In my past couple of posts, I've explored two common fallacies, identifying them by the terms philosophers use. In particular, I've identified the non sequitur and the red herring.
For today's post, I will identify another common fallacy--the straw man. I don't know about you, but, like the red herring, when I read the name of this fallacy, I get curious. First, I get curious about the content of the fallacy: What is the straw man fallacy? Then, I get curious about the terminology:
To answer my first question, I will refer to our old friend the late Robert J. Gula. In Nonsense, Gula gives the following definition "When you take something your opponent has said, exag-gerate [sic] or distort it, and then attack what you have exaggerated or distorted, you have created a straw man (79).
Although Gula doesn't mention it, I think my former logic professor described the straw man fallacy as a person building a scarecrow. A scarecrow is sort of like a man made of straw, and a man made of straw is, unlike a man made of muscle and bone, easily knocked down and destroyed. Of course, the man in "the straw man fallacy" is not actually a man; it's actually an argument.
But not just any argument.
It is the argument put forth by an opponent. Sometimes your opponent's argument might derive a conclusion that is very close to something that you already believe. Other times, however, your opponent's argument might derive a conclusion that is the opposite to something that you already believe.
Although we should always be on guard against all fallacious reasoning, it is the latter situation that we need to be extra mindful of maintaining our logical poise. The urge to build a straw man is more intense when we confront an argument with which we intensely disagree. Why?
Because there are certain beliefs of ours that we cherish; we don't want to admit that they lack the strength we attribute to them.
If someone makes an argument that weakens one of our cherished beliefs, we may respond by creating a straw man. Thus, when we engage, whether in speech or writing, in controversial topics, the temptation is usually greater that I will misrepresent my opponent's argument. I will change my opponent's argument into a much weaker argument and then attack that much weaker argument.
For example, take a look at the following dialogue:
Jack: "Who'd you vote for?
Jill: "Well, after listening to the debates I voted for candidate X. I really think that her argument about the environment was strong. It's about time a candidate for public office built her platform on key environmental concerns."
Jack: "Candidate X? Are you crazy? My father told me that she wants to ban the sale and purchase of sports cars and that she will enact a law requiring every household to go dark for three days a month. She thinks that we should all go back to living in log cabins and riding horses. I mean, there is no way. Given the lifestyle that most Americans have grown accustomed to living, her arguments are totally impractical. Voting for candidate X is stupid."
How does Jack's response to Jill seem?
It seems dubious to me. Probably, candidate X put forth a series of arguments that contained a series of conclusions that were much more nuanced than the ones he represents. He misrepresents candidate X's argument, which makes it much weaker. After he attacks the weakened argument, he draws his own fallacious conclusion. This is a very common fallacy. Politicians do it all the time. Mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters do it all the time as well.
Let's take another example:
[It's dinner time. BLT's are on the menu. A plate of bacon is sitting in the middle of the table.]
Mom: "Look at all that grease.We're not getting any younger. We eat a lot of meat. Our blood pressure and cholesterol levels are probably at dangerous levels. If we want to live longer, we need to eat healthier. We should modify our diet. We should eat more vegetarian meals."
Dad: "Don't be ridiculous. After a hard days work, I'm not gonna sit down and waste my time nibbling on rice cakes and lettuce. If that's what you want to eat, be my guest. I don't want to eat foods that have no taste. Besides, I need protein, I need vitamins and minerals. I need iron. You can't get iron from rice cakes."
So mom concludes that her and her husband should eat more vegetarian meals. Dad takes her conclusion and exaggerates it. After he exaggerates it, mom's argument is much weaker than it was when she articulated it.There may be good reasons to reject mom's argument, but dad hasn't provided any.
Because we cherish many of our beliefs, we don't want them to come under fire. When we are engaged in an episode of argumentation--whether through speech or writing--it is easier to misrepresent an opponent's argument, especially when the argument is strong, than it is to accurately present it. We need to fight this urge.
Straw men should be built to keep crows away, not the reasoned and fair challenges our opponents present to us.