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Fallacy Friday: The Straw Man

February 19th, 2011 by Matt

In my last Fallacy Friday I covered the The Genetic Fallacy, the error of arguing that an idea is false on the basis of where it originated from. Today I want to look at what’s known as the “straw man” fallacy.

Origins of the Name
This fallacy takes its name from a practice common in the middle ages. A knight would practice jousting by putting a straw man on a horse and attempting to knock it off. This practice provides a vivid image of how the fallacy works, anyone who knocks a straw man off a horse has not defeated a jousting opponent; he has only knocked down a dummy or effigy of his opponent. A real opponent was not so easy to knock down.

Straw Man

Similarly, the straw man fallacy occurs when a person attempts to refute an argument or conclusion, not by showing that that argument is unsound or that the conclusion is false, but instead by falsely attributing a different argument or conclusion to their opponent and refute that. Usually the position attributed to the opponent is similar to their actual position so that it looks to other people like it has actually been refuted. Like the straw man the jouster trains with, the falsely attributed position is typically easier to rebut. Unfortunately rebutting an argument or conclusion which is like your opponent’s, is not the same as refuting the argument or conclusion your opponent actually holds.

Straw man reasoning typically proceeds in the following fashion, let’s say John and Sally are having a discussion:

  1. John affirms P.
  2. Sally then attributes Q to John (Q is a distorted version of P although superficially similar to it).
  3. Sally then offers a refutation of Q
  4. Sally concludes she has refuted P.

In this exchange Sally does not respond to P. Instead she misrepresents John’s position as being Q.

There are several ways this kind of misrepresentation is typically done:

  • Sally misrepresents John’s position and then refutes the misrepresentation and claims to have rebutted P.
  • Sally cites John but does so out of context. Then Sally rebuts the out of context claim and claims to have refuted P.
  • Sally finds someone who defends P poorly and then suggests that this person is the paradigm defender of P. When Sally refutes this person’s argument for P, she mistakenly infers she has rebutted all the arguments for P.
  • Sally creates a fictitious persona or stereo-type and then presents that persona or stereo-type as representative of all defenders of P. She then refutes that position and claims she has refuted P.

All these tactics involve avoiding addressing what John has affirmed and instead attack something else. If the position Sally attacks is similar enough to John’s she will  give the appearance that John has been refuted. Such tactics might fool on lookers into thinking John has been refuted but in reality his original position is untouched.

Its not hard to think of examples of a straw man fallacy:  Take for example the recent ‘smacking debate’ over whether all forms corporal punishment should be illegal in New Zealand. During this debate it was not uncommon to hear proponents of criminalisation arguing that those who disagreed with them “wanted the right to belt children with whips and pieces of 4 by 2.” Of course, this is a straw man. Saying that some forms of corporal punishment should not be illegal does not mean that all forms should not be. Neither does it follow that the forms these proponents appealed to should not be legal.

Similarly, opponents of criminalisation often stated that those who supported criminalisation believed children should never be disciplined and should be allowed to do whatever they like. This of course is a straw man. Those who supported criminalisation of corporal punishment may well have supported parents being allowed to use other non-corporal forms of discipline.

Both sides were misrepresenting the other side so as to present them as holding some view that was easy to refute. Rational moral discourse, however, avoids such easy short cuts. To actually refute another’s position means one needs to first understands what the position is, then represent it accurately and then respond to what the person actually said and argued. Knights who limited themselves to only ever knocking straw men off horses never won the jousting tournament.

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16 responses so far ↓

  • Here is a question. Let’s say John has come out very publicly with a marketing campaign and such, with a very clear message X. Then, Sally comes along and says, in reaction to the public tenor of the message, X is in fact in error. Then John reacts by saying this is a straw man, somewhere buried deep in all of his writings, he has dealt with Sally’s objection with argument Q. Later John goes on heavily touting X without referencing Q, because while Q is true, it is uncomfortable and would be publicly damaging even though it supported X. I would say Sally is NOT committing a straw man fallacy, because John is really not arguing Q, he wants to avoid it. His real message is X, and his thesis is pressed into the public arena bereft of Q.

