This lesson covers a fallacy in logic that attempts to establish an argument that is easier to defeat because it is based on a weaker or distorted version of the original argument. A short quiz will follow to check your understanding.
Diverting Our Attention
Imagine when you were younger, and you really wanted to go somewhere with your friends and you were told that you couldn’t go. Instead of seeing the logic behind the decision, you might have gotten angry and thought you had the worst parents ever, and all they cared about was ruining your life! Ugh! Unfortunately, in situations like this, we may tend to shift blame away from the actual issue to something else. And not only that, but we tend to exaggerate the motives behind the issue far past their logical end.Arguments that attempt to divert our attention from the real issue being put forth are called red herring arguments. In this lesson, we will discuss one particular subset of a red herring argument known as the straw man fallacy.
Straw Man Fallacy Defined
A straw man fallacy occurs when a person ignores another person’s position on an issue and instead exaggerates, misrepresents, or creates a distorted version of that position.
We tend to do this because by exaggerating someone else’s position, it makes the other person’s position easier to attack. The origin of the title of this particular fallacy is not completely known. However, one theory is that it comes from a technique used to physically train real fighters using straw dummies. It is much easier to practice fighting techniques against an opponent made of straw rather than one made of flesh and bone. Similarly, it’s easier to mentally fight an opponent if you construct a version of your opponent that is more easily defeated by extending your opponent’s arguments beyond their original point until their stance appears ridiculous.The logical form of a straw man argument is as follows:Person A makes claim XPerson B takes claim X but distorts or exaggerates it into claim YPerson B is now easily able to defeat claim YTherefore, claim X must be falseLet’s take a look at some examples to better understand this concept using our example from the beginning of the lesson.
Child: Can I go to the movies with my friends?Parent: Not tonight, you haven’t finished your chores.Child: Ugh! You’ll never let me do anything fun with my friends.Parent: I never said you could never go anywhere with your friends.In this example, the child is diverting attention away from the fact that he or she can’t go to the movies because they did not do their chores. Instead, they are setting up a straw man argument to conclude that the parents will never let them go to the movies or do fun things with friends. This position has also put the parent on the defensive to defend a position that is different than the one that was originally put forth.Another example is a common one that typically occurs during discussions of evolution:The theory of evolution is ridiculous! If man evolved from monkeys, then how come monkeys still exist? After all, doesn’t macro-evolution state that a monkey can’t just evolve into a human?This is another example of a straw man fallacy because it misrepresents the concept of evolution, specifically macro-evolution.
Evolution doesn’t posit that things just turn into another, but what it really says is that a species can split off from another because of evolutionary changes.
Straw Man in Argumentation
We mentioned earlier that a person may use a straw man argument because it’s easier to ultimately attack, but what makes something easier to attack? The most common straw man argument is to take an opponent’s position and twist it to the extreme. In other words, you might see a straw man set up that uses words like ‘all,’ ‘always,’ ‘no,’ or ‘never.’ This is because these types of words are the easiest to refute, since all it takes is one example to the contrary.
For example:Person 1: I don’t believe in a biblical God.Person 2: So what you’re saying is you’re an atheist who doesn’t believe in God?Person 1: Well, that’s not exactly what I said.Person 2: Oh, so then you do believe in God?You see, person 2 has taken person 1’s argument to the extreme.
This forces person 1 to attack a straw man argument that then makes person 2 feel like they won the argument.
In this lesson, we have discussed a version of a red herring fallacy called the straw man fallacy in which a person diverts attention away from an issue and instead establishes a weaker version of the argument to attack. Most straw man arguments also attack at the extremes in an attempt to poke holes in an argument.