Also Known As: Straw Person, Aunt Sally
A Straw Man is made when a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of something is substituted for the original. The substitute (the straw man) is then attacked, and on this basis it is concluded that the original is defective.
One version of the Straw Man fallacy occurs when a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of a claim or argument is substituted for the original. It has the following pattern:
Premise 1: Person A makes claim or argument X.
Premise 2: Person B presents Y (a distorted version of X).
Premise 3: Person B attacks Y.
Conclusion: Therefore, X is false/incorrect/flawed.
This is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a claim or argument does not constitute a criticism of the original. This fallacy often involves hyperbole, a rhetorical device in which one engages in exaggeration.
Another version of the Straw Man creates a straw person of a person by exaggerating or distorting their qualities, beliefs, actions, etc. This version has the following form:
Premise 1: Person A has or is P, Q, R.
Premise 2: Person B presents X, Y. Z (distorted versions of P, Q, R or even complete fabrications).
Premise 3: Person B attacks A one the basis of X, Y, Z.
Conclusion: Therefore, person A is defective/bad.
This is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a person does not show there is anything wrong with the person.
This tactic is most effective when the attack matches the audience’s biases, fears, or stereotypes. They will feel that the distorted version is the real version. This tactic is common in politics and is often used to set up Ad Hominem attacks against the straw man.
The Straw Man tactic can be used against other targets as well, using the same basic method of presenting a distorted or exaggerated version of the target in place of the original. For example, a concept or theory could be targeted by this fallacy.
Straw Man attacks often make use of an appeal to an unknown fact. This involves claiming to know the “real reason” a person or group believes the straw version. This “reason” is often presented as a Wicked Motivation.
For example, suppose that a climate scientist recommends reducing meat production to help slow climate change. In response, someone might craft a Straw Man by claiming the scientist wants to ban hamburgers because they hate capitalism. As another example, a conservative who favors providing tax breaks to those investing in underfunded communities might be targeted by a Straw Man in which it is claimed that they want to pay the rich to take over poor neighborhoods because they hate the poor.
While a person or group might have a wicked motive, they are keeping secret, evidence would be needed to support such a claim. And even if a person or group did have an evil motive, this would not prove that their claim is false, or their argument is bad. To think otherwise would be to fall for the Wicked Motivation fallacy.
Defense: The defense against a Straw Man, self-inflicted or not, is to take care to get a person’s claim or argument right. This involves applying the principle of charity and the principle of plausibility.
Following the principle of charity requires interpreting claims in the best possible light and reconstructing arguments to make them as strong as possible. There are three reasons to follow the principle. The first is that doing so is ethical. The second is that doing so avoids committing the straw man fallacy. The third is that the criticism of the best and strongest versions of a claim or argument also addressed the lesser versions.
The principle of charity must be tempered by the principle of plausibility: claims must be interpreted, and arguments reconstructed in a way that matches what is known about the source and in accord with the context. For example, reading quantum physics into the works of our good dead friend Plato would violate this principle. A person can overdo the principle of charity, committing the Steel Man fallacy.
Prof. Jones: “The university just cut our yearly budget by $10,000.”
Prof. Smith: “What are we going to do?”
Prof. Brown: “I think we should eliminate one of the teaching assistant positions. “That would take care of it.”
Prof. Jones: “We could reduce our scheduled raises instead.”
Prof. Brown:” I can’t understand why you want to bleed us dry like that, Jones.”
“Senator Jones says that we should not fund the Super Poseidon attack submarine program. I disagree entirely. I can’t understand why he wants to leave us utterly defenseless.”
Bill and Jill are arguing about cleaning out their closets:
Jill: “We should clean out the closets. They are getting a bit messy.”
Bill: “Why, we just went through those closets last year. Do we have to clean them out every day?”
Jill: I never said anything about cleaning them out every day. You just want to keep all your junk forever, which is just ridiculous.”