A Straw Man Fallacy is a sly debating technique where an individual misrepresents another person’s argument to make it easier to attack. In simpler terms, it’s like setting up a dummy version of an opponent’s stance just to knock it down. It’s basically a less-than-honest rhetorical tactic that can make debates go sideways fast.
Knowing how to recognize and counter a Straw Man argument can really be your secret weapon in any debate. So, in this guide, I’ll unpack the ins and outs of the Straw Man Fallacy, including its meaning and how to correctly identify it. I’ll even toss in some real-world examples so you can become a pro at spotting these tactics.
Let’s get you prepared for the next time someone tries to pull a fast one on you. Stay tuned!
Strawman Argument Example
Strawman arguments commonly occur when making choices. A person takes someone else’s point and then exaggerates it. For example, a teacher recommends longer class lectures. A person using a strawman may reply, “No, because that means giving a perfect score to students.”
What is the Straw Man Fallacy?
The straw man fallacy involves misrepresenting an opponent’s position to make it easier to refute. It oversimplifies an opposing view or disregards inconvenient points in favor of points that are easy to argue against.
The flow of this fallacy of relevance usually goes like this:
- Person A makes a statement Y.
- Person B restates person A’s claim in a distorting manner.
- Person B attacks the distorted version.
- Statement Y becomes a false or invalid stance.
Usually, the person committing the straw man fallacy highlights the most extreme versions of the other end—for example:
- Opposing: Teens should be taught about contraception methods and practice safe sex when and if they choose to have intercourse.
- Straw man: Advocates of sex education want to give kids a license to have sex with no consequences.
The straw man argument ignores the importance of the real argument. Instead, they argue that sex education is giving kids a “license to have sex without consequences.”
The straw man fallacy also occurs when someone highlights the actions or claims of a minority of the opposing side—for example:
- Opposing: Bicycle infrastructure should be expanded because cycling is a sustainable mode of transportation.
- Straw man: We should not build bike lanes because cyclists run red lights and endanger pedestrians.
Here, the strawman ignores the positive aspects of the real issue of bicycle infrastructure. Then, it focuses on the minority of cyclists who don’t follow traffic rules.
The fallacy also oversimplifies the original statement, so it is easy to refute—for example:
- Opposing: Publicly funded healthcare should be enacted in the U.S. so all Americans can have equal access to the care they need to live full, happy, and productive lives.
- Straw man: In this age of government spending run amok, the last thing we need is another entitlement.
This example is fallacious because it ignores publicly funded healthcare’s complex issue. Then, it resorts to generic rhetoric that pushes buttons but provides little substance.
A person may also discuss versions of a theory that the speaker did not mention in their original claim. Here’s an example of a situation of a class on evolution:
- Opposing: A biology teacher discusses that Charles Darwin is the father of evolution. And he states that the theory of evolution is both a fact and a theory.
- Straw man: That is impossible! There is no evidence of evolution that we come from pond scum.
The straw man argument provides a distorted stance or false evidence on evolution by assuming that we evolved from pond scum. It also considers that fact is synonymous with certainty.
The fallacy is also associated with nut-picking. Nut-picking is seeking out extremely fringe, non-representative statements from an opposing group. Then, they parade these statements to show the group’s irrationality.
Straw Man Fallacy Examples in Movies and Media
The straw man fallacy is also common among villains in movies who want to instill fear in people. Even among celebrities, the media may portray people opposed to a specific issue as irrational.
In the musical Beauty and the Beast, Gaston convinces his troops to kill the beast. He makes a bolder version of what Belle said about the beast, thinking he would cause damage to the village.
So, the whole town became fearful and decided they did not want to let the beast wander free anymore. Gaston’s exaggeration is an example of a straw man in films.
In media reports, journalists tend to focus on one side of a story then ignore the other groups of people. Or they portray two sides of a story as equally valid even though one is wrong.
Example of Straw Man Arguments in Politics
Political debates are where you’ll often spot straw man arguments. One famous case is during the third presidential debate between Clinton and Trump.
During the topic of immigration, Trump states that Clinton was for open borders, according to her speech in 2013. He said, “you would have a disaster on trade, and you will have a disaster with your open borders.”
Clinton bounces back by saying she was talking about the movement of goods and energy and not the movement of people. Trump used the straw man by quoting Clinton’s past speech, which mentioned “open borders,” then attacked her liberal view on immigration.
In another example, Bernie Sanders proposed to move to a single-payer healthcare system. Hillary Clinton then responds, saying Sanders wants to dismantle Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.
Hillary Clinton made a straw man argument because Sanders does not aim to eradicate ACA and Medicare. He wants to replace them with a universal healthcare system.
History of Straw Man Fallacy
There’s no specific record of the earliest straw man fallacy cited. But this fallacy may have existed since people started arguing with each other.
