Critical Thinking Toolkit: Straw Man Fallacy

Imagine the following scenario. A man walks up to an 80 year old with walking on his cane in the street, knocks him out with a single punch, then claims to be the best boxer who has ever lived.

Sound silly? It should. This is an embodiment of what is known as the straw man fallacy. To understand the origin of the term straw man, insert a literal man made of straw for the 80 year old in my analogy. If you beat up a block of straw that happens to be shaped like a man, then what have you accomplished? Nothing at all – of course you could beat up a straw man. What would be really impressive is if you could beat up a heavyweight boxer. If you can do that, then I’ll take your claim to be a champion boxer seriously. Until then, even if you’ve never lost a boxing match in your life, I don’t take your claim seriously.

What The Straw Man Fallacy Is

The straw man fallacy is the intellectual version of this silly boxing story. The straw man fallacy happens when you misrepresent what someone else believes – either on purpose or on accident – then refute that falsely constructed belief. It is important to note that this doesn’t have to be on purpose. You could sincerely believe that you’re addressing the right point and still be woefully mistaken. If you are constructing a straw man on purpose – of course that is morally reprehensible. If it is a mistake, you should apologize once you realize what has happened, drop your old argument, and try your best to address the position that the person really believes.

A Possible Confusion About Straw Man Fallacies

As I’ve thought about writing this, I see a possible place where a confusion can happen. It could be thought that “well, any time anyone says I ‘should’ believe something I don’t believe, that is a straw man.” This is incorrect. A straw man would be if someone says that you in fact believe something that you don’t believe. But if someone says something like “Hey, you have told me you believe X and Y, and if you put those together you seem to get Z, so you should believe Z” and they are actually right that you believe X and Y, that isn’t a straw man. This person is using deductive logic to point out the implications of what you believe (unless they are committing some other logical fallacy). That is a completely acceptable form of argument. If they turn out to be right that X and Y lead to Z, but you don’t believe Z, then there was inconsistency in your beliefs you hadn’t noticed before and you should resolve that.

A Possible Source of Unintentional Strawman Arguments

Occasionally, you find manipulative people who are engaging the straw man fallacy on purpose to assert power or gain control over a person or situation. However, I doubt this is true most of the time. I think the source is probably quite different. In thinking about different contexts where the straw man fallacy comes up, I think it probably has to do with people assuming that other people have have the same beliefs or information that we do in some particular area. Very often, this is false. When we assume that someone believes something they don’t believe, but never put that misunderstanding into words so it can be corrected, we are inevitably going to draw incorrect conclusions about other things that people believe. So, I’d encourage people who encounter straw man fallacies to pause and try to direct the conversation to figuring out whether a misunderstanding or false assumption has taken place without anyone realizing it.

Real-Life Strawman Arguments

It is a sad commentary on our society that, I think every single time I’ve listened to public discourse on politics from either political party in the last five or more years for more than a few minutes, I’ve heard a strawman going on. I want to pick apart two of the ones I’ve noticed, as well as one that comes up in conversations about religion, and try to reframe them in a way that is more reasonable and honest that hopefully avoids any strawman fallacies, as well as two

The Legalization of Marijuana

If you are a person in support of legalizing marijuana (or other drugs too, very likely) you’ve probably been accused of believing that there is nothing dangerous whatsoever about marijuana (or that other drug). But so far as I can remember, I’ve never once heard anyone actually maintain that marijuana is never harmful to anyone. I think that is obviously false. People can become addicted. Driving while under the influence is very dangerous. More dangers could be listed. But pretty much everything has certain dangers associated with it. It has always seemed to me like the person who argues for the legalization of a drug is arguing that when you weigh both the benefits and harms of legalizing that drug, they find that the benefits outweigh the problems. So, claiming the person in favor of legalization must think drugs are amazing and never harmful is clearly a strawman. Instead, the person who thinks some particular drug should be illegal should argue that the benefits do not outweigh the costs. This is a much more fruitful conversation.

Notice also that the person who thinks marijuana should be illegal is also often misrepresented in a parallel way. The person who thinks it should be illegal does not necessarily deny the potential benefits of legalization – that is a straw man unless they actually tell you clearly that they see zero benefits. So, this political discourse needs to change and cease making straw men of the other side and acknowledge the real heart of the debate.

Gender Discussions in Politics

There are plenty of conservatives who maintain that there are real differences between men and women – that men and women are not the same. For instance, the person might make the claim that men are generally more inclined to engineering than women are, and so we shouldn’t aim for a total 50-50 split in engineering fields. Such people are often decried as trying to prevent women from going into STEM fields, or as saying women aren’t smart as men, or something like that. If you slow down and listen more closely to such people, you realize this criticism is a straw man. The position of that conservative is that, as a matter of statistical and psychological fact, engineering fields tend to attract more men and women, even when men and women have completely free choice of career. Perhaps the critic thinks this view is false, but it is obviously not a value judgment and it should be acknowledged that the conservative does not believe men are more valuable than women.

There is also a straw man on the other side of that debate. If a liberal makes the claim that we should be aiming towards 50-50 gender rations in all workplaces, the critic might accuse the person of discrimination. Very nearly all the time, this too is a straw man. The liberal very likely believes that the source of the differences is discriminatory in nature, and because of that belief rightly thinks that these differences need to be corrected and thinks that, by removing all discrimination, a 50-50 balance (or 51-49, after all there is some randomness involved) will be achieved. By avoiding straw man fallacies in both directions, hopefully a more productive conversation about this issue can really happen. (I note that similar straw man fallacies often happen in other conversations about discrimination in hiring.)

“Religion is Violent!”

This one is likely to make some people upset. Understandably so. This is what often happens when straw men are erected against people. To remove some of the emotional charge, let me begin with the accusation leveled against my own religion of Christianity.

There are plenty of people who accuse Christianity of being a religion of violence. Usually, the Crusades or the Inquisition are mentioned as proofs of this. But nobody ever thinks that those people are accusing every single Christian of being a violent person. Because they aren’t! To do so would be a straw man fallacy. If you want to show that Christianity is a violent religion, you need to show that the foundational texts of the Christian religion encourage violence as a virtue. That has nothing to do with whether or not some particular Christian engages in violence. By the way, notice that the person who uses the Crusades to try to prove Christianity is violent is committing a fallacy too! Christianity is not defined by the actions of its adherents – it is defined by the teaching of the Bible, rightly interpreted.

When conversations arise about Islam, a similar misimpression emerges between sides that disagree about whether Islam is violent. Believing that the Qur’an encourages violence against non-Muslims is not the same thing as believing that all Muslims are violent. Similarly, if you believe the Qur’an teaches peaceful coexistence with non-believers, this does not mean there are no violent Muslims.

Conclusion

This is, in my experience, the most common and most damaging fallacy that goes on in modern discourse. It is also the fallacy that I think occurs the most universally across different viewpoints. Liberals, conservatives, atheists, Christians, Muslims, and every position I can think of has a great many people who often fall prey to the straw man fallacy. I hope I have not been guilty of this fallacy, but I suppose I probably have at some point or other done so unknowingly. This is why we must be careful to represent everyone, especially those we disagree with, accurately. Let’s do better, everyone. This is something all of us need to do. If we can stop misrepresenting each other, I can only imagine how rapidly the state of our society will improve in every conceivable manner.

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