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!