Logical Fallacies 101: The Strawman

Logical Fallacies 101 is a regular segment of the Skeptical Samurai blog that deals specifically with logical fallacies (an introduction to logical fallacies can be found here: https://theskepticalsamurai.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/logical-fallacies-101/ ).  It is my hope that Logical Fallacies 101 will help, you the reader, to both cultivate and expand your logic/reasoning skills and as a result become a better critical thinker. 

This segments logical fallacy is: “The Strawman”

There are many theories as to the origin of the name of this logical fallacy, but according to my research there does not appear to be a “confirmed” origin story.  The basic principle of this fallacy is that the guilty individual is setting up a target that will be easy to knock down/will offer no resistance (hence the term Strawman).  The Strawman fallacy is committed when an individual ignores their opponent’s argument and substitutes a distorted/exaggerated/misrepresented version of that argument.  Instead of addressing the argument put forth by their opponent, the individual committing this fallacy will instead speak to the distorted/exaggerated argument that he/she has created. 

Thought of in a more linear fashion:

  1. Person A puts forth position X
  2. Person B puts forth position Y (in place of position X, which is a distorted version of position X).
  3. Person B attacks position Y.
  4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

An example of a Strawman argument is as follows:

  1. Person A: I did not support the policies of former U.S. president George W Bush.  I think that the United States invaded Iraq under false pre-tenses and that the U.S. Armed Forces have no right to be in Iraq.  I think that current U.S. president Barack Obama should withdraw the American Armed Forces as soon as possible. 
  2. Person B: Your lack of support of the “War on Terror” indicates that you are against the United States and support the actions of Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.   

As demonstrated in the above example, the problem with a Strawman argument is that it fails to address the issue/topic being presented.  Instead (knowingly or unknowingly), the individual guilty of committing this fallacy presents a distorted version of the original argument that is typically much easy to address/attack and misrepresents the initial argument being put forth.   

Alright, so now we know what a “Strawman Argument” is…

So what can we do about it!?

There are several ways to combat this logical fallacy. 

The 1st defence against this fallacy is to address the questions raised within the Strawman argument, and address them directly.  The main weakness of this approach is that you are inadvertently providing validation to your opponent’s distorted/false/incorrect claims by addressing them rather refuting them directly.   

The 2nd type of defence is to question the argument put forth by your opponent.  More specifically, ask your opponent to explain how his/her Strawman argument is linked to your initial argument, indicating that you see no link between the 2 lines of thought.  It should be noted, similar to the above example, this technique can backfire…as once again, by addressing rather than refuting your opponents claims you are inadvertently validating them. 

The last (and in my opinion the MOST effective) line of defence is to restate your original argument and draw attention to the fact that (knowingly or unknowingly) your opponent is attempting to distort your original statement.  Put simply, your opponent is attempting to put words into your mouth!  The best defence against this logical fallacy is simply to openly acknowledge this fact and not let your opponent get away with it!

Go forth…

Think critically…

And avoid fallacious arguments…

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2 Responses to “Logical Fallacies 101: The Strawman”

  1. Thanks for this, Ryan. As you say, straw man arguments are always a failure to face (let alone engage and credit) the argument presently at hand. The example you gave reminded me that straw man arguments are often the speaker’s attempt to address a partisan audience, by hitting certain key notes (“war on terror”, etc.). Or more broadly, straw man arguments attempt to address some implied audience who has already made up their minds, and certain key words in the straw man are meant to signal and rally that allegiance. My point is just adding to yours: sometimes we can risk calling out these shortcuts and cheats, and asking interlocutors or indeed challenging ourselves to give the opposing argument its fairest and strongest support. When you do that, you earn a rare authority. And it’s the only way to have honest and strengthening counterarguments.

    I’ll just add that one good thing about academic philosophy, is its vigilance against straw man arguments. Wish I could say the same for public politics.

  2. theskepticalsamurai Says:

    Thanks Jen,

    Well stated!

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