Astraw man argumentis a rhetoric technique someone distorts their opponent’s argument, in order to make it easier to attack. By doing this, the person using the strawman pretends to refute their opponent’s argument, while in reality they refute a different argument, that does not accurately portray their opponent’s original stance.
For example, if person A were to say “we should improve the public healthcare system”, person B might reply with “I find the fact that you want to give a lot of money to large pharmaceutical corporations very suspicious”.
Because strawman arguments are so prevalent, it’s important to thoroughly understand them. In the following article, you will learn more about how strawman arguments work, and about how you can counter them, or use them yourself.
What is a strawman argument
The use of strawman arguments is relatively simple, and consists of the following three stages:
- First, person A states their position.
- Then, person B presents a distorted version of person A’s original position, while pretending that there’s no difference between the two versions.
- Finally, person B attacks the distorted version of person A’s position, and acts as if this invalidates person A’s original argument.
Essentially, instead of arguing against the original stance, person B creates a strawman, which is easier for them to attack.
This means that there is a logical flaw with the premise of person B’s argument, and namely the fact that they are arguing against a distorted version of the original argument. As such, the strawman fallacy is considered to be a type of an informal logical fallacy, and specifically a type of a relevance fallacy, since the person using it is attacking a stance that is not directly relevant to the discussion at hand.
Example of a strawman argument
The following is a typical example of a strawman argument in political discourse:
Senator A: I think we should make medical marijuana more readily available for patients who need it.
Senator B: That’s a terrible idea. If we let everyone just do drugs whenever they want, crimes rates will increase drastically.
In this example, Senator B uses a strawman argument, by misrepresenting Senator A’s stance on two key points:
- Senator B argues against everyone having access to marijuana, while Senator A argued in favor of patients having access to it.
- Senator B argues against drugs in general, while Senator discussed only medical marijuana.
In doing this, Senator B makes it much easier for himself to attack his opponent.
Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter whether Senator B’s overall claim is true or not (i.e. that if everyone had free access to drugs, then crime rates will increase drastically). It’s entirely possible for an argument to be logically fallacious, and still have a correct conclusion. However, even if that was the case, it doesn’t change that Senator B’s argument is a gross misrepresentation of Senator A’s stance.
How to recognize strawman arguments
Strawman arguments are common in debates on various topics, and can appear in a wide range of forms, such as:
- Oversimplifying, generalizing or exaggerating the opponent’s argument, and then attacking the new, weaker version.
- Focusing on one specific part of the opponent’s argument while ignoring everything else that they say (a technique known as cherry picking).
- Quoting parts of the original argument out of context in order to misrepresent them.
- Arguing against fringe or extreme opinions which are sometimes used to support the opponent’s stance, but which the opponent didn’t use themself.
- Similarly, if the opponent is part of a group, then it is possible to focus on the weakest supporters and refute their stance, while pretending that this is what the entire group believes.
In addition to these common ways of using strawman arguments, there are various other methods of distorting people’s arguments, ranging from minor distortions to outright fabrications. However, all of these techniques have the same thing in common: they involve someone distorting their opponent’s stance, in order to make it easier for them to attack.
As such, strawman arguments are relatively simple to recognize in discourse. Essentially, when you realize that there is a mismatch between someone’s stance and the stance that their opponent is attacking, it’s a clear sign that a strawman argument is being used.
How to counter strawman arguments
A good way to minimize your vulnerability to the strawman fallacy in the first place is to use clear and definite language, with as little room for misinterpretations as possible. This makes it more difficult for your opponent to distort your stance, and makes it easier for you to correct them if they attempt to do so.
However, while this reduces the risk of someone using a strawman argument against you, nothing can prevent someone from using this type of argument if they want to. Therefore, it’s important to know how to counter strawman arguments, which you can do using one of the following three methods:
- Point out the straw man- call your opponent out on their use of a strawman, by explaining why their argument is fallacious, and how it distorts the original stance. You can put them on the defensive by asking them to justify why their argument is the same as the original one; since the two arguments are different, they will either be forced to admit to their original use of the strawman, or they will try to justify it by using even more fallacious reasoning.
