The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.
Understanding the straw man fallacy
When Person A makes a claim during an argument, Person B creates a distorted version of that claim, otherwise known as the straw man. Then, Person B attacks the distorted version to refute the original and now unrelated assertion of Person A. Effectively, Person B creates a straw man and passes it off as Person A’s idea – thereby making it easier to attack.
In many instances, the degree of distortion is such that it has little relevance to the original assertion or indeed reality. Distortion occurs when Person B:
- Exaggerates, generalizes, or oversimplifies.
- Takes things out of context.
- Becomes preoccupied with minor or insignificant details.
- Argues against fringe or extreme opinions.
Examples of the straw man fallacy
Straw man arguments are frequently used in discussions about myriad topics. Here are some examples:
- Teacher’s argument – some students struggled greatly with the last assignment. I think we should allocate extra marks to those who completed it.
- Professor’s (straw man) argument – giving students extra marks toward a perfect score for no reason will result in them working less hard in the future. It’s a foolish suggestion.
The professor has misrepresented the teacher’s stance in three ways.
First, the professor is referencing all students when the original argument referenced some students. The professor then asserts that each student will get a perfect score while the teacher mentions that only a few will receive extra marks. Lastly, the teacher argues that marks would be awarded for no reason when the teacher wanted to award marks for higher effort.
- Budget manager’s argument – I believe that more funds should be allocated to customer support. We are struggling in this area and need to lift our game.
- Department manager’s (straw man) argument – spending all our money on customer support means we will go bankrupt within 6 months.
Here, the department manager exaggerates the budget manager’s request for more funds by suggesting that all funds be allocated. This is a distorted argument against a fringe or extreme opinion that the budget manager does not hold.
Avoiding the straw man fallacy
Arguing effectively is a skill that must be learned. To minimize vulnerability to the straw man fallacy, Person A must use clear and concise language that leaves little room for interpretation.
Having said that, there is nothing stopping someone from distorting an argument if that is their primary goal.
If this happens, use these strategies:
- Call out the opponent by explaining why their argument is fallacious. Logic is the best defense against a fallacy. Ask the opponent to clarify how their distortion aligns with the original stance.
- Ignore them. Continuing to stand behind the original stance can be effective in keeping the conversation topical. But if the other person continues to use fallacious reasoning then walking away must be considered.
- Engage with the straw man argument but continue to state why it is unrelated or irrelevant to the original stance. This is most effective when paired with stats or other supporting information.
- The straw man fallacy substitutes the argument of an individual with a distorted, misrepresented, or exaggerated version of that argument.
- The straw man fallacy results in distorted arguments that have little basis in reality or fact.
- Individuals can guard themselves against the straw man fallacy by calling out the opponent’s reasoning or simply ignoring them. However, little can be done to guard against someone who intentionally uses fallacious reasoning.
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