Straw, Lies & Errors

Straw Man

Straw man is a rather commonly committed fallacy. Interestingly, it is almost as common for people to accuse others of making straw men as it is for people to actually commit said fallacy. Since I am in a phase of holiday laziness, I decided to write a bit about straw men, lies and errors rather than take on a major topic.

Defining the straw man fallacy is easy enough:

The straw man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position (argument, theory, etc.) and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:

1. Person A has position X.
2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
3. Person B attacks position Y.
4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.

Obviously enough, it is reasonable to point out when someone is making a straw man and to note that any attack on the straw man will fail to do any damage to the original version. Of course, it is important to be sure that such an accusation actually fits.

Whether a characterization is a straw man or not depends, obviously enough on what is being characterized. Roughly put,  “strawness’ is a relative thing and what might be a straw man characterization of one person’s position could very well be an accurate description of another person’s view. As such, a person can be wrongly accused of presenting a straw man because the accuser is mistaken about which position the accused is actually describing. I have even noticed that people sometimes assume that the writer must be writing about them when, in fact, the writer is not.

So, before crying straw it is a good idea to see what the person is actually characterizing. While it might seem to be distorted or exaggerated it might really be spot on.

While most straw men are distorted versions of specific views, there is also variation of the straw man which involves presenting a position that “no one” actually holds and attacking it. In many cases, these positions are attributed to vaguely identified groups (feminists, liberals, conservatives, etc.)  rather than specific individuals. While it is obviously legitimate to point out when people do this sort of thing, it should be determined whether the person is actually setting up such a generic straw man. As noted above, there are views that are really held that would tend to seem like willful distortions on the part of the person describing them.

There are various other ways to use straw men, but I’ll leave those for people to bring up in comments.

Switching now to lies, I have noticed that when I teach this fallacy my students inevitably ask about the difference between presenting a straw man and lying.

On the face of it, a straw man would be a form of lie. After all, a person knowingly presenting a distortion or exaggeration with an intent to deceive would seem to be engaged in an act that falls nicely within the kingdom of lies. As such, I do not see any significant problem with characterizing intentional straw men as involving a lie (or lies) as a component.  For example, when the health care bill Obama was supporting was characterized as establishing death panels and attacked on those grounds, then that would seem to qualify as both a straw man and a lie.

That said, there is more to a straw man than merely lying. As noted above, the straw man fallacy involves more than just presenting a distortion-it also involves rejecting the original on the basis of an attack on the distorted version. As such, it would probably be best to say that a straw man makes use of a lie (or lies).

The deceptive aspect of the straw man also brings in a moral element on top of the critical thinking element. After all, engaging in poor reasoning need not be immoral. However, the intentional use of deceit is often morally problematic (although, as people will no doubt point out, there are intuitively appealing exceptions). One obvious concern is that if a position is actually bad enough to morally require that deceits be used to attack it, then it would seem to follow that it could be justly criticized “in the flesh” rather than “in the straw.” No doubt there are exceptions to this as well-positions that are wicked or flawed and yet could not be defeated by arguing against them in their actual forms.

While many straw men do involve intentional deceits, there are others that do not. These are cases that involve errors.

One obvious example of straw man by error is when someone tries to honestly characterize a view and simply gets it wrong because the view is rather difficult to understand. For example, I often see such straw men in student papers when they try to summarize the arguments of a philosopher. These

Another example of straw man by error is when someone presents a straw man out of ignorance, sloppiness or some such reason. For example, a person might receive an email that distorts the Republican position on tax cuts and then go on to use that version in his blog. In this case, the person is not engaged in an intentional exaggeration.

To use an analogy, this could be seen as being a bit like counterfeit money. A person who knowingly creates a straw man is like a counterfeiter: she is created a deceitful product that she hopes others will accept as the real thing. Someone who accepts the straw man and unknowingly passes it on to others is like a person who gets counterfeit money and spends it herself, unaware that she is passing on phony money.

As with counterfeit money, the person who passes the straw man along in ignorance is not morally responsible for the deceit-she is acting in good faith and is also a victim. This, obviously enough, assumes that the person passing it on took a reasonable amount of effort to assess what was passed on to her.

Sticking with the money analogy, if I pick up some flawless counterfeit bills in my change at the grocery store and I pass them on to others when I buy things, I would seem to be an innocent victim. After all, the source is supposed to be safe and the bills pass all the tests I could reasonably be expected to use. However, if I am handed bills from a questionable person or the money looks a bit fishy, then I would be culpable (to a degree) for uncritically accepting them and passing them on to others.

