How to Run a Hostile Interview [Part II]
3. Straw Man: Undaunted, O’Leary then tried another tactic.
—“So, you don’t want to see any attempts to stop foods from being destroyed by insects…?”
—“Should we not try these things to help those who are dying [from hunger and malnutrition]—or are you against that too?”
—“To say there’s no merit to having science try and make foods better and yields better…sounds a little extreme” [Sure it would; that’s why she didn’t say that at all.]
—“Are you anti-science?” [asked of a girl who is calling for scientific long-term studies].
This is the classic “straw man” fallacy: Misrepresent your opponent’s position as another, virtually indefensible, unpalatable claim. I all but audibly groaned and gasped when O’Leary tossed these off and himself over a logical cliff: Campaigning for longer, independent testing of GMOs and mandatory labeling means being opposed to “any attempts to stop foods from being destroyed by insects”?! Really? That’s what O’Leary was insinuating. On the heels of that, I fully expected O’Leary to ad hominemly accuse her of being a human-locust GMO hybrid blinded by her vested interests in having unprotected corn fields to munch on.
His “think of the children” ploy—fobbed off on a child spokesperson for children!—was equally transparent, devious and ineffective: What, you don’t care about dying children? Here too, ambiguity was exploited: “Are you against that too?” Against which “that”?—Against the idea that we should “try these things”, including unlabeled, worrying, non-independently tested GMOs, or against the idea that we should “help those who are dying”?
Answer “no”, and you are for GMOs; reply with a “yes”, you are against helping the dying. That would have been a clever trap—if it were not so easily exposed. Rachel deflected that gambit with “not necessarily”, before proceeding with her well-articulated case.
Job interview counterpart: “You want maternity leave? So, whenever an employee feels like taking time off for ‘personal reasons’, she should be able to?” A distortion in the form of extreme over-generalization, the question sets up a straw [wo]man that’s easily shredded and that forces a yes/no answer that results in a lose-lose outcome. If the employee replies “yes”, she will prove she is unreasonable and overreaching; if she replies “no”, her response will be taken as a withdrawal of her request. Nasty—and unfortunately sometimes all too effective.
Here too, that kind of straw-man question can be parried with a “not necessarily” or its equivalent.
4. Equivocation: When Rachel repeated her call for long-term studies, O’Leary—to my utter dismay, replied, “We’re in a long-term study…you’re eating genetically modified food…whether you like it or not…and we have been for decades.” What utter nonsense!—and an example of yet another fallacy: equivocation—deliberately using a term or phrase with two incompatible meanings.
In this case, “long-term” study is clearly used by Rachel to suggest controlled, properly designed studies with clear goals, qualified researchers and parameters. However, O’Leary switched to the metaphorical notion of a totally uncontrolled, ill-defined, unmonitored “long-term study” with neither criteria, personnel nor consequences clearly determined.
The co-host, the generally more logical and even-handed Lang, had a similar lapse when she questioned the wisdom of labeling GMOs, on the grounds that seeing so many foods labeled as such would make us “immune to the label” because “they are everywhere”. Here the subsequent equivocation is on “they”: as though “they”—the labels— and “they”—the GMOs— are the same and that becoming immune to labels [presumably a bad thing] were equivalent to becoming immune to any adverse effects [a good thing] of ingesting the foods themselves.
That’s like incoherently arguing against publishing air pollution data on the grounds that we’d become insensitive to the data, the issue and the pollutants themselves—in effect arguing for self-legitimization of the problem substances through their unmonitored pervasiveness, while absurdly allowing that immunity to labels somehow creates immunity to that which is labeled.
She compounded this lapse by responding to Rachel’s call for choice through labeling with “I don’t have a choice to avoid eating GMO-corn if I live in America.” Hello? What about the choice to avoid corn, period? Or, better yet, buying organic? Lang equated “choice to avoid GMO corn, if we eat corn” with “choice to avoid corn, period”, while imagining or pretending that organic non-GMO corn doesn’t exist.
The equivocation was in “don’t have a choice to avoid”–with a shift from “choice” as “an alternative [product]” to “choice” as “capacity for acting freely”. Lang’s claim on either interpretation is false, rendering the ambiguity or equivocation ineffective and pointless.
Job interview counterpart: Imagine this employer remark, after a candidate shows up for his first day on the job and has turned down the only other job offer he had: “You’re telling me that I hired you at THAT salary? I said I agreed that $70K would better match your qualifications.…I shared your opinion. That’s what ‘agreed!’ meant. However, the salary we agreed to before you asked for reconsideration was $50K. ‘Agree with’ and ‘agree that’ don’t mean ‘agree to’.”
Whether it could be proved that this was innocent unclarity or willful equivocation is another matter and moot.