Monday, April 20, 2009

Of straw men, red herrings and climate change

There's your straw man, your red herring, your stalking horse—the techniques people use when they don't have a supportable position.

They have no place in debate over serious public policy issues—but of course, they're all over the place in the debate over serious public policy issues.

What prompts this particular post is U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner's amazing statement this weekend on carbon dioxide and climate change.

What he said, in a discussion with George Stephanopoulos, was this: “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide.”

Nobody thinks carbon dioxide causes cancer.

So Boehner was using a classic straw man—saying the scientific world is nuts when it claims something it doesn't claim.

Or it's a red herring—get people thinking about cancer when they ought to be thinking about climate.

Or maybe Boehner is a stalking horse—consciously making a fool of himself while something else is going on under cover.

One supposes it's possible Boehner was doing none of these things—that he simply is so stunningly ill-informed that he doesn't know the difference between cancer and climate.

And at some level, it doesn't matter. What matters is that he's stupendously wrong—and that there are people out there listening to him.

We're reminded of the old lawyer's maxim: If you have the facts, argue the facts. If you have the law, argue the law. If you have neither, pound the table.

Boehner, and so many other climate deniers, are resorting to pounding the table.

(The straw man technique is first to misrepresent an opponent's position, and then to ridicule or knock down the misrepresentation. The straw man is by definition easy to knock down.
(A red herring is a false proposition set forth to misdirect the reader or listener from the truth.
(A stalking horse is used to attract the attention while someone else skates by below the radar, often with nefarious intent.)

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

1 comment:

Keahi Pelayo said...

How do we balance whales exhaling carbon dioxide with carbon off-sets.