“That’s a straw man!” We hear this phrase tossed around all the time and it’s gotta be the most common fallacy out there, but what is the Straw Man Fallacy? In order to define this specific fallacy we first need to understand a few key terms like logic, reason, argument, and of course, we need to know what a fallacy is. Here are some rapid fire definitions:
Logic: “the art of using reason well in our inquiries after truth, and the communication of it to others” (Isaac Watts)
“The science of necessary inference.” (Gordon H. Clark)
“The analysis and appraisal of arguments.” (Harry Gensler)
Reason: “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic” (Google)
Argument: “the activity of logic, and any particular argument is a concrete manifestation of the reasoning process.” (D.Q. McInerny)
Fallacy: an error in reasoning, a type of incorrect argument. (Copi & Cohen)
“Counterfeit arguments”. (Vern Poythress).
From these definitions we can see that “reason” and “logic” are pretty much synonymous with each other and we’ll say that an argument is the application of reason/logic to demonstrate or prove a point. A fallacy, then, is bad reasoning or incorrect arguing.
Logicians (yes, that’s a real word (how awesome is that!?)) have distinguished two types of fallacies: formal fallacies and informal fallacies. Formal fallacies have to deal with a mistake in the actual form of an argument. Here’s an example of a formal fallacy:
All dogs are animals.
All cats are animals.
Therefore, all cats are dogs.
All Ds are As
All Cs are As
Therefore all Cs are Ds
This formal fallacy is known as “the fallacy of false conversion” and as you see, there is a problem with the syllogism. The form of the argument is incorrect and thus the conclusion does not follow from the two premises, making it invalid. Just because dogs are animals and cats are animals does not mean that cats are dogs.
The second type of fallacy is the informal fallacy and definitely the more common of the two. Whereas formal fallacies arise from an incorrect pattern in deductive arguments like the one above, informal fallacies arise from a mistake in the language used in the argument.
The most common group of informal fallacies fall under the umbrella called “fallacy of relevance”. According to logicians Copi and Cohan in the book Introduction to Logic, “Fallcies of relevance are the most numerous and the most frequently encountered. In these fallacies, the premises of the argument are simply not relevant to the conclusion. However, because they are made to appear to be relevant, they may deceive.” This group includes the appeal to emotion, the red herring, the attack on the person, the appeal to force, missing the point (irrelevant conclusion), and the subject of this post, the straw man.
The Straw Man Fallacy
According to philosopher, Peter Kreeft, “the straw man fallacy consists in refuting an unfairly weak, stupid or ridiculous version of your opponent’s idea (either his conclusion or his argument) instead of the more reasonable idea he actually holds.” (Socratic Logic, pg. 79). So this fallacy is an issue of integrity. Instead of representing an opponent fairly, accurately, or charitably, the straw man proponent makes a caricature of their opponent in order to tear down their argument more easily. The straw man fallacy falls under the fallacy of relevance category because the straw man version of the argument isn’t the real argument, thus it’s irrelevant to the discussion. It’s fake.
“What’s the big deal though, Park? Why should we represent our opponents fairly? It’s more work and maybe they don’t deserve it!” Well, I guess if you’re not worried about having integrity, then that’s on you. But one of the best reasons to avoid using a straw man fallacy is because it’s a giant waste of time. Think about it, if you’re trying to get to the truth, then building up a fake version of an argument only to tear it down with ease wont help you prepare for the real thing at all. You’ll be left defenseless when it’s go time because you’ve given yourself false assurance by fighting a scarecrow.
Secondly, using straw man arguments can be influential in the short term but eventually you’re going to be exposed and discredited. It’s pretty easy for someone to combat a straw man argument when they’re given the platform to debate or put forth their argument in their own words.
All in all, straw manning your opponent may be really tempting and easy, but in the end this tactic is dishonest and foolish. I’ve always been advised to represent my opponents in such a way that they can stand behind it themselves and once you’ve done that you can go to town in trying to dismantle and destroy them. Just like most things, the harder path is more fruitful. Don’t make straw men.