A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies | View All

Critical Thinking mini-lesson 9

straw man fallacy

One of the characteristics of a cogent refutation of an argument is that the argument one is refuting be represented fairly and accurately. To distort or misrepresent an argument one is trying to refute is called the straw man fallacy. It doesn't matter whether the misrepresentation or distortion is accidental and due to misunderstanding the argument or is intentional and aimed at making it easier to refute. Either way, one commits the straw man fallacy.

In other words, the attacker of a straw man argument is refuting a position of his own creation, not the position of someone else. The refutation may appear to be a good one to someone unfamiliar with the original argument.

To understand the example of the straw man fallacy I will present here, I suggest you first read my entry on the unconscious mind and identify what my arguments and positions are in that essay. The straw man I am going to present was created by Karl Tyler of England in a review of The Skeptic's Dictionary posted on Amazon.com.

In a world where the flow of information that daily assails us has turned into a veritable tidal wave, the process of debunking myths, snake oil salesmen and the like not only makes fun reading, it also provides a valuable service - BUT ONLY when it is done well.

In this case, the book unfortunately tells us little more than what groups/ideas have earned the author's vitriolic displeasure. What we DON'T find out is what has really shaped the contents of the book, and this despite the fact that there is solid evidence that in numerous instances the views and claims are based on indirectly obtained, and often wildly off beam, information rather than on solid investigation.

In short, we are offered prejudices posing as objectivity.

Take the rejection of "the unconscious mind", for example.

The book provides a lengthy, even tedious, pseudo-scientific discussion of how "science" has failed to demonstrate the existence of the "unconscious" mind as described by Freud, Jung and Tart, and then leaps to the unsupported conclusion that therefore there is no such thing as the unconscious mind (emphasis added).

I must admit to Karl and the world that leaping to conclusions is one of my favorite exercises, but I have neither leapt nor crept to the belief that there is no such thing as the unconscious mind. It is not quite accurate to state that I reject Freud's notion, Jung's notion, and Tart's notion because science has failed to demonstrate the existence of any of their notions.  It would be more accurate to say that I reject Freud's notion because the empirical evidence regarding trauma and memory mostly contradicts it. I reject Jung's and Tart's notion that the subconscious mind is a reservoir of transcendent truths not because it is metaphysical and thus false, but because I don't find it useful or convincing as an explanation for anything it supposedly explains. Mr. Tyler might well have criticized me for misleading the reader by claiming that there is no scientific evidence for this metaphysical position. Of course there isn't. There couldn't be. Metaphysical claims by their very nature can't be supported by scientific evidence.

Mr. Tyler states my position as being there is no such thing as the unconscious mind. Yet, in the third paragraph, I say "It would be absurd to reject the notion of the unconscious mind simply because we reject the Freudian notion of the unconscious as a reservoir of repressed memories of traumatic experiences....it seems obvious that much, if not most, of one's brain's activity occurs without our awareness or consciousness. Consciousness or self-awareness is obviously the proverbial tip of the iceberg."

I also state that "there is ample scientific data to establish as a fact that some conscious perception goes on without self-consciousness." I present four examples to support this point: blindness denial, jargon aphasia, blindsight. and oral/verbal dissociation. Mr. Tyler does not address these claims at all, though they clearly imply a belief in the unconscious, although quite a different kind of unconscious than Freud or Jung envisioned. I refer to this aspect of unconscious processing as "lost memory," "fragmented memory," or "implicit memory" and cite the work of Schacter and Tulving, who came up with the latter term. Mr. Tyler, continuing with more straw man argumentation, says that "we clearly have a capacity for mental processing which is something rather more sophisticated than just 'lost memory', as this author suggests." In other words, he suggests that I have not only rejected the unconscious mind, but I've rejected the conscious mind as well! Of course we have a capacity for acts of mental processing beyond those associated with the aforementioned perceptions without self-consciousness.

Mr. Tyler apparently thinks that by proving I reject belief in the unconscious mind (which I don't) and in the conscious mind beyond those involving conscious perception without awareness (which I don't), he has shown I am wrong. It doesn't take much evidence to support his claim that I am wrong since he is refuting a rather moronic position that he has misrepresented as mine. His premise consists of the statement: "you really don't need to be a rocket scientist to recognise the validity of the notion of an 'unconscious', or 'out of conscious' mind." In other words, the straw man is so obviously false that no refutation is even needed.

I can only guess at why Mr. Tyler misrepresents my position. There really isn't enough said that is clear and specific to figure out what motivates him. He says things like "the book unfortunately tells us little more than what groups/ideas have earned the author's vitriolic displeasure." But this just tells us that I write mostly about ideas I dislike (which is another misrepresentation). He writes that "there is solid evidence that in numerous instances the [author's] views and claims are based on indirectly obtained, and often wildly off beam, information rather than on solid investigation. In short, we are offered prejudices posing as objectivity." Unfortunately, Mr. Tyler's evidence for my "indirectly obtained" views (whatever that might mean) and my "prejudices posing as objectivity" is his claim that I deny the existence of the unconscious mind (which I don't).

Tyler claims that my book "provides a lengthy, even tedious, pseudo-scientific discussion of how 'science' has failed to demonstrate the existence of the 'unconscious' mind as described by Freud, Jung and Tart." He is certainly entitled to claim that the work of Daniel Schacter is pseudoscientific, but he ought at least try to explain what he means by pseudoscientific and why he considers pseudoscientific what everybody else in the psychological community considers scientific.

