In my last Fallacy Friday I covered the The Genetic Fallacy, the error of arguing that an idea is false on the basis of where it originated from. Today I want to look at what’s known as the “straw man” fallacy.
Origins of the Name
This fallacy takes its name from a practice common in the middle ages. A knight would practice jousting by putting a straw man on a horse and attempting to knock it off. This practice provides a vivid image of how the fallacy works, anyone who knocks a straw man off a horse has not defeated a jousting opponent; he has only knocked down a dummy or effigy of his opponent. A real opponent was not so easy to knock down.
Similarly, the straw man fallacy occurs when a person attempts to refute an argument or conclusion, not by showing that that argument is unsound or that the conclusion is false, but instead by falsely attributing a different argument or conclusion to their opponent and refute that. Usually the position attributed to the opponent is similar to their actual position so that it looks to other people like it has actually been refuted. Like the straw man the jouster trains with, the falsely attributed position is typically easier to rebut. Unfortunately rebutting an argument or conclusion which is like your opponent’s, is not the same as refuting the argument or conclusion your opponent actually holds.
Straw man reasoning typically proceeds in the following fashion, let’s say John and Sally are having a discussion:
- John affirms P.
- Sally then attributes Q to John (Q is a distorted version of P although superficially similar to it).
- Sally then offers a refutation of Q
- Sally concludes she has refuted P.
In this exchange Sally does not respond to P. Instead she misrepresents John’s position as being Q.
There are several ways this kind of misrepresentation is typically done:
- Sally misrepresents John’s position and then refutes the misrepresentation and claims to have rebutted P.
- Sally cites John but does so out of context. Then Sally rebuts the out of context claim and claims to have refuted P.
- Sally finds someone who defends P poorly and then suggests that this person is the paradigm defender of P. When Sally refutes this person’s argument for P, she mistakenly infers she has rebutted all the arguments for P.
- Sally creates a fictitious persona or stereo-type and then presents that persona or stereo-type as representative of all defenders of P. She then refutes that position and claims she has refuted P.
All these tactics involve avoiding addressing what John has affirmed and instead attack something else. If the position Sally attacks is similar enough to John’s she will give the appearance that John has been refuted. Such tactics might fool on lookers into thinking John has been refuted but in reality his original position is untouched.
Its not hard to think of examples of a straw man fallacy: Take for example the recent ‘smacking debate’ over whether all forms corporal punishment should be illegal in New Zealand. During this debate it was not uncommon to hear proponents of criminalisation arguing that those who disagreed with them “wanted the right to belt children with whips and pieces of 4 by 2.” Of course, this is a straw man. Saying that some forms of corporal punishment should not be illegal does not mean that all forms should not be. Neither does it follow that the forms these proponents appealed to should not be legal.
Similarly, opponents of criminalisation often stated that those who supported criminalisation believed children should never be disciplined and should be allowed to do whatever they like. This of course is a straw man. Those who supported criminalisation of corporal punishment may well have supported parents being allowed to use other non-corporal forms of discipline.
Both sides were misrepresenting the other side so as to present them as holding some view that was easy to refute. Rational moral discourse, however, avoids such easy short cuts. To actually refute another’s position means one needs to first understands what the position is, then represent it accurately and then respond to what the person actually said and argued. Knights who limited themselves to only ever knocking straw men off horses never won the jousting tournament.
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