The hapless, unfortunate straw man; poor guy. Why does he have to be used by people all over the world in their shoddy reasoning and illogical arguments? The origin of the straw man fallacy seems to have been lost to history even though, by the standards of other fallacious arguments, it is a new kid on the block; the first references to it in the text books only go back as far as the 1950s. There is a story about the origins of the straw man metaphor but it doesn’t really have any proof to back it up. It is said that it derives from the men that used to stand around outside courthouses with straw in their shoes as a signal that they could be bought to offer false testimony.
But what is a straw man? This particularly fallacy is where a person puts forward an argument, an opponent then attacks a position that is superficially similar to the original one but is, in fact, not what the first person said. The argument put forward by the opponent is known as a straw man. Put another way:
Person A argues position x
Person B argues against position y as if this refutes position x
As a real world example I’ll use the comments from my now infamous Deepak Chopra bullshit post. The commenter and I were discussing the emerging field of epigenetics, a fascinating area of genetics that I have a particular interest in. It is the study of how environmental factors affect how genes are expressed, how they’re turned off and on, and how these alterations can be passed on to future generations. Being a relatively new and often controversial topic I don’t think there is a large enough body of evidence yet to say with confidence what effects an action might have on someone’s descendants; I want more data.
This is the position I put forward in our discussion, but the response went something like, ‘I can’t believe you’re a geneticist and you don’t accept that epigenetics is real.’ They put up the straw man that I dismiss the entire field, which isn’t the case, and then attacked that position to try to undermine my original one.
There are a couple of ways that the straw man normally manifests. Either it will be an oversimplification of the original position, as with my interrogator above, or it will be a very extreme version of the original position. For example, you might argue that you can’t see the sense in spending £100 billion on a new generation of nuclear weapons we’ll never use and your opponent might accuse you of leaving the nation completely defenceless.
Sometimes the straw man might be so far removed from the original position as to become a non sequitur; but I’ll save that for a future post. The next time, then, that you’re arguing with someone and you find yourself retorting that that’s not what you said it’s probably because your opponent used a straw man. Don’t let them do it, and don’t do it yourself.