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A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position.[1] To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar proposition (the "straw man"), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.[1][2]

Presenting and refuting a weakened form of an opponent's argument can be a part of a valid argument. For example, one can argue that the opposing position implies that at least one other statement - being presumably easier to refute than the original position - must be true. If one refutes this weaker proposition, the refutation is valid and does not fit the above definition of a "straw man" argument.

Contents

Origin

The origins of the term are unclear; one common (folk) etymology given is that it originated with men who stood outside of courthouses with a straw in their shoe in order to indicate their willingness to be a false witness. [3] [4] Another is that a man made of straw, such as those used in military training, is easy to attack. Attacking a straw man can give the illusion of a strong attack or good argument. In the UK, it is sometimes called Aunt Sally, with reference to a traditional fairground game.

Reasoning

The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern:

1. Person A has position X.

2. Person B disregards certain key points of X and instead presents the superficially-similar position Y.
Thus, Y is a resulting distorted version of X and can be set up in several ways, including:

  1. Presenting a misrepresentation of the opponent's position and then refuting it, thus giving the appearance that the opponent's actual position has been refuted.[1]
  2. Quoting an opponent's words out of context — i.e. choosing quotations which are intentionally misrepresentative of the opponent's actual intentions (see contextomy and quote mining).[2]
  3. 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.[1]
  4. 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.
  5. Oversimplifying an opponent's argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.

3. Person B attacks position Y, concluding that X is false/incorrect/flawed.
This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious, because attacking a distorted version of a position fails to constitute an attack on the actual position.

Example

Straw man arguments often arise in public debates.

Person A: We should liberalize the laws on beer.
Person 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".[1]

Nassim Taleb has been often criticised for his use of the Straw Man technique, attacking economists' (non-existent) 'belief' in the validity of Gaussian statistics for analysing financial systems. [5]

Debating around a straw man

Strictly speaking, there are three ways to deal with a straw man setup.

1. Using the terms of the straw man and refuting the theory itself. (Note: A weakness of this retort is that agreeing to use the terminology of the opponent may deflect the debate to a secondary one about the opponent's assumptions).

2. Clarifying the original theory. This may involve explicitly pointing out the straw man. In the example above, such a response might be: I said relax laws on beer but nothing about other stronger intoxicants.

3. Questioning the disputation. See also Debate

See also

References

  1. ^ a b c d e Pirie, Madsen (2007). How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic. UK: Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8264-9894-6.  
  2. ^ a b "The Straw Man Fallacy". Fallacy Files. http://www.fallacyfiles.org/strawman.html. Retrieved 12 October 2007.  
  3. ^ "Idioms around the world". http://disted.tamu.edu/classes/telecom98s/eva/week2.htm. Retrieved 13 May 2009.  
  4. ^ "E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898". http://www.bartleby.com/81/10919.html. Retrieved 13 May 2009.  
  5. ^ "Taleb Criticism of Gaussian Statistics". http://www.livemint.com/2008/03/27235618/Nassim-Taleb8217s-Black-Swa.html?pg=2. Retrieved 30 December 2009.  

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