If this analogy holds, then a person who passes on a straw man from others might be called to task for this or might merely be an innocent victim. In some cases it might be rather hard to determine which category a person falls into.

As one final point, people sometimes make the mistake of conflating errors and straw men. For example, I might claim that WikLeaks’ leak was a good thing because it revealed important new information to the public, such as the fact that Saudis provide considerable support to terrorist organizations and the fact that Pakistan also lends support to such groups. In response to this someone might say that I made a straw man because it is already well known that the Saudis and Pakistanis are supporters of terrorist groups.

However, there is a difference between merely being in error and making a straw man. To be specific, being in error is merely being wrong and a straw man is, well, what was defined above. In the example just given, I could be completely wrong (some have claimed that almost everything leaked was already available), however it would not be a straw man because there was no attempt to present a distorted or exaggerated version of a position. The main test (which is not perfect) is to ask what position, if any, is being distorted or exaggerated. If there are not plausible grounds for claiming an act of distortion has occurred, then it is more reasonable to claim that the person is wrong about the facts rather than accusing him of creating a straw man. Naturally, there will be gray areas in which it is not clear what is the most plausible explanation.

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  1. Always a welcome topic, as the fallacy is of such common occurrence. I have some reservations about your representation of it, however.

    1. Person A has position X.
    2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
    3. Person B attacks position Y.
    4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

    The first thing that I would point out is that you switch horses in your mode of representation at step 4. The first three steps are put in terms of what the two persons concerned say or (in the case of A) think; the last step is put in terms of what is the case with regard to position A. Your formulation says in effect that whenever person A holds position X and person B misrepresents it as Y and attacks Y, it follows that X is false or incorrect or flawed. As that is obviously not your intended meaning, I propose to amend step 4 thus:

    4*. Person B concludes that X is false/incorrect/flawed.

    That said, I think that it is not essential to the fallacy that both of steps 2 and 3 occur (though I do think that at least one of them must occur). It seems to me that it is very common for straw-man arguments to take the form of an attack on a position that is merely implied to be the position of the other party, without the position itself actually being stated (omission of step 2), or to take the form of a mere presentation of a position in such ridiculous form that no attack on it is necessary (omission of step 3).

    Of course, you might defend your scheme by saying that steps 2 and 3 must both be implied even if they are not both stated—as if what I was just describing with were a kind of enthymeme of a fallacy, if that makes any sense. But I am uneasy about that. One of the factors that can make straw-man arguments particularly effective (rhetorically, not logically) is the very suppression of these steps—or at least the omission of step 2. If B never explicitly formulates position Y, then it is difficult for A to reply by pointing out how it differs from his or her position, X.

  2. Hello MKR,

    if steps 2 and 3 are omitted, then asserting that said argument is a straw man is simply wrong. I’m not saying that the argument isn’t a straw man mind you, only that asserting it as such without confirming your perceived implications is not valid. In fact, if you go about making an argument based on what you think is implied you may be making your own internal straw man, or at the very least messing up the form of the argument.

  3. Triston, first of all, your objection is misdirected. (I will not be so contentious as to use the term “straw man” to characterize it.) You begin by saying: “if steps 2 and 3 are omitted.” This is simply irrelevant. I was explicit, even emphatic, in saying that my claim was that they were not both required. To quote myself: “I think that it is not essential to the fallacy that both of steps 2 and 3 occur (though I do think that at least one of them must occur)” (emphasis in original).

    For the sake of discussion, then, I will assume that when you wrote “if steps 2 and 3 are omitted,” what you meant, or what you would have written if you had been more careful, was “if step 2 or step 3 is omitted.”

    Parenthetically, let me make a small correction to my own previous comment. I spoke of the numbered points in LaBoissiere’s scheme as “steps.” But the term “step” implies a sequence, and the four numbered items, even with the correction that I proposed in my previous comment, are not necessarily sequential. I think that the term “condition” would be more apt. So that is what I shall call them hereafter.

    Now your claim in criticism of my would-be correction of LaBoissiere is that if either of conditions 2 and 3 is unmet, then it is “wrong” and “not valid” to assert that B’s argument is a straw-man attack. Why? This is not clear to me. You say, “I’m not saying that the argument isn’t a straw man mind you, only that asserting it as such without confirming your perceived implications is not valid.” If I understand you correctly, what you are saying here is that, if conditions 2 and 3 are not both met, then one can’t be certain that B’s argument is a straw-man attack on B; it may be, and it may not be.

