Matthew Southey half-baked half-thoughts    About    Archive    Feed

Hmm: Motte-and-Bailey Plus Bad-Faith

“Motte-and-bailey” is an interesting rhetorical fallacy that was formulated by Nicholas Shackel (here), and then summarized by (the inimitable) Scott Alexander (here). In Scott’s article, he mentions that weakmanning is a mirror image of the motte-and-bailey fallacy - in a dialogue, the combination of these fallacies can lead to an impasse.

Motte-and-bailey is a fallacious defensive strategy: it is the putting forth of a weak argument (“Homeopathy cures cancer”) and when challenged, replacing it with a easily-defendable truism (“Placebos are powerful cures… the power of the mind!”). When the dialogue is over, the weak argument continues to be proclaimed until once again challenged.

Weakmanning is a fallacious offensive strategy: it is the restatement of an opponents argument so that it refers to the most easily attacked form: ie. (“Most KKK members are Christian - Christians are racist”). Strawmanning is creating an opposing argument that is obviously false, weakmanning is a sampling bias that chooses the weakest point to attack (regardless of how poorly representative the sample is). The idea of steelmanning is not a fallacy: it is the putting forth of your opponent’s strongest argument and then responding to it. Steelmanning requires good-faith to use: an attempt to have a conversation that results in the truth (Bryan Caplan’s ideological turing test is a form of steelmanning). Hopefully the truth is reached together and there is a meeting of the minds (of course, this is not always possible). Straw and weakmanning rely on bad faith: the automatic assumption that the other person is wrong and that you will prove yourself to be right at all costs - such as relying on fallacies.

In Scott’s words, “So weak-manning is replacing a strong position with a weak position to better attack it; motte-and-bailey is replacing a weak position with a strong position to better defend it”. Motte-and-bailey is a fallacious defensive strategy, and weakmanning is a fallacious offensive strategy. Both involve switching between weak and strong arguments, or between easily defended and difficult to defend arguments.

At the end of his post, Scott writes:

Suppose we’re debating feminism, and I defend it by saying it really is important that women are people, and you attack it by saying that it’s not true that all men are terrible. Then I can accuse you of making life easy for yourself by attacking the weakest statement anyone vaguely associated with feminism has ever pushed. And you can accuse me if making life too easy for myself by defending the most uncontroversially obvious statement I can get away with.

So what is the real feminism we should be debating? Why would you even ask that question? What is this, some kind of dumb high school debate club? Who the heck thinks it would be a good idea to say “Here’s a vague poorly-defined concept that mind-kills everyone who touches it – quick, should you associate it with positive affect or negative affect?!”

Taboo your words, then replace the symbol with the substance. If you have an actual thing you’re trying to debate, then it should be obvious when somebody’s changing the topic. If working out who’s using motte-and-bailey (or weak man) is remotely difficult, it means your discussion went wrong several steps earlier and you probably have no idea what you’re even arguing about.

I think this paragraph is one of the most important paragraphs of the article and yet it could be further clarified. Scott is saying “What is important here is that if you need to clarify what you are arguing about, then you have no reason to be arguing. You are arguing for argument’s sake as if you are in a highschool debate club”. This is important – because I think learning about rhetorical fallacies can cause them to increase if no attention is payed to “why you are having an argument in the first place” and why not have a discussion instead? See my previous post on this here.

Learning about rhetorical fallacies can become another tool to bludgeon your opponent with, to show that you are Right and they are Wrong (because they are resorting to fallacious rhetoric, unlike you who are using pure unbiased logic). If you are arguing with someone who knows about weakmanning, then when you try to pin down their bailey (“weak argument”) you can be accused of weakmanning. If the argument is in bad-faith or the issue being argued is not clear - it will be hard to recognize fallacious tactics. It is clear when these fallacies are being used if the conversation is a discussion and the issue is clear. Unfortunately, many public dialogues operate with bad-faith and knowledge of these tactics is mere ammunition (war as a metaphor we live by). Knowledge of rhetorical fallacies, just like knowledge of biases, can harm the pursuit of truth if not coupled with a sincere desire for the truth.