Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The Straw Man Fallacy, the Principle of Charity, and Deflection Tactics: The Case of Florida Governor DeSantis

Earlier today, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis lashed out at a reporter who asked him if mask mandates might have helped seven children in Florida who are currently in intensive care with COVID.

DeSantis responded with the following words: "You're blaming the kids, saying they weren't wearing masks so they're in the ICU. With all due respect, I find that deplorable to blame the victim who ends up being hospitalized."

With all due respect, Gov. DeSantis, I doubt very highly that the reporter was blaming the kids who are in the ICU for their illness. A far more charitable reading of the question is that the reporter was blaming you.

Actually, since DeSantis is unlikely to ever read this blog post, let me stop talking to him directly. The point I want to make here is that there are strategies for engaging in public discourse about controversial topics that are likely to advance mutual understanding and help make progress in reaching wiser collective decision. And then there are strategies that have the opposite effect. DeSantis's response to the reporter falls into the latter category. Often, such deliberate muddying of the water is meant to deflect attention when someone faces a challenge they are ill-equipped to answer directly--and that is almost certainly what is happening in this case.

Let's go a bit deeper, in order to see why. The reporter asked a question. Let me paraphrase it as follows: 

Seven children are severely ill with COVID. The state of Florida does not have masking mandates--in part because Gov. DeSantis is an ardent opponent of such mandates. Would some or all of those seriously ill children have been spared if there had been state-wide mask mandates of the sort DeSantis opposes?

These are not the reporter's precise words, but I think they capture the substance. So what is the reporter really saying here? Philosophers advocate using what they call "the Principle of Charity" in interpreting what others say: if what someone says can be taken in different ways, opt for the interpretation that makes the most sense. Partly this is about choosing the interpretation that is the best fit with their actual words and (since we sometimes fumble for the words or don't quite say what we obviously mean) with their likely intentions to the extent that we can discern them. Partly, also, it is about assuming the best about others when that is possible: if there is a way of understanding what someone says that is plausible and morally decent, then don't choose an interpretation that is wildly implausible or that attributes to them views or aims that are indecent.

The Straw Man Fallacy might be seen as the polar opposite of the Principle of Charity. The Straw Man Fallacy involves attributing to someone a view or position that is at best a distortion of what they have said and at worst foists on them an easily-refuted or outrageous view they would never endorse but which bears enough superficial resemblance to what they actually said that you can get away with making the false attribution. In short, it's about attacking someone for some implausible or indecent view they don't hold and then acting as if you have successfully refuted what they said. 

Rather than a means of trying to engage with the substance of another's words, the Straw Man Fallacy is often a deflection tactic. Sometimes, the aim is to turn the conversation away from the actual ideas someone raised because you aren't sure you can refute them and you want to give the appearance of having won the debate--and since the distortion is easy to refute, you can create that appearance by attacking it. At other times, you use a Straw Man to deflect because the actual ideas the other person has expressed have merit...and if that is noticed it could be bad news for you.

It is no surprise at all that politicians routinely commit the Straw Man Fallacy and ignore the Principle of Charity. But am I right that DeSantis's response to the reporter is a case of this?

Consider. The reporter asked a question. It would be entirely reasonable to treat it not as a veiled act of casting blame or criticism, but as simply a question: Would a different policy have had better results for pediatric health in Florida than the policy DeSantis has been championing? Usually, there is no violation of the principle of charity when you treat something formulated as question as if it were an honest question. Had DeSantis engaged with this question, he might have given his reasons for thinking either that (a) a different policy wouldn't have had better results or (b) even though it might have had better public health outcomes, other considerations (perhaps the freedom of individuals to avoid the inconvenience of a bit of cloth on their faces) is more important that the survival of the state's children. 

Of course, if he tried to make either case (a) or (b) he'd be forced to engage with strong arguments to the contrary. Of the two, he comes out better if he defends (a)--but in that case, he'd invite experts around the country to marshal arguments and evidence that strongly challenge the truth of (a).

Another interpretation of the reporter's question falls within the scope of plausibility and might be seen as allowed by the principle of charity, namely the interpretation I posited above: the reporter's question was a veiled criticism of the governor. The reporter was, in the form of a question, really saying that those critically ill children would have been less likely to have ended up in the ICU if DeSantis had championed a different public policy response to the COVID crisis in his state, perhaps one that included a mask mandate in indoor public spaces.

Had DeSantis interpreted the reporter's question in this way, if he didn't want to accept blame for making an unwise public health choice he could either (again) defend the wisdom of his favored public policy by defending (a) or (b)--or to concede that a mask mandate would have had better outcomes for the state but maintain that he can't reasonably be held blameworthy for choosing an alternative course, perhaps because of unavoidable ignorance or something to that effect. In states where mask mandates were lifted before the delta variant surge, I could imagine a public leader offering such a response: "We sincerely believed that vaccinations had brought the virus sufficiently under control that masking was no longer doing enough good to justify the intrusion into personal choice and public convenience." 

