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What English phrase or idiom expresses this thought:

An argument that refutes an idea is technically correct, but it refutes only a very specific definition, and ignores or sidesteps a more fundamental truth behind the idea that it refutes.

I'm thinking I would be able to find a clever turn of phrase, something along the lines of

"extinguishing the candle and ignoring the forest fire", or

"re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic"


As an example, a contributor to CNN (Max Richtman) says that there is "no truth" in any of the "myths" surrounding Social Security.

"No, no one is stealing from Social Security"

https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/21/opinions/social-security-myths-opinion-richtman/index.html

Richtman claims that there is "no truth" in the "myth" that Social Security funds have been used for other purposes. He claims the one "myth" is based on a "fundamental misunderstanding" of Social Security's finances.

His argument is technically correct... money borrowed from Social Security trust fund were replaced with debt notes. At some point in the (near) future, that money will need to be returned to the trust fund in order to pay benefits to Social Security recipients.

Richtman's argument seemingly ignores the basic idea that money "borrowed" from the trust fund went into the general fund, and was spent on things other than social security benefits.

The bigger reality is that it is no longer possible for the Treasury to borrow more money from the Social Security trust fund, and that the money already borrowed will need to be returned.

The political reality is that Social Security is no longer a source of money to be spent, and is now actually an expenditure out of general revenue.


In terms of a logical argument, we might say Richtman is knocking down a strawman of his own invention. But that doesn't feel right. And it's not right to say that he's tilting at windmills.

I don't think Richtman's argument attains the level of subterfuge , and I don't think disingenuous works. (I don't want to ascribe a motivation to Mr. Richtman.)

My question is: What English expression or idiom conveys the idea that an argument, while technically true, that argument fails to address a much bigger, more fundamental truth?

(I've searched but, to borrow the words from a 1987 hit by U2, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for.")

Word meaning something is technically accurate but overly simplistic

Is there a word for when a statement is technically true but misleading?

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    Possible duplicate of Phrase for focusing on unimportant details – Edwin Ashworth May 31 '18 at 21:33
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    His point is correct though! Treasury isn't borrowing money from a "depleted Social Security trust fund". Only the excess funds for each year get put into Treasury bonds. Social Security was running surpluses every year until 2010. Here's a Politifact article that explains how it works, which is probably more trustworthy than Richtman's article, which is labelled as an opinion, specifically, a political op-ed by CNN. – Ellie Kesselman Jun 4 '18 at 10:25
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    If you believe that Richtman is ignoring a larger truth, the word that you provided, disingenuous would be suitable to describe the situation. – Ellie Kesselman Jun 4 '18 at 10:28
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    narrow and broad interpretations of arguments. Narrowly construed arguments, broadly construed ones. – Lambie Jun 4 '18 at 16:45
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    People are obsessed with single words when often single words won't cut it. And that sure gets old fast. – Lambie Jun 4 '18 at 21:54

10 Answers 10

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+100

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater

is an idiomatic expression for an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad, or in other words, rejecting the favorable along with the unfavorable. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_throw_the_baby_out_with_the_bathwater

  • Thanks (@ RobynSimpson). I think this expression may fit the bill. – spencer7593 Jun 8 '18 at 20:07
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to miss the point TFD idiom

To misunderstand the essence or crux of something; Overlook or fail to understand the essential or important part of something,

3

TFD(idioms):

can't see the wood for the trees

Cannot see, understand, or focus on a situation in its entirety due to being preoccupied with minor details.

The way he's obsessing over one doorknob when we're renovating the entire house makes me think that he can't see the wood for the trees.

Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.

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this is moved from a comment to an answer as I believe it is different enough

A common term that questions the relevance of a point is:

"red herring" -

A red herring (wikipedia) is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue.

It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences towards a false conclusion.

A red herring might be intentionally used, such as in mystery fiction or as part of rhetorical strategies (e.g. in politics), or it could be inadvertently used during argumentation.

Unlike the straw man, which is premised on a distortion of the other party's position, the red herring is a seemingly plausible, though ultimately irrelevant, diversionary tactic.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a red herring may be intentional, or unintentional; it does not necessarily mean a conscious intent to mislead

The expression is mainly used to assert that an argument is not relevant to the issue being discussed. For example, "I think we should make the academic requirements stricter for students. I recommend you support this because we are in a budget crisis, and we do not want our salaries affected." The second sentence, though used to support the first sentence, does not address that topic.

Ok - now the question is if "questions the relevance" is close enough to the situation at hand ?

I am not sure, that "fungibility" of dropping IOUs vs the pay as you go is truly 'irrelevant'

yet you might say

Arguing about whether or not there is a "trust fund" or if government bonds are "assets" is a red-herring argument that distracts us from the bigger point that no matter what you call it , cash to pay benefits for all practical purposes needs to come from taxes or borrowing exactly like any other item in our federal budget.

