Taxonomy:Logical Fallacy > Informal Fallacy > Red Herring
"Straw man" is one of the best-named fallacies, because it is memorable and vividly illustrates the nature of the fallacy. Imagine a fight in which one of the combatants sets up a man of straw, attacks it, then proclaims victory. All the while, the real opponent stands by untouched.
When your opponent sets up a straw man, set it on fire and kick the cinders around the stage. Don't worry about losing the Strawperson-American community vote.
Source: James Lileks, "The Daily Bleat"
Some of you may have seen the 90-minute ABC network television show entitled "Growing Up in the Age of AIDS". I was one of nine guests on that live program. [A] single 45-second sound bite cost me a long journey and two hectic days in New York City.
Why did I travel to The Big Apple for such an insignificant role? I felt a responsibility to express the abstinence position on national television. How sad that adolescents hear only the dangerous "safe sex" message from adults who should know better.
What follows, then, is what I would have said on television.
Why, apart from moral considerations, do you think teenagers should be taught to abstain from sex until marriage?
𠡡ot one of 800 sexologists at a recent conference raised a hand when asked if they would trust a thin rubber sheath to protect them during intercourse with a known HIV infected person. And yet they're perfectly willing to tell our kids that "safe sex" is within reach and that they can sleep around with impunity.
Source: James C. Dobson, in a fund-raising letter for "Focus on the Family", February 13, 1992.
Judging from my experience, Straw Man is one of the commonest of fallacies. It is endemic in public debates on politics, ethics, and religion. A straw man argument occurs in the context of a debate―formal or informal―when one side attacks a position―the "straw man"―not held by the other side, then acts as though the other side's position has been refuted.
This fallacy is a type of Red Herring because the arguer is attempting to refute the other side's position, and in the context is required to do so, but instead attacks a position not held by the other side. The arguer argues to a conclusion that denies the "straw man", but misses the target. There may be nothing wrong with the argument presented by the arguer when it is taken out of context, that is, it may be a perfectly good argument against the straw man. It is only because the burden of proof is on the arguer to argue against the opponent's position that a Straw Man fallacy is committed. So, the fallacy is not simply the argument, but the entire situation of the argument occurring in such a context.
As the "straw man" metaphor suggests, the counterfeit position attacked in a Straw Man argument is typically weaker than the opponent's actual position, just as a straw man is easier to defeat than a flesh-and-blood one. Of course, this is no accident, but is part of what makes the fallacy tempting to commit, especially to a desperate debater who is losing an argument. Thus, it is no surprise that arguers seldom misstate their opponent's position so as to make it stronger. Of course, if there is an obvious way to make a debating opponent's position stronger, then one is up against an incompetent debater. Debaters usually try to take the strongest position they can, so that any change is likely to be for the worse. However, attacking a logically stronger position than that taken by the opponent is a sign of strength, whereas attacking a straw man is a sign of weakness.
A common straw man is an extreme man. Extreme positions are more difficult to defend because they make fewer allowances for exceptions, or counter-examples. Consider the statement forms:
- All P are Q.
- Most P are Q.
- Many P are Q.
- Some P are Q.
- Some P are not Q.
- Many P are not Q.
- Most P are not Q.
- No P are Q.
The extremes are "All P are Q" and "No P are Q". These are easiest to refute, since all it takes is a single counter-example to refute a universal proposition. Moreover, the world being such as it is, unless P and Q are connected definitionally, such propositions are usually false. The other propositions are progressively harder to refute until you get to the middle two: "Some P are Q" and "Some P are not Q". To refute these requires one to prove the extremes: "No P are Q" or "All P are Q", respectively. So, extremists are those who take positions starting with "all" or "no". For instance, the extremists in the abortion debate are those who argue that no abortions are permissible, or that all abortions are.
Therefore, Straw Man arguments often attack a political party or movement at its extremes, where it is weakest. For example, it is a straw man to portray the anti-abortion position as the claim that all abortions, with no exceptions, are wrong. It is also a straw man to attack abortion rights as the position that no abortions should ever be restricted, bar none. Such straw men are often part of the process of "demonization", and we might well call the subfallacy of the straw man which attacks an extreme position instead of the more moderate position held by the opponent, the "Straw Demon".
T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments (Third Edition) (Wadsworth, 1995), pp. 157-159.