Aristotle has mentioned this type of reasoning in the 300s B.C.E. However, there was no label or recognition for it as a fallacy until Stuart Chase published his 1956 book, Guides to Straight Thinking. The social theorist explicitly defines the straw man as an informal fallacy.
An informal fallacy is erroneous reasoning rather than logic. That means straw man arguments may sometimes be logical and valid. However, the way it refutes a point is incorrect.
How to Spot a Straw Man Argument
The straw man argument is sometimes tricky to spot when you focus on the argument without looking at the whole context. Another reason it’s difficult to spot is that straw man arguments are a form of verbal manipulation.
But it’s essential to learn how to spot a straw man fallacy so you know how to make a rebuttal. Here are some strategies people use to create distorted images of a claim.
- Oversimplifying or creating a hasty generalization.
- Focusing on a few aspects of the argument.
- Quoting parts of the claim out of context.
- Arguing against extreme opinions which the opponent didn’t use.
How to Counter Straw Man Arguments
So, what to do when your opponent uses fallacious reasoning of your argument and turns it into an extreme position? Here are some civilized approaches to counter straw man arguments.
Explaining that the Person’s Statement is an Exaggerated Version
Challenge your opponent by stating that their statement is a straw man argument. Explain why it’s an extreme stance that provides a twisted view of your claim.
In the evolution example, you can counter the erroneous reasoning of humans coming from pond scum by saying this:
“That is an extreme version of my complex claim. My original position doesn’t state that we come from pond scum. Science is based on empirical evidence, so a scientific fact has to be confirmed to a certain degree for it to be a fact. And the empirical evidence for biological evolution falls in this category.”
An alternative approach is to ignore your opponent’s argument in response. Go on with your original point and give more supporting details so that your discussion returns to the original topic.
For example, in a presidential debate, Candidate A says that the country should not increase the defense budget. Then, Candidate B argues that Candidate A wants the country to be defenseless. Candidate A refocuses the point on why the defense budget is already enough.
You can also counter strawman arguments with steel-man arguments to be in an advantageous position. It’s a type of argument that helps the opponent construct a powerful form of their original claim.
This form of argument is a powerful approach where you usually let go of any incompetence of your opponent.
How to Avoid Using Strawman Arguments
You might also be using the strawman argument unintentionally. Avoid fallacies in arguments by re-expressing the position of your opponent. Ask them if they agree with your description before going against it.
Accuracy in reasoning must always be your goal. But if you notice that you’ve been fallacious in a debate, correct it right away. Inquiring about your opponent is the best escape strategy since it also leads to a productive discussion.
Always focus on the person to whom you’re addressing your message. If you’re arguing in front of a group, focus on persuading them instead of your opponent. It will keep you from using the straw man argument and other fallacies.
There are cases where a straw man argument might be the best way to get the upper hand since it persuades many people. But creating a false image of your opponent’s statements is inherently immoral and illogical.
Studies show that the straw man fallacy is only helpful when a listener is unmotivated to scrutinize the speaker. Make a distorted image of the audience’s claim, and they will start getting invested in the discussion. Still, it’s ineffective and can lead to a backfire.
Fallacies Related to Straw Man Arguments
Here are the different approaches to reasoning when using the straw man argument.
The iron-man argument is one of the most common fallacies where a person also misrepresents the original statement. But the twist is they create their argument to be easier to defend.
The argument under discussion is more challenging to oppose since there are overlapping features. The debate floor becomes theirs because of the several strategies they may employ. One way to spot iron-man arguments is by looking for imprecise terms and jargon.
For example, a businesswoman once made a statement about their enterprise’s social impact. However, they failed to deliver this social impact. When the media questioned her, her answer was, “The company is doing its best with the priority of creating a change in the next few months.”
The iron-man fallacy is faulty reasoning where a person invents or attributes a controversial issue to a vaguely defined group that should be opposing. Here, a person may create a fictitious position and claim that the opposing group made it.
In essence, they are making up extreme opinions and arguing with non-existent opponents. It’s an actual issue among many people who want to escape from accountability.
For example, someone might create abstract statements that animal activists want animals to have equal rights as humans. It’s a hollow-man argument because no one made a complete position that animals should be equal to humans.
The Slippery Slope Fallacy Explained
The slippery slope argument is made when a person argues about a series of events that lead to a greater event, which is often a poor conclusion.
For example, one might think that a gun control law would lead to people not having guns at all. Therefore, no one would defend themselves if a terrorist attack occurred.
Fallacy of Composition
The fallacy of composition is an informal fallacy where a person uses aspects of part of a whole then applies it to the whole. This reasoning follows the idea that all members of X have P. So, X owns P.
Bottomline on Strawman Arguments
A straw man argument is sneaky because it can be considered logical and valid. Now you know the meaning of a straw man argument and how to counter it. You also learned some straw man fallacy examples in media and politics.
When you’re in a debate, always respond to the fundamental proposition of your opponent. And counter their logical fallacies by pointing them out or going on with your original point.