This is one of the more well known informal fallacies in the study of logic. It occurs when one party misrepresents the stated position of another in the course of attacking it. It gets its name from the notion that one is attacking a straw version of the real position instead of confronting that position on its own terms. It thus results in a misleading claim that one has refuted the actual position in question while avoiding any direct engagement with it.
Often this fallacy is committed by accident, the likelihood of which is increased by the fact that people who disagree already have different ways of looking at things (and hence it should be no surprise that they often misunderstand each other). It can also be a very deliberate strategy, used either to deceive an audience, or simply to control the terms of a conversation. Whatever the reasons for doing so, if a criticism is directed against an inaccurate portrayal of another’s position, it commits the straw man fallacy.
To use a simple example, let us assume a student walks into class. The clock on the wall indicates the student is 5 minutes late, so I point this out and mark them down as late for class. The student suggests that the clock is fast and that she isn’t really late. I respond by asking her if she thinks she can come to class any time she wants with no consequences for her grade. In this example, my response would commit the fallacy of the straw man by construing her own argument about the accuracy of the clock as a willful refusal to take the official start time for the class seriously. A more reasonable response might have been to suggest that the clock was accurate after all, or (perish the thought!) to concede that my student was right and reverse the decision to mark her as late for class.
I’m going to go on to discuss a few common ways varieties of straw man arguments. It’s unlikely that others will recognize these variations by name (especially since I am coining these terms as I write them), so I wouldn’t suggest using this vocabulary to call-out people’s mistakes, but I want to suggest a few common variations on the straw man, just as food for thought, so to speak.
…also I seem to like run-on sentences.
It should also be noted that several of these concerns are rather closely related. Misplaced Literalism could for example be construed as a specific case of an uncharitable interpretation. Also, the following categories are not intended as a complete list. It is simply an effort to discuss some of the more common variations of this particular fallacy.
The Bale of Hyperbole: This version of the straw man fallacy is very straight forward. It consists of systematic exaggeration of the position one wishes to criticize. If someone says for example that Christians have at certain times in history committed atrocities in the name of Christ it would be a straw man to treat this as equivalent to the notion that Christianity is the root of all violence. If someone says the Republican party is not a racist institution, it would be a straw man to say that they had pretended the party was entirely innocent or that it had no racists among its membership.
One common feature of the bale of hyperbole is the manipulation of qualifiers (and quantifiers). ‘Some’ becomes ‘all’; ‘often’ becomes ‘always’; ‘difficult’ becomes ‘impossible’, etc. It isn’t always that obvious, but sometimes one can spot this fallacy by simply looking to see if the qualifiers used in a criticism match those of the original argument.
Misplaced Literalism: This occurs when a critic treats figurative speech as though it were intended literally. The original argument thus comes across as a caricature, and the author’s real point is set aside in favor of an attack on the language of its presentation.
The Straw Rule: This variation occurs when one concocts a rule which is supposed to explain a judgement she wishes to criticize. The implications of the straw rule are then shown to be absurd and the conclusion is easily drawn that the entire judgement is foolish in the extreme. One may utilize a straw rule in place of an actual principle in the hopes that no-one notices the difference, but what makes this particular version of the straw man tempting is the fact that people often fail to explain the basis of their judgements. It is then quite easy to fill in the gaps of the other guy’s argument with a rule that would explain the judgement in question by committing its author to absurd consequences.
Examples? Party A says she opposes her government’s effort to wage a particular war and party B then proceeds to explain why pacifism is a terrible philosophy (thus ignoring the possibility that Party A may be opposed to the particular war in question but not to all war). Party C says that she thinks the Washington football team ought to change its name from the Redskins to something less offensive and Party D proceeds to suggest that she must also change the name of the Minnesota Vikings, the Boston Celtics, etc. (This response ignores the possibility that the Redskins may be uniquely offensive and/or harmful to Native Americans while addressing an idea that all references to ethnic identity are inherently objectionable.) In both of these cases, the responding party has attributed a specific value judgement to the original argument which simply wasn’t there. It might have been fair to ask for some such principle and then to scrutinize the one put forth by the first party, but to supply the principle in terms bordering on caricature is a form of straw man.
The Whipping Boy: This variant of the straw man involves a tricky problem; how do you deal with a general theme incorporating a broad range of different specific arguments? Some of those arguments may be stronger than others, and some may be foolish in the extreme. Sometimes a theme may come up in a conversation without fleshing out the details. In such cases, one has to choose the variation(s) of a theme she wishes to refute. The Whipping Boy occurs when someone chooses to respond only to the weakest variations of a theme while ignoring its strongest versions.
If for example one were to address libertarian views on national health care, it would be easy enough to mock those claiming that such a policy amounts communism (especially when such comments appear to assume that this in itself is enough to show that national healthcare is a bad thing). It is much more difficult to address those concerned about the relative inefficiency of government programs and/or the likelihood that such systems are inherently more prone to corruption than market-based approaches to health care. These latter arguments would require thoughtful engagement whereas knee-jerk red-baiting comments are easily dismissed. One would be committing this version of the straw man if she were to dismiss the entire field of libertarian concerns about national health care while fielding only a response to the notion that such a system is communism.
It should be added that there may be good reason to comment on the weaker versions of a given theme, not the least of them being that such variations may well be among the more popular ones. There may even be times when one wishes to comment only on such variations, and that may be entirely appropriate, providing that one limits the scope of one’s conclusions to those variations. The Whipping Boy Occurs when one trashes the weak versions of a theme while drawing conclusions about the full range of views represented in this theme.
Uncharitable Interpretation. The principle of charity is one of the more subtle features in the study of logic and argumentation. It is a rule of thumb suggesting that when interpreting an argument, one should try to construe it in the strongest terms possible. it comes into play when critics fill-in the vagaries of an original argument in a manner that makes it highly convenient for any subsequent criticism. It’s not clear that such strategies clearly constitute examples of a straw man fallacy insofar as the uncharitable interpretation will not precisely contradict the stated language of the original argument. Yet, this more subtle strategy does enable a critic to avoid direct confrontation with the more substantive ideas she wishes to attack, So, one might not think of an uncharitable interpretation as a fallacy in the most precise sense of the term, but it remains a problematic form of argumentation. When dealing with an uncharitable interpretation, one may wish to acknowledge a certain adequacy when taken at face value, but it is equally fair to note when stronger versions of the original argument would survive a given criticism.