Michael C. Labossiere, "Straw Man"
Analysis of the Example:
Dobson is arguing against the "safe sex" idea of promoting condom usage as a way to limit the spread of HIV. In order to more easily knock down his target, Dobson portrays the sexologists he's criticizing as telling kids "that they can sleep around with impunity". The most prominent proponent of condom usage was Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who testified before Congress to the following:
Scientific evidence indicates that abstinence is the only completely safe way to avoid acquiring AIDS sexually. Except for mutually faithful monogamous relationships with uninfected partners, the use of a condom is the best method of reducing or preventing HIV infection known at this time for those who for one reason or another will not practice abstinence or monogamy.
Dobson chose to attack a straw man rather than the Surgeon General.
Source: C. Everett Koop, "Statement of C. Everett Koop", Committee on Energy and Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, 2/10/1987 (PDF)
Dobson was not saying that the Surgeon General was mistaken but rather certain sexologists. Dobson portrays the sexologists he's criticizing as telling kids "that they can sleep around with impunity." This was indeed a straw man if they didn't believe this, but if they did believe this, Dobson's objection is not as much of a straw man. Ordinarily, something is a straw man if the opponent's position has been distorted, not that a different opponent presents a different position.
If the Surgeon General was at the conference, then indeed it was a straw man, but then that fact should be mentioned. Or if your objection was that the sexologists Dobson criticizes hold an extreme position, and that most people who promote condom use don't hold such a position―whereas Dobson argues otherwise in his fundraising letter (I don't know if he in fact did or not)―then this too would be a straw man, but such pertinent facts would need to be mentioned.―Wade A. Tisthammer
Dobson wasn't simply arguing against the 800 sexologists at the conference, but against the "safe sex" message and in favor of abstinence. I don't know whether Koop attended the conference, but I doubt it; I have no idea who was there. As you say, either Dobson misrepresented the views of the sexologists or he didn't. If he did, then he was clearly committing a straw man fallacy, as you concede.
One reason that I quoted Koop's statement was that he was probably the most prominent proponent of condom usage, at least at that time. Of course, statements from those who attended the conference would be better evidence of what they believed, but in lieu of that I offer Koop's statement as evidence of what the "safe sex" message really was. An important thing shown by Koop's statement is that "safe sex" and abstinence were not necessarily contradictory messages, as Dobson implies. Koop first points out that abstinence is the only 100% effective method of preventing diseases from being sexually transmitted, and condom usage is less effective. Of course, Koop never claimed that teenagers could "sleep around with impunity".
But, even if Dobson was not misrepresenting the sexologists' views, he still attacked a straw man. Choosing the most extreme representatives of a view to criticize, and then treating such criticism as a refutation of that view is itself a form of straw man fallacy, as discussed in the Subfallacy section above. Dobson chose to attack the sexologists rather than Koop because they would be easier to knock down: that's a straw man.
Reader Jon Brock writes:
I don't think the safe sex quote is a good example of a straw man argument―or perhaps it needs more clarification. You pointed out that the straw man aspect to the argument was that Dobson painted the safe sex movement as telling kids they can sleep around with impunity. I don't think that's a straw man, primarily because he uses the word "can" and adds "with impunity". If Dobson said "telling kids they should sleep around" you'd be correct―that's a mischaracterization of safe sex. But the idea of "safe sex" is exactly that "you can sleep around with impunity". That's the definition of safe sex. It adds impunity to sex "for those who for one reason or another will not practice abstinence or monogamy".
The reason Dobson is attacking that message so specifically, with thewords "can" and "with impunity", is that as your point from the Surgeon General pointed out, it's incorrect. The idea that a condom reduces the chances of STD transmission, but does not prevent them, is not at all expressed in the succinct and catchy phrase "safe sex".
You can criticize the phrase "safe sex" on the grounds that no sex is completely safe, but it's Dobson who characterized the sexologists' position as one of advocating "safe sex".
If anything, the safe sex proponents who reference the Surgeon General's statement are the ones making the straw man argument. The Surgeon General did not say that sex with a condom is safe, just that it is safer than sex without a condom, and that the only safe action is to not have sex or have a monogamous uninfected partner. Is it really a straw man to recharacterize someone's words in a way that is logically correct?
