Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Straw Man Will Get You Every Time

If I weren't bloody damned freaking out about my dissertation defence on October 11, I would apologise for the erratic posting schedule. However, I am bloody damned freaking out about my dissertation defence on October 11 and can't promise frequent or lengthy posts until the hideous two-hour Examination From Hell has come and gone. I certainly won't be able to deal with the narrative mode until the middle of October at the earliest. Blame academia. I usually do.

In the meantime, I have pulled myself together just enough to bring you the first in a series of posts on logical fallacies. Like the grammar posts, the fallacy posts will turn up now and then when I need something less horrifyingly long to write and/or want to take a break from the modes. An understanding of fallacy will come in handy when you're writing persuasively, so pay attention.

A logical fallacy is a sort of tool that helps a writer cheat on an argument, filling in holes with falsities, evasions, or truly imbecilic bits of "reasoning." Many writers believe they have presented well-reasoned arguments when what they have actually done is litter a paper with fallacious statements that deserve to be clubbed about their ears until they stop moving. The most common of the fallacies have names: red herring, straw man, ad hominem argument, circular reasoning, and so on. Politicians know and love them all. You should know them too, though once you do, you should probably leave them to the politicians.*

Today, I'm going to discuss my, and probably your, favourite: the straw man fallacy. The straw man is beloved of all undergrads everywhere, probably because it is so bleeding convenient. Unadulterated evil often is.

Imagine your prof has set you an essay on global warming.** You happen to believe that what you think of as the "fuss over global warming" is much ado about nothing,**** and you construct an argument that revolves around this belief. In your first paragraph, you include the sentence:

The idea that the planet is liable to be destroyed any day now because of the simple existence of the SUV is absurd.

You are here presenting a counter-argument and preparing to pick it to pieces. There's only one problem:

What sane person would argue that the "simple existence" of the SUV will cause the planet to be "destroyed any day now"?

The straw man fallacy constitutes the presentation of a counter-argument that is absurd, easy to refute, and usually non-existent. Think of it this way: if you were a medieval squire and your master-at-arms decided to train you in sword-play by having you hack at a man constructed out of straw, you would soon become very good at stabbing scarecrows to death. The first time you had to fight a real opponent carrying a real sword and actually doing his best to behead you, you would be in trouble.*****

Straw-man arguments are tempting to create because they make proving a thesis so damned easy. It is not difficult to argue that the SUV is not going to cause Earth to explode tomorrow. It is not hard to claim that a strong Canadian dollar will not lead to a second Great Depression. Setting up your imaginary opponent as hysterical, unreasonable, and wrong is a simple process, but it is also an unfair one and will lead to your readers taking you--not the opponent--less seriously. To refute a straw-man argument, a real opponent will only have to say, "I've never claimed any of that garbage."

Make sure that you have a real counter-argument. If it's a convincing one, you'll have to work hard to refute it. Many writers rely on straw men because they simply don't want to work hard. Wake-up call: there are no short cuts. You want to learn how to argue convincingly? Stop trying to cut corners. You're not fooling your readers; you're fooling yourself.

Other Business:

1) I've finally got around to creating an e-mail address that a) doesn't have my real name in it anywhere and b) does not include the name of a character from Winnie-the-Pooh.****** You can find the contact link in my profile (at least one person already has). Those who long to tell me what a horrible person I am for metaphorically slapping poor undergraduates upside their metaphorical little heads but don't want to leave public comments can now get started.

2) It's that time again. It is, in fact, time for some updates on

The Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour

The plagiarists have been busy this week. They are making me really, really angry.

essays on the impact of reading writing and speech

To be fair, this person could simply be doing perfectly legitimate research for a paper. To be considerably less fair, she probably isn't. Most legitimate researchers would search for articles, not essays, and they would do so on article databases designed for the purpose. This little toad is searching for essays. She also has no idea how to do a Google search. Most of the plagiarists don't (see below for one truly wonderful example).

