Logical Fallacy of the Day: The Straw-man

In an effort to become a better writer, I’m trying to think critically about the way I construct my arguments. Ultimately the stronger argument will not always win; sophistry often wins out over logic. Still I want to write and speak with integrity and let the chips fall in terms of wins and losses. I’m trying to catch myself in the act as I write an article, a sermon, or a blog post, and force myself to always play fair. One of the ways I’m doing this is to learn more about logic and how I abuse it constantly.

So in that spirit, here is today’s logical fallacy of the day: The Straw-man Argument

The Straw-man is when you misrepresent another’s argument in order to tear it to shreds. For a great example watchMartin Bashir’s interview with Rob Bell. He straw-mans the crap out of Bell’s argument, taking accusatory tones throughout and completely ignoring everything Bell says in defense of his argument. From this clip I learn that voice inflection is an important part of the straw-man arsenal. Condescending tone can be a straw-man’s best friend. I’ve got to watch myself on that one.

The straw-man fallacy is especially easy to do in verbal argument when people are expected to react to your ideas on the fly. In a sound-byte culture, the straw-man wins most arguments. Straw-man arguments are usually fairly plausible at first blush. That’s why they work so well. Think about it. In a two-minute segment, who has time to force the other side to play fair? If they attack you with a straw-man argument and you respond to the inaccuracies, you’ll never have the time to make your own argument fairly. You would think the fact that nearly everything said publicly is now recorded or filmed and posted online would put more pressure on the straw-man argument. But more video usually means shorter segments. The long form argument built on a straw-man just feels wrong; it feels off; and it hardly ever wins the day.

Playing fair with another person’s position will always earn you credibility when it comes time to make the opposing argument. The straw-man lowers the entire level of debate.

Lately I have caught myself exaggerating another’s position, or leaving out certain facts that might help bolster the other side of the argument. I’ve found that when I misrepresent another person’s position it is usually a case of either: 1) failing to understand their argument fully. 2) Trusting an expert who isn’t giving all the evidence, or 3) I’m emotional about what I’m arguing and use a logical fallacy in order to win.

I’m working on two things when I write: 1) spot the straw-man. I’m watching for this fallacy right now, paying attention to when I hear it, and when I’m tempted to use it. It can be very subtle, especially in my own writing. 2) I’m working hard at constructing the opposition’s best case. If I mean to critique something, then I need to make sure I can make their best argument for them. Only then can I make my best argument in the other direction. I’m sure this is stuff some people learned well in debate or law school, but I had neither of those experiences.

If you see a good logical fallacy, post it here!

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  • Don Harris does a much, much better job in the extensive interview, below… You can see him struggle, many times, trying to really hear what Rob Bell is saying (instead of merely reading his own preconceptions into it). It’s difficult, but the result is well worth the effort. Shame on Martin Bashir…

  • Scott Stone

    My favorite device is asking someone on the fly to “give me an example.” I’m working hard to eliminate this habit but it is difficult because it works so well. If someone can’t immediately produce a concrete example to back up their position you basically own the argument. It is a horrible rhetorical tool. I always feel a bit embarrassed later on for using it because in truth I really look like an ass. In my desire to win the debate I can sometimes be cruel
    I’m finding it better to actually not engage people sometimes when a hot topic is being discussed if I determine that the individuals in the conversation have an extremely weak grasp of the subject. It’s more enjoyable to actually dialogue with those who have a superior hold on subjects. It’s an opportunity to learn.
    Speaking of Bell, what is your take on the latest heat he had been taking on same sex marriages? I’ve wondered for a while what your position is. I vacillate so much I don’t think I’m capable of producing a strong singular position. Lots of gray for me on this one. When my circle of friends bring up the subject and ask for my input I usually offer one statement and then walk away: Everyone needs love!

  • Jason

    Yes, this is good. I do a lot of conflict resolution between students. The classic tool that I use is to make them each say, “So what I hear you saying is…” This does a lot to get rid of the Straw Man. It forces you to hear and articulate the other person’s argument. It can be tedious, but I’ve always found that it makes for productive conflict resolution. I’ve not applied it to logical debates though…probably because I would rather win…even if it means using the straw man myself. This is a good lesson for me. Good post.

  • Tim Suttle

    “In my desire to win the debate I can sometimes be cruel…” I’m guilty of that, too.

    I think it is curious that Bell came out with that statement the week his new book dropped. My position is that I don’t have a position. It’s important for me not to.

