Straw man

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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]

Presenting and refuting a weakened form of an opponent's argument can be a part of a valid argument. For example, one can argue that the opposing position implies that at least one of two other statements - both being presumably easier to refute than the original position - must be true. If one refutes both of these weaker propositions, the refutation is valid and does not fit the above definition of a "straw man" argument.


[edit] Origin

A man made of straw, such as those used in military training, is easy to attack. Attacking a straw man can give the illusion of a strong attack or good argument. It is occasionally called a straw dog fallacy, scarecrow argument, "straw person" or wooden dummy argument.[citation needed] In the UK, it is sometimes called Aunt Sally, with reference to a traditional fairground game.

[edit] Reasoning

The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern:

1. Person A has position X.

2. Person B ignores X and instead presents position Y.
Y is a distorted version of X and can be set up in several ways, including:

  1. Presenting a misrepresentation of the opponent's position and then refuting it, thus giving the appearance that the opponent's actual position has been refuted.[1]
  2. Quoting an opponent's words out of context — i.e. choosing quotations which are intentionally misrepresentative of the opponent's actual intentions (see contextomy and quote mining).[2]
  3. Presenting someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, then refuting that person's arguments - thus giving the appearance that every upholder of that position (and thus the position itself) has been defeated.[1]
  4. Inventing a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs which are then criticized, implying that the person represents a group of whom the speaker is critical.
  5. Oversimplifying an opponent's argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.

3. Person B attacks position Y, concluding that X is false/incorrect/flawed.
This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious, because attacking a distorted version of a position fails to constitute an attack on the actual position.

[edit] Examples

Person A: We should liberalize the laws on beer.
Person B: No - any society with unrestricted access to intoxicants loses its work ethic and goes only for immediate gratification.

(The proposal was to relax laws on beer. Person B has exaggerated this to a position harder to defend, i.e. "unrestricted access to intoxicants").[1]

  • Political debate:
Person A: The war in Iraq is wrong!
Person B: You cannot convince me that liberty is a bad thing.

(B has equated A's opposition to the war as an opposition to liberty which is easier do defeat).

  • A beach debate:
Person A: Nude bathing is healthy and nude beaches should be permitted here.
Person B: No, that kind of free sex threatens the morality of society.

(B has misrepresented A's position as a call for sexual promiscuity).

Person A: The theory of evolution must be taught in science class.
Person B: No, because the universe works too well to be here by pure random chance.

(B has misrepresented A's position and the theory of evolution as a cosmogony).

Person A: Life got here by creation.
Person B: No, the earth could not possibly have been created in six 24-hour days.

(B is representing A as a young-earth creationist, which is not the only creation theory).

[edit] Debating around a straw man

Strictly speaking, there are three ways to deal with a straw man setup. 1. Using the terms of the straw man and refuting the theory itself: Beach debate: "There is no threat to morality with "free" sex. Sex for purposes other than procreation is something that shouldn't be tied to morality, shame, or guilt". (Note: A weakness of this retort is that agreeing to use the terminology of the opponent may deflect the debate to a secondary one about the opponent's assumptions). 2. Clarifying the original theory: "I said evolution should be taught, not that I believe in the big bang". This may involve explicitly pointing out the straw man. 3. Questioning the disputation ("Why could it not have been made in six 24-hour days?"). See also Debate

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b c d e Pirie, Madsen (2007). How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic. UK: Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8264-9894-6. 
  2. ^ a b "The Straw Man Fallacy". Fallacy Files. Retrieved on 12 October 2007. 

[edit] External links

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