Straw man argument, or straw man fallacy, is a type of logical fallacy that occurs when someone deliberately distorts or misrepresents their opponent’s position to make it easier to defeat. As such, it is commonplace in a wide variety of situations, such as political debates, journalism, and debates on any controversial topics.
In this article, we’ll explain how and when this error in reasoning arises, what you can do to counter it, as well as show relevant examples of it.
What Is the Straw Man Argument?
Straw man argument is a flawed line of reasoning that occurs when someone substitutes an opposing argument with a distorted, oversimplified, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of it in order to make it easier to defeat.
As such, this fallacy takes the following logical form:
- Person 1 makes an argument X.
- Person B creates a distorted version of person A’s argument (the “straw man”).
- Person B attacks the distorted version of argument X.
Typically, it gives the impression of being a reasonable counter to the original claim, but in reality, it attacks a position or view that their opponent doesn’t really hold. Moreover, the claim may be distorted by taking it out of context, focusing only on a single aspect of it, or being only remotely related to it.
It is a type of informal fallacy and falls into their sub-category of fallacies of relevance since it is based on attacking a position that is irrelevant to the original argument.
- Informal fallacies refer to arguments containing irrelevant or invalid evidence that renders the conclusion incorrect. They stem from an error in reasoning rather than from an error in the logical structure of the argument.
- Fallacies of relevance occur when the evidence of an argument is not relevant to the conclusion, and thus doesn’t provide adequate reasons to believe its truthfulness.
Steel Man Argument
The opposite of the straw man argument is called a steel man argument, or steelmanning. Accordingly, it arises when a person improves someone else’s position in a way that makes it harder to defeat.
Now that you know how the argument works, we’ll take a look at several examples. As mentioned at the beginning, the straw man fallacy is common in the political arena, as well as in any other type of debate over a controversial topic.
Here’s a real-life example involving politicians:
- Bernie Sanders: “The time has come also to say that we need to expand Medicare to cover every man, woman, and child as a single-payer, national healthcare program.”
- John Delaney: “We should have universal health care, but it shouldn’t be a kind of health care that kicks 115 million Americans off their health care. That’s not smart policy.”
John Delaney’s response is a straw man argument since it distorts Bernie Sanders’ position instead of really addressing it; Sanders’ goal was to improve and replace the program with a different option, not to kick off millions of Americans off their healthcare.
The following example is fictional:
- Politician A: “I think that we shouldn’t allocate any more funds to the defense budget.”
- Politician B: “So you are saying that we should leave our country defenseless and vulnerable to invasion? Is that what you really want?”
Here, politician B creates a “straw man” of A’s claim by touching on only one (seemingly negative) aspect of it and giving the impression that his or her aim is to leave the country defenseless. This is more of an appeal to the audience’s prejudices than a valid counter-argument.
- John: “I believe sport hunting is immoral.”
- Michael: “You think we should all be vegetarians because animals are more important than people?”
Michael is guilty of committing the fallacy because he misrepresents John’s position: even though john believes sport hunting is immoral, it doesn’t necessarily follow that “everyone should be vegetarian” or “animals are more important than people” are also his views.
- “It’s ridiculous that some people are against the death penalty. It means they believe that the lives of murderers are more important than the lives of their victims, and this is proof that they are wrong.”
Similarly to the previous example, here one exaggerates and distorts the argument for opposing the death penalty.
How to Counter
As in so many other things, prevention is more desirable than cure. As such, when it comes to combatting straw man arguments, it helps to state your arguments in precise language and with clear, valid premises to support them. This can make them less vulnerable to misinterpretation and more challenging to change without having to seriously justify it.
However, no matter how excellent your claims are, they may still get twisted by your adversaries. When this happens, a good practice is to respond calmly and try to steer the discussion back on its course. To refute it, you may point out the fallacy and how it is incorrect. You may challenge them to justify their distorted view of your original argument, which will, in turn, put them on the defensive: they’ll have to either defend it or discard it.
Keep in mind that choosing to completely ignore the straw man is often a bad idea: if your opponent keeps attacking it instead of your real position, it can get increasingly difficult for you to disprove it.