You're right about what Koop said, so why didn't Dobson address himself to that instead of a bunch of unnamed "safe sex proponents"?
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Charles Morgan and Max Waterman.
Not to be confused with the tax evasion concept of Strawman theory.
A straw man is a logical fallacy which occurs when a debater intentionally misrepresents their opponent's argument as a weaker version, and rebuts said version — rather than their opponent's genuine argument. Intentional strawmanning is usually done with a certain goal in mind, including:
- Avoiding real debate against an opponent's real argument, because the misrepresenter risks losing in fair debate
- Making the opponent's position appear ridiculous as a way of poisoning the well
Unintentional misrepresentations are also possible, but in this case, the misrepresenter would only be guilty of simple ignorance. While their argument would still be fallacious, they can be at least excused of malice.
- straw dog
- wooden dummy
- Aunt Sally
- hollow man
A straw man debate takes the following form.
- Person X raises argument A1.
- Person Y describes argument A1 as argument A2, which appears similar to (but is substantially different from) argument A1.
- Person Y refutes argument A2.
- Person Y claims that argument A1 has been refuted.
In a logical syllogism, this takes the form:
- P1:X (their argument) is Y (the strawmanned argument).
- P2:Y (the strawmanned argument) is false.
- C1:X (their argument) is false.
The syllogism is valid unless X is not Y; in a strawman argument, X and Y are different.
Consider that the range of statement forms that could be made about something:
- All X are Y.
- Most X are Y.
- Many X are Y.
- Some X are Y.
- Some X are not Y.
- Many X are not Y.
- Most X are not Y.
- No X are Y.
It is common to represent an opponent's position as being an extreme position -- eg, that pro-choicers think all abortions are acceptable, or that pro-lifers think no abortions are acceptable.
This is because it is easiest to defeat the forms near the extremes and hardest to defeat the forms near the middle. For example, to defeat "All X are Y" proof of only one counter-example is needed (namely, one statement of the form Some X are not Y). Conversely, to defeat Some X are Y, proof of a complete lack of examples is needed (namely, that "No X are Y"). Proving categorical statements is harder than taking them down.
Steelmanning is a neologism for the principle of charity, coined on LessWrong by Scott Alexander, in analogy to "straw man". The principle of charity is the maxim that in debate, one should take the strongest possible understanding of the opponent's position. It is a warning against the straw man argument. Only if you defeat the strongest possible version of your opponent's argument can you say that you've robustly defeated their position.
Related to steelmanning is the Ideological Turing Test, which asserts: If someone understands their opponent's belief so well that they can convince a blinded observer that are a true believer, and yet still don't actually believe it, there's a good chance that that belief is wrong. The first part of this test is useful: if you can repeat somebody's argument back to them in such a way that they agree with everything you say (and do not wish you had included more), then you have properly understood/summarized their position. However, the second part is not: just because you can understand somebody else's view fully, but still reject it, does not mean that their belief is incorrect. This is because your rejection of their belief is based on additional beliefs that you hold, which may be incorrect or which they may not accept.
See also Dennett's Rules, which includes a version of steelmanning.
Unlike steelmanning, Ironmanning is the converse of strawmanning. An ironman argument is an intentional misrepresentation of one's own or another's position, often used to make it appear that one's arguments are stronger than they actually are in order to more easily defend it, or to make it appear that one's critics are unfair or shrill.
The title of the argument comes from the art of practising fighting techniques against men made of straw: which is a problem in that straw men don't fight back, don't wear armor, don't bleed and generally aren't anything like the sort of thing you would actually encounter in a battle. Therefore someone arguing against a straw man is just arguing against an idealised opponent that only exists in that person's own head.
Straw men are notoriously easy to construct, and require little more than extending the opponent's arguments beyond their original point until their stance appears ridiculous - appearing like the fallacious use of reductio ad absurdum. Once the opponent has accepted (or failed to refute) such a set-up, one can simply attack the straw man position instead of the opponent's actual points, and claim any subsequent attempt to correct the situation as conceding the argument.
Sometimes it's so easy, you can do it without thinking.
Straw versions of evolution are remarkably common. After all, it's definitely in the best interests of creationists not to actually teach it properly.
