Straw Man Arguments: What They Are and How to Counter Them

Strawman argument

 

A straw man argument is a rhetoric technique where someone distorts their opponent’s argument, in order to make it easier to attack. By doing this, the person using the strawman pretends to refute their opponent’s argument, while in reality they refute a different argument, that does not accurately portray their opponent’s original stance.

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”.

Because strawman arguments are so prevalent, it’s important to thoroughly understand them. In the following article, you will learn more about how strawman arguments work, and about how you can counter them, or use them yourself.

 

What is a strawman argument

Using a strawman argument is relatively simple, and usually consists of the following three stages:

  • First, person A states their position.
  • Then, person B presents a distorted version of person A’s original position, while pretending that there’s no difference between the two versions.
  • Finally, person B attacks the distorted version of person A’s position, and acts as if this invalidates person A’s original argument.

Essentially, instead of arguing against the original stance, person B creates a strawman, which is easier for them to attack. This means that there is a logical flaw with the premise of person B’s argument, and namely the fact that they are arguing against a distorted version of their opponent’s original argument.

As such, the strawman fallacy is considered to be a type of an informal logical fallacy, and specifically a type of a relevance fallacy, since the person using it is attacking a stance that is not directly relevant to the discussion at hand.

 

Example of a strawman argument

The following is a typical example of a strawman argument in political discourse:

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 just let everyone do drugs whenever they want, crime rates will increase drastically.

In this example, Senator B uses a strawman argument, by misrepresenting Senator A’s stance on two key points:

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

In doing this, Senator B makes it much easier for himself to attack his opponent.

Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter whether Senator B’s overall claim is true or not (i.e. that if everyone had free access to drugs, then crime rates will increase drastically). It’s entirely possible for an argument to be logically fallacious, and still have a correct conclusion.

However, even if that was the case, it doesn’t change the fact that Senator B’s argument is a gross and fallacious misrepresentation of Senator A’s stance, which is why it should not have been used in the first place.

 

How to recognize strawman arguments

Strawman arguments are common in debates on various topics, and can appear in a wide range of forms, such as:

  • Oversimplifying, generalizing, or exaggerating an opponent’s argument, and then attacking the new, weaker version.
  • Focusing on one specific part of an opponent’s argument, while ignoring everything else that they say (a technique known as cherry picking).
  • Quoting parts of an 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 themself.
  • Similarly, if the opponent is part of a group, then it’s possible to focus on the weakest members of that group and refute their stance, while pretending that this is what the entire group believes.

In addition to these common ways of using strawman arguments, there are various other methods of distorting people’s arguments, ranging from minor distortions to outright fabrications. However, all of these techniques have the same thing in common: they involve someone distorting their opponent’s stance, in order to make it easier for them to attack.

As such, strawman arguments are relatively simple to recognize in discourse. Essentially, when you realize that there is a mismatch between someone’s stance and the stance that their opponent is attacking, it’s a clear sign that a strawman argument is being used.

 

How to counter strawman arguments

A good way to minimize your vulnerability to the strawman fallacy in the first place is to use clear and definite language, with as little room for misinterpretations as possible. This makes it more difficult for your opponent to distort your stance, and makes it easier for you to correct them if they attempt to do so.

However, while this reduces the risk of someone using a strawman argument against you, nothing can prevent someone from using this type of argument if they truly want to. Therefore, it’s important to know how to counter strawman arguments, which you can do using one of the following three methods:

  • Point out the straw man- call your opponent out on their use of a strawman, by explaining why their argument is fallacious, and how it distorts your original stance. You can put them on the defensive by asking them to justify why they believe that their distorted argument is the same as the original one; since the two arguments are different, they will either be forced to admit their use of a strawman, or they will try to justify it by using even more fallacious reasoning, which you can attack.
  • Ignore the strawman- you can choose to ignore the distorted version of your argument that your opponent presents, and continue to simply advocate for your original position. This can be effective in some cases, but if they continue to focus on the strawman, you may have to use one of the two other methods mentioned here.
  • Accept the strawman- in some cases, it might be necessary or preferable for you to accept a strawman when you’re defending your stance, meaning that instead of arguing in favor of your original stance, you now start defending the distorted version of your stance, as presented by your opponent. Keep in mind, however, that the longer you go down this route, the more difficult it will be to go back and point out your opponent’s fallacious reasoning, since by not saying anything against the strawman you appear to accept it as your own stance.

Overall, since a strawman argument is fallacious because it distorts the stance that it argues against, the logically correct way to counter it is to point out this distortion. This is also the most effective choice for countering the strawman in most cases, though the two other options, namely ignoring the strawman or accepting it, can also be helpful in some situations.

 

Accounting for crowds and perception

Often, strawman arguments are used in debates that are viewed by a group of people. This is important to take into consideration when countering a strawman, because it can affect the way you choose to react to the strawman.

Essentially, when arguing in front of a crowd, your focus is often on persuading the crowd, rather than persuading your opponent; this is why people often use the logically fallacious strawman arguments in the first place.

As such, when it comes time to choose which technique to use in order to counter the strawman, consider which technique will appeal the most to the appeal in the crowd, rather than just thinking about which technique will help you deal with your opponent.

 

Accounting for the unintentional use of strawman arguments

Keep in mind that the use of a strawman argument can sometimes be unintentional. This is because, in some cases, people distort their opponent’s stance because they misunderstand it, rather than because they want to make it easier to attack.

