Straw Man Arguments: How to Recognize, How to Counter, and When to Use Them Yourself

 

A straw man argument is a debate technique where a person pretends to refute his opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that is only superficially similar to the original one. For example, if person A were to say “we should improve the public healthcare system”, person B might reply with “I find the fact that you want to give a lot of money to large pharmaceutical corporations very suspicious”.

What happens is the following:

  1. First, person A states his position.
  2. Then, person B presents a distorted version of person A’s original position (while pretending that there’s no difference between the two versions).
  3. Finally, person B attacks the new position, and acts as if this invalidates person A’s original position.

Essentially, instead of arguing against the original stance, person B creates a “straw man”, which is easier to attack. This misrepresentation is a flaw in the premise of person B’s argument, which is why straw man arguments are a type of informal logical fallacy.

 

Straw man example

Senator A: “I think we should make medical marijuana more readily available for patients who need it.”

Senator B: “That’s a terrible idea. If we let everyone just do drugs whenever they want, crimes rates will increase drastically.”

Senator B uses a straw man argument, by misrepresenting Senator A’s stance on two key points:

  1. Senator B argues against everyone having access to marijuana, while Senator A argued in favor of patients having access to it.
  2. Senator B argues against drugs in general, while Senator discussed only marijuana.

Note that we’re not discussing whether Senator B’s claim is true overall; we’re focusing on his misrepresentation of Senator A’s stance. Just because person B is distorting person A’s claim, doesn’t mean that his response to distorted stance is wrong (though I’m not implying that this is the case here).

 

Using straw man arguments in practice

These arguments are very prevalent in debates, and can appear in various forms:

  • Oversimplifying, generalizing or exaggerating the opponent’s argument, and then attacking the new, weaker version.
  • Focusing on one specific part of the opponent’s argument and ignoring everything else.
  • Quoting parts of the original argument out of context in order to misrepresent them.
  • Arguing against fringe or extreme opinions which are sometimes used to support the opponent’s stance, but which the opponent didn’t use himself. For example. If the opponent is part of a group, it is possible to focus on the weakest supporters and refute their stance, while pretending that this is what the entire group believes.

Being able to recognize straw man arguments is valuable, because it allows you to tell when others are using this technique, whether in direct arguments against you, or in general discussion. Furthermore, understanding how this technique works means that you can use it yourself when necessary. You would admittedly be exploiting a logical fallacy to support your argument, but the choice whether or not to do so is up to you.

However, while the use of the straw man technique is widespread, research suggests that using this type of argument is not always a beneficial strategy. A study on the topic showed that as a rhetorical technique, straw man arguments are useful only when the listeners have a low level of motivation to scrutinize the argument (i.e. they don’t care much about what’s being said). Conversely, when listeners are invested in actually thinking about the argument, the technique is generally ineffective, and may even backfire by reducing the persuasiveness of the argument.

 

Countering the straw man

A good way to minimize your vulnerability to the straw man in the first place is to use clear and exact language, with as little room for misinterpretations as possible. However, while this reduces the risk of someone using a straw man against you, nothing can prevent someone from using this type of argument if they want to. Therefore, you should know how to counter it, using the following options:

  • Point out the straw man- call your opponent out on their use of a straw man. If they stick with it, focus on showing why their new argument is not relevant. Keep in mind that perception matters, especially if there is an audience: you want your opponent to be on the defensive for his actions, not the other way around. Make your opponent defend why your original stance and their distorted stance are the same. If there is truly a flaw in their premise, it will become evident under scrutiny.
  • Ignore the straw man- you can ignore the distorted argument, by refusing to engage anything that isn’t relevant to your original point (i.e. defend your original point, not the straw man that the opponent presents). If they insist, you will likely have to call them out on the straw man.
  • Go with it- in some cases it might be necessary (or easier) to adopt the straw man as your argument. However, the longer you go down this route, the more difficult it is to go back and point out the straw man fallacy, since by supporting the new argument you appear to take it as your stance.

