“Critical Thinking & COVID-19: Straw Person, Steel Person, and Just Kidding”


by Professor

During a White House press briefing President Trump expressed interest in injecting disinfectants as a treatment for COVID-19. In response, medical experts and the manufacturers of Lysol warned the public against this. Trump’s defenders adopted two main strategies. The first was to interpret Trump’s statements in a favorable way; the second was to assert they were “fact-checking” the claim that Trump told people to inject disinfectant. Trump eventually claimed that he was being sarcastic to see what the reporters would do. From the standpoint of critical thinking, there is a great deal going on here involving rhetorical devices and fallacies. I will briefly go over how critical thinking can sort through this situation and how it can be used in analogous situations.

When interpreting or reconstructing claims and arguments made by others, philosophers are supposed to apply the principle of charity. Following this principle requires interpreting claims in the best possible light and reconstructing arguments to make them as strong as possible. There are three reasons to follow the principle. The first is that doing so is ethical. The second is that doing so avoids committing the straw person fallacy, which I will talk more about in a bit. The third is that if I am going to criticize a person’s claims or arguments, criticism of the best and strongest versions also takes care of the lesser versions.

The principle of charity must be tempered by the principle of plausibility: claims must be interpreted, and arguments reconstructed in a way that matches what is known about the source and in accord with the context. For example, reading quantum physics into the works of our good dead friend Plato would violate this principle.

Getting back to injecting disinfectants, it is important to accurately present Trump’s statements in context and to avoid making a straw person. The Straw Person fallacy is committed when one ignores a person’s actual claim or argument and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of it. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:

Premise 1: Person A makes a claim or argument X.
Premise 2: Person B presents Y (which is a distorted version of X).
Premise 3: Person B attacks Y.
Conclusion:  Therefore, X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a claim or argument does not constitute a criticism of the position itself. This fallacy often makes use of hyperbole, a rhetorical device in which one makes an exaggerated claim. A Straw Person can be highly effective because people often do not know the real claim or argument being attacked. The fallacy is especially effective when the straw person matches the audience’s biases or stereotypes—they will feel that the distorted version is the real version and accept it.

While this fallacy is generally aimed at an audience, it can be self-inflicted: a person can unwittingly make a Straw Person out of a claim or argument. This can be done entirely in error (perhaps due to ignorance) or due to the influence of prejudices and biases. The defense against a Straw Person, self-inflicted or not, is to take care to get a person’s claim or argument right and to apply the principle of charity and the principle of plausibility.

Some of Trump’s defenders have been claiming that Trump was the victim of a Straw person attack; they are “fact-checking” and asserting that Trump did not tell people to drink bleach. Somewhat ironically, they might be engaged in Straw Person attacks when attempting to defend Trump from alleged Straw Person attacks—warning people to not drink bleach or inject disinfectants is not the same thing as claiming that Trump told people to drink bleach.

His defenders are right that Trump did not tell people to drink bleach. His exact words, from the official White House transcript, are as follows: “And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that. So, that, you’re going to have to use medical doctors with. But it sounds—it sounds interesting to me.”

Trump does not, at any point, tell people to drink bleach—he does not even use those words. He does not even tell people to inject disinfectant. As such, the “Clorox Chewables” and similar memes can be seen as a form of visual Straw Person attack against Trump—they can also be seen as the rhetorical device of mockery. To avoid committing the Straw Person fallacy, we need to use Trump’s actual statements—so attacking him for advocating drinking bleach would be an error. Somewhat ironically, Trump’s actual statements are so terribly mistaken that they sound like a Straw Person.

While Trump does not directly tell people to inject disinfectants, he can be seen as engaging in a form of innuendo—a rhetorical technique in which something is suggested or implied without directly saying it. Anyone who understands the basics of how language and influence works would get that Trump’s remarks about injecting disinfectant would cause some people to believe that this was a good idea or at least lead them to think this was something worth considering. There is evidence for this in the form of calls to New York City poison control centers and similar calls in Maryland and other states. Although there have been some claims that people have been hospitalized because of misusing disinfectant, I have not seen adequate confirmation of these claims.

One main feature of innuendo is that it allows a person to deny they said what they implied or suggested—after all, they did not directly say it. Holding someone accountable requires having adequate evidence that they did intend what their words imply or suggest—this can be challenging since it requires insights into their character and motives. There is also an obvious moral issue here about the responsibility of influential people to take care in what they say—something that goes beyond critical thinking. Spoiler: the president needs to be careful in what he says.

