The masters of straw men

October 17th, 2009

We now have another uncorrected transcript of evidence given before the select committee. It is full of rubbish that is easy to tear to shreds, and quite surprisingly, has a moment or two of honesty, decency, clarity and morality.

I am not going to tear it all to shreds. There are others out there who are busy doing good work on that, and I and everyone else has been over the merits of the witnesses. But I will take a look at some interesting parts.

First, a definition:

Straw man Argument

A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.[1] To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.

The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern:

  1. Person A has position X.
  2. Person B disregards certain key points of X and instead presents the superficially-similar position Y.
  3. Thus, Y is a resulting distorted version of X and can be set up in several ways, including:

    1. Presenting a misrepresentation of the opponent’s position and then refuting it, thus giving the appearance that the opponent’s actual position has been refuted.
    2. Quoting an opponent’s words out of context — i.e. choosing quotations which are intentionally misrepresentative of the opponent’s actual intentions (see contextomy and quote mining).
    3. Presenting someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, then refuting that person’s arguments – thus giving the appearance that every upholder of that position (and thus the position itself) has been defeated.
    4. Inventing a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs which are then criticized, implying that the person represents a group of whom the speaker is critical.
    5. Oversimplifying an opponent’s argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.
  4. Person B attacks position Y, concluding that X is false/incorrect/flawed.
  5. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious, because attacking a distorted version of a position fails to constitute an attack on the actual position.

Now that you have that definition clear in your head, look at these this example of the straw man argument used by Mr Chaytor:

Q75 Mr. Chaytor: Do you think that parents should be able to give their children medical attention at home without any registration? What is the difference between setting yourself up as a teacher or as a doctor at home?

That, as you can see, is a classic straw man argument.

Here are two more straw men, with some anecdotal evidence thrown in:

Q49 Chairman: Zena, as a Member of Parliament, I know children disappear all the time in my constituency. It’s a very real concern. It isn’t only runaway children, but children who disappear overseas and when you try to track them it is impossible because we don’t have the data. I am sorry, I have to correct you on that as a working constituency Member.

Q65 Paul Holmes: Simon wrote “Children raised in this way may well spend months pursuing a favourite topic, but they are unlikely to study a well-rounded curriculum…and therefore to acquire formal qualifications…The restriction of a child’s life chances by the early decision of a parent, sometimes when the child is only four or five, must surely be examined.”

Some years ago, I was approached by one person in my constituency who had been home educated. In his mid to late-20s he found that he did not have access to the professional qualifications that would allow him to take over his father’s accountancy firm. So, the home education choices that were made quite a long time earlier, and that he had thoroughly enjoyed, meant that he now could not do what he wanted to do as an adult.

Be on the lookout for this debating tactic, and do not let them slide by you unchallenged.

The chairman contradicts himself, when someone goes down a line of questioning that he does not like:

First he asserts:

Chairman: Let me put this down very straight: this is a Select Committee. There are 14 members and they have their own opinions and ask their own questions. You interpret us as having moved position in 15 minutes, but that is not the collective view of the Committee. This is a group of very distinct individuals who want to find out the facts, and that is why we are asking the questions. It may be that questions from David are from a different angle than those from Graham, but that is the nature of Select Committees.

Mr. Stuart: That is certainly true.

And then later:

Q115 Mr. Stuart: My point is about failing schools. You say that you cannot see the argument against registration. The irony is that, on average, four in 10 boys leave primary school unable to write properly according to Government levels. That means, in the worst schools, it is massively hard now. The worst parents in this country, as we know from our looking into looked-after children-

Chairman: No other member of the Committee would recognise that.

Mr. Stuart: That is not necessarily the case. I often don’t recognise what is said by other members of the Committee; you don’t have to agree with all the questions, Chairman. The point is that when you look at children in care, you will see that the worst parents in the country appear to be corporate parents. So we have local authorities who are failing with schools and with looked-after children, and they are sending officers to the homes of people who have withdrawn their children very often as an act of safeguarding from failing local authority provision. Can you not see an irony there, and should there not be a very high bar before the state, regardless of the responsibilities you hold-

So which one is it? are the members of the committee ‘a group of distinctive individuals’ or are they thinking as a collective with the Chairman as their sole arbiter and voice?

Finally the good stuff.

Q112 Mr. Stuart: Do you all accept the fundamental right of parents to home educate?

Phillip Noyes: Yes.

Peter Traves: Yes.

Ellie Evans: Yes.

Sir Paul Ennals: Yes.

Q113 Mr. Stuart: Peter, you said you didn’t understand the argument against registration. Isn’t there a principle that regulation and registration in almost any area should have to pass a high hurdle of need before it is brought in? There should not be an assumption that the state regulates and registers us all in business or our personal lives for its convenience. You said that there are responsibilities and that it is not very helpful for us not to have all that data. Parents and children are not there to help you meet your responsibilities.

Mr. Stuart seems to understand what is at the core of this. Bravo.

This is good and bad:

Q76 Mr. Chaytor: I agree, but should there not be some objective assessment of levels of capability? Is there not a wider issue for the community in that the child is not the personal possession of the parent, but a member of the wider community?

Jane Lowe: The child is not the possession of the state, for the state to impose its rules on.

Mr. Chaytor: No, but the child is a member of the wider community.

So, Jane Lowe obviously understands that children are not the property of the state.

Mr Chaytor seems to think that children ARE the property of ‘the community’. When he says they are ‘members’ of the community, what that actually means is that they belong as a form of property and have a responsibility to that community from birth. And of course, you can substitute the word, ‘community’ for the state if you are speaking plainly.

This disturbing attitude is the second possible explanation of who owns children (property) given by Rothbard:

Another man or set of men have the right in that child, i.e., have the right to appropriate it by force without the parent’s consent


What Mr. Chaytor is saying is that the community (the state) has a prior claim on your child; that your child is the property of those people from birth, and that you have no say in what is best for that child. The ‘community’ is the parent of your child.

This opens up a whole slew of questions. WHICH community does your child belong to? If you are a part of a community that believes that honour killings are perfectly legitimate, should your child be subject to that, simply because other people believe it?

If you live in Tower Hamlets where there are literally dozens of different communities living together, which partiular group should take precedence over your right to own and rear your own child?

As you can clearly see, the only way that everyone’s rights are protected, and all children are reared in a way that is suitable to them, is that NO ONE but the PARENT should be able to say what is or is not good for a child.

It is very encouraging that there are Home Educators out there that at least in part, understand that the state does not own children. The more people are woken up to this fact, and then to the reality that they in fact own their children or someone else does, the less likely it will be that there will ever be another Badman report written by the next imbecile in waiting who wants to impose her personal prejudices on total strangers and free people.

One Response to “The masters of straw men”

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