Sunday, February 27, 2011
Logic 101- The Straw Man
fallacy. It is a surprisingly common argument, and is very often based
on ignorance or willful misrepresentation of the original position.
A Straw Man is when a superficially similar (yet not properly
representative) proposition is substituted for the original and then
subsequently refuted. This creates the illusion of having refuted the
position without ever actually having addressed the original posit.
This sort of argument is endemic in political and religious debates as
they are often attempting to "preach to the converted" or to an audience
that is expected to have a pre-existing sense of confirmation bias
toward the subject matter. They are particularly effective to the casual
observer because the Straw Man very closely resembles the original
argument on the surface and any sense of this confirmation bias towards
the Straw Man's position will make it a very convincing argument indeed.
Let me give you an example:
Some anti-evolutionists argue that "Darwinists" (otherwise known to the
scientific community as "Biologists") claim that the evolution of
things, such as the eye, happened by chance. They then refute this with
a simple argument from incredulity by saying that nothing so complex as
a human eye could possibly have evolved through mere chance.
The problem with this is that no scientist has ever claimed that evolution happens
by chance. It happens through a series of random mutations and the
process of natural selection (in very simplified terms).
Another example would be to say that Abortionists "want to kill babies"
and then go on to talk about the immorality of killing the children of
the future. This is not a true representation of the Abortionists'
position. It is deliberately inflammitory for the purpose of a
dishonest smear campaign against those who disagree with Pro-life
It is easy to see how "chance" and "random mutation" get conflated or
how a "killing babies" comment could raise the hackles of those who
listen and to see how those who are looking for a reason to dismiss
evolutionary theory and/or pro-choice arguments might rush to quickly
accept these arguments.
But you would be wrong to do so. No one has posited these positions.
So any such argument that refutes that position merely distracts from
the actual facts of the matter. They either willfully or ignorantly
misrepresent positions so as to bolster their own position and gain
additional support from those whom they can convince with such dishonest
The only truths that a discovered Straw Man argument will reveal are
both the level of integrity and the level of ignorance of which the
person constructing the Straw Man possesses.
In short, make sure that you have a full understanding of the opposing
position before you attempt to refute it.
To do otherwise is to court failure.
For if you don't understand the subject, you clearly can't summon the
information nor the skeptical perspective that you will require to
If you are constructing a Straw Man out of a sense of dishonest
manipulation, then don't do a thing ...
... you will be discovered soon enough.