Today we're going to dip once again into Skeptoid's Listener Feedback mailbag. One of the common themes among my disapproving pieces of feedback is the straw man argument. If you're not familiar with this term, a straw man is easy to knock down. If your opponent's argument is strong, attack a straw man instead: construct a ridiculous caricature of what your opponent said — an obviously absurd point that's trivial to attack — and make yourself seem brilliant by attacking it. It is with some pride that I note how prevalent straw men are in the negative feedback that I get; it shows that what I actually did say usually stands up pretty well to scrutiny.
Let's get started with a couple of good straw man arguments from Jules in Point Place, Nebraska. Jules heard the episode on organic food myths and offered the following feedback:
This has got to be some of the dumbest crap I have ever read. Yes, there are evil hordes of organic voodoo witch doctors outside of my home trying to destroy McDonalds.
Organic food is not "philosophically" different, it is different. You want to dispute the merits of Organic food, then fine, but at least come up with a thesis statement that doesn't read like a 4 year old baboon was writing propaganda for a teen magazine. Whatever. I hope someone terrorizes you by forcing you (gulp!) to drink a cup of Organic milk and a plate of Organic Nachos, followed by a cup of Organic coffee. I sure that will be the end of the world.
I don't recall asserting that there are "hordes of organic voodoo witch doctors trying to destroy McDonald's", though I do appreciate the colorful imagery. If I'd said anything like this, of course I'd make myself sound ridiculous. So he begins by attributing the statement to me. I knew more was coming, and it did. He suggests that force feeding me organic food would terrorize me as if it were the end of the world. This comment pretty nearly exactly misstates what I said, which is that there's nothing at all wrong with organic food, and that it's a fine product. It's nearly impossible these days to go to the supermarket and buy a cart full of staples without some of it bearing the magical marketing label "organic", so I can confidently state that I eat organic food all the time. Jules' straw man is not only evident from comparing it to my actual text, but also by its glaring absurdity. This is a straw man that's not even artful.
What I did say is that organic food is no better than the regular food it pretends to transcend, and I produced plenty of evidence to back that up. By completely dodging the actual content of my episode, all Jules accomplished in the end was to illustrate that valid arguments against what I said are hard to come by.
Jarek from Kettering, Ohio also made a straw man argument against my episode about Stalin's alleged human-ape hybrid soldiers, supposedly developed by the famous Russian biologist Il'ya Ivanov, known for his dramatic improvements to the techniques for artificially inseminating farm animals, at a tough economic time when Russia really needed such help. However, the closest Ivanov ever came to creating human-ape hybrids was a proposal (never put into action) where he hoped to artificially inseminate African women with ape sperm at a clinic without their knowledge. Jarek said:
I was shocked at your appraisal of Ivanov as a "giant in the field of biology" whose proper place "has been unfairly overshadowed by a made-up fiction," mainly because it sounded like you approve of what he did. Coming on the heels of talk about his attempting to inseminate human females with ape sperm without their consent, which is a horrendous goal - and, I think, even though the myth has overshadowed his real research, it is the concept of making human-ape hybrids itself that is repulsive to most people, and that is why they view him as insane, because he actually was trying to do that.
I went carefully back through the text of my episode and couldn't find anything that could possibly be considered an expression of support for Ivanov's atrocious ethics; nor would such a discussion have been relevant to the subject matter. Jarek didn't appear to disagree with my conclusion, that the creation of such hybrids probably never happened; it's almost as if he just was trying to make me sound bad. Not only was it a straw man argument, it was something of an ad-hominem attack: I'm wrong about my history of Ivanov because I have questionable ethics. Jarek, whatever I think of Ivanov's ethics is not germaine to the question of whether Stalin ever actually made human-ape hybrid soldiers.
