7
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What is a "straw man" argument?

Assuming an interlocutor is utilizing such an argument against you, what are some techniques for countering it?

What motivations might lie behind a disputant using a straw man argument rather than engage in a more straightforward debate?

  • Vote to close, general reference. – Joseph Weissman Jun 14 '11 at 22:32
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    This site does not yet have a general reference close reason. See Closed as General Reference. For the time being, I will have to close it as "not a real question". – Robert Cartaino Jun 14 '11 at 22:38
  • Hmmm... but this was one of the original on-topic questions from Area51? – George Edison Jun 15 '11 at 21:53
  • @George, yes it was -- another highly-upvoted question from there was "who are the most influential living philosophers?" which we have also decided to close as off-topic. We're trying to draw a bright line, but perhaps we are being too harsh -- let's discuss this on meta if we could. – Joseph Weissman Jun 15 '11 at 21:59
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    Sure... or even in the chat (I'm there now). – George Edison Jun 15 '11 at 22:01
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It's often easier to argue on what someone doesn't believe than what they do believe. The straw man argument is characterized by a misrepresentation of an opponent's viewpoint to make for easier and more eloquent criticism of that opinion. In the following example from the movie “Thank You for Smoking,” notice how Nick characterizes Joey's position as "anti-choice" which is absurd and meaningless in the context of their original debate:

Joey: So, what happens when you're wrong?

Nick: Well, Joey, I'm never wrong.

Joey: But you can't always be right.

Nick: Well, if it's your job to be right, then you're never wrong.

Joey: But what if you are wrong?

Nick: Okay, let's say that you're defending chocolate and I'm defending vanilla. Now, if I were to say to you, "Vanilla's the best flavor ice cream", you'd say...?

Joey: "No, chocolate is."

Nick: Exactly. But you can't win that argument. So, I'll ask you: So you think chocolate is the end-all and be-all of ice cream, do you?

Joey: It's the best ice cream; I wouldn't order any other.

Nick: Oh. So it's all chocolate for you, is it?

Joey: Yes, chocolate is all I need.

Nick: Well, I need more than chocolate. And for that matter, I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom and choice when it comes to our ice cream, and that, Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty.

Joey: But that's not what we're talking about.

Nick: Ah, but that's what I'm talking about.

Joey: But ... you didn't prove that vanilla's the best.

Nick: I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong, I'm right.

In the political arena, those who are anti-abortion characterize their position as “pro-life.” In this way, opponents of abortion are setting up a straw man argument implying that their opponents are not in favor of human life.” In reality, the question behind the abortion debate is not whether or not human life is valuable, but when human life begins and what social values are jeopardized in undermining a woman's right to decide these matters.

An effective way of debating and defusing “straw man” rhetoric, is by graciously and wholeheartedly agreeing with the opponent as much as possible. In a public forum debate about chocolate ice cream, Joey should follow up Nick's argument with an eloquent and gracious support for the value of freedom (ie: “I would like to thank Nick for the important values he articulated so eloquently; it's heartening to see that what we agree upon is far more important than the differences that divide us....”). Similarly, in the abortion debate, those in favor of a woman’s right to choose should graciously applaud the tireless humanitarian efforts and idealistic values of the “pro-life” movement.

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    For the sake of balance with respect to such a volatile topic, I think it's worth pointing out that your point about "pro-life" supporters (who often label their counterparts as "anti-life") can also be applied to "pro-choice" supporters (who often label their counterparts as "anti-choice"). Given the previous Joey and Nick discussion perhaps you thought that went without saying, but I'm just hoping to avoid having your excellent example brought down by those wanting to score political points. – Ben Hocking Jun 13 '11 at 13:10
  • @Ben Hocking, thank you for your comment. I agree wholeheartedly. – Ami Jun 13 '11 at 16:41
  • I now understand what a straw-man argument is. Thank you for your well thought-out explanation. I wish that this question wasn't closed. – M. Tibbits Jun 15 '11 at 21:37
3
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A straw man is a scarecrow. On the false assumption that there is glory to be had in knocking down an adult human being, there is still none at all to be had in knocking down a scarecrow for a scarecrow has no means of fighting back.

The straw man fallacy involves ascribing a position to your opponent distinct from and weaker than their actual position, demonstrating that the weak position you have ascribed is unsustainable, and then proceeding as though you had refuted your opponent's actual position. Having focused upon a position weaker than that that your opponent genuinely was advancing, you have attacked a view that has fewer resources to resist your attack than does the actual view on offer.

The appropriate response to a straw man fallacy is to point out that the position being attacked is distinct from the position that is purportedly being attacked.

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    That is a good answer, but I don't agree that indicating the fallacy is always the most appropriate response. Ami suggests taking an agreeable stance. I guess it depends on the situation. – Dan Brumleve Jun 13 '11 at 2:16
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    @Dan Thanks. The question asked for ways to "counter" such an argumentative move. While the approach of being agreeable might well be best in some circumstances and for some purposes, it does seem to me that the best way to counter a fallacious move is to draw attention to its fallaciousness. – vanden Jun 13 '11 at 3:33

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