 

Other important things to keep in mind:

  • The first step to countering a straw man is recognizing it.
  • The overall goal of the straw man is to distort your stance, in order to make it harder for you to defend.
  • Sometimes people use this technique by mistake, because they accidentally misinterpret what you’re saying.

 

Iron manning

An iron man argument is similar to a straw man argument, except that it’s used in order to strengthen your own claims. Essentially, you would use it the same way you would use a straw man (i.e. by misrepresenting an original stance), but this time it’s in order to make your own point easier to defend.

One of the most prominent ways to do this is by using vague statements that are easy to agree with, even if they don’t have much to do with your actual point. For example, let’s go back to Senator B, who’s arguing against legalizing medical marijuana for patients. Instead of talking about the issue at hand directly, Senator B can say the following: “I just want what everybody wants: to do the right thing, and make life better for the American people. Following our moral compass takes courage in hard times, but only if we remain steadfast in our beliefs will we be able to prosper and grow strong together”.

Senator B didn’t say anything that is directly related to the topic at hand. He didn’t discuss facts, and didn’t argue against anything his opponent said. Instead, he made abstract statements that almost anyone would agree with, and adopted this vague agenda as his stance. Now, instead of arguing against a specific topic like legalization of medical marijuana, he’s arguing in favor of “doing the right thing” and “following our moral compass”, which is much easier for him to defend.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A straw man argument is when someone misrepresents their opponent’s view, in order to make it easier to attack.
  • This occurs through tactics such as overgeneralization, or quoting things out of context.
  • Once you recognize this technique, it’s possible to counter it.
  • You can use this technique yourself, or you can use a similar version (iron manning), to make your own arguments easier to defend.
  • This technique is relatively effective on uninterested listeners, but can be problematic if the audience is invested in the debate.

 


How to Win at Arm Wrestling and Avoid Injury

A picture of an arm wrestling match.

 

Arm wrestling is often used as a trial of strength. However, while physical strength does matter, most people have no idea how to utilize it effectively, especially in this context. Improving your technique by adhering to the following guidelines can give you an advantage in arm wrestling, and allow you to beat significantly stronger opponents.

Note that the more of these tips your follow, the bigger your advantage will be. However, even following a few of them can be highly beneficial.

 

Body position

  • If you’re competing with your right arm, stand with the right foot forward (and vice versa).
  • Stand close to the table, so that your arm is near your body.
  • Keep your core muscles tight.

 

Hand position

  • Try to rotate your hand over your opponent’s, so that your forearm is in prone position.
  • Twist your wrist towards your body. (Together with the previous tip, this is known as a toproll).
  • Curl your thumb and get it underneath your own fingers for a better grip.
  • Climb “up” with your hand over the opponent’s hand by moving your fingers forward and re-gripping.
  • Keep a tight grip throughout.

 

Overall technique

  • Start tensing your muscles before the contest starts (but don’t cheat by starting to apply pressure on your opponent early).
  • Arm wrestling is about pulling, not pushing. Make a pulling motion with your hand, and move the opponent’s hand away from them and towards you.
  • Apply force with your back and shoulders, not just your arm muscles (again, using a pulling motion).
  • Rotate your shoulder and body in the direction you want your opponent’s arm to go.

 

The mental aspect

If the two of you are closely matched, the winner could be the one who hangs on longer, and who doesn’t give up. So, if you feel you’re getting tired, keep in mind that your opponent is likely feeling the same. Appear confident for as long as possible, and try to look like you can keep going all day.

 

The dangers of arm wrestling (the ‘break arm’ position)

Arm wrestling can lead to all sorts of injuries, the most common being a humeral fracture, which essentially means that the bone in your upper arm snaps in half.[1,2,3,4]

 

An x-ray of a humerus that broke during an arm-wrestling match.

 

However, you can reduce the risk of injury by avoiding the ‘break arm’ position. To do so, keep your arm perpendicular to your chest, and your shoulder in line with your arm. You should be able to look directly at your hand as it moves.