    Granting for the moment that this is the case, I don’t see how it follows that it is “wrong” or “not valid” to identify B’s argument as a straw-man attack. All that follows is that it may be wrong to do so. As far as I can tell, the only point that you have made is the banal and inconsequential one that when we identify an argument as an instance of a certain fallacy, we may be mistaken. From the fact that we may be mistaken it does not follow that we are mistaken, or that it is wrong of us to make that identification.

  4. Steps 1 through 4 are the pattern of the straw man fallacy. If any of those elements in the pattern aren’t there then you no longer have that fallacy. That was basically what I was saying. You are correct, I did mean “or.”

    The point I was making is that unless all the parts in the pattern are explicit, you cannot assert that said argument is a straw man fallacy. Heck, if the pattern doesn’t have 2 “and” 3 then I believe you have a non sequitur fallacy. Granted you still have a fallacy, but we’re talking about two differently formed fallacies.

  5. Sorry, I meant “or” not “and.”

  6. I think I understand your point better, Triston, but it still seems to me misdirected. You seem to presume that LaBoissiere’s schema defines what a straw-man fallacy is. You seem to presume that whatever fails to satisfy the scheme is ipso facto not an instance of the fallacy. But that is an unwarranted assumption. The scheme is not a definition, nor does LaBoissiere pretend that it is one. It is an attempt to analyze the fallacy in the form of an argument scheme. LaBoissiere offers a definition in an earlier sentence:

    The straw man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position (argument, theory, etc.) and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.

    To represent the fallacy in the form of the four-part scheme above is to make a claim about it, a claim that I dispute. I have argued that there are many instances of the straw-man fallacy which fail to satisfy the scheme because they fail to meet one of the two middle conditions. Admittedly, I did not furnish specific examples, but I could do so. I did not think it necessary to do so, however, because I think all that anyone thinking about the matter needs is a reminder: I think everyone has observed instances in which B attacks A’s position by means of a misrepresentation of it, yet either does not explicitly attribute the position that he attacks to A or attributes a position to A that is so patently ridiculous that no attack distinct from the mere statement of it is needed; and these are plainly instances of the straw-man fallacy, by LaBoissiere’s definition or by any other that would be widely accepted.

    By the way, to pick on the definition itself a bit, the phrase “simply ignores a person’s actual position (argument, theory, etc.)” seems to me, first of all, ambiguous. B may not mention A’s actual position X, but he must pay some attention to it in order to misrepresent it as Y. The use of the verb “ignore” here could mean either “pay no attention to” or “make no mention of.” Only on the second interpretation does it fit the case. But even then it is superfluous, I think, for surely the following phrase, “and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position,” says everything pertinent.

  7. Perhaps that is the problem – definition.

    When one is talking about fallacies, it is my understanding that one is talking of forms of argument. It is the form that dictates that a fallacy has been committed as well, as which type has occurred.

    Its rather simple, person A has an argument containing some premises and a conclusion. Person B denies the conclusion of person A by inserting premises into A’s argument that were not there originally. Moreover, B does all this while asserting that these new claims were made by A, not inserted by B. Both arguments presented by A and B have the same conclusion. However, B has added or altered premises so their argument looks like A’s argument but is clearly not valid, and thus denies the conclusion of A.

    The definition that you gave above is not complete, because every Straw man fallacy is a denial of some arguments claim. What I’m asserting is the fallacy is defined by the form or pattern. Thats why LaBoissiere didn’t have to say ” B concludes X is false,” because A cannot have two distinct claims about conclusion X with a single argument, and A’s assertion on X is already given in [1].

  8. The most common use of the straw man, I’ve seen, is actually the accusation of a straw man, to defend a flawed or dishonest argument.

    1. Person A states a position, dishonestly, not stating some of it’s crucial implications.
    2. Person B presents Person A’s position, with it’s full implications.
    3. Person A attacks B’s statement as being a straw man, as they have not stated those implications in their original argument.
    4. Person A’s original argument is defended, and person B is discredited by the straw man accusation.

    Whenever I hear accusations of a straw man my ears prick up. Going on my experience the accuser is often lying.

  9. I see the straw man argument used a lot in foru posts, particularly those with a political agenda involved. People who are losing the argument tend to resort to this tactic a lot. Your post explained how it all works.

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