What is a straw man argument?

I’ve seen this term bandied about a lot here and in other places and I’m embarressed to admit that I don’t know what it means. I figure if anyone can give me a good explanation it’s fellow dopers. Thanks in advance.


Straw Man Argument:

A straw man argument is when you mischaracterize an opponent or his position, and then rebutt that erronious statement. You are, in effect, inventing an opponent to defeat, ie a ‘straw man opponent.’

A straw man argument is a misdirection of refutation to some point other than the one made by the opponent. If you propose to open a clinic to provide low cost health care to inner city residents, and I oppose your view with an argument that such clinics will provide abortions to young women, and undermine the moral strength of the community, I am attacking a strawman.

You did not propose any sort of specific services beyond “low cost health care” and are not advocating anything in the way of pro-choice agenda. But arguing against health care for the needy sounds so stingy, and mean, I would rather attack something I will sound more noble by opposing. So, I create a false argument, impute that position to you, and then argue against that.

The most clever of strawman arguments are those which elicit a defense from the opposition against the irrelevant point, and prevent any reasonable consideration of the original position. Thus, the argument is won, by default, even though the counter argument is refuted utterly, since it did not relate to the premise, which can subsequently be described as undefended.


“For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” ~ Sun-tzu ~

The above descriptions are correct. It is also one of the most common arguments used by political pundits. Bill O’Reilly does it almost every sentence. Real debaters (where the hell have they gone) don’t use it because it so completely undermines the credibility of the person who uses it. It frequently is unwittingly used when someone summarizes an opponent’s argument rather than addressing each point.

What is the best defense against a strawman argument?

In the case I cited, I would earnestly inquire if the opponent felt that the possibility that someone might inquire about birth control was sufficient reason to deny pre natal care to all the mothers who might ask for that? Pointing out the logical inconsistency in the argument is sufficient for most cases, but making your own point, and ignoring the temptation to actually engage in a counter argument you have no interest in supporting is the most important thing.

Me: “I feel that clinics in the poorest communities are the responsibility of a decent society to provide care for its most vulnerable members.”

Him: “These clinics will be providing abortions and free needles for prostitutes and drug addicts! It’s all just part of the dissolution of American Values! Don’t you understand? We have to take a stand somewhere!”

Me: “Well, while you are standing there, do you mind if the rest of us discuss the need for pre-natal care, infant nutrition, immunizations, geriatric care, and make some plans for how those might be addressed?”


“The road to truth is long, and lined the entire way with annoying bastards.” ~ Alexander Jablokov ~

Follow Up Question:

Is there a name for the argument that I think is a fallacy where you take the best case scenario of your argument and weigh it against the worse case scenario of your opponents?

Example: In a drug legalization argument in which you mention alcohol being legal and your opponent compares a heroin junkie to a guy having wine at dinner. Or conversley, comparing a guy who gets drunk every night vs. a guy who smokes a joint before bed.

Here is an excellent example of a straw man argument:


In this thread, razorraca says more than once that skeptics require a 100% success rate before they will believe something, then goes on to say that the skeptics are wrong because this is foolish. Of course that would be foolish, and no responsible skeptic insists on anything like that. That argument is a straw man put up by razorraca, and is easy for him to knock down. But like all of these arguments, only shows the inherent weakness of the position.


This is a type of excluded middle argument, taking two extremes of a position to make one side look worse than it really is.

The Baloney Detection Kit, distilled from Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark can be found at Operation Clambake’s website on this page. Sagan’s book is interesting reading. It’s too bad more people don’t take a class in logic and rhetoric or even a short stint in the debate club. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds. :slight_smile:


Originally posted by Major Feelgud:
What is the best defense against a strawman argument?

Unfortunately, the best defense against a strawman argument is an ad hominem attack, ignoring the argument and attacking the presenter. That is, if by “best defense” you mean the strategy that will most help you convince others. Arguments restrained by the rules of logic only impress logicians.

If you’re not fond of the ad hominem strategy, incessant repition is another fallacious tactic that works well.

(The sad thing is, I’m not even sure I’m being sarcastic here…)


I think the best defense is simply learning to recognize when your opponent is using a straw man and pointing this out to the “audience”.

What I like about SDMB debates is that – because this is a written medium – it is much easier to analyze your opponent’s position. Verbal debates provide much less time for reflection, and it is therefore easy to get distracted by a straw men and other tricks. Verbal debates also rely more on style points such as tone of voice and appearance, which are irrelevant to a well-reasoned debate.

Three cheers for the SDMB!

I guess this is the thread to ask this in:

Is an OP an Original Point? Or Original Position? Or Original Post? Something like this? Something completely different? Thanks.

OP = Original post or Original poster depending on context.

The OP, or original post, is the one which starts the thread. It is the one you ignore when you hijack the thread and begin another discussion. Sometimes the same acronym is applied to the original poster, for purposes of heartfelt approbation, or ad hominem attack.


“Swat my hind with a mellon rind, That’s my penguin state of mind.” ~ Opus ~

I thought this was a pretty benign hijack…

Nobody’s mad at you McStain, but questions of form go here.

Isn’t this all just a red herring?

I think it’s a stalking horse.

FWIW, ain’t it a shame that dopers are so intimately familiar with logical cheats like straw men? Maybe we need a “straw man hall of fame” in the pit.