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 misrepresentation of an opponent's position. To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the "straw man"), and to refute it, without ever having actually refuted the original position. This technique has been used throughout history in polemical debate, particularly in arguments about highly charged, emotional issues. In those cases the false victory is often loudly or conspicuously celebrated.
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 refuting 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 liberalize 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.
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."
It is possible to unintentionally misrepresent an opponent's argument by failing to understand it in the first place and honestly communicating what one (wrongly) thinks is the actual argument. This can lead to opposition believing the creation of a straw man argument to be intended, when it may or may not be.
- List of fallacies
- Ad hominem
- Cherry picking (fallacy)
- Fallacy of quoting out of context
- I'm a lighthouse. Your call
- Red herring
- Straw man (law)
- Straw man proposal
- Dennis V. Lindley (2006). Understanding Uncertainty. John Wiley & Sons. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-470-04383-7.
- A. W. Sparkes (1991). Talking Philosophy: A Wordbook. Routledge. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-415-04223-9.
- Pirie, Madsen (2007). How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic. UK: Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 155–157. ISBN 978-0-8264-9894-6.
- "The Straw Man Fallacy". Fallacy Files. Retrieved 12 October 2007.
- Christopher W. Tindale (2007). Fallacies and Argument Appraisal. Cambridge University Press. pp. 19–28. ISBN 978-0-521-84208-2.
- Douglas Walton, "The straw man fallacy". In Logic and Argumentation, ed. Johan van Bentham, Frans H. van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst and Frank Veltman. Amsterdam, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, North-Holland, 1996. pp. 115-128
- Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, ed. Kathy Peiss
- Damer, T. Edward (1995). Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments. Wadsworth. pp. 157–159.
- Brewer, E. Cobham (1898). "Man of Straw (A).". Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Retrieved 13 May 2009.