- Ignore the strawman- you can choose to ignore the distorted argument that your opponent presents, by ignoring statements that aren’t relevant to your original point. This can be effective in some cases, but if they continue to focus on the strawman, you may have to use a different method.
- Go with it- in some cases, it might be necessary or preferable for you to accept the strawman when you’re defending your stance. Keep in mind, however, that the longer you go down this route, the more difficult it will be to go back and point out your opponent’s fallacious reasoning.
Overall, since a strawman argument is fallacious because it distorts the stance that it argues against, the logically correct way to counter it is to point out this distortion. This is also the most effective choice in most scenarios, though the other two options (ignoring the strawman or going with it) can also be helpful in some situations.
Accounting for crowds and perception
Often, strawman arguments are used in debates that are viewed by a large crowd of people. This is important to take into consideration when countering a strawman, because it can affect the way you choose to react to the strawman.
Essentially, when arguing in front of a crowd, your focus is often on persuading the crowd, rather than persuading your opponent; this is why people often use the logically fallacious strawman arguments in the first place. As such, when it comes time to choose which of the technique to use in order to counter the strawman, go with the one that will appeal to the most people in the crowd.
Accounting for the unintentional use of strawman arguments
Keep in mind the fact that the use of a strawman argument can sometimes be unintentional. This is because, in some cases, people distort their opponent’s stance because they misunderstand it, and not because they want to make it easier to attack.
This is important to remember when it’s time to interpret your opponent’s arguments, and when you need to counter any strawman arguments that they make. Specifically, this fact highlights why it’s so important to try to get your opponent to justify their arguments, rather than just attack them for their fallacious reasoning.
Doing this is beneficial not only because it promotes more friendly discourse, but because it also increases the likelihood that the other person will see the issue with their reasoning, and accept their mistake. If you simply attack a person for their opinion, they will often tend to stick by their original statement, even if they realize that they were wrong all along.
Using strawman arguments yourself
First of all, remember that you might be using strawman arguments unintentionally. If you identify cases where this happens, and specifically instances where you distort your opponent’s view in order to make it easier for you to attack, try to highlight this distortion in your mind, and correct it before approaching their argument again.
Sometimes, you might choose to use a strawman argument yourself, for whatever reason. However, while the use of the straw man technique is widespread, and while this technique can be persuasive in some cases, research suggests that using this type of argument is not always a beneficial strategy, aside from the obvious issues with using fallacious reasoning.
Specifically, a study on the topic showed that as a rhetorical technique, strawman arguments are useful only when the listeners have a low level of motivation to scrutinize the argument, meaning that they don’t care much about what’s being said. Conversely, when listeners are invested in the argument, the strawman technique is generally ineffective, and may even backfire by reducing the persuasiveness of the argument.
Variants of strawman arguments
A hollow-man argument is a variant of the strawman, which involves inventing a weak fictitious position, and attributing it to a vaguely defined person or group who is supposed to represent the opposition, before knocking it down in an attempt to discredit your opponent.
A hollow-man argument can often be identified through the use of phrases such as “some say that…”, which are not attributed to a specific person or group. This is because such phrases make the statement vague enough to be nearly impossible to refute, while absolving the speaker of any responsibility with regards to the truthfulness of their claims.
An iron man argument is a variant of the strawman, which involves distorting your own stance in order to make it easier to defend. Essentially, it is used in the same way you would use a straw man (i.e. by misrepresenting an original stance), but this time it’s in order to strengthen your own stance, rather than weak your opponent’s stance.
One of the most prominent ways to do this is by using vague statements that are easy to agree with, even if they don’t have much to do with your actual point. For example, let’s consider Senator B, who’s arguing against legalizing medical marijuana for patients.
Instead of talking about the issue at hand directly, Senator B can say the following:
I just want what everybody wants: to do the right thing, and make life better for the American people. Following our moral compass takes courage in hard times, but only if we remain steadfast in our beliefs will we be able to prosper and grow strong together.