Trump clearly uses words that convey the idea that he thinks medical doctors should test injecting disinfectants into peoples’ lungs as a possible treatment for COVID-19. This takes us back to my earlier discussion of experts and my case that Trump is not an expert. I should not have to say this, but injecting disinfectants into lungs would be extremely dangerous—something that almost anyone should know. Given Trump’s well-established record of dangerous ignorance, interpreting his words as meaning what they clearly state does meet the conditions of the principle of charity and the principle of plausibility: these are his exact words, in context and with full consideration of the source.

Some of Trump’s defenders have tried to use what I will call the Steel Person fallacy. The Steel Person fallacy involves ignoring a person’s claim or argument and substituting a better one in its place without justification.  This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:

Premise 1: Person A makes claim or argument X.
Premise 2: Person B presents Y (which is a better version of X).
Premise 3: Person B defends Y.
Conclusion:  Therefore, X is true/correct/good.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because presenting and defending a better version of a claim or argument does not show that the actual version is good. A Steel Person can be highly effective because people often do not know the real claim or argument being defended. The fallacy is especially effective when the Steel Person matches the audience’s positive biases or stereotypes—they will feel that the improved version is the real version and accept it. The difference between applying the principle of charity and committing a Steel Person fallacy lies mainly in the intention: the principle of charity is aimed at being fair, the Steel Person fallacy is aimed at making a person’s claim or argument appear much better than it is and so is an attempt at deceit.

While this fallacy is generally aimed at an audience, it can also be self-inflicted: a person can unwittingly make a Steel Person out of a claim or argument. This can be done entirely in error (perhaps due to ignorance) or due to the influence of positive biases. The defense against a Steel Man, self-inflicted or not, is to take care to get a person’s claim or argument right and to apply the principle of plausibility.

In the case of Trump, he is clearly expressing interest in injecting disinfectants into the human body. Some of his defenders created a Steel Man version of his claims, contending that what he really was doing was presenting new information about using light, heat, and disinfectant killing the virus. To conclude that Trump was right because of this unjustified better version of his statements has been offered would be an error in logic. While light, heat, and disinfectant probably can destroy the virus, Trump’s claim is clearly about injecting disinfectant into the human body—which, while not telling people to drink bleach, is a dangerously wrong claim.

Trump himself undermined these defenders by saying “I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen.” If this is true, then his defenders’ claims that he was not talking about injecting disinfectant would be false—he cannot both be saying something dangerously crazy to troll the press and be making a true and rational claim about cleaning surfaces.  Trump seems to be attempting to use a rhetorical device popular with the right (although anyone can use it). This method could be called the “just kidding” technique and can be put in the meme terms “for the lulz.”

One version of the “just kidding” tactic occurs when a person says something that is racist, bigoted, sexist, or otherwise awful and does not get the positive response they expected or are called out and held accountable for what they said. The person’s “defense” is that they did not really mean what they said, they were “just kidding. “As a rhetorical technique, it is an evasive maneuver designed to avoid accountability. The defense against this tactic is to assess whether the person was plausibly kidding or not—that is, did they intend to be funny without malicious intent and fail badly or are they trying to weasel out of accountability for meaning what they said? This can be difficult to sort out since you need to have some insight into the person’s motives, character, and so on.

Another version of the “just kidding” tactic is somewhat similar to the “I meant to do that” tactic. When someone does something embarrassing or stupid, they will often try to reduce the humiliation by claiming they intended to do it. In Trump’s injection case, he is claiming that intended to say what he said and that he was being sarcastic—thus he meant to do it but was just kidding.

If Trump was just kidding, he thought it was a good idea to troll the media during a pandemic—which is a matter for ethics rather than critical thinking. If he was not kidding, then he was attempting to avoid accountability for his claims—which is the point of this tactic. The defense against this tactic is to assess whether the person was plausibly kidding or not—that is, did they really mean to do it and if what they meant to do was just kidding.

This requires having some insight into the person’s character and motives as well as considering the context. In the case of Trump, the video shows him addressing his remarks to the experts rather than the press and he seems completely serious. There is also the fact that a president engaged in a briefing on a pandemic should be serious rather than sarcastic. As such, he does not seem to be kidding. But Trump has put himself in a dilemma of awfulness: he was either seriously suggesting a dangerous and stupid idea to the nation or trying to troll the press during a briefing on a pandemic that is killing thousands of Americans. Either way, he is terrible.

 

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