Straw Man


The argument misrepresents a position that it seeks to refute. By refuting the position as misrepresented, the argument creates the impression that it has refuted the position that is actually held by opponents.



The image of the "straw man" is supposed to suggest a figure dressed up to look like the opponent, but that cannot fight back, and falls down easily. One version of the Straw Man fallacy is to impute a "hidden agenda" to an opponent, as if the arguments of the opponent cannot be understood without some consideration of the agenda that motivates it.



"The Theory of Evolution says that complexity in the universe increases over time. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that such an increase in complexity is impossible. Hence the Theory of Evolution is inconsistent with established laws of thermodynamics. [In fact the Theory of Natural Selection only concerns biological organisms, and says nothing about complexity in the universe as a whole.]


"Creationists are pretending to promote a scientific theory, but they are really just trying to introduce their religious teachings into the classroom."


"I voted to save the auto industry. He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference." - Hillary Clinton, referring to Bernie Sanders (2016, at the debate in Flint, Michigan.) [Sanders did vote against the TARP bailout money, originally intended to bail out Wall Street banks. That money was later used to rescue automobile companies, although this was not the original intention of the allocation. Sanders favored the use of the money for that purpose.]



There is nothing wrong with stating an opponent's position. Indeed, in order to refute an argument it is always necessary to clearly (and accurately) state the argument to be refuted. It is characteristic of good reasoning that due consideration to the opposing position is given. Hence, the Straw Man fallacy does not consist in stating an opponent's position, but only in stating it inaccurately.

In order to know whether an argument has been stated accurately, it may be necessary to read or hear the argument for yourself. As with other fallacies of Misrepresentation, the only way to expose the fallacy may be to do some outside checking. However, the Straw Man fallacy is often easy to spot even without extra reading. Since the purpose of the fallacy is to state an opponent's position in a way that will make it easy to refute, there is a temptation to give such a simple-minded and blatantly silly version of the position that it appears false even from the outset. In fact, few people hold simple-minded, silly, and obviously false positions. Whenever you see such a position attributed to an opponent, you may be fairly sure that a Straw Man fallacy has been committed.


Source: The Port-Royal logic (Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, L'Art de Penser, 1662) describes this fallacy without naming it. The earliest references to "straw" appears in Isaac Watts' Logick, or, the Right Use of Reason, 1725, where the phrase "images of straw" is used in connection with this fallacy.


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