Hello, people: the words "on," "the," "of," and "and" are not helping you here. Why are you including them in your search? Are you insane as well as evil?

essay show how bilbo is a hero

This one comes from the young gentleman who gave us "thesis and example in body paragraph about bilbo hobbit" and "bilbo such a hero transition to next paragraph in the hobbit." He hit the main page again. If he actually read it, he probably saw me insulting his search terms. Hello, Hobbit Boy: do you ever give up? Why has it taken you two weeks to find anything on this subject to steal? The Internet is strewn with information about heroism in The Hobbit. You are not simply a cretin; you are a persistent cretin. Go away, sir.

elizabethan photo paragraph of writing describing it

What the hell is an Elizabethan photo? There were no cameras in the Elizabethan period! Y'know those pictures of Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and Sir Walter Raleigh and all those people you see all over the place? Those are paintings.

hobbit thesis

Admittedly, this person could quite innocently be searching for dissertations on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I'm expecting probably not, however.

descriptive essay about my aunt

You, Ms. Plagiarist, are the human incarnation of Laziness. She's your aunt. Go have tea with her. Take her for a stroll through some garden somewhere. Describe her yourself. Why would you have to steal a description of your aunt when you could actually write it yourself in about thirty seconds, you oozing, bottom-feeding piece of animate slime?

process analysis essay on sandwich

The process analysis essay on the construction of a sandwich is a favourite first-year set topic. It is probably fairly easy to plagiarise. That's a sandwich. All you have to do is describe how to make one. Why are you incapable of going to the kitchen, making yourself a sandwich, and recording the steps? It will probably take less time than it will for you to find and plunder someone else's description, and you'll get a sandwich out of it.

thesis statement of batman essay

This wart is the second Filthy Plagiarist who has been set a Batman topic and has decided not to use his brain. You get to write on Batman. On Batman! What is wrong with you? Why are you not writing on Batman? I shall smack you!

4 page concept essay on aliens

The "aliens" topic is almost as popular as the "Batman" topic. This idiot has actually specified how long her stolen essay has to be. Have fun with that, Nasty Thing Stuck to the Bottom of my Shoe.

expository essay on the importance of having integrity


examples of introdction [sic] of an essay on how to begin writing a essay describing a room to someone who has never s

This search term goes on for so long that it actually exceeds my statcounter's ability to contain it. I expect the last two words were originally "seen it," though given this plagiarist's capacity for long-winded Googlocity, there may have been more.

Dear little don't know how to use Google, do you? You are trying to steal your essay, and you don't even know how. I wish you luck. You're going to need it.

an observations essay about parakeets birds

Here's an idea for you:

Go observe a bloody parakeet.

One further note:

Inevitably, people are starting to play with my statcounter, entering ludicrous search terms just to see whether they can bring up my site. Some of the searches above may be from such people, though I don't think so; I can generally tell when someone is a repeat visitor. A couple of my online acquaintances did spend a happy half-hour fiddling with Google one evening; they found my blog with search terms ranging from "kem abuses sandwich devotees" to "kem is really batman and bricks sandwich devotees resulting in their impending doom," not to mention, "kem is canada's merciless monster."*******

However, my favourite of these attempts came from a person from Pennsylvania who had visited the site nine times before. This enterprising reader found the blog with a number of fairly ordinary searches such as "plagiarize frodo friends" and "useful descriptive essay writing phrases," then ended with, "mock Kem the Merciless plagiarize."

This search record may constitute the first ever instance of Satire Via Statcounter.

Nicely done, faithful reader...nicely done.

*A rather learned drinking game might involve a political debate during which all the watchers took a sip every time a politician used a logical fallacy. Everybody would be roaring drunk in no time.
**Profs and teachers are always setting essays on global warming and the abortion debate and other such hot-button issues.*** They only realise how terribly foolish they have been once they are two or three sentences into the first paper.
***Long, long ago, when I was in high school, the hot-button issue of the day was euthanasia. When I trotted this example out before a bunch of high-school students last year, they looked at me as if I had gone mad. I had to explain the term, which they had never heard. I must be Getting Really Old.
****An opinion I do not share, by the way. Like many fervent Canadian environmentalists, I was brought up in BC. I learned to recycle cardboard before I learned to walk. When I went to Kalamazoo for a conference a couple of years ago and found myself in a university that had no recycling bins, I suffered. Oh, how I suffered.
*****Probably the really fatal kind.
******Not that I have anything against Winnie-the-Pooh. I love Winnie-the-Pooh. Mostly, the problem is that I never check that address.
*******One of the terms was much, much dirtier than any of the others. Let's just say that it involved the words "fingers" and "wet" and leave it at that.


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