Logical Fallacy #19: Straw Man

This fallacy is more of an informal fallacy rather than a logical fallacy per se. It travels under several different names beyond the Straw Man – Man [Men] of Straw, Aunt Sally and the Scare Crow tactic. The basic idea is to replace the argument you cannot defeat with a distorted but similar one that you can, then defeat that and imply that the original argument is similarly defeated. To combat this, bring the discussion back to the original undistorted point made in context.

The fallacy uses this format:

Person A makes point P

Person B does not address point P, but substitutes it with substitute S

Person B defeats substitute S, thus arguing or implying that point P is similarly flawed.

Several forms of this fallacy exist. Each have to do with the manner of substitute S above.

Misrepresenting the Opponents Position

This is a straight substitution of the point P with a similar but flawed substitute S. If the substitute does not fit into the below categories, it is this version.

Alex asserts “When acupuncture has been tested in the laboratory, it has been demonstrated to have no greater healing benefit compared to random needle stabbing.”

Bruce counters “Scientists undervalue the ability of Easter Medicine because it doesn’t fit within the Western scientific understanding.”

Alex, has made a statement, which Bruce, has not responded to, but has made an alternate version of Alex’s statement which Bruce feels more comfortable addressing. The implication is that Bruce has addressed Alex’s point, but actually has not.

Misquoting or Quoting Out of Context

This version uses the substitute based on the original argument from Person A, but takes it out of context, or subverts its meaning, creating an easier target (Straw Target) that supports the argument of Person B.

Amanda states “The idea that Christian Bible is a historical record, consider that it states there was a massive world wide flood, yet geological records and palaeontological records do not find any evidence for a world wide flood.”

Bettina responds “The bible accurately describes the kings and Roman emperor at the time of Christ, clearly demonstrating that it is an accurate historical document.”

Here Amanda has asserted an inaccuracy in the Christian Bible verses geological and palaeontological evidence, clearly invalidating the claim that the entire Bible cannot be seen as an accurate historical record. Bettina has taken part of this assertion – historical accuracy, substituted her own version and proven that to her own satisfaction, which does not actually address the original point – the world wide flood has no evidence at all, thus the  entire Christian Bible is not reliable as a historical record. Bettina has only demonstrated that some parts of the Christian Bible align with history, and thus implies that the rest of the text does too.

The Poor Defender

In this version of the Straw Man, Person B uses an external person who failed to prove a point as the defender of Person A’s argument. Since this external person, the Straw Man, was unable to prove the idea, Person B will assert the idea if flawed and thus the idea should be ignored. It is considered a Straw Man argument because Person B is not arguing the merits of point A, but is attacking a weakened person in substitute S instead.

Adam asserts “Information cannot be created or destroyed in this universe, it can only be transformed, thus black holes cannot consume matter and sequester it forever.”

Bianca responds with “Stephen Hawking stated that matter could not escape the event horizon of a black hole, and then later said that black holes don’t really exist. If he can’t work it out, then clearly the idea is faulty”.

Here Bianca is responding to Adams statement by appealing to Authority (Stephen Hawking), who changed his mind on the specific effect of a black hole on matter. By attacking Hawking, Bianca has not actually addressed the assertion from Adam.

Interestingly, Stephen Hawking didn’t say that black holes don’t exist, he said that the information (matter) going into a black hole is not deleted or sequestered as he originally proposed, but rather was scrambled and ejected in an alternate format from its original state. This was then misquoted by mass media to suggest that Hawking didn’t think that black holes existed. So her attack on the Straw Man (Hawking), in this case demonstrates her ignorance rather than being a successful attack. Even if she was right, she still didn’t address the original assertion from Adam.

Misrepresenting the Person (Ad Hominem)

By misrepresenting Person A as part of a group, Person B is able to attack the group identity, thus attempting to discredit Person A without actually attacking their point. This is a variant of the Ad Hominem logical fallacy – an attack against the person instead of the point.

Adan asserts “A persons gender has nothing to do with their chromosomes or sexuality, it has to do with a sense of identity and representation.”

Barbara responds with “Here you are, a middle class, middle aged, white male talking about gender and sexuality. Your entire group have no idea what it is like to be a minority.”

In this example, Barbara has defined Adan as part of a group and then attacked the group. Adan may be male, may be white, may be middle classed and even middle aged, or Adan may actually be a cross gendered person who was originally female, or come from a middle Eastern European Background, may have minority group involvement and so on. It really doesn’t matter. The point is that Barbara didn’t respond to Adan’s point, she instead attacked the group that she purported that Adan was a member of in order to dismiss what Adan said.

Over Simplification to the Point of Fallacy (Reductio ad absurdum)

Some concepts have a huge amount of complexity in them. A reduced version may be used to make a point, however a reduced version can be abused to make an erroneous point too. The Straw Man version of this is to ignore the point made by Person A and substitute it with a distorted reduced version of the concept and attack that instead, implying a fault in the original point.

Abigail states “Evolution is a continual process of variation, some successful, some not. If the variation has a net gain in adaptation, it will be the winning formula that will fill the niche, those variations that fail to give net gain will decrease in population and thus be replaced by those with more successful variations.”

Barney counters with “Evolution promotes the survival of the fittest, so if white people are fitter to survive than black people, then it isn’t genocide, it is evolution.”

On the surface, Barney’s point mimics that of Abigail’s yet has a horrid conclusion. Closer examination shows that Barney has reduced Abigail’s reduced but useful concept of evolution, allowing Barney to make the concept seem implausible, yet hasn’t actually addressed the point that Abigail makes, regarding variation within the species and the mechanism of adaptation.

Popular Use and Discussion

Straw Man arguments are very popular amongst politicians who are dodging insightful questions and arguments. Most journalists try to negate this by asking again the original question and trying to pin the politician down to answering that point. Of course the politician is aware that the journalist has a time limit and can’t continue forever so must inevitably concede the issue and move on. Similarly if you find yourself victim to this, bring the discussion back to the main point and resist moving on until you have either asserted the person can’t address it, thus is may have legitimacy, or the person does address it.

Conclusion

Take a look at the argument being made by Person B and compare the argument to the original point – is Person B actually addressing Person A’s point at all, or something similar but different? If a Straw Man fallacy, bring the discussion back to Person A’s point.