What is a strawman?

  1. every now and then I will see a debate going on in the forums here and someone will say "Your argument is a strawman, thus you lose and I stand corrected." or something to that effect and the the other guy will always say "Thats not a strawman! Your a strawman!"

    calling someone's point a "strawman" must have some kind of meaning I'm not aware of because other then the topic getting slightly derailed, it keeps going. what are people referring to when they call things strawmen?
  2. jcsd
  3. Im not sure, I think its something like arguing something someone did not say.
  4. Moonbear

    Moonbear 11,955
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    That and other common logical fallacies and their explanations can be found here:
    http://www.csun.edu/~dgw61315/fallacies.html#Straw man
  5. ShawnD

    ShawnD 953
    Science Advisor

    It's when you intentionally misinterpret something, then argue against your own misinterpretation.

    John: Crime is a problem, but I don't think longer jail terms will do anything to stop it.
    Steve: You're right, jail is useless. Let's just turn all the criminals loose on the streets since prison clearly does nothing :rolleyes:

    In the above example, John made a vaild argument, then Steve created a strawman. It's very common on forums that are filled with assh0les like Something Awful. When somebody brings up a strawman or a red herring, it's a good indication that their argument doesn't hold a lot of water. Watch political debates closely and you'll see this happen way too often.
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2007
  6. So perhaps we should get rid of political debates? :rolleyes: I think you could give better examples than that Shawn.
  7. russ_watters

    Staff: Mentor

    That's a pretty clear example, cyrus. The point of a strawman is that it is putting words in a person's mouth they didn't say and then arguing against them (in this case, via sarcasm). In the example, John does not say jail is useless and didn't apply they should be gotten rid of.

    Incidentally, it is tough to tell if your first sentence was meant to be ironic, but it is also a good example of a strawman! Shawn is right, in any case, that the strawman is an extremely common political debate tactic. However, it can sometimes be tough to tell the difference between a strawman and a logical extension. Ie, if you do A, B will happen, so you argue against B. The person who argued A did not argue B, but it is an acceptable debate tactic to argue against B if it is a logical consequence of A.
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2007
  8. ShawnD

    ShawnD 953
    Science Advisor

    Or just educate people to watch out for strawman arguments.
    I thought my example was self explanatory but I can try it again.

    Republican: We need to go to war with Iraq to send a message to terrorists
    Democrat: What will a war in Iraq accomplish? (valid question)
    Republican: Are you suggesting we do nothing to discourage terrorism? (strawman)

    The democrat's question was specifically relating to a war with Iraq, asking what the connection is between Iraq and Terrorism.
    The republican then replaces "Iraq" with "terrorism" to imply that the two are interchangable, without actually giving any evidence of this, then acts like the democrat knows this and willingly does nothing to stop terrorism/Iraq.

    Another example? Sure. I'll even pick on democrats this time.

    Democrat: Guns kill 200 children per year in this country
    Republican: On the broad scale of things that's only like 1%, so your point is moot.
    Democrat: Are you saying children are not important?

    The question started off as dealing with statistics alone. The democrat threw out a number and the republican jumped on it. Since the statistics argument failed, the democrat makes a strawman argument based on emotionalism, implying that republicans don't care about 200 kids dying per year.

    A straw man in an argument is just like a target dummy. Make a decoy, such as emotionalism towards children, and have your opponent fight against emotionalism while you try to make a point about statistics. The two sides are no longer arguing about the same issue, and it puts somebody on the defensive about an issue that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

    Person 1: This teacher was caught having sex with his students, he should be thrown in jail
    Person 2: That student was 17 which makes it perfectly legal. Why would he be thrown in jail?
    Person 1: You're advocating sex with children?
  9. Dammit, my sarcasm just bombed. I shall leave the jokes to the professionals.

    I made a strawman to his strawman explanation. -o, well.
  10. A strawman is an argument with no brains.
  11. ShawnD

    ShawnD 953
    Science Advisor

    I think what you're talking about is called a null hypothesis. Rather than proving your own point to be true, you prove the counterpoint to be false.
    Take an issue like minimum wage. You can't positively argue that raising minimum wage is a good idea because the entire concept is theoretical, and any gains happening after raising minimum wage could just be a coincidence. Given that you can't argue minimum wage to be good, you can argue a lack of minimum wage to be bad, and prove this point with examples of sweatshops and horrible conditions in early 1900s America.

    I guess the best way to tell the difference is look for evidence to support an argument. A null hypothesis actually does have supporting evidence. A straw man is entirely baseless.
  12. It's actually a straw man argument or politically known as a straw person's argument. It's simply oversimplifying your opponent's argument to make it easier for you to attack it.
  13. LOL straw*person*.

    I gues the postman is now a post*person*. The mailman is a mail *person*.

    fireman is a fire*person*. Policeman is a police *person*.

    PC is BS.
  14. This discussion has been extremely enlightening, I must say. I seem to be particularly vulnerable to these kinds of arguments & obvious (in hindsight) strawmen have unseated me on many occasions. I end up reacting & end up becoming 'troll-fodder'.

    I wonder if there are any useful books outlining logic & debating skills?
  15. russ_watters

    Staff: Mentor

    No, I don't think so. Any counterpoint argument can be valid. What makes a strawman an invalid is that the point wasn't argued to begin with. For example, if someone did argue that prisons should be abolished, then arguing against that with valid evidence would be fine. The reason it isn't fine, even with valid evidence, is that the argument about prisons being abolished wasn't made in the first place (from your first example).
  16. Lisa!

    Lisa! 882
    Gold Member

    Nope, I got it that you were sarcastic here! But I have to admit that it was russ and shawn's replies to your post that made me laugh since they'd thought you were serious!:tongue:
  17. ShawnD

    ShawnD 953
    Science Advisor

    If you're heavy into debating, be sure to check out Wiki's section on fallacies

    Another one that kills people is the use of weasel words. Something like "it has been suggested that Saddam has ties to Bin Laden". Suggested by who? When? Based on what? Immediately jump on statements like that and demand supporting evidence. If the person you're debating doesn't have any, their credibility is forever lost.
  18. Chi Meson

    Chi Meson 1,767
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    That's a great link, Moonbear.

    The Wiki list is good too, but it goes on ad nauseum

    Get it?

    (I used a "strawman" fallacy by incorrectly calling a list of fallacies fallacious due to repetition, though it was not repetitious, only exhaustively complete; now that's humor!)
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2007
  19. BobG

    BobG 2,351
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

    I think people concentrate too much on the name of something and too little on what it is.

    Richard Feynperson would probably agree.
  20. Danger

    Danger 9,663
    Gold Member

    Great quote, Bob. I really should read some of that guy's stuff.
  21. Moonbear

    Moonbear 11,955
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
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    If it's any consolation, you almost got me too, but I caught the intent just in the nick of time, so you got a chuckle out of me. I didn't comment on it last night when I saw it, because I wanted to see how many people fell for it. :biggrin: I think your example shows why an appropriately subtle strawman can work so effectively.
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