straw-man-fallacy

Straw Man Fallacy In A Nutshell

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:

  1. Exaggerates, generalizes, or oversimplifies. 
  2. Takes things out of context. 
  3. Becomes preoccupied with minor or insignificant details.
  4. 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.

In business

  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Key takeaways

  • 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.

Connected Business Concepts

Heuristics

heuristic
As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

bounded-rationality
Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Second-Order Thinking

second-order-thinking
Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

lateral-thinking
Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Moonshot Thinking

moonshot-thinking
Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.

Biases

biases
The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

dunning-kruger-effect
The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

occams-razor
Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

mandela-effect
The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

crowding-out-effect
The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

bandwagon-effect
The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What is marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: Heuristics, Biases.

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