This is important to remember when it’s time to interpret your opponent’s arguments, and when you need to counter any strawman arguments that they make. Accordingly, you generally want to start by asking your opponent to justify their use of the strawman, instead of just attacking them for their fallacious reasoning.

Doing this is beneficial not only because it promotes more friendly discourse, but because it also increases the likelihood that the other person will see the problem with their reasoning and accept their mistake. Remember that if you simply attack a person for their opinion, they will often continue to support it, even if they realize that they were wrong all along.

 

Using strawman arguments yourself

First of all, remember that you might be using strawman arguments unintentionally. If you identify cases where this happens, and specifically instances where you distort your opponent’s view in order to make it easier for you to attack, try to highlight this distortion in your mind, and correct it before approaching their argument again.

One way to ensure that you’re not using a strawman is to try and re-express your opponent’s position, and then ask them whether they agree with your description before you start arguing against it. This is the best way to make sure that your opponent agrees with your formulation of their stance, and is the preferred way to engage in productive discourse.

There may be times where you might choose to use a strawman argument yourself, for whatever reason. However, keep in mind that while the use of the straw man technique is widespread, and while this technique can be persuasive in some cases, research suggests that using this type of argument is not always a beneficial strategy, aside from the obvious issues with using fallacious reasoning.

Specifically, a study on the topic showed that as a rhetorical technique, strawman arguments are useful only when the listeners have a low level of motivation to scrutinize the argument, meaning that they don’t care much about what’s being said. Conversely, when listeners are invested in the argument, the strawman technique is generally ineffective, and may even backfire by reducing the persuasiveness of the argument.

 

Variants of strawman arguments

Hollow-man arguments

hollow-man argument is a variant of the strawman, and involves inventing a weak fictitious position, and attributing it to a vaguely defined person or group who is supposed to represent the opposition, before knocking it down in an attempt to discredit your opponent.

A hollow-man argument can often be identified through the use of weasel words, which include phrases such as “some say that…”, that are not attributed to any specific person or group. This is because such phrases make the statement vague enough to be nearly impossible to refute, while absolving the speaker of any responsibility with regards to the truthfulness of their claims.

 

Iron-man arguments

An iron man argument is a variant of the strawman, and involves distorting your own stance in order to make it easier to defend. Essentially, an iron-man argument is used in the same way you would use a straw man (i.e. by misrepresenting an original stance), but this time it’s in order to strengthen your own stance, rather than to weaken your opponent’s stance.

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 consider 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 actually say anything that is directly related to the topic at hand. He didn’t discuss facts, and didn’t argue directly against anything his opponent said. Instead, he made abstract statements that almost anyone would agree with, and adopted this vague agenda as his stance.

This means that now, instead of arguing against a specific topic like the 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.

 

Steel-man arguments

A steel-man argument is a variant of the strawman, and involves distorting your opponent’s argument in order to make it easier for them to defend, and more difficult for you to attack. Essentially, this means that you take your opponent’s original argument, and frame it in the best way possible before attacking it.

This is the suggested course of action under the principle of charity, which suggests that you should argue against the best possible interpretation of your opponent’s argument. In its ultimate version, doing this involves the following four steps, which were suggested by the famous philosopher Daniel Dennett, based on the work of psychologist Anatol Rapoport:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

– From “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Doing this has the similar benefits as giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt when it comes to whether or not their use of a strawman was intentional. As we saw above, doing this can lead to more productive discussions, by making your opponent more receptive to criticism, and more likely to change their opinion.

Note: some scholars use the term ‘iron-man argument’ to refer to any argument which distorts the original position in order to improve it. However, the distinction between iron-man and steel-man arguments is important to make, since the goals of the two types of arguments are markedly different. Specifically, while iron-man arguments are used in order to make it easier for you to defend your own stance, steel-man arguments make it more difficult for you to attack your opponent’s stance, meaning that the two types of arguments are used for very different reasons.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A straw man argument is a rhetoric technique where someone distorts their opponent argument, in order to make it easier to attack.
  • There are various ways in which one can distort their opponent’s argument. Some of the more common ones include generalizing, oversimplifying, or exaggerating the original argument, focusing only on specific details in the original argument, quoting things out of context, and arguing against extreme opinions which are sometimes used to support the opponent’s stance, but which the opponent didn’t actually use.
  • Once you are capable of recognizing people’s use of strawman arguments, you can try to counter them. The main way to do this is by pointing out the straw man and asking your opponent to justify why your original stance and their distorted stance are the same. However, you can also choose to ignore your opponent’s attempt at using a straw man, or to simply accept it and continue the discussion.
  • When countering a straw man, keep in mind the possibility that the person using it is doing so unintentionally, simply because they misunderstand their opponent’s position. Taking this into account and asking your opponent to explain why they believe that the stance which they presented accurately represents the original stance can help you counter the strawman successfully, and makes it more likely that the other person will accept their mistake.
  • A common variant of the strawman argument is the hollow-man argument, which involves inventing a fictitious position, and attributing it to a vaguely defined person who is meant to represent the opposition. Two other notable variants are iron-man arguments, which involve distorting your own stance in order to make it easier to defend, and steel-man arguments, which involve distorting your opponent’s stance in order to make it harder to attack.