Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cognitive Bias: the straw man fallacy

Straw man (or lady?)
Straw man (or lady?) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In MLM, very often defendants of such a MLM will resort to "straw man argument" to "defeat" criticism of of their MLM. 

A straw man argument is based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position. To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet DIFFERENT proposition (the "straw man"), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.

Let me give you an example. The following was supposedly relayed by "Team TVI Oz", convicted pyramid scammers in Australia, before they were convicted, and posted on Indonesia website of the same scam, explaining why they are NOT a pyramid scheme (and Australian government is wrong). 

"A pyramid scheme is defined by following characteristics:
--> No product
--> Returns for investments
--> People only at the top make money and rest don’t. All late comers lose their money.
As per the WFDSA and any Direct Selling body, above mentioned are the points which define a Pyramid scheme."
Sounds reasonable, until you do a little fact-checking, because WFDSA never said such things. The citing is completely bogus. 

WFDSA, or World Federation of Direct Selling Associations, is a world-wide organization of different organizations promoting "direct selling", i.e. network marketing i.e. multi-level marketing. Their website is at wfdsa.org, and a search through their website yielded a page specifically on pyramid schemes. From that, I quote:

Numerous legislatures around the globe have proscribed pyramid selling. The wording of relevant statutes, codes, articles, acts, regulations and the like vary, but all contain the following core concept: A pyramid is a scheme in which a recruit pays (an entry fee) for the opportunity to receive future benefits (money or privileges) which are primarily derived from that recruit's (and/or subsequent recruits') introduction of additional participants in the scheme, rather than from the sale of products to consumers.
Thus, the scheme's rewards effectively come from the addition of new participants and their investments, not from the sale and distribution of real products to persons who actually use or consume them. No real trading in viable goods or services takes place, and the scheme essentially involves an internal redistribution of wealth from new entrants to the promoters. The scheme serves no legitimate commercial function. The only "trade" being carried on is actually in scheme participants' rights, and the redistribution of participants' entry fees or investments.

There was nothing about "no product", nothing about "investment", and certainly nothing about "only people on top benefits". There is nothing on the rest of the page either about the supposed three major characteristics of a pyramid scheme. The three factors cited by these scammers do not exist. 

The writer proceed to "defeat" these three factors, thus claiming "TVI Express" is not a pyramid scheme. Unfortunately, the definition they defeated only existed in their own imagination, not reality. (Each of their three arguments were also easily dismantled, but that's not relevant to straw man argument.)

They used a straw man argument, something that very often happens in debates, esp. MLM related debates. 

There are generally two ways someone may choose a straw man argument... accidental, or intentional. 

Accidental straw man usually results from not fully understanding the argument or topic, and ended up answering question what was not asked, or defeating an argument that wasn't offered. This often happen on polarizing issues, such as abortion, death penalty, but also MLMs (and its evil twin, the pseudo-MLM scams). Many readers simply read the first few paragraphs, guess what the author meant, then immediately wrote a counter-argument without checking if that's really what the author meant. 

Here would be an example:

A: Marijuana should be legalized, because of e,f, and g
B: Illegal drugs should be kept off the streets because of x, y, and z...

B, in this case, is NOT the inverse of A. The inverse of A should be "Marijuana should NOT be legalized because of ______". By expanding the argument to ALL illegal drugs, the author has committed the "straw man argument" fallacy, yet it is an easy mistake to make, as marijuana is currently an illegal drug (And please don't get started about "medical marijuana", as that's WAY off topic. )

Accidental straw man arguments are often created by people with good intentions, merely not completely explored all the angles, or had not rigorously examined the argument and its counter-argument. I've been guilty of that myself a few times. This usually results in mere embarrassment. 

An intentional straw man argument, on the other hand, illustrates the dubious nature of the arguer, as he basically does NOT have sufficient evidence to argue against the premise. If he has, he would have used them, but he doesn't. So he has to INVENT some, and lie. 

It is difficult to imagine that the three scammers above in Australia could have "mistakenly" misquoted the WFDSA, as shown above, as they cited three factors that simply do not exist. Thus, it is not difficult to conclude that these three scammers are intentionally using a straw man argument. Their conviction in 2011, and fined 200000 AUD in 2012 confirms that their argument had been bogus. 

Can you recognize a straw man argument when you see one? Are you guilty of using one yourself on occasion? 
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