Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Man Made of Straw

Big Blue Stem

Today's lesson is the logical fallacy: Straw Man. This is a very common tactic used both intentionally and unintentionally in conversations. Once you learn to recognize it, you'll never be able to watch talk new shows again.

I found the simplest definition of the Straw Man logical fallacy at the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe website. From their list of the Top 20 Logical Fallacies:

Straw Man: Arguing against a position which you create specifically to be easy to argue against, rather than the position actually held by those who oppose your point of view.
Wikipedia has another easy to understand definition:
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.[1] [2]
In the Critical Thinking Lesson 9 at the Skeptic's Dictionary the definition gets a little more complicated:
One of the characteristics of a cogent refutation of an argument is that the argument one is refuting be represented fairly and accurately. To distort or misrepresent an argument one is trying to refute is called the straw man fallacy.
Essentially, all three of these reference are saying the same thing. If you can't address the point your opponent is making, make something up and argue against that instead.

A: "We should legalize marijuana because it can effectively treat some medical side effects."
B: "Are you kidding, we can't legalize drugs. There would be anarchy."

A: "We should provide a tax break for the people."
B: "The rich already cheat on their taxes."

A: "We should legalize gay-marriage."
B: "So you think child porn is ok?"

Those are just simple and easy to see Straw Man arguments. Go here and especially here for some more in depth almost tricky examples.

So, how does one refute the Straw Man? I never thought it would be so difficult to find some concise answers to this question. I'll give is shot but would appreciate any tips from my readers.

Try clarifying your position. "I said legalize marijuana not heroin and cocaine." Unfortunately in my experience this doesn't work well. People don't listen carefully so the debate often degrades to "you said" "no I didn't" "yes you did."

You acknowledge their straw man: "Yes, the rich cheat on their taxes but the middle class will be helped more by lowering the tax rate across the board." This might work in some cases but generally, I run into people who will latch onto any agreement and throw out all sorts of fallacies at me.

Lastly, throw out your own straw man. "So, what you are saying is you want to legalize gay child porn."

If you really want to risk a headache, check out this guys paper on the Straw Man. It's very academic and looks very complete. Logical Fallacies and the Art of Debate is another good paper.

If you don't like to or can't read, listen to a podcast on logical fallacies from Skeptoid.

Don't take my word for it. Do some research on your own. Provide some constructive criticism in the comments. Let's work on this one together.


  1. Love the post Craig.

    I would like to offer my view on this. I think it is easier to stay on point, and not reduce oneself to straw man tactics when arguments are done in written format rather than oral. Here is how I support that statement. It is not possible (for intelligent people) to use the "you said/no you didn't say" tactic because the argument is there in "black and white". It is easier to stay on point in any debate format. This is why I enjoy seeing written blogs and arguments rather than talk shows or talkertainment shows.

  2. @Blogophile: Thanks for the comment. I agree that straw man tactics are easier to avoid in written communications. However with written communications, it can be easy to misinterpret the intended tone of the message.


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