The Harry Potter fallacy

Philosophers pride themselves on arguing well. The idea behind the so-called Socratic method is that by offering arguments and counter-arguments, we can collectively converge on something like the truth. We academics teach our students not only to build their own arguments, but also to consider the strongest goals that others can offer. If they have considered the best case against them and are still able to show what is wrong with it, that should bolster their confidence in the strength of their position.

A course in a good argument will typically include some consideration of common fallacies: mistakes in reasoning forms that, if one isn’t careful, might make one think one has provided a good argument when one hasn’t. And we can encourage students not to fall into “meta-argumentative fallacies”, such as the straw man fallacy, whereby one constructs a “straw man” of one’s opponent: a weaker and easier-to-refute version of their argument, rather than the stronger case they actually made.

The “discursive hygiene” picture of fallacy theory sees fallacies as mistakes that a good arguer will avoid. Indeed, armed with a new toolbox of Latin names for fallacies, eager students all too often delight at spotting fallacies in the wild, shouting out their Latin names (ad hominem!; secundum quid) as if they were magic spells. This is what Scott Aikin and John Casey, in their delightful book Straw Man Arguments, call the Harry Potter fallacy: the “troublesome practice of invoking fallacy names in place of substantive discussion”. However, they note another, less wholesome reason why some may be interested in fallacy theory. If one’s aim is not so much discovering the truth as winning an argument at all costs, fallacy theory can provide a training in the dark arts of closing down a discussion prematurely, leaving the impression that it has been won.

This, for Aikin and Casey, is the essence of what makes the straw man a fallacy: if we successfully “straw man” our opponent by knocking down a missed version of their argument, we give the mistaken impression that the issue is closed. Paradoxically, the straw man works particularly well on people well trained in the norms of good argument (the authors call this the “Owl of Minerva problem”: “we, in making our practices more self-reflective … create new opportunities for second-order pathologies that arise out of our corrective reflection”). As the authors explain, “straw-manning” can sometimes be effective in defeating one’s opponent directly (by gaslighting them into believing that their reasons were not as strong as they thought, or simply by silencing them into bored indifference), but the technique is more often successful in persuading an audience. Observers are generally more likely to be taken in by shoddy reasoning if they are already sympathetic to one side, and straw-manning contributions to the polarization of political debate. In today’s political environment it is not uncommon for partisans intuitively to see themselves as being on the right side of history, with their rivals adding nothing of value to the conversation and deserving of intellectual – or even moral – contempt. The prevalence of this fallacy in democratic political debate is thus a matter of significant concern: as Aikin and Casey write, it is “a threat to a properly functioning system of self-government”.

Most of the book’s examples are taken from US political debate as it occurs on audience television news outlets, wheres are already primed to agree and guests are incentivized to pander to their holdings. But as anyone who is familiar with social media can attest, Twitter also comes with the strong temptation to prioritize winning an argument over logical rigour. “Likes”, “retweets” and the promise of new followers are on offer for those who are perceived to have “destroyed” an opponent. Suppose, for example, your opponent asks you to clarify your preferred use of a term, as a prelude to showing you what’s wrong with your account. Why not hit them with an ignoratio elenchi? “Bizarre question”, you can retort. “Don’t you know that it’s not possible to define any term, without exceptions, with a complete set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Even a simple term like ‘table’ can’t be so easily defined.”

Your opponent will likely find your diversionary tactic puzzling, given that they never thought they were asking for a watertight set of necessary and sufficient conditions. But, given that this is Twitter, plenty of people will think that is what was at issue. Indeed, if you’re lucky, enough people on your opponent’s side will take the bait and jump to your defense by offering their preferred definition of “table”. You can then spend an enjoyable afternoon laying down counter-examples with all the panache of Diogenes showing up at the Academy with a plucked chicken to refute Plato.

This wilful misrepresentation of an opponent’s position is the classic representational form of the straw man. But Aikin and Casey identify variants. Beyond the classic straw man, they identify the “weak man”, where one focuses on one’s opponents’ feeblest arguments while giving the impression that these are their strongest. One can seem to win an argument simply by avoiding one’s opponent’s most robust lines of reasoning, and instead wasting time refuting various definitions of “table”.

Finally, there is the nuclear option: the move the authors label the “hollow man”. With this, one does not even try to refute the substance of an argument; Instead, one claims that whatever one’s opponent has to say in favor of proposition P is in reality a smokescreen for their real (and terrible) reasons for holding P. One can label one’s opponent a “racist”, a “bigot” or a “ fascist”, and suggest that an audience is safest by ignoring the arguments altogether, for fear of being duped into bigotry itself.

In Straw Man Arguments Aikin and Casey introduce a wealth of concepts for getting to grips with the dark art of the straw man. Indeed, they propose a further notion: a fascinating inversion called the “iron man”, where one responds to a maximally strengthened form of one’s opponent’s argument and explains how even this move – which is sometimes seen as dialectical best practice – can sometimes be fallacious . By highlighting the nefarious uses of straw-manning, the authors make the case that the value of an education in logical rigour less in how it helps argumentative hygiene and more in its lies role as a defence against the dark arts, protecting against partisan sophistry and deception. But, just as knowing the conventions for good argument makes us susceptible to straw-manning, understanding the nefarious uses of the straw man might still not be enough to protect us: a wily practitioner can always fallaciously accuse their opponent of the sin of straw- manning. Perhaps the best advice for those wishing to avoid being taken in is to hold firm to a serious commitment of truth, preferring the slow dialectic of serious argument to the quick satisfaction of the retweet, even if doing so requires you to change your mind.

Mary Lengis Professor of Philosophy at the University of York

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