Episode 247: November 2, 2010
by Mignon Fogarty
Political ads and analysis are reaching a fever pitch, so it seems like a good time to talk about the phrase “straw man.” What does it mean when two people are debating and one accuses the other of putting forth a straw man argument?
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What Is a Straw Man Argument?
I always think of the Straw Man from the Wizard of Oz, but that's not where the term comes from. In its simplest definition, it's the name of a logical fallacy, which means that if you carefully dissect the argument or statement, it doesn't make sense. Debaters invoke a straw man when they put forth an argument--usually something extreme or easy to argue against--that they know their opponent doesn't support. You put forth a straw man because you know it will be easy for you to knock down or discredit. It's a way of misrepresenting your opponent's position.
It's as if you took a flaming scarecrow, threw it onto the debate floor, yelled “Look, it's my opponent's dangerous straw man,” and then you appeared to save the day by dousing the flames with water. All while your opponent mutters, “That's not my straw man. What just happened?”
It can be annoyingly effective because in response you may be lured into clarifying what your position is not instead of talking about what your position is, and studies have shown that when you repeat a lie, even if you are repeating it to refute it, the repetition can reinforce the misinformation in the minds of some people (1).
How Does the Straw Man Argument Work?
A straw man argument can be annoyingly effective because in response you often have to spend time clarifying what your position is not instead of what your position is.
Here's an example. Let's say you believe genetically engineered crops should be more regulated, and your opponent believes genetically engineered crops should be less regulated. Your opponent could use the straw man technique by saying something like “If we take away farmers' ability to grow genetically engineered crops, if we eliminate that option, people will go hungry, nay, people will starve. Unlike my opponent, I choose to use the technology available to us and save lives.”
In that statement, your opponent has argued against eliminating genetically engineered crops instead of against simply increasing regulation. He's put up a straw man--no crops at all, people will starve--so he can knock it down.
Another Straw Man Argument Example
Here's another example. Maybe you're arguing with a friend about global warming. You think the government should raise fuel efficiency standards to cut down the amount of C02 we release over the next 20 years. Your friend thinks cars have nothing to do with it, and as you argue, he says something like “Our cities are built so that we have to drive cars. Your solution will kill the economy. How would people get to work without cars? It'll never work.”
At that point you probably start twitching and can hardly wait to shout “When did I say we had to get rid of cars? That's not what I said at all!”
You're twitching because your friend has thrown out a straw man argument. He's responding to an extreme version of your proposal that's easier to shoot down than your real proposal. He's arguing against the extreme idea that we need to get rid of all cars because it's easier than arguing against the moderate idea that we need to raise fuel efficiency.
Watch for the Straw Man Argument in Political Debates
Now you know what a straw man is. Watch out for them in the debates and political ads.
1. Vedantum, S. “The Power of Political Misinformation.” The Washington Post, September 15, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/14/AR2008091402375.html (accessed October 22, 2010)