What Is Straw Man Argument? | Definition & Examples
Straw man argument is the distortion of someone else’s argument to make it easier to attack or refute. Instead of addressing the actual argument of the opponent, one may present a somewhat similar but not equal argument.
By placing it in the opponent’s mouth and then attacking that version of the argument, one is essentially refuting an argument that is different from the one under discussion.
The straw man argument can be used to distract from relevant arguments in different contexts, such as in political debates, in the media, as well as in everyday discussions. It is also known as the straw man fallacy.
What is a straw man argument?
A straw man argument is a form of logical fallacy or reasoning error. Fallacies are statements or arguments that might sound reasonable or true but are actually flawed and therefore can be deceptive.
Straw man fallacy occurs when someone distorts their opponent’s argument by oversimplifying or exaggerating it, for example, and then refutes this “new” version of the argument—called a straw man argument.
Essentially, the person using the straw man argument pretends to argue against their opponent’s original position, while in reality they have created a distorted version of that position—one that their opponent doesn’t necessarily support and that is easy to rebuke.
Straw man fallacy is an informal logical fallacy. In other words, the problem lies in the content of the argument, rather than its structure (in which case it would be a formal fallacy). More specifically, it is a fallacy of relevance: these fallacies use evidence, examples, or statements that are irrelevant to the argument at hand.
Why is the straw man argument used?
People often use straw man arguments to discredit a position or theory to which they don’t subscribe. For example, describing evolution theory as “all random chance” is a straw man argument because it dilutes a complex idea and misrepresents it by only focusing on one aspect of it—random mutations.
Sometimes, people resort to a straw man argument to turn their opponent’s argument into an unpopular position that’s easy to rally supporters against because it violates social norms. Claiming for instance that “those who want to legalise drugs are fine with children taking ecstasy and LSD”, is a proposition no one can argue for.
However, it is important to keep in mind that when people commit the straw man argument they don’t necessarily do it on purpose. It might be due to a genuine misunderstanding of the other person’s argument.
What are different types of straw man argument?
Straw man argument can take different forms and may involve:
- Taking an opponent’s words out of context (i.e., choosing words that misrepresent their intention)
- Exaggerating or oversimplifying an opponent’s argument and then attacking this distorted version
- Fabricating claims that the opponent never actually made
- Changing small but important details in the opponent’s original argument
Regardless of their form, straw man fallacies share this general structure:
- Person A states position X.
- Person B describes position Y, a distorted version of position X.
- Person B argues against Y instead of X, claiming that original position X has been refuted.
Straw man argument examples
The “war on Christmas” is an example of a straw man argument used by both sides of the political spectrum.
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Frequently asked questions about the straw man argument
- What is a straw man fallacy?
A straw man argument is a distorted (and weaker) version of another person’s argument that can easily be refuted (e.g., when a teacher proposes that the class spend more time on math exercises, a parent complains that the teacher doesn’t care about reading and writing).
This is a straw man argument because it misrepresents the teacher’s position, which didn’t mention anything about cutting down on reading and writing. The straw man argument is also known as the straw man fallacy.
- How to respond to a straw man argument?
When you are faced with a straw man argument, the best way to respond is to draw attention to the fallacy and ask your discussion partner to show how your original statement and their distorted version are the same. Since these are different, your partner will either have to admit that their argument is invalid or try to justify it by using more flawed reasoning, which you can then attack.
- Why is straw man fallacy a problem?
The straw man argument is a problem because it occurs when we fail to take an opposing point of view seriously. Instead, we intentionally misrepresent our opponent’s ideas and avoid genuinely engaging with them. Due to this, resorting to straw man fallacy lowers the standard of constructive debate.
- What is the difference between a red herring fallacy and a straw man argument?
Although both red herring fallacy and straw man fallacy are logical fallacies or reasoning errors, they denote different attempts to “win” an argument. More specifically:
- A red herring fallacy refers to an attempt to change the subject and divert attention from the original issue. In other words, a seemingly solid but ultimately irrelevant argument is introduced into the discussion, either on purpose or by mistake.
- A straw man argument involves the deliberate distortion of another person’s argument. By oversimplifying or exaggerating it, the other party creates an easy-to-refute argument and then attacks it.
Sources for this article
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