Definition

This is when we misrepresent an argument so we can more easily defeat it. Just as a straw man is easier to knock down than a real man, so a distorted version of an argument is easier to defeat than the actual argument.

Examples

1) My girlfriend recently told me I should take out the trash. I responded, "Why do I have to do everything? If I spent my entire weekend doing housework, I wouldn't have any time to watch sitcoms."

This is like a straw man fallacy because I took her claim that I should do something (i.e. take out the trash) and misrepresented it as saying I should "do everything."

2) A student critiqued third trimester partial birth abortions when her opponent was only defending the moral permissibility of first trimester abortions.

3) While discussing animal welfare, a student criticized the claim that we shouldn’t kill living things when the original argument was we shouldn’t kill sentient living things.

Note: sentience refers to an organism’s ability to experience pleasure and pain. It is reasonable to believe a rock is not sentient, but rational people believe dogs, cows, and humans are sentient.

Discussion

In the above examples, each person misrepresented and weakened the original argument thereby making it easier to criticize. Sometimes people intentionally do this and sometimes they simply misunderstand the original argument. Either way, it is the straw man fallacy.

How to avoid

First, be charitable and interpret your opponent’s argument in the strongest way possible. Second, suspend your disbelief for a moment and try to believe what your opponent believes. Look for the strongest sources defending this position. Yes, this requires imagination and emotional maturity. Third, remind yourself that many claims are partially true. For example, it may be appropriate to raise taxes in City A, but not City B. Ask yourself whether this idea is applicable to some situations, but not others. Finally, seek truth, not victory. You may still disagree in the end, but following these steps will help you avoid straw man caricatures of positions you disagree with.

Exercise

  1. The straw man fallacy often arises in political debates. Find some examples.
  2. Do you think most people intentionally or unintentionally give straw man arguments?  Explain your reasoning.

Answers

  1. Answers will vary.

While people intentionally present straw man arguments, I believe many do it unintentionally. This is because most of us only see the data in support of our position (i.e. confirmation bias and cherry picking). It takes special effort to seek out and see disconfirming evidence for our views. Because of these bad habits, it is easy to misunderstand and then misrepresent opposing views

It is a bit like looking at Hill’s Old Lady and Young Lady visual paradox (see below). If we clearly see the old lady, it can be very difficult to believe a young lady is also present (and vice versa). For some people, it is difficult enough to seek out and see both ladies, much less seek out alternative political views to the ones they are emotionally attached to and through which they constitute their reality.

W.E. Hill’s Boring Figure (Old and Young Lady Puzzle)