Straw Man Fallacy

This article almost went unwritten, as there are already several good ones explaining the straw man fallacy. But I committed to writing this series, and I can add my own thoughts as well.

The straw man fallacy — everybody does it, it seems. Especially when getting caught up in the emotion of a heated exchange of words. However, it is my belief that many people choose to use this fallacy for the sake of provoking emotion in their opponent. If the opponent falls for the trick, then the antagonist can provoke further and "win" the argument on emotion, not facts.

"What on Earth are you babbling about, Cowboy Bob?"

Now I'll tell you what it is, and maybe you can remember the traps of this nature that owlhoots set for you.

Straw man, Flickr / H. Michael Miley (CC BY-SA 2.0)
In simplest terms, the straw man argument is when someone will take your statement, argument, beliefs, or position and build a false version of it to tear down: It is a misrepresentation of your actual position. It is often inadvertent, based on misunderstanding of your position (which you may not have stated very well). Other times, it is an advertent attack. It almost always involved putting words in your mouth, presuming that you said something that you did not say.

When Trish wrote about modestly for Christian women and about Facebook evangelism, atheists went hysterical. Even on her own Weblog, they made emotive straw man arguments like:
  • Are you ashamed of your own body Trish? Sounds like you got problems with your own self-image. A lot of women are not. And your facebook evangelism, can be best summed up as "Trolling". This was followed by the Facebook Terms of Service, taken horribly out of context.
  • Why not purchase special apparel designed especially for those women whose religious views encourages them to cover their bodies in the name of modesty. I think they're called "Burqas" and they're available in any color you like so long as it's black. Note the absurd extreme used in the mockery.
  • Next you will be saying we all need to wear baggy sweats and over-sized t-shirts so no man can see our shape at all (or a burqa, as someone else suggested). Maybe we shouldn't wear makeup; that could make us look too sexy. Again, you can see the extreme that was not taken in the original article.
In a recent exchange with atheists on Twitter, we were subjected to some rather amazing examples of bad reasoning. Here are some examples of the straw man fallacy (links removed, Tweets apparently deleted):
  • Creationist homeschoolers, you can only shield your kids from reality for so long. That is a horrible misrepresentation of the position of the homeschoolers. First, it implies dishonesty on the part of the homeschoolers because they are lying to their children about "reality". Second, it implies that "reality" is on the side of the accuser, not the homeschooler. Third, this troll simply horned in on a discussion. So, who asked you?
  • I think you should stop trying to learn science from fundie propaganda sites. Assuming that I do not know about science because I oppose evolutionism. Also note the pejorative words.
  • No atheist believes everything came from nothing. You should read about the big bang before you assume what we believe. Interesting. This one does not seem to know some of the details in the position he holds. Plus, he assumed that I did not know anything about atheist beliefs. (Hey, isn't "atheist beliefs" an oxymoron?) He was not interested in the support of my claim that atheists believe everything came from nothing.
Remember, I am putting these logic lessons out for a few reasons, not the least of which is the hope that people will avoid them so we can communicate better. Christians should be able to present the gospel (1 Peter 3.15), and avoiding simple mistakes in reasoning will help. The examples above are from my own recent readings and experiences. Conservatives, we need to be careful as well so that the left has less room to talk. Let's be on guard against spurious "reasoning" during election seasons.

I will close by sending you to this excellent (read: better than mine) article at Apologia (this is not a blanket endorsement of the entire site). Hopefully, I gave you something useful. Read the other one now that you're done here, and you'll be much less likely to be fooled, you savvy?

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