Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Straw Man Fallacy

The Straw Man argument is a logical fallacy, and can be used both deliberately and inadvertently.

It is the use of a "word caricature" to describe a person's opinion or to describe the person. It misses the mark by presenting a misrepresentation of the person's opinion. It often takes a person's opinion, and then presents an extreme version of the opinion, failing to recognize that the person's opinions are more nuanced than is claimed. Thus the user of the straw man fallacy exposes their own tendency to incorrectly categorize their opponent. This reveals much about the accuser, while saying little if anything about the accused.

It can be hard to avoid, since it is a result of the human mind's natural tendency to attempt to make sense out of chaos. Therefore its use says more about the mindset of the user, than about the object of the accusation or other party in the debate.

When conversation is between allies and friends, its use shouldn't be attributed to bad motives, but to carelessness. It's human nature. We can all be guilty of using the straw man argument.

If, after being pointed out, it is repeatedly used, then bad motives might be the problem. The straw man then becomes a deliberate attack in the face of evidence to the contrary. That's called deception and dirty tricks.

When used by some politicians and malicious individuals, it can be a very deliberate method for misrepresenting an opponent's views. They use it to demonize their opponent, to ridicule them, and to give the appearance of having won the argument, when in fact they have not addressed the real issue, but one of their own invention.

These people often know full well that what they are saying isn't true, since they have been repeatedly notified of the incorrectness of their earlier statements, yet they persist in repeating them, thus proving themselves to be deliberate liars who are acting in bad faith, and thus liable to lawsuits.

Those who observe the debate may well be taken in by this ploy, which is a good reason for conducting such debates in writing. This permits time for carefully wording one's responses, and for quoting precisely one's opponent. If statements are taken out of context or misprepresented, it can then be easily pointed out and the false arguments can be debunked.

From Wikipedia:

Straw Man

Rhetorical use

The straw-man rhetorical technique is the practice of refuting weaker arguments than one's opponents actually offer. To "set up a straw man" or "set up a straw-man argument" is to create a position that is easy to refute, then attribute that position to your opponent.

One can set up a straw man in several different ways:

1. Present only a portion of the opponent's arguments (often a weak one), refute it, and pretend that all of their arguments have been refuted.
2. Present the opponent's argument in weakened form, refute it, and pretend that the original has been refuted.
3. Present a misrepresentation of the opponent's position, refute it, and pretend that the opponent's actual position has been refuted.
4. Present someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, refute their arguments, and pretend that every argument for that position has been refuted.
5. Invent a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs that are criticised, and pretend that that person represents a group that the speaker is critical of.

Some logic textbooks define the straw-man fallacy only as a misrepresented argument. It is now common, however, to use the term to refer to all of these tactics. The straw-man technique is also used as a form of media manipulation.


For more information about the Straw Man fallacy:

Stephen's Guide: Straw man

The Straw Man Fallacy

Google search: straw man logical fallacy