    • Scott Stone

      I’ve got to say that this has been gnawing at me a bit. So you have critically thought out your position on marginal tax rates but you have no position on something that will certainly have a dramatic impact on culture for the foreseeable future? Sorry, I’m not buying it. We are talking about a sea change with acceptance of gay marriage. This is one of the most important events is the life of the church in my opinion. What are you going to do when a gay couple wants you, as a pastor, to officiate at a marriage ceremony?

      I’m pushing you a bit on this one because I myself vacillate so much. Always looking for common sense ideas on tough cultural issues.

  • Scott Stone

    Dang! And I was looking for some words of wisdom on this huge cultural issue. As an employer I potentially will have to deal with domestic partnership benefits.

  • BosqueNorse

    Ok here is one: W Bush learning.

  • BosqueNorse

    Well, I listened to the Bashir/Bell interview and yes Martin is everything you say as regards his manner. However, The whole book seems confusing and since I haven’t seen it and do not know anything about Bell, I cannot really comment adequately. I don’t understand what the purpose of the book is to start with. You seem to be accepting of it. It certainly seems to be contradictory and not very traditional in scope. So, what Bashir has said has some merit I believe. I don’t believe Bashir was playing the straw man as much as you think or say he is. He can be rather obnoxious but I almost always agree with him. He is a very good Democrat and he is rather good at pinpointing hypocrites. And I mean Republicans if you can stand the comparison. Yes, it does seem possible that the book is a way to release himself from a rather restrictive evangelical childhood, and to that I say Amen. I just wonder if hasn’t gone overboard to some extent. Bell kept saying that actions matter but he never logically answered Bashir question satisfactorily. Of course God is all loving and all powerful. It is a paradox. I believe Bell may have gotten himself into deep water and is still floating around trying to come to the surface. Most of these people are kooky to begin with. I believe I may have read a review some time back about Bell and the reviewer was praising him or whoever it was for coming around to the progressive side of Christianity as opposed to the more strict and limiting evangelical viewpoint. I may have Bell mixed up. with another writer.

  • Grey Gum

    One of my pet hates in online discussion forums are those people who have nothing further to add to a debate but who constantly accuse their opponents of straw man fallacy. They remind me of that kid who is always crying “Foul” rather than enjoying the sport he should be playing. The irony is that to denigrate a person’s argument solely on the basis of a perceived straw man fallacy is often itself relying on that same fallacy.

    Here is an example from a fictitious online forum in which Poster A resorts to accusing someone who disagrees with him of using Straw man fallacy.

    1) Poster A states a generalized factoid to support a statement but is careful to avoid subjective words like “I believe” or “I think” or “In my opinion”. He wishes to appear like “the objective voice of Reason”, i.e. God-like and above reproach. He supports what is essentially a rather flimsy, vague or generalized statement with “evidence” (quoted in this case from some dubious second-hand online source) to give the impression of credibility and authority.

    2) Poster B responds with an opposing viewpoint which is valid and well considered. Poster A reacts immediately by personally attacking Poster B’s logic and reasoning abilities, i.e. he accuses the poster of using straw man fallacy. He thus avoids the need to express any actual opinion in reply to what has been posted by Poster B.

    3) Poster B responds by pointing out weaknesses in Poster A’s own argument. which is actually of benefit to Poster A because Poster B has now diverted attention away from the real issue. The debate is now about logic.

    4) Poster A tries to distract attention away from any flaws or failings that may exist in his own initial statement by furthering the Straw man angle. He achieves this by posting up links to Straw man fallacy to make himself seem knowledgeable and superior. The intent is to make Poster B seem unenlightened, and unintelligent, and basically unworthy of having any kind of opinion on the issue. By so doing Poster A tries to cover the fact that he himself has just resorted to Straw man fallacy.

    5) If Poster B sees what is going on and points out the hypocrisy in his reply, Poster A reacts by ramping up the personal criticism of Poster B’s intellectual and cognitive abilities. He may even resort to straw manning himself further by making an ironic and hypocritical statement , such as “Why not address a few things that have actually been said instead of pointlessly trying to straw man me without success?”

    Poster A’s hypocrisy and deception has gone full circle yet he may come away from the debate looking like the winner, especially if he gains support from other posters. However this victory is really just an illusion as he has not contributed anything meaningful apart from making an initial generalized statement and then simply belittling his opponent.