Senator B didn’t actually say anything that is directly related to the topic at hand. He didn’t discuss facts, and didn’t argue directly against anything his opponent said. Instead, he made abstract statements that almost anyone would agree with, and adopted this vague agenda as his stance. This means that now, instead of arguing against a specific topic like the legalization of medical marijuana, he’s arguing in favor of “doing the right thing” and “following our moral compass”, which is much easier for him to defend.
A steel-man argument is a variant of the strawman, which involves distorting your opponent’s argument in order to make it easier for them to defend, and more difficult for you to attack. Essentially, this means that you take your opponent’s original argument, and frame it in the best light possible before attacking it.
This is the suggested course of action under the principle of charity, which suggests that you should argue against the best possible interpretation of your opponent’s argument. In its ultimate version, doing this involves the following four steps, which were suggested by the famous philosopher, Daniel Dennett based on the work of the psychologist Anatol Rapoport:
How to compose a successful critical commentary:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
– From “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking“
Doing this has the similar benefits as giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt when it comes to whether or not their use of a strawman was intentional. As we saw above, doing this can lead to more productive discussions, by making your opponent more receptive to criticism, and more likely to change their opinion.
Note:some scholars use the term ‘iron-man argument’ to refer to any argument which distorts the original position in order to improve it. However, the distinction between iron-man and steel-man arguments is important to make, since the goal of the two types of arguments are distinctly different. Specifically, while iron-man arguments are used in order to make easier for you to defend our own stance, steel-man arguments make it more difficult for you to attack your opponent’s stance, meaning that the two types of arguments are used for very different reasons.
Summary and conclusions
- A straw man argument is a rhetoric technique where someone distorts their opponent argument, in order to make it easier to attack.
- There are various ways in which one can distort their opponent’s argument. Some of the more common ones include using generalizations, oversimplifications, and exaggerations, focusing only on specific details in the original argument, quoting things out of context, and arguing against extreme opinions which are sometimes used to support the opponent’s stance, but which the opponent didn’t actually use.
- Once you begin to recognize this technique, you can try to counter it. The main way to do this is by pointing out the straw man and asking your opponent to justify why your original stance and their distorted stance are the same. However, you can also choose to ignore your opponent’s attempt at using a straw man, or to simply accept it and continue the discussion.
- When countering a straw man, keep in mind the possibility that the person using it is doing so unintentionally, simply because they misunderstand their opponent’s position. Taking this into account and asking your opponent to explain why they believe the stance that they presented accurately represents the original stance, can help you counter the strawman successfully, and makes it more likely that the other person will accept their mistake.
- A common variant of the strawman argument is the hollow-man argument, which involves inventing a fictitious position, and attributing it to a vaguely defined person who is meant to represent the opposition. Two other notable variants are iron-man arguments, which involve distorting your own stance in order to make it easier to defend, and steel-man arguments, which involve distorting your opponent’s stance in order to make it harder to attack.
This resource covers using logic within writing—logical vocabulary, logical fallacies, and other types of logos-based reasoning.
Contributors: Ryan Weber, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-01-10 09:57:31
Fallacies are common errors in reasoning that will undermine the logic of your argument. Fallacies can be either illegitimate arguments or irrelevant points, and are often identified because they lack evidence that supports their claim. Avoid these common fallacies in your own arguments and watch for them in the arguments of others.
Slippery Slope: This is a conclusion based on the premise that if A happens, then eventually through a series of small steps, through B, C,..., X, Y, Z will happen, too, basically equating A and Z. So, if we don't want Z to occur, A must not be allowed to occur either. Example:
If we ban Hummers because they are bad for the environment eventually the government will ban all cars, so we should not ban Hummers.
In this example, the author is equating banning Hummers with banning all cars, which is not the same thing.
Hasty Generalization: This is a conclusion based on insufficient or biased evidence. In other words, you are rushing to a conclusion before you have all the relevant facts. Example:
Even though it's only the first day, I can tell this is going to be a boring course.
