A straw man, also known in the UK as an Aunt Sally, is a common type of argument and is an informal fallacy based on the misrepresentation of the original topic of argument. To be successful, a straw man argument requires that the audience be ignorant or uninformed of the original argument.
The so-called typical "attacking a straw man" implies an adversarial, polemic, or combative debate, and creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent's proposition by covertly replacing it with a different proposition (i.e., "stand up a straw man") and then to refute or defeat that false argument, ("knock down a straw man,") instead of the original proposition.
This technique has been used throughout history in polemical debate, particularly in arguments about highly charged emotional issues where a fiery, entertaining "battle" and the defeat of an "enemy" may be more valued than critical thinking or understanding both sides of the issue.
As a fallacy, the identification and name of straw man arguments are of relatively recent date, although Aristotle makes remarks that suggest a similar concern; Douglas Walton identified "the first inclusion of it we can find in a textbook as an informal fallacy" in Stuart Chase's Guides to Straight Thinking from 1956 (p. 40). Oddly enough, Hamblin's classic text Fallacies (1970) neither mentions it as a distinct type, nor even as a historical term. The idea of "men of straw" who can be knocked down by "the lightest puff, the smallest breath of truth," erected by invaders upon a field to scare away others who might join the movement, can be found in Victoria C. Woodhull's "The Scare-Crows of Sexual Slavery," written in 1873.
The origins of the term are unclear. The usage of the term in rhetoric suggests a human figure made of straw which is easily knocked down or destroyed, such as a military training dummy, scarecrow, or effigy. The rhetorical technique is sometimes called an Aunt Sally in the UK, with reference to a traditional fairground game in which objects are thrown at a fixed target. One common folk etymology is that it refers to men who stood outside courthouses with a straw in their shoe in order to indicate their willingness to be a false witness.
The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern of argument:
- Person 1 has position X.
- Person 2 disregards certain key points of X and instead presents the superficially similar position Y. The position Y is a distorted version of X and can be set up in several ways, including:
- Presenting a misrepresentation of the opponent's position.
- Quoting an opponent's words out of context—i.e., choosing quotations that misrepresent the opponent's actual intentions (see fallacy of quoting out of context).
- Presenting someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, then denying that person's arguments—thus giving the appearance that every upholder of that position (and thus the position itself) has been defeated.
- Inventing a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs which are then criticized, implying that the person represents a group of whom the speaker is critical.
- Oversimplifying an opponent's argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.
- Person 2 attacks position Y, concluding that X is false/incorrect/flawed.
This reasoning is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position does not address the actual position. The ostensible argument that Person 2 makes has the form:
- "Don't support X, because X has an unacceptable (or absurd or contradictory or terrible) consequence."
However, the actual form of the argument is:
- "Don't support X, because Y has an unacceptable (or absurd or contradictory or terrible) consequence."
This argument doesn't make sense; it is a non sequitur. Person 2 relies on the audience not noticing this.
Straw man arguments often arise in public debates such as a (hypothetical) prohibition debate:
- A: We should relax the laws on beer.
- B: No, any society with unrestricted access to intoxicants loses its work ethic and goes only for immediate gratification.
The proposal was to relax laws on beer. Person B has exaggerated this to a position harder to defend, i.e., "unrestricted access to intoxicants". It is a logical fallacy because Person A never made that claim.
- A: Sunny days are good.
- B: If all days were sunny, we'd never have rain, and without rain, we'd have famine and death.
In this case, B falsely frames A's claim to imply that A believes only sunny days are good, and B argues against that assertion. A actually asserts that sunny days are good and, in fact, says nothing about rainy days.
An example often given of a straw man is US President Richard Nixon's 1952 "Checkers speech". When campaigning for vice president in 1952, Nixon was accused of having illegally appropriated $18,000 in campaign funds for his personal use. In a televised response, instead of addressing the funds, he spoke about another gift, a dog he had been given by a supporter:
- It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, six years old, named it Checkers. And, you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that, regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.
This was a straw man response; his critics had never criticized the dog as a gift or suggested he return it. This argument was successful at distracting people from the funds, and portraying his critics as nitpicking and heartless. Nixon received an outpouring of public support, remained on the ticket, and was elected by a landslide.
Whereas, the writings of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, promoted the justification of racism, and his books On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man postulate a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. . . .
Therefore, be it resolved that the legislature of Louisiana does hereby deplore all instances and all ideologies of racism, does hereby reject the core concepts of Darwinist ideology that certain races and classes of humans are inherently superior to others, and does hereby condemn the extent to which these philosophies have been used to justify and approve racist practices.
Tindale comments that "the portrait painted of Darwinian ideology is a caricature, one not borne out by any objective survey of the works cited. That similar misrepresentations of Darwinian thinking have been used to justify and approve racist practices is beside the point: the position that the legislation is attacking and dismissing is a Straw Man. In subsequent debate this error was recognized, and the eventual bill omitted all mention of Darwin and Darwinist ideology."
In 2006, Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin expanded the application and use of the straw man fallacy beyond that of previous rhetorical scholars, arguing that the straw man fallacy can take two forms, the original form in which the opponent's position is misrepresented, which they call the representative form and a new form which they call the selection form. The selection form focuses on a partial and weaker (and easier to refute) representation of the opponent's position. Then the easier refutation of this weaker position is claimed to refute the opponent's complete position. They point out the similarity of the selection form to the fallacy of hasty generalization in which the refutation of an opposing position that is weaker than the opponent's is claimed as a refutation of all opposing arguments. Because they have found significantly increased use of the selection form in modern political argumentation, they view its identification as an important new tool for the improvement of public discourse.
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- Talisse, Robert; Aikin, Scott (September 2006). "Two Forms of the Straw Man". Augmentation (Kluwer Academic Publishers) 20 (3): 345–352. doi:10.1007/s10503-006-9017-8. ISSN 1572-8374.