The Straw Man and the Hallucinating Goldfish

Scientific American explains two media manipulation techniques, the “straw man” and the “weak man”. Know how to spot them and help fight the Hallucinating Goldfish.

In Getting Duped: How the Media Messes with Your Mind, Yvonne Raley and Robert Talisse write:

One common method of spinning information is the so-called straw man argument. In this tactic, a person summarizes the opposition’s position inaccurately so as to weaken it and then refutes that inaccurate rendition. In a November 2005 speech, for example, President George W Bush responded to questions about pulling troops out of Iraq by saying, “We’ve heard some people say, pull them out right now. That’s a huge mistake. It’d be a terrible mistake. It sends a bad message to our troops, and it sends a bad message to our enemy, and it sends a bad message to the Iraqis.” The statement that unnamed “people” are advocating a troop withdrawal from Iraq “right now” is a straw man, because it exaggerates the opposing viewpoint. Not even the most stalwart Bush adversaries backed an immediate troop withdrawal. Most proposed that the soldiers be sent home over several months, a more reasonable and persuasive plan that Bush undercut with his straw man.

The Weak Man tactic is a twist on this…

As Talisse, co-authors of the 2006 paper which coined the term, explains:

[A] person sets up the opposition’s weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack, as opposed to misstating a rival’s position as the straw man argument does. In a July 2007 edition of Talking Points, Bill O’Reilly took on a claim by the New York Times that we had lost the war in Iraq by saying that “the New York Times declared defeat in Iraq Sunday on its editorial page, and there’s no question the antiwar movement has momentum.” (The editorial actually said that “some opponents of the Iraq war are toying with the idea of American defeat,” but let us assume that O’Reilly’s characterization was correct.)

O’Reilly then offered a weak man explanation for the purported defeat: “The truth is the Iraqi government and many of its citizens are simply not doing enough to defeat the terrorists and corruption. The USA can’t control that country. No nation could… Unfortunately, the Iraqi failure to help themselves has come true.” Although Iraq’s failure to aid in fighting terrorism and corruption could be why we are losing the war, the troubles in Iraq could also stem from a host of logistical reasons, some of which may shed a negative light on the current administration. O’Reilly, however, kept any discussion of these reasons offstage, suppressing the various other possible — and possibly more likely — reasons for “defeat” in Iraq. Meanwhile his claims that the “USA can’t control that country” and that “no nation could” deflected blame from the US government.

Hat-tip to 3 quarks daily.