What is the Straw Man Fallacy?
The straw man fallacy is a technique often used in argument and debate. Although this is not intellectually honest, it can be used to successfully refute the position of a less cautious opponent. Alternately, it can be used by an opponent to apparently refute one’s own position, if the technique isn’t recognized in the course of the debate. This is why it’s so important to understand the concept behind the straw man argument. It’s based entirely upon sloppy thinking or misrepresentation. By framing our own argument in unambiguous terms and watching out for an opponent’s attempts to misrepresent it, we can easily defeat a straw man fallacy.
There are three steps to a straw man argument. First, one person states a position. The opponent then restates this position, distorting it so that it can be more easily refuted. So, instead of addressing the actual argument, the opponent is creating a false argument, also known as a straw man. This false argument is then shown to be untenable, thus knocking down the straw man.
It should be remembered that a straw man argument is inherently flawed. It is distorted in a manner that makes it easy to refute. Since the distorted argument is not actually the stance that has been put forth, this is one type of relevance fallacy. In logical terms, it is a rebuttal that is irrelevant to the initial position. Since the success of a straw man argument is dependent upon the opponent being unaware that their position has been altered, the distorted position is often refuted without being stated directly. This makes it more challenging to recognize that the initial position has been misrepresented.
Straw Man Examples
If you’ve ever listened to a political debate, there are high odds that you’ve heard a few straw man arguments yourself. However, there are some rather famous ones that serve as excellent examples. In 2001, the Louisiana state legislature drafted a bill known as HCR 74. Christopher Tindale, a Canadian philosopher, analyzed the following passage from the bill:
Whereas, the writings of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, promoted the justification of racism, and his books On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man postulate a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. . . .
Therefore, be it resolved that the legislature of Louisiana does hereby deplore all instances and all ideologies of racism, does hereby reject the core concepts of Darwinist ideology that certain races and classes of humans are inherently superior to others, and does hereby condemn the extent to which these philosophies have been used to justify and approve racist practices.
In this example, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is the initial argument. The straw man argument put forth that Darwinist ideology was a form of scientifically-supported racism. The argument then knocks down the straw man by rejecting racism. This is easy to refute since racism is widely recognized as a negative thing. Just to clarify, Darwin himself was opposed to racism. The claim that his theory supports it is a gross misrepresentation. However despite this, the argument may be effective at convincing some people that evolution is false and should not be supported by legislation in any way. The key to refuting the argument in this form is to recognize that it is a distortion of the original position, in other words, that nothing in Darwin’s theory of evolution supports racist ideology.
Another commonly cited example is the “Checkers Speech” given by Richard Nixon in 1952. Nixon had been accused of misappropriation of campaign funds. In particular, $18,000 in campaign funds were allegedly appropriated for personal use. Nixon gave a televised response to these allegations, speaking in particular about a contribution received from one supporter. In this instance, the gift was a dog. Here is what Nixon had to say:
It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, six years old, named it Checkers. And, you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that, regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.
When this is laid out so clearly, it’s apparent that Nixon did not address the actual allegations. Instead, he refuted the assertion that it was wrong to keep the dog. This was a straw man, as the $18,000 was the issue, and the dog was never part of the actual allegations. Plus, Nixon never actually stated the straw man directly. This is important, as a reasonably intelligent listener would have seen that the dog was irrelevant to the actual argument as soon as it was stated clearly. By moving directly into refutation, Nixon made his response more convincing. As a result, Nixon gained a great outpouring of support.
Though the previous examples are political, straw man arguments can pop up in any context. For instance, consider the following exchange:
Mike: Doesn’t it seem like sweeping twice a day is a bit excessive?
Joe: If we never swept, the floor would get filthy. Why would you want that?
This is a pretty obvious example, but it’s one of the sort that we can encounter on a daily basis. You’ll notice that in this example, like in the Checkers Speech, the straw man position was never stated outright. Joe immediately refuted an altered form of the argument. In this case, Joe is either exaggerating Mike’s initial proposition or fabricating a claim that Mike never actually made.
Types of Straw Man Arguments
Straw man arguments can come in a variety of different forms. They fall into three main categories: the representative form, also known as the classical straw man, the selection form, also known as the weak man, and a third form known as the hollow man. In the representative form, the entire argument is distorted. This distortion can come in the form of exaggeration, oversimplification, or generalization. In more extreme forms, the opponent might change details of the initial argument or completely fabricate claims. These are all classical straw man distortions.
