Straw Man Fallacy

by Tim Harding B.Sc., B.A.

A speaker commits the Straw Man Fallacy (known in the UK as an ‘Aunt Sally’) whenever she falsely attributes a weak position to her opponent that he wouldn’t have proposed himself and then proceeds to attack the weak position. The opponent is a real man with a real argument; the weak position is an artificial one held by an artificial person —the “straw man” or a scarecrow that the speaker has created as a debating tactic. It’s easier to attack a straw man; nevertheless, the attack is irrelevant. It is a diversion from the main issue.[1]

You are not committing the straw man fallacy simply by drawing a consequence from what the man says that is not what he himself would draw. It must be clear that you are also misrepresenting what he did say.

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

  1. Debater 1 has position X.
  2. Debater 2 disregards certain key points of X and instead misrepresents X as the superficially similar position Y.
  3. Debater 2 attacks position Y, concluding that X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This reasoning is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position does not address the actual position.  This argument doesn’t make sense; it is a non sequiturDebater 2 relies on the audience not noticing this.

Christopher Tindale presents, as an example, the following passage from a draft of a bill (HCR 74) considered by the Louisiana State Legislature in 2001:[2]

Whereas, the writings of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, promoted the justification of racism, and his books On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man postulate a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. . . .Therefore, be it resolved that the legislature of Louisiana does hereby deplore all instances and all ideologies of racism, does hereby reject the core concepts of Darwinist ideology that certain races and classes of humans are inherently superior to others, and does hereby condemn the extent to which these philosophies have been used to justify and approve racist practices.

Tindale comments that “the portrait painted of Darwinian ideology is a caricature, one not borne out by any objective survey of the works cited”. That similar misrepresentations of Darwinian thinking have been used to justify and approve racist practices is beside the point: the position that the legislation is attacking and dismissing is a Straw Man. In subsequent debate this error was recognized, and the eventual bill omitted all mention of Darwin and Darwinist ideology.

[1] Bradley H. Dowden (2012) Logical Reasoning. public domain/fair use. pp. 247-249.
[2] Christopher W. Tindale (2007). Fallacies and Argument Appraisal. Cambridge University Press. pp. 19–28.


Filed under Logical fallacies

2 responses to “Straw Man Fallacy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s