    Make sense? I think this is a common fallacy to be thrown back at detractors. You didn’t actually read my book, because buried on page 376 in paragraph 3 I mentioned this in a sentence. I think the general tenor and emotion and gist calculate in to the equation.

    Is it true that the public face of an argument that is being pushed and marketed and such is the real argument? Should we calculate this in? Or should we say, yes, Q is right, but you have not pushed this or made this a public issue because it doesn’t fit with the rest of your argument?

  • This week you didn’t start a sentance with the words:
    It is important to recognise that not every reference to an _____ is necessarily a version of the…
    Surely not all analogies are straw men.
    Can you not make an analogy to support an argument?

  • Jim, good example. If Sally is correct, then she is not arguing against a strawman, it is John who refuses to address the truth. Pithy quotes are like this, they give one impression when the person acknowledges that such an impression is at face value, incorrect.

    The problem is determining whether the simplification is moderately correct, or essentially dishonest. All arguments have subtle issues or simplifications. Further ,there may be be disconcordant data for both Sally and John. To accuse someone of leaving out information that is not pertinent to the argument is not dishonest. To leave out information that changes the argument is dishonest.

    Consider a statement about planetary motion based on classical mechanics. To leave out general relativity if it does not alter the prediction, is irrelevant. John has addressed it on page 376 and Sally is raising a false complaint. But John to ignore incorrect measurements that alters the argument, even if addressed previously, means that John is dishonest and Sally is raising a legitimate complaint.

    The dispute is often over whether the addition data makes a difference, or whether it is relevant, or whether it favours the opponent.

  • Jim, a further subtlety. John thinks X, Sally thinks Y (which is vaguely similar to ~X say). Sally raises Q as problematic to X and the public can see the legitimacy of her objection. But Sally fails to mention that Q is also problematic to Y, thus it does not help her argument, but because she appears to have defeated X by Q, it is assumed by the public that Q is probably evidence for Y.

  • To ponder on the mechanics of the straw man, I suppose the “straw” is made up of the product of one’s imagination rather than reality. This comes quite easily to us, it seems; hasty generalization works along the same lines, taking some aspect of reality and filling in the ‘gaps’ with projections and extrapolations out of one’s own imagination.

  • Rosjeir, an analogy is different to a straw man, a straw man is where you suggest the persons position is X when its not, and then refute X.

    An analogy is where you note that a persons position X is similar in relevant respects to some other position Y, so that your refutation of Y applies with equal force to X.

  • I take it MandM is not interested in Foucauldian Fridays?

  • No we are not Richard.

  • This one is thrown at me a lot, when I try to summarise someone’s long and random ramblings into a few simple sentences… it is difficult when the interlocutor is being deliberately obnoxious and focussed on something else other than making a clear argument.

  • […] Flannagan has added another essay on logical fallacies — this time on Straw Man arguments. His example (from NZ) of both the left and right using such arguments on the issue of banning […]

  • to whom it may concern

    “ignorance of the law is no excuse”.
    all lies are discoverable and a known trap can be avoided,
    the law is factual, impersonal and objective, designed to provide remedy, or settlement, or solution to any question, or dispute, or claim,
    seek out the accurate truth and do the due dilligence and it shall set you free from some concern, or fear, or addiction, or debt, or liability, or slavery in any form or nature.
    the area in which games are played defines a court where children may play games,
    in the real world governed by commerce there are only two classes of PERSON, the creditor and the debtor,
    everybody’s lives, some literally in this globalised world are effected by their class relationship to all others.
    “all law is contract, contract makes the law”, legal maxim.
    when one examines the straw man in terms of its legal application, it is easy to see how the law can be seen to be done although may infact permit the ruthless an unconscionable abuse of state power.
    one would be interested to understand how this argument is used to describe the inception and embidiment of the legal PERSON and the ownership of intellectual property rights contractually attached?


  • I never new this type of argument was called “straw man “. I see this all the time in political debates and political commentary. Rush Limbaugh (in the US) is a master of this. I’ll be watching more closely now.

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