Definition and Examples of the Straw Man Fallacy

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The straw man is a fallacy in which an opponent's argument is overstated or misrepresented in order to be more easily attacked or refuted. The technique often takes quotes out of context or, more often, incorrectly paraphrases or summarizes an opponent's position. Then after "defeating" the position, the attacker claims to have beaten the real thing.

Although the term straw man is a recent coinage, the concept is ancient. In the "Topics," Aristotle acknowledges "that in argument it would be inappropriate to interpret as someone's position an opinion that he did not express or is not committed to, in virtue of what he said" (Douglas Walton, "Methods of Argumentation"). The name of the fallacy represents the idea that although a straw man may look like a human, it won't put up any resistance in a fight.

The straw man fallacy also goes by the name Aunt Sally, particularly in Great Britain.

Straw Man in Commercials

Commercials make use of straw man fallacies. In the famous "Where's the beef?" Wendy's campaign, the commercials exaggerate the tiny amount of meat that other chains use in their burgers to show how much bigger and better its burgers are.

Straw Man in Politics

"Straw man has always been the stock-in-trade of advertisers and political smear campaigns," illustrate authors Nancy Cavender and Howard Kahane in their book "Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric." "A group called Common Sense Issues made a million automated phone calls to voters in the 2008 South Carolina primaries claiming that John McCain 'has voted to use unborn babies in medical research.' This was a gross distortion of his position to support research on stem cells gathered from embryos" (12th ed. Wadsworth, 2014).

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton was for open borders. He took a comment out of context from a speech she gave to a Brazilian bank about trade and energy to twist it into a statement that preyed on some people's fears of immigrants. He claimed she wanted people to be able to enter the border without going through any kind of process at all, which isn't true. His sound-byte distortion likely had an effect on voters, as immigration was a big issue in the campaign, and his repetition of the claim was easier to remember than her stances about nuances in the complex issue.

"Sometimes people morph the straw man into a warning about a slippery slope where allowing one side to win would put humanity on a course of destruction. Any time someone begins an attack with 'So you're saying we should all just...' or 'Everyone knows...,' you can bet a straw man is coming," wrote author David McRaney. "Straw men can also be born out of ignorance. If someone says, 'Scientists tell us we all come from monkeys, and that's why I homeschool,' this person is using a straw man, because science doesn't say we all come from monkeys." ("You Are Not So Smart." Penguin, 2011)

Countering the Straw Man

To refute a straw man attack during a debate, point out the fallacy and how it is incorrect. If you ignore it and the attacker keeps harping on it, the real issue could get buried in the straw. If you try and defend what the opponent said is your position, it gets increasingly difficult to show how the opponent distorted your views.