But DeSantis's broader policy choices and leadership decisions could render such a move implausible, forcing him to defend (a) or (b). And if he didn't think he had a sufficiently compelling case for either (a) or (b), he might therefore have chosen to deflect with a Straw Man--not because that serves the truth or the public good, but because that serves his own ego and political prospects.

Is that what he did? The answer depends on how plausible it is to take the reporter as, in effect, saying, "The children who are in the ICU are to blame for their own condition, because they failed to wear masks." Is this a plausible reading of the reporter's question about whether a mask mandate would have spared those kids? Or, if not that, is it an implication of what the reporter was asking, even if he may not have noticed that implication?

Clearly it is neither. Here are some things to keep in mind, things that DeSantis surely knows:

1. Children in public spaces are more protected by the widespread mask-wearing of those around them than they are by their own mask-wearing. Such widespread mask-wearing is more likely to happen when there is a mask mandate. Hence, a widespread mask mandate could reduce the incidence of pediatric COVID independent of the mask-wearing habits of the children themselves. 

2. Since younger children, being immature and lacking adult self-control, will predictably fall short in diligent mask-wearing, it falls on the broader society to protect those kids from their understandable failures through adult diligence. In other words, a society that knows kids will be safer if either the kids wear masks diligently or the adult population wears masks diligently, and which knows that kids being kids will fall short in wearing masks diligently, has reason to buckle down and diligently wear masks for the safety of those kids. So, a mask-mandate could help protect children from their own immaturity by driving home with the force of law the importance of adult diligence in protecting children through adult mask-wearing. And the evidence shows that, in fact, mask-wearing among adults is more diligent and widespread when there are legal mandates. So, again, a mandate could reduce risk to children regardless of what the children do--and, in fact, may be wise precisely because we cannot expect young children to diligently wear masks. 

3. Kids cannot be expected to wear masks at home, and so they are vulnerable to being infected by family members who bring the virus home. But mask mandates reduce the rate of virus spread within a community, such that it is less likely that a family member will bring the virus home, exposing the child, in a community with a mask mandate than in a community without one. Again, for this reason a mask mandate protects children regardless of the mask-wearing habits of the children themselves.

In short, a mask mandate is the sort of thing that can reasonably be expected to protect children from the spread of COVID, reducing their risk of getting it and being hospitalized, regardless of whether the children themselves consistently wear masks. Not only has DeSantis surely been presented with this information, but so has the reporter. It is, after all, widely disseminated public knowledge, at least among those of us who have been following the research on masking and COVID. 

As such, it is almost certainly this information that motivated the reporter's question. If the reporter were making an accusation (not merely asking a question) it is therefore highly unreasonable to suppose that the reporter were accusing the sick *children* of failing to mask up. It is much, much more plausible to treat the reporting as accusing state leaders (and DeSantis specifically) of failing to make a public policy decision pertaining to mask use that would have predictably reduced the risk to those children.

DeSantis surely knew that the reporter was not blaming children for being sick. He surely knew that there is a difference between talking about masking policies and individual mask use. The reporter specifically referenced the former. And when you are focusing on policies, it is primarily political leaders who are responsible for whether those policies are implemented or not--not sick kids who might have not gotten sick had the policies been different. 

So, DeSantis was guilty of committing the Straw Man Fallacy and ignoring the principle of charity. And if you ask me, he probably did it on purpose as a deflection tactic, because he was not ready to defend himself against the charge that he'd made and was continuing to make a bad public health policy decision at a time of unprecedented risk to public health. 

There are likely many who see those children in Florida ICU's are a vivid symbol of DeSantis's blundering of this public health crisis. He likely knows this. So when the reporter called attention to this symbol of public health incompetence, out of fear of the political ramifications he accuses the reporter of blaming innocent children for their own illness--even though that is not what the reporter did. 

I sure hope that most people see through this move and continue to push for substantive discussion of public policy questions, and continue to ask whether state leaders who have been resisting mask mandates should rethink their positions as the delta variant surges in states like Florida (and my own state of Oklahoma). Let's demand actual engagement with these questions and not fall for Straw Man deflections.

1 comment:

  1. Loved your explanation of the Principle of Charity vs. the straw man put down. I think in this culture we are definitely on the side of the straw man strategy, although who knows, maybe behind the media reportages, some people are shining dissidents. For myself, I am very weary of the sophomoric, petty bantering between people of all divides. Civility is a lost cause in this generation and rapidly declining. How do we end all the name calling, circling the wagons, weaponization etc. and come together to solve our ever growing monumental problems facing our country and the world? We are presently floundering.