The ‘Straw Man’ Fallacy

A “straw man” is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet nonequivalent proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.

The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern of argument:

1. Person A has position X.
2. Person B disregards certain key points of X and instead presents the superficially similar position Y. Thus, Y is a resulting distorted version of X. Therefore, even if person B succeeds in disproving position Y, the original position X has not been disproven. In this sense, the “straw man” fallacy is a sophisticated distraction tactic, a kind of red herring.

The origins of the term are unclear. The usage of the term in rhetoric suggests a human figure made of straw, which is easily knocked down or destroyed, such as a military training dummy, scarecrow, or effigy. One common (folk) etymology is that it refers to men who stood outside courthouses with a straw in their shoe in order to indicate their willingness to be a false witness.

For more information, see the Wikipedia entry here.

Designs by Dave Long.

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