In the selection form of the straw man argument, the opponent focuses on only a part of the argument. The opponent ignores certain crucial elements of the argument and then refutes the weaker portions. This can also be done by quoting parts of the initial argument out of context. Weak man arguments are selective oversimplifications of the initial proposition. A specialized form of weak man argument is known as nut picking. It’s a combination of ad hominem and fallacy of composition. Essentially, the opponent refutes a statement commonly espoused by fringe members of a particular perspective. The statement is not representative of the actual argument, but by refuting it, the opponent attacks all who hold the initial argument, showing them to be irrational.
The final form of straw man argument is known as the hollow man. This is a device used to support one’s own argument by fabricating both an opponent and an argument. These arguments can be introduced with words like, “Some say…”, “There are those that believe…”, or even, “Democrats think…” With hollow man arguments, no one has actually put forth the argument in question. However, by asserting that the argument is out there, the speaker can refute it and make their own perspective seem stronger. However, just as with the examples above, this doesn’t actually strengthen the argument at all.
How to Counter a Straw Man Fallacy
Remember that the straw man fallacy is based upon distortion and misrepresentation. It is easiest to distort or misrepresent an argument when the initial language is ambiguous. So, this is the first line of defense against straw man arguments. When your initial statement is as clear and definitive as possible, it’s more challenging to distort.
However, even when your argument is as clear and unambiguous as possible, it’s still possible for an opponent to attempt to refute it with the straw man fallacy. So, if you find yourself on the receiving end, there are three ways to counter the argument. You can bring attention to the straw man, ignore it altogether, or accept and defend it. Bringing attention to the straw man means calling your opponent on the distortion and clarifying your initial argument. You can point out how the opponent’s version is different from the initial argument or put them on the defensive by asking them to show that their representation is the same as the initial argument. The opponent will then either be forced to back down or go further out on a limb, making it easier to refute their statements.
If you choose to ignore the straw man, then you can refuse to engage with your opponent’s version of the argument and continue to advocate your initial position. This can work, but the opponent can keep on pushing the straw man to undermine your argument. If this is the case, then you may be forced to either point it out or accept it. Accepting the straw man is sometimes useful, if you can see a way to support the version they put forth. However, the entire purpose of the straw man is to move the argument onto weaker ground. Plus, the longer that the straw man is accepted, the more difficult it will be to return to the original argument. By defending the stance, you have embraced it as your own. So, while this can be helpful in some cases, it can also make it much more challenging to keep the debate focused on the issue at hand.
Principle of Charity
In a way, the principle of charity is the very opposite of the straw man. While the straw man is a misinterpretation of the opponent’s argument, the principle of charity in debate advocates interpreting your opponent’s arguments in the strongest possible form and refuting this form of the argument. It’s important to remember this in all debates, because we sometimes use straw arguments without realizing it. In other words, we sometimes unintentionally misinterpret the opponent’s argument in a form other than the one in which the opponent intended. The principle of charity can help us to maintain intellectual honesty in the argument and find the most productive resolution.
The idea behind the principle of charity is to interpret the opponent’s argument in its strongest form. However, this sometimes requires assumptions. In other words, you may need to assume that the opponent meant to put forth a certain argument, but left it ambiguous enough to interpret in a weaker form. However, it’s best to avoid assumption if possible. Instead, you can ask for clarification. You can ask the opponent to elaborate on ambiguous aspects of the argument, finding out what they intended to propose. Once the argument is completely clear, then you can move on to refute it.
The Debate and the Audience
On the surface, a debate can be seen as a contest between two parties with opposing perspectives. However, there are many cases in which the debate takes place in front of an audience. Political debates are a perfect example of this. The goal is not to persuade the opponent, but the audience themselves. If this is the case, then it doesn’t matter whether or not the opponent recognizes that they are using a straw man. The whole goal is to present the argument in a form that the audience finds compelling. This broadens the range of debate techniques available, including the use of ad hominem arguments and appealing to passions.
In short, the straw man fallacy is a distortion of the initial argument. The opponent misrepresents the argument in a way that makes it easier to refute. This can be done by exaggerating the argument, oversimplifying it, or selecting and emphasizing only a single weak element. Another form of straw man argument, the hollow man, relies on inventing an opponent and an argument to make one’s own seem stronger when we refute the invented argument. Sometimes, the straw man fallacy is used to appeal to the masses rather than win an argument with a single opponent. Countering this argument can be done by calling the opponent on it, by ignoring the straw man, or by accepting and arguing to support it. In order to avoid unintentionally using the straw man argument, it’s best to apply the principle of charity in debate.