Straw man

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The straw man fallacy occurs when a statement misrepresents or invents an opponent's view (sometimes even the opponent is invented) in order to easily discredit it. The straw man fallacy does not consist of stating an opponent's position, but only in stating it inaccurately. The straw man argument is intended to give the appearance of successfully refuting the original argument, thus creating the impression that it has refuted a position that someone actually holds. A straw man is constructed expressly for the purpose of knocking it down. [1]

Wikipedia lists several different ways to set up a straw man:

1. Present one of your opponent's weaker arguments, refute it, and pretend that you have refuted all of their arguments.
2. Present your opponent's argument in weakened form, refute it, and pretend that you have refuted the original.
3. Present a misrepresentation of your opponent's position, refute it, and pretend that you have refuted your opponent's actual position (for an example see this Google debate on Communism and the Environment).
4. Present someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, refute their arguments, and pretend that you've refuted every argument for that position.
5. Invent a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs that are criticised, and pretend that that person represents a group that the speaker is critical of.[2]

Richard S. Dunham illustrates the use of the straw man fallacy in politics in "Bush Attacks a Dem Straw Man:"

"Politicians love to have silent, passive punching bags during election years. That's why the GOP is pounding Mr. Tax-and-Spend. One thing good about a straw man: You can keep punching away at him all you want, and he'll never hit you back. That's one reason politicians love to cart straw men around with them on the campaign trail…Good rhetoric. Trouble is, Mr. Tax-and-Spend Democrat doesn't really exist, so he never speaks or talks back. None of the top Democrats on Capitol Hill is willing to endorse a tax increase during a downturn. But by attacking a straw man, and repeating the attack often enough, Bush hopes to inextricably link Democrats to tax hikes."[3]

(See also Repetition)

The term "straw man" has also been used to mean "to present a first draft for criticism". In this case there is no deliberate deception; the idea is known to be inaccurate by all parties:

"In software development, a crude plan or document may serve as the strawman or starting point in the evolution of a project. The strawman is not expected to be the last word; it is refined until a final model or document is obtained that resolves all issues concerning the scope and nature of the project. In this context, a strawman can take the form of an outline, a set of charts, a presentation, or a paper."[4]

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Articles & Commentary

  • Richard S. Dunham, "Bush Attacks a Dem Straw Man: Politicians love to have silent, passive punching bags during election years. That's why the GOP is pounding Mr. Tax-and-Spend," Business Week Online, January 22, 2002.
  • Molly Ivins, "Batten Down the Hatches," AlterNet, June 28, 2005: "Setting up a straw man, calling it liberal and then knocking it down has become a favorite form of 'argument' for those on the right."