Ally wrote in response to the Wacko of the Week in one of my email newsletters, Dr. Russell Blaylock. In addition to speaking out against the flu vaccine, Blaylock is a conspiracy theorist who has written about aspartame being part of a government plot to dumb down the population. Ally said:
I do get and enjoy your newsletter. I do believe that aspartame is not good for you. I believe studies have been done that show it increases appetite, for one thing. And amalgam is also not good; my dentist removed all the old filling from my teeth many years ago for because of its toxicity. I do not personally know much about Dr. Blaylock, but he may be right on with many of his views. By the same token, honestly, adequate studies have not been done on vaccination safety, for example. I do not take the vaccines any longer, and feel much better for it. Are you against him because he is affiliated with christian broadcasting? I suppose you think all christians are morons? Well, surprise! We are not.
I went back to the newsletter to see what Christian broadcasting had to do with anything. I said: "Although most of his media appearances have been confined to Christian broadcasting, he also has three books out warning of the dangers of science based medicine." Does that mean I think all Christians are morons? Clearly that's a non-sequitur, so her charge that I'm "against him" because he is "affiliated with Christian broadcasting" is a straw man. I said nothing of the kind. Nor would I, because that's got nothing to do with the bogus science he promotes. Ally, I'm not against Christians or Christian broadcasters. I oppose his dissemination of flagrantly untrue medical information that compels honest people like yourself to undergo costly, unnecessary (and potentially dangerous) medical procedures, like having your fillings removed; and to convince you that it's dangerous for children to be immunized against infectious disease. If you want to argue against those points, then you'll have to do a lot better than simply asserting your claims. Do as I did, and back it up with legitimate science.
Straw man arguments are sometimes made by accident, when you fail to adequately inform yourself on what your opponent has actually said or written. Greg from London made such a straw man attack on my episode about the Fatima miracle of the sun, where a large crowd of Catholics thought they saw the sun dance around extraordinarily, but nobody else in the vicinity outside of the crowd noticed anything. Greg wrote:
Wow, talk about dishonest. You completely fail to mention that the phenomena was reported the next day in a secular newspaper. A journalist who had gone to mock the event actually reported on what he saw and said it was inexplicable. Why would you fail to mention this in the above write up. Is this fact not important? It seems to me that you are not objective at all.
He's saying that I was deliberately dishonest in my analysis of the event in that I covered up the fact that newspapers reported it. Not true. My actual words were "Photographs and articles plastered the newspapers of the world" and "Newspaper accounts estimated between 30,000 and 100,000 worshipers gathered", and much of the episode was spent on analysis of some of the photographs published in the newspaper accounts. Greg either didn't listen very carefully, or more likely did like many do who are personally offended by my take on a given subject: They read just enough to discover that I'm not supporting their viewpoint, then they skip straight to the comment section and post their admonishment. If you don't want your position to be a straw man, you'd better be familiar with what you're arguing against.
Brian, you are my choice for Wacko of the year. In considering your answers to the question submitted by the person asking about HSI (Health Science Institutes) and Graviola. You commit the same offence that you level at your so called Wackos. I guess you don't have to actually look into the company or the substance to downgrade everything about it. So being an organization of a few hundred MD's counts them as a bunch of snake oil salesmen huh?
No, Nelson, I don't argue that they, or anyone else, are snake oil salesmen because of their membership in an organization consisting of MDs. If that was my argument, then I would indeed be pretty silly and easy to refute. Being a member of an organization is not what makes someone wrong; being wrong is what makes them wrong. The rest of Nelson's message was familiar anti-Pharma rhetoric; a few anecdotes about shady business practices of pharmaceutical companies, and an anecdote or two about alternative medicine accomplishing miraculous cures. Nelson continued:
I was a Medical Doctor undergrad and when I learned about how Aspirin worked to alleviate pain is was in a general sense not the EXACT pathways because it is still not known. I guess Aspirin should be considered in the same category as snake oil then.
Another straw man. If Nelson had stayed in medical school, he'd have learned there is much unknown to pharmaceutical science. We don't consider every drug to be snake oil when there is something about its mechanism we don't understand; that's the case with many drugs on the market. We consider them snake oil when they're proven not to work, yet quacks sell and promote them anyway — often using anecdotes very much like those in his post.