In this example, the author is basing his evaluation of the entire course on only the first day, which is notoriously boring and full of housekeeping tasks for most courses. To make a fair and reasonable evaluation the author must attend not one but several classes, and possibly even examine the textbook, talk to the professor, or talk to others who have previously finished the course in order to have sufficient evidence to base a conclusion on.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc: This is a conclusion that assumes that if 'A' occurred after 'B' then 'B' must have caused 'A.' Example:
I drank bottled water and now I am sick, so the water must have made me sick.
In this example, the author assumes that if one event chronologically follows another the first event must have caused the second. But the illness could have been caused by the burrito the night before, a flu bug that had been working on the body for days, or a chemical spill across campus. There is no reason, without more evidence, to assume the water caused the person to be sick.
Genetic Fallacy: This conclusion is based on an argument that the origins of a person, idea, institute, or theory determine its character, nature, or worth. Example:
The Volkswagen Beetle is an evil car because it was originally designed by Hitler's army.
In this example the author is equating the character of a car with the character of the people who built the car. However, the two are not inherently related.
Begging the Claim: The conclusion that the writer should prove is validated within the claim. Example:
Filthy and polluting coal should be banned.
Arguing that coal pollutes the earth and thus should be banned would be logical. But the very conclusion that should be proved, that coal causes enough pollution to warrant banning its use, is already assumed in the claim by referring to it as "filthy and polluting."
Circular Argument: This restates the argument rather than actually proving it. Example:
George Bush is a good communicator because he speaks effectively.
In this example, the conclusion that Bush is a "good communicator" and the evidence used to prove it "he speaks effectively" are basically the same idea. Specific evidence such as using everyday language, breaking down complex problems, or illustrating his points with humorous stories would be needed to prove either half of the sentence.
Either/or: This is a conclusion that oversimplifies the argument by reducing it to only two sides or choices. Example:
We can either stop using cars or destroy the earth.
In this example, the two choices are presented as the only options, yet the author ignores a range of choices in between such as developing cleaner technology, car-sharing systems for necessities and emergencies, or better community planning to discourage daily driving.
Ad hominem: This is an attack on the character of a person rather than his or her opinions or arguments. Example:
Green Peace's strategies aren't effective because they are all dirty, lazy hippies.
In this example, the author doesn't even name particular strategies Green Peace has suggested, much less evaluate those strategies on their merits. Instead, the author attacks the characters of the individuals in the group.
Ad populum: This is an emotional appeal that speaks to positive (such as patriotism, religion, democracy) or negative (such as terrorism or fascism) concepts rather than the real issue at hand. Often this is an appeal that presents what most people, or a group of people think, in order to persuade one to think the same way. Getting on the bandwagon is one such instance of an ad populum appeal.
If you were a true American you would support the rights of people to choose whatever vehicle they want.
In this example, the author equates being a "true American," a concept that people want to be associated with, particularly in a time of war, with allowing people to buy any vehicle they want even though there is no inherent connection between the two.
Red Herring: This is a diversionary tactic that avoids the key issues, often by avoiding opposing arguments rather than addressing them. Example:
The level of mercury in seafood may be unsafe, but what will fishers do to support their families?
In this example, the author switches the discussion away from the safety of the food and talks instead about an economic issue, the livelihood of those catching fish. While one issue may affect the other it does not mean we should ignore possible safety issues because of possible economic consequences to a few individuals.
Straw Man: This move oversimplifies an opponent's viewpoint and then attacks that hollow argument.
People who don't support the proposed state minimum wage increase hate the poor.
In this example, the author attributes the worst possible motive to an opponent's position. In reality, however, the opposition probably has more complex and sympathetic arguments to support their point. By not addressing those arguments, the author is not treating the opposition with respect or refuting their position.
Moral Equivalence: This fallacy compares minor misdeeds with major atrocities.
That parking attendant who gave me a ticket is as bad as Hitler.
In this example, the author is comparing the relatively harmless actions of a person doing their job with the horrific actions of Hitler. This comparison is unfair and inaccurate.