-- nobody is immune to doing this.

But it's still unfair and logically sloppy to do, and that's what I'm driving at. By all means, tear apart bad arguments when you see them. Practicing critical thinking is doing yourself and the world a service, and I'm sure you know that we could all, always, use more of it. But be careful, and be precise in doing so. Don't act as though you've taken down the queen when you've merely eliminated a pawn, even if the pawns in this game seem endless. Taking care to remember that there are good, intelligent people who hold positions you oppose, and their arguments are very likely to be better than others, is a good way to avoid ideological prejudice. When you are arguing against a position in general rather than a specific argument or person, steelman the hell out of that position.

And then when you've done so, keep that thought in the back of your mind whenever talking to people who hold that position, because hey-- most arguments people make in favor of anything, even the beliefs they hold most dear, happen in real life. Most people argue on their feet, with the weapons they've got at hand. As a consequence, they probably won't offer the best defense of that position possible, and they certainly won't do so all the time. And yeah, that includes you too.


  1. Is there a name for this fallacy or its opposite? Certain debates seem positively pervaded by the error of only dealing with the worst arguments.

  2. FWIW, I've done some googling, and that's how I wound up here. There were no results for quoted "fallacy of only dealing with the worst arguments" and the like. Unquoted, the search brings up lots of results for "The 5 worst arguments for ...", ironically engaing in the practice.

  3. Hi, Alex! I don't think it is a fallacy, actually. I don't even necessarily think it's bad to say "Here are some really bad arguments for X" (or even "the 5 worst arguments for X," provided you don't try to pretend that those are the only or best arguments for X. Strawmanning is the informal fallacy of misrepresenting your opponent's position to make it seem weaker, and I think that's the closest we can get to an actual fallacy here. And if you're arguing an actual person with an actual terrible argument, you're not even strawmanning. If you then go on to claim that you have therefore defeated the arguments of everybody who holds that position while ignoring the better arguments supporting it, that's plain ol' dishonesty.


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