Tyler says that my "argument presupposes that nothing is 'true' until it has been scientifically validated. Which is a bit like arguing that Australia didn't exist until the first white explorers discovered it." The analogy is a distraction. I do presuppose that no empirical claim is true until it has been scientifically validated. That's why I reject Freud's claims about the unconscious as a reservoir of repressed memories that cause behavioral and mental disorders. The empirical evidence doesn't support his claim.

I don't really discuss why I reject the notion of the unconscious mind as a reservoir of transcendent truths in the entry on the unconscious mind. One has to read my entries on Jung and Tart for that argument. Tyler might find it interesting to remember that Jung also rejected Freud's notion of the unconscious mind. True, Jung didn't reject it for lack of scientific evidence, since he seemed to be more interested in intuition and anecdotes than in scientific studies. But he rejected it nonetheless.

In my entries on Jung and Tart, I think the careful reader will find that I don't reject their metaphysical theories of the unconscious because they're metaphysical and therefore false. I reject them because they're fuzzy and I don't find them very useful. They aren't very clear and they aren't needed to explain anything. So again, Mr. Tyler has created a straw man. I leave it to the reader to figure out how this straw man is like arguing that Australia didn't exist until the first white explorers discovered it.

Tyler claims that my book "studiously ignores the fact that 'scientific' knowledge is itself a highly moveable feast - what seemed to be proven/disproven yesterday may well turn out to be disproven/proven tomorrow." More of the straw man here, though I must grant him that "studiously ignores" is an admirable turn of phrase.

Perhaps the key to what motivated Mr. Tyler to misrepresent my arguments and positions can be found in his curious reference to a professor and an experiment.

Fact: numerous experiments carried [sic] by Prof. Robert "Pygmalion in the Classroom" Rosenthal have shown that students can accurately predict a teacher's perceived effectiveness (as rated at the end of a complete semester) on the basis of just three 2 (TWO) second video clips.

So what process do they use to make that evaluation?

How can they be so accurate?

What yardstick(s) are they using to make the evaluation?

We have no idea, because the processing takes place OUTSIDE of the conscious mind.

If I understand Mr. Tyler correctly, he is saying that Rosenthal has solid evidence that a significant percentage of students can accurately predict on the basis of just a two-second video clip what rating the teacher will get from the students at the end of the term. I would have to agree with Tyler that such processing is unconscious and that it has nothing to do with implicit memory, despite Mr. Tyler's claim that this must be my position (another straw man distortion). [As an aside, while I am not familiar with this particular study, other studies done by Rosenthal have demonstrated the powerful effect of first-impressions on subsequent judgments. My guess is that he would explain the accuracy of the student evaluations as a result of the snap judgments they made. That is, the students prime themselves to find a teacher effective or not by their initial judgments of what the teacher's going to be like. In short, the student's snap judgments are self-fulfilling prophecies.]

Tyler concludes with a couple of general, disparaging comments about my book:

This is the sort of book that greatly appeals to dilettante cynics, offering broad grounds for scepticism regarding numerous topics by way of a host of half-baked 'facts' which the reader isn't expected to check out for him/herself.

He doesn't mention any other specific "half-baked" facts. I suspect this is because his reading of other facts in the book is analogous to his reading of the unconscious mind entry. If anyone did bother to check his claims against what I actually say, Mr. Tyler would be revealed for what he is: one who misrepresents another's positions and arguments, which he then proceeds to knock over with slam-dunk refutations.

His final comment is most telling:

One measure of a truly useful critique is that BOTH sides (or ALL sides) of the story are presented and compared so that the listener/reader can reach their own conclusions. But don't worry - you'll find nothing that open or constructive in this volume.

More straw man. If Tyler will read the introduction to my book he will find that I specifically advise the reader that The Skeptic's Dictionary is not a "critique" or critical evaluation of all sides of the issues presented. Mine is a book for skeptics, aimed at providing skeptical arguments and references to the best skeptical literature.

As far as I know, I have never corresponded with Mr. Tyler, so I have no idea why he would so misrepresent my book in order to post his "review." I put review in quotes because he hasn't reviewed my book. He hasn't even reviewed the single entry he focuses on. He's critiqued positions I don't hold and goals I don't have. Why? I think the most charitable explanation is that he hasn't read the whole book and what he has read, he hasn't read very carefully.

But Mr. Tyler's review does serve one good purpose: It is an excellent example of the straw man fallacy.

another example

New Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, claims that Richard Dawkins and others have argued that evolution proves there is no God. It does not require much of an argument to show that that notion is absurd, which is the cardinal's position. However, neither Dawkins nor any other atheist I'm aware of has ever held such a position. The cardinal is refuting an argument nobody holds. Dawkins's position is that evolution makes atheism intellectually respectable or something to that effect. That is, evolution fits nicely into a naturalistic worldview. We're all aware, atheists and theists alike, that there have been logically coherent metaphysical views that incorporate both the supernatural and evolution of species.

Many atheists would argue that there is no need for an appeal to the supernatural in order to explain the existence of the universe or the evolution of species on our planet. God is an unnecessary hypothesis. Being unnecessary doesn't make it false. We're aware that Occam's razor doesn't prove God doesn't exist, even though God isn't needed to explain anything.

lesson 10: control group studies Last updated 12/09/10

This page was designed by Cristian Popa.