In the following picture, the person on the left is in the dangerous break arm position. Conversely, the person on the right is at the appropriate position, which protects his arm and minimizes the risk of injury. In fact, in some professional matches, the referees might stop the match if one of the contestants is too far from the appropriate position, and too close to the break arm position.

 

A picture showing the dangerous break arm position in an arm-wrestling match.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Using proper technique can give you an advantage in arm wrestling.
  • Try to keep your hand near your body, and pull your opponent’s hand away from him.
  • Get your hand above your opponent’s hand, and curl it towards yourself.
  • Pull not only with your hand, but also using your back muscles.
  • To reduce the risk of injury while arm wrestling, avoid the break arm position by keeping you arm perpendicular to your body and in line with your shoulder.

 


The Stages of Learning: How You Slowly Become More Competent at New Skills

When you learn a new skill, the beginning tends to be the most frustrating part. Often, you’re not sure what you should be doing exactly, or how you should be doing it. This applies to everything from starting a new sport, to trying to speak a foreign language.

Luckily, the process of becoming better at new skills is relatively predictable, and can be broken down into different stages. Once you understand how it works, you will understand why the beginning is hard, and you will be able to identify your ‘position’ in the learning process. Overall, this will make you more aware of your abilities and more conscious of your learning, which will help you learn new skills better and with more motivation.

 

The levels of competence

 

The four stages of skill learning (based on level of competence).

 

  • Unconscious incompetence- in the beginning, you don’t know what you don’t know. You’re not entirely aware of what the new skill entails or what your goals should be. You make mistakes without realizing that you’re making them.
  • Conscious incompetence- at this stage, you know you’re still making a lot of mistakes, but you’re now at least aware that you’re making them. You still don’t know a lot, but you can recognize what you need to learn in order to improve.
  • Conscious competence- if you’re at this level, it means that you’re relatively proficient in the skill, so that you have a good understanding of it, and you make only a small amount of mistakes. However, performing at a high level still requires a significant effort on your part.
  • Unconscious competence- at this point, you are so well-practiced in the skill that you can perform at a high level with relatively little effort. For you, the necessary actions are now mostly instinctual and automatic.

These stages are often mentioned in discussions of learning theorySome researchers also propose a fifth stage, called “unconscious supercompetence”, which is similar to “unconscious competence”, but at a higher and more effortless level. However, because this stage is less clearly defined, it is less commonly referenced in literature. In reality, whether or not this distinction exists isn’t truly crucial, since it only matters if you’re at the highest level of proficiency anyway.

Historical note: this theory is often attributed to Abraham Maslow, who also developed the hierarchy of needs. However, it’s not clear whether the theory actually originated with him, and there are disputes regarding who came up with it first. It’s entirely possible that this is because several people came up with similar conceptualizations of the model independently from one another. In any case, this doesn’t matter too much, as it doesn’t have any effect on how the theory is applied today.

 

Applying this in your learning

This framework is not intended as an absolute, 100% accurate psychological model. Instead,  it’s meant to give you a rough idea of the stages of competence that you will go through as you learn new skills. Use it to recognize where you are in the learning process, and how you’re advancing.

Keep in mind that you are likely going to fluctuate between the different levels, or have certain subsets of the skill at one level, while other subsets will be at different level. For example, if you’re learning a new language, it’s possible that your reading will be at a higher level than your writing, or that you’ll be better at understanding what other people say than at speaking yourself.

The main takeaway is this: feeling that you have no idea what you’re doing in the beginning is perfectly fine. When you eventually start realizing that you’re making tons of mistakes, that’s not a bad thing either. Instead, these are both predictable and necessary stages of learning, that you go through as you slowly improve.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • When learning a new skill, you advance through several stages of competence.
  • You will start at unconscious incompetence, advance to conscious incompetence, followed by conscious competence, and finally unconscious competence.
  • Your abilities might fluctuate a bit as you learn, and it’s natural for different subskills to be at different levels.
  • If you’re feeling helpless when you start learning a new skills, don’t worry; it’s a natural part of the learning process.