Sunday, 3 November 2013

Straw Man




Every night, The Girl and I clean her room a bit, sing songs, talk about her day, and read from The Jungle Book -- the Rudyard Kipling novel, completely different than the rather silly Disney cartoon. Before we do anything else, though, we light a candle and go over a lesson, and the last few weeks we have run through logical and illogical arguments.

This week we’ve reviewed some of the classic illogical arguments, and so far we’ve done Ad Hominem attacks and the Appeal to Hypocrisy. Tonight, I said as we lit the candle, I’ll tell you about the Straw Man.

“It sounds creepy,” The Girl said. Well, we’ve just had Halloween, I said.

We went over the basic idea: that someone attacks a caricature of your argument, rather than the substance of it, as though they can’t defend themselves against a person and instead duel a scarecrow. I gave her some examples, and she enjoyed them so much that soon she wanted to act out her own.

Okay, I said – let’s say that we’ve run the fish stocks down to almost nothing, and I want us to stop fishing until the stocks grow back. Can you create a straw man against it?

“Oh, suuuure,” said The Girl, feigning an adolescent sneer. “You just want all the people who love sushi to not enjoy it any more, is that right? You’re just a sushi-hater.”

Not bad, I said – a straw man with a bit of ad hominem at the end. You do understand that this is what not to do in a logical argument, right? You understand that these are unfair ways to argue, because they appeal to people’s baser natures rather than their intellect?

“Of course, Daddy,” she said patiently. “You explained all that. I won’t listen to anyone who talks this way in real life.”

Good, I said. I just wanted to make sure you understood. You really picked this up quickly.

“It’s kind of fun to do this,” she said. “I know you shouldn’t, but it’s different when it’s just play-acting.”

I nodded. A friend of mine is a stage actress, I said, and she said that actors who play villains often tend to be the nicest people – she thinks they get all the meanness out of their system that way.  

“Can I do another Straw Man?” she asked. “This is great.”

Sure, I said. Let’s say one person says we’re not doing enough to help the sick, and they want to raise taxes to spend more money on hospitals. Let’s say the other side says taxes are too high, and we don’t need more hospitals. What side do you want to play?

“I’ll be against taxing people more,” she said, and jumped into her gum-popping character. “Oh I see,” she said. “You want the government to take all our money. You’re just like the people Robin Hood was fighting.”

Perfect, I said. Now can you do the other side?

“Oh, suuuure,” she said, sounding like the teenager I hoped she wouldn't become. “You want to see lots of people get sick and die. Well, you might be okay with that, but I’m not.”

You’re very good at this, I said.

“Daddy,” she said seriously, breaking character for a moment. “Why don’t we just care for the sick by giving to hospitals? They were gathering donations for the sick at my school, and Caomhe brought in a whole bagful of coppers.*”

Well, I said, different countries pay for the sick in different ways. In most places you have to pay for at least some of the doctor’s bills yourself, which makes sense to a point -- except that people who can pay the most for hospital bills, like people who are healthy and can work, are the people who least need to pay, and vice versa.

Most countries around here, in Europe, pay for doctors with taxes --it's better for everyone to pay into a common pool for the sick, so it’s in everyone’s interest that the sick get better. But governments can also force people to pay too much, or for the wrong things, so there's no perfect answer.

“And charities?” she asked.

That can work, I said, but only if enough people give enough extra money to keep the hospital going. And some people won’t, because everybody would be better off just keeping their money.

“No they wouldn’t,” The Girl said.

In the short term, I said hastily. Selfishly, in the short term, it’s to everyone’s advantage to let somebody else do the giving.  

The Girl’s face lit up with recognition. “It’s the … Jailer’s …”

Prisoner’s Dilemma? I said.  You’re right – I’m proud of you for figuring that out. So there's more than one way of doing it, and there are decent people on different sides. That's why I'm teaching you how to tell logical and illogical arguments, so you can judge what you hear and make up your own mind.

“Can we do some more Straw Men?” she asked. “They’re a lot of fun.”

I think it’s time to read some more of Jungle Book, I said --- I’ve run out of arguments.

“Maybe we could read some and then make up Straw Man arguments from what the characters say,” The Girl said. “So Mowgli wants to play with the Monkey People, and the bear says, ‘Oh I see, you just want to abandon Bagheera and me because you don’t care, is what you’re saying …’”


* Caomhe is a popular girls’ name here, and is pronounced QUEE-va. “Coppers” means copper coins.

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