But, if the goal were more to categorize his 'sneakiness', you might try:

smoke and mirrors

The obscuring or embellishing of the truth of a situation with misleading or irrelevant information.

‘the budget process is an exercise in smoke and mirrors’

so, you could for instance say

The idea of the social security trust fund is just a smoke and mirrors attempt to distract us from the truth that every check written will come from borrowing or taxes coming into the government, no matter what the source.

  • Tom22, I concur that using "smoke and mirrors" seems to imply a sneaky intention to deceive. I want to avoid that connotation. I think "red herring" would be a better fit for the idea I want to express. The example wording using both phrases is very helpful. – spencer7593 Jun 9 '18 at 5:32
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While you said in the question that it didn't feel quite right, I think that straw man is still the best idiom to describe an argument that defeats only a simplified version of a real problem.

TFD(idioms):

straw man

a weak proposition posited only to be demolished by a simple countering argument. So you can knock down your own straw man! Big deal. The question is how can you deal with real problems.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

When you use a straw man in an argument, you present a problem or opposing argument in a way that is easier for you to argue against, rather than honestly representing the real problem or the real arguments of your opponents. Over-simplification is one of the ways that you might make a straw man easy to defeat.

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A couple of quotes for debating with someone who is twisting facts and statistics.

1)

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

"Lies, damned lies, and statistics" is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt statistics used to prove an opponent's point.

The term was popularised in United States by Mark Twain (among others), who attributed it to the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."Wikipedia

2)

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

— Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

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Since you say that you don't want to make the argument about Richtman, that basically means you need to appeal to your audience directly. You can remind them of the parable of the blind men and an elephant. This parable reminds us that a report can be truthful and be made in good faith, but may utterly fail to capture the big picture, and may seemingly contradict other reports that are truthful and made in good faith.

It is a story of a group of blind men, who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their partial experience and their descriptions are in complete disagreement on what an elephant is. In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest and they come to blows. The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to project their partial experiences as the whole truth, ignore other people's partial experiences, and one should consider that one may be partially right and may have partial information.

[...]

The parable has been used to illustrate a range of truths and fallacies; broadly, the parable implies that one's subjective experience can be true, but that such experience is inherently limited by its failure to account for other truths or a totality of truth. At various times the parable has provided insight into the relativism, opaqueness or inexpressible nature of truth, the behavior of experts in fields where there is a deficit or inaccessibility of information, the need for communication, and respect for different perspectives.

Blind men and an elephant
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

  • Yes, exactly, ... a report that is truthful, accurate in what it reports, and made in good faith. I want to highlight it, not refute it. I'm not wanting to discredit the report, or make accusations of deception. I want to point out other angles, the bigger picture, which the report doesn't address. I'd not heard of the parable of the elephant before. Thanks! – spencer7593 Jun 7 '18 at 6:01
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Having tunnel vision, according to Cambridge Dictionary (emphasised disapproving, because it's how the word is used, not the definition):

disapproving the fact that someone considers only one part of a problem or situation, or holds a single opinion rather than having a more general understanding

Example sentence by McGraw-Hill Dictionary:

The boss really has tunnel vision about sales and marketing. He sees no reason to change anything.

Attribution:

(Definition of “tunnel vision” from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press)

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. S.v. "tunnel vision." Retrieved June 4 2018 from https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/tunnel+vision

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To whitewash something is to present a tidied up version with superficially truthful facts while at the same time overlooking or covering up any disagreeable facts that might cause one to come to an other than optimistic conclusion.

From Idioms by The Free Dictionary:

  1. (tv.) to make something look better than it really is; to conceal something bad. Now, don’t try to whitewash this incident. Open up about it.

  2. (n.) an act or campaign of covering up something bad. They tried to give the scandal the old whitewash, but it didn’t work.

Whitewash refers to an inexpensive paint made from slaked lime and chalk that is commonly associated with impoverished people ("Too proud to whitewash and too poor to paint". (Wikipedia)). It becomes a metaphor for a hurried, slipshod or careless way of covering up when better materials and care would produce a more substantial result. One might say it's easier to whitewash something than to deal with all of the underlying issues that should be addressed.

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This one admittedly doesn't fit the example you've listed, but just in case your actual context pertains more to a faulty argument for justifying the expenditure of money on something, this one shouldn't be ignored:

penny-wise and pound-foolish

to be extremely careful about small amounts of money and not careful enough about larger amounts of money —Cambridge

So concerned with saving money in any way possible that one fails to allocate money to things that will ultimately force one to spend more (due to lack of quality, proper maintenance, etc).—TFD

It doesn't necessarily imply deception, but is rather strong.

  • Thanks! +1. This is a good one, and it applies to some of my own (regrettable) personal budgetary decisions! (Just not quite the right fit for the idea I was trying to express.) – spencer7593 Jun 13 '18 at 15:57

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