Straw Man Much

In 1989 I read a book called Attacking Faulty Reasoning by T. Edward Damer for a college class and I still have that book today.  It’s dogeared and I’ve added tabs and I refer to it often.  I do this because contained within the pages of this text are words of wisdom – powerful words that since the first time I read them, have imbued me with the ability to throw the BS flag and have kept my own arguments sound.


Today I’d like to talk about the Straw Man Argument.  In my dated version of the book it can be found on page 128 but since 1989, 5 new editions have been published so you’ll have to use the table of contents to find it in your copy.  This fallacy occurs when someone misrepresents a position usually for the purposes of making it easier to attack.  According to Damer, there are three main ways this is accomplished:

  1. You can restate the position in a perverted form by shortening or paraphrasing it using carefully selected words.
  2. You can simplify a complex position to a point which makes it sound absurd.
  3. You can extend an argument beyond it’s intended bounds by drawing absurd conclusions.

To help crystallize these approaches, I think an example or two might be helpful.  Let’s take a topic that is hotly debated today – gun control.  Below is a short exchange between two parties that demonstrates how you can pervert the original position:

Proponent: Statistics show that in other countries that have implemented gun control, large-scale massacres are significantly reduced or ended altogether.

Opponent: Clearly you do not care about starving children in rural areas that rely on food provided by hunting.

In this example, you can see how the opponent simply restates the position using an unrelated topic – hungry children – and a gun-related activity to muddy the water.

Another topic that is hotly debated today is discrimination based on gender.  Here’s an example of the third straw man argument method.

Melissa:  After reviewing carefully the data, my own opinions and those of people in my town I see no moral, logical or legal justification for discriminating against a person on the basis of their gender.

Frank:  Well, I’m not sure how they do things where you’re from but if you want men and women to use the same public bathrooms that’s just wrong.  After all, it’s clear that woman just don’t want to do housework anymore.

In this example, Frank first draws an unintended outcome from Melissa’s statement and then Frank doubles down by oversimplifying the original statement to the point of absurdity.

I raise this topic today not to put forth a value statement of my own on either of these topics or any other topic for that matter but to remind us that:

  1. Having opinions is a good thing.
  2. Understanding the point of view of those that don’t share your opinion is a good thing.
  3. Recognizing when you or your opponent is committing a fallacy of logic (whether intentionally or not) can keep the discourse civil.

If we can’t communicate effectively, we can’t progress and without progress, we remain stuck in the place we are.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments (for or against).  #TGIF