Winning an argument is important but it can sometimes be difficult. Especially when there’s a lot at stake for both parties.

People sometimes resort to rhetorical tricks to respond to their opponents.

Have you been following the US elections? If you’ve heard any of the presidential debates, you’ve probably noticed how speakers distort and exaggerate their opponent’s argument to discredit the other side.

This is an example of a straw man fallacy that’s common in US politics, especially in the run-up to elections. Putting words in the opponent’s mouth and deliberately twisting what they’ve said is an age-old tradition of presidential debates in the United States.

  1. What Is The Straw Man Fallacy?

  2. What Is A Straw Man Argument?

  3. Straw Man Fallacy Examples

  4. Different Kinds Of Straw Man Arguments

  5. How To Navigate The Straw Man Fallacy

What Is The Straw Man Fallacy?

The straw man fallacy is an argument that disturbs and twists the opposition’s stance to make it convenient to rebut. The person committing the straw man fallacy gives the impression of having dealt with an argument while actually not addressing its core aspects.

When one attacks a twisted version of the opponent’s stance, they can be said to have committed a straw man fallacy. The term is said to come from the idea of an imaginary man of straw or scarecrow who is seen as a weak adversary.

What Is A Straw Man Argument?

Before we dip into some straw man fallacy examples, let’s understand the straw man fallacy in detail. Generally, the use of the straw man fallacy consists of the following three steps:

  1. An individual begins by stating their position. This can include opening statements, remarks, comments or facts. They present their case, present proposed changes and/or provide sufficient evidence to support their stance.

  1. After this, the second person presents a twisted or distorted version of the first person’s original narrative. They do this while pretending that there’s no real difference between the two versions. What the second person is effectively doing is setting up a different proposition (the “straw man”) and passing it off as the first person’s idea. Then, they go all out to destroy the straw man that they themselves have set up so that the public is thrown off and begins to think that the second person has comprehensively defeated the first person’s argument.

  1. Taken aback, the second person begins to attack the first person’s twisted interpretation of their original argument. This makes the matter even more confusing for the audience. The second person has been successful in introducing chaos and shifting the goals of the debate.

Straw Man Fallacy Examples:

As the straw man fallacy relies on verbal manipulation of the opposite stance, it has varied implications. Only when one learns to identify the straw man fallacy can they move towards rebutting it. Here’s how you can tell when somebody is making a straw man argument.

  1. They focus only on a few specific elements of the opponent’s argument.

For example, a public health researcher says that they think that teenagers must be taught about contraception methods so they can practice safe sex if and when they choose to have intercourse. A newspaper prints, ‘This sex education researcher wants to give the kids a license to have sex.’

  1. They quote parts of the opponent’s argument out of context. 

Prakash is the class monitor. He thinks that the class should show more interest in their projects and mid-term examinations. Mehek is disappointed that Prakash doesn’t care about the annual sports meet and only wants to focus on exams and projects.

  1. They argue against extreme opinions which are sometimes used in order to support the opponent’s stance, but which the opponent actually did not use. 

For example, the biology teacher begins teaching a class on evolution by saying that all living things evolve. A student counters and says that they just can’t accept the “fact” that human beings came from bugs.

These examples will give you an idea of what a straw man fallacy entails and how you can move past it.

Different Kinds Of Straw Man Arguments

There are different variants of the straw man fallacy. Let’s look at their defining characteristics with these examples:

  1. Hollow-Man Arguments

Hollow-man arguments are more extreme than straw man arguments. They involve inventing and attributing a weak case to a vaguely defined group that’s supposed to represent the opposition. In other words, people falsely produce the viewpoints and they claim it was made by people/group that they disagree with. In essence, they argue with opponents who don’t exist, therefore putting them in an advantageous position. It’s a lazy way of making a strong argument without the burden of accountability.

For example, claiming that animal activists want the same rights for animals, as there are for humans and pets should start wearing clothes. This is a hollow-man argument because no one said that animal and human rights have to be exactly the same.

  1. Iron-Man Arguments

An iron-man argument is created in similar ways as a straw man argument, that is, by misrepresenting the original stance. However, in this case, people create their stance in such a way that it’s easier to defend. These arguments are difficult to avoid because they have several overlapping features with legitimate debate strategies. People often use jargon or imprecise terms that are so vague and confusing that no one can challenge those arguments.

Consider this situation for example. An entrepreneur, who has spoken highly about their enterprise creating social impact has failed to deliver so. Upon being questioned by the media, they answer difficult questions by “We’re doing our best every day and our priority has been and will be generating change in the upcoming months”. Therefore, by using vague sentences, the entrepreneur says things no one can strictly disagree with.

How To Navigate The Straw Man Fallacy

Now that the straw man meaning is clear, let’s see how one can tackle this problem. The options include:

  1. Discussing why one believes that the statement is a straw man argument.

Challenge the opponent to validate or provide proof for their twisted view. Ask them to explain clearly and logically how it’s identical or equivalent to your original statement. The opponent will then have no option but to defend their view.

  1. Ignoring the straw man argument entirely.

Simply continue elaborating on the original point. That’ll move the discussion back to the point one is trying to make.

  1. Choosing to engage with the straw man argument.

Even when the argument is forced, one can go on to state why it’s unrelated and irrelevant to the original stance. One can cite research and statistics indicating how the two arguments seem similar but are actually different. This is especially useful when the difference between the two arguments is a question of nuance.

Harappa’s Thinking Critically course will teach you about the straw man fallacy, the Ladder of Influence, emotional appeals and approaches to reasoning. Leading behavior scientists, entrepreneurs, educators and trainers take you through different straw man fallacy examples and tell you how to get past them.

Harappa’s ABCD framework can be used to effectively drive and lead the arguments. Following the ABCD Framework, an argument can be enhanced and faulty reasoning can be corrected. The ABCD framework polishes the argument at four levels: Accuracy in reasoning, Believability in concluding, Clarity of understanding, and Detailing in articulating. Sign up now and learn how to think critically at work. And life in general.

Explore topics such as What are Arguments, Types of Arguments, Fallacy & the Types of Fallacies from our Harappa Diaries blog section and hone this skill of strategically thinking in business.