Straw man arguments against religion are also easy to generate - conflating religions together into one entity is perhaps the most common. Zen and Christianity have almost nothing in common, for example, yet both can be dismissed readily by a straw man of a generic "religion" concept.
Defining anyone who is even moderately religious as an unthinking, sheep-like entity who blindly accepts whatever their priest or pastor tells them is another. In this case, the straw man is to conflate fundamentalism with mainstream belief - decent sites such as Fundies Say The Darndest Things on occasion have an unfortunate tendency to mistake anyone talking about prayer, faith, or Jesus as rabid fundamentalists. Straw man positions on religion are often held by anti-theists: who generally are, let's face it, teenagers who have just discovered the internet.
Prominent biologistRichard Dawkins has been accused of generating straw man religions to fight in his pro-atheism writings such as The God Delusion by falling into a few of the traps discussed above.
For a good example of lumping religion into one, type "science vs religion" into Google Images. What you will find is a large collection of memes that compare science with fundamentalist, young-earth, creationist Christianity. None of them take into account that most Christians don't accept the Old Testament or Genesis creation myth as literal fact, nor the fact that religion is not an alternative to science, since it is possible for a scientist to believe in God. The only other religion mentioned is Islam, along with the fallacy that "religion flies you into buildings".
There are enough strawman versions of atheism going around to fill a whole article itself. This is most likely due to the fact that religious apologists who generate these arguments have never been atheists (or possibly exaggerate their 'atheism' if they have been), in contrast to many atheists who were previously believers.
What usually unites straw arguments against atheism is that they're constructed when a specific religion thinks that it's all about them — thus ignoring the main point of atheism, that it's the rejection of all religious belief equally. Further common ones include the assertion that atheists "believe in nothing", which seems to confuse it with the distinct concept of nihilism (even then, "believe in nothing" is a slight strawman of nihilism) or that they lack a moral code or any concept of morality. The latter either stems from or forms the base of the argument from morality, but is easily refuted simply by looking at the behavior of atheists, which is most conveniently done by examining the crime statistics of secular countries.
In the political sphere, the easiest way to construct a straw man is through the generous application of stereotypes. By making the assumption that a politician believes in all the ideologies associated with their general political leaning, they can be dismissed more easily. For instance, assuming a fiscal conservative is also socially conservative or assuming a pro choice politician is also in favour of extreme wealth redistribution are common fallacious straw men that are made by politicians, pundits and voters themselves. For the left, a common strawman is assuming that pro-life advocates must be pro-life on all issues (such as opposing capital punishment), not just abortion, and calling them hypocrites if they are not (although some pro-life advocates do oppose both). This is no more true than the example of pro-choice advocates having to favor choice on all issues, not just abortion. The same is true of conflating ideologies, such as stating that liberalism, socialism and communism are identical political ideologies (a rhetoric notoriously popular in the US).
This is extremely problematic in politics because it is not possible to give an accurate appraisal of political beliefs without knowing what those beliefs are, or by presuming that belief A automatically means subscribing to belief B. This is also used within politics to introduce snarl words into discussions.
It is quite easy to make a straw man argument of woo explanations and things like alternative medicine. The classic example is homeopathy, an alternative medicine treatment where active ingredients are diluted substantially, on the principle that the more dilute it is, the more potent it is. In fact homeopathy often takes this to the point of diluting the substance until no trace of it remains in the remedy. It is, of course, absurd to think that this could work, but it is also a straw man argument because homeopathy includes a succussion procedure involving striking the solution in a special way. Thus, homeopathic remedies aren't "just dilutions" but dilutions that have been whisked about a bit. Woooooooo!
It is contentious whether this is a true straw man position, as the burden of proof lies with homeopaths to establish that the succussion procedure adds anything new to the remedy, such as instilling water memory. Thus, given the balance of evidence, homeopathic remedies are just dilutions. Skepticism, however, requires an honest appraisal of all the facts and ignoring the striking involved in succussion, even if it is just an escape hatch, is still wrong in principle. Remember extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Particularly on the internet, it is easy to create a straw feminist argument by jumping to generally inaccurate conclusions and cherry picking (particularly involving extreme views held by a minority). Such arguments include things like "feminists want women to rule over men" or "feminists are reverse sexists". This almost inevitably involves invoking Andrea Dworkin, in particular, and even at that extreme, often not her genuine positions.