Have you ever listened to an argument and felt that someone’s claims were too good to be true? Did they belittle their opponent so much that their argument seemed like the only option to choose? Arguments like this can be considered logical fallacies and may be less intriguing than you think.
A logical fallacy is an unbiased or illegitimate argument due to faulty logic or irrelevant points. There are many types of logical fallacies, and they are important to know and understand to avoid them in your writing.
How to Identify a Straw Man Argument
Straw man arguments are one of the most common and widely known logical fallacies. Sometimes called straw person or scarecrow arguments, they are characterized by the distortion of inflation of an opposing opinion.
In other words, an argument depicting either party in an extreme version would be considered a strawman. In essence, these arguments make your opinion seem infallible while making your opponent’s opinion seem absurd or even amoral.
Compared to the other logical fallacies, the issue lies within the method of argument instead of the content of the argument. This fallacy takes advantage of the opponent’s views and exaggerates them to create an inaccurate representation.
Other Common Logical Fallacies
There are a lot of other types of logical fallacies that you may hear in your daily life. Although we will only talk about the straw man category, some of the most common include:
- Ad hominem
- Slipper slope
- Hasty generalization
- Gambler’s fallacy
- Bandwagon fallacy
- Red herring
- Appeal to ignorance
- False dilemma
- Circular argument
- Appeal to pity
- To quoque
- Slippery slope fallacy
Evolution of the Straw Man Fallacy
Although fallacies themselves are fairly timeless, they do have an interesting history. For instance, Martin Luther has been tied to one of the earliest cases of logical fallacy usage. In his book from 1520, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he claimed that the church was attributing ideas to him that he had never stated.
He essentially pointed out a very early fallacious argument, highlighting how the church “created” views for him which they publicly attacked.
During the time, his distinction wasn’t understood to be a logical fallacy. Eventually, around the twentieth century, arguments such as the one he noted were finally categorized as strawman fallacies.
Why Do Straw Man Arguments Work?
As you now know, straw man arguments work by distorting someone’s view to invalidate it. The distortion can be warped, extreme, or simply misrepresentative. With this in mind, there are a few main ways in which this fallacy works, such as:
- Highlighting a fringe idea: some straw man arguments take a lesser-agreed-upon view of the opponent to make them look skewed. These fringe arguments are usually less important and thought-out than the main argument, so they are easier to refute.
- Oversimplification: Other arguments oversimplify their opponent’s views. Instead of saying all the important details and nuanced information, only presenting a simple view can make your opponent easier to attack.
- Negating context: Some arguments require a lot of contexts to be understandable. Through this straw man method, the debater will purposefully leave out their opponent’s context to confuse their claims.
- Swaying the view: One last straw man method is to sway the view. In other words, this method works by picking one opposing claim that is easy to argue and describing it in immense detail. By exaggerating one claim and ignoring the others, they essentially set up their opponent for an attack.
Regarding how these arguments work, they often force the opponent to defend or refute needless claims. If the opponent defends an exaggerated claim, they may find themselves contradicting themselves or falling into other fallacies. On the other hand, if they refute the claim, they may look baseless and directionless in the argument. In other words, the strawman effectively can set up ‘traps’ that are unbeatable for any argument.
Some straw man arguments focus less on destroying a target and more on making themselves look better. In these methods, sometimes positive views are exaggerated on one side, and negative views are exaggerated on the other.
Where Could You Find Straw Man Arguments?
Although this fallacy is fairly straightforward, it can be hard to track down in everyday life. This is one reason why they are accidentally used. Aside from common places like blogs, television, and radio, straw man arguments are commonly used in political debates.
Whether it be from a deliberate use of this fallacy or a misinterpretation of opposing views, this fallacy can be used for many reasons.
One great way to find straw man arguments is to ask yourself, “is the argument too extreme or too simple?” If the argument is too extreme, the debater may be exaggerating views. If it is too simple, they may be smoother over less agreeable views on their part.
Essentially, if you see that someone is making simple claims that are rather inflammatory and lack nuance, they may be making straw man claims.
Another type of fallacy associated with the straw man fallacy is the iron-man argument. With this fallacy, the arguer will deliberately simplify and make their argument easier to defend.
In many cases, if an iron-man arguer is brought back to a claim they’ve made earlier, they may use imprecise jargon and avoid definitive language to skate past their earlier ideas.
How to Counter Straw Man Arguments
Although it is extremely difficult, there are a few steps you can take if you find yourself going against an opponent’s argument that has straw man characteristics. First, it is important to make your position clear, concise, and understandable.
State your original stance, and leave no room for someone to make new claims from your statement. Presenting the necessary information and context related to your original position can also prevent them from distorting your views. Don’t let your opponent find a flaw, whether it be true or a distorted stance.
When someone is using a straw man argument against you, it may be tempting to try and straw man them back. Avoid this! Ultimately, trying to combat a straw man with more extreme positions will make both parties look bad. So, take the high road, and use a “real man” argument!
Instead, you should ask your opponent about some of their claims. In many cases, people who pose straw man arguments generally aren’t too sure about their claims. They target you and your values, so asking them about theirs could be enough to fix the issue.
Additionally, you may simply want to point out misrepresentations. Calmly and kindly letting everyone involved know that you feel your views are misrepresented can fully dismantle the fallacy.
In the end, knowing these counters is very important, as you may encounter these arguments more than you think.
Straw Man Examples
To help you conceptualize what types of claims may be considered straw man, let’s look at some good examples. Try to focus on the strawman arguer in the examples and note how they ignore, misrepresent, or exaggerate the argument.
Person A: “I think putting fences around the neighborhood could prevent kids from wandering away.”
Person B attacks: “so you believe that our neighborhood is not safe?”
Person A: “Banning plastic straws has been shown to help turtles across the globe.”
Person B attacks: “Next, you will want to ban all plastic for everyone!”
Person A: “as a biology teacher, I think teaching safe sex is important.”
Person B attacks: “If I understand correctly, you think that teaching something like intercourse abstinence is recommended?”
In the end, logical fallacies can be tricky things. Not only are they easy to fall into, but they are also hard to get out of, especially if one is being used against you. One common fallacy is the straw man fallacy when someone exaggerates an argument to easily dismantle it.
Fallacies such as this have a long history, with notable figures such as Martin Luther and the Catholic church involved.
Although they aren’t good arguments, they are temporarily effective due to their oversimplification, misrepresentation, and exaggeration of other claims. With this, they can be found in various public media such as radio and television. However, straw man claims are most commonly made in political debates.
In the end, if you find yourself going against a strawman argument, you can do a few things. First of all, restating your claims is a good idea. Also, doing other things, such as asking your opponent about their claims, could help the situation. Regardless, you need to understand what this fallacy is and how you can combat it, as it could help you in a debate one day!
Further reading: “On the Use and Function of “Dog Whistle” in Politics” (Alan Perlman, PhD)