Saturday, September 15, 2012

Straw Man

Most of you reading this have probably heard of a straw man argument before. In case you haven't, it is basically setting up a caricature of your opponents argument and arguing against that instead. As was pointed out in the iron chariots article, the name straw man brings up an image of a scarecrow, it looks a bit like your opponents argument, but there is no substance and it won't fight back. It can be very frustrating to watch a video, listen to a podcast, or read a blog where someone sets up a straw man of your opinion.

One man's straw man is another man's actual opinion

One thing to keep in mind, it is possible that an argument appears to you like a straw man of your opinion, while it is instead a faithful representation of someone else's opinion. I was recently browsing some Christian blogs and came across a complaint of an atheist on youtube who claimed that many Christians will say that atheists are incapable of being moral since they don't believe in God. The blogger said neither he nor any Christian he knows would ever make such a claim, and therefore it wasn't worth watching the rest of the video. He was claiming that the youtuber was employing a straw man argument. I said that it is great that him and his friends think that such a claim is ridiculous, but there are plenty of people out there that will actually make that claim. I imagine most atheists have come across this type of argument before.

It made me wonder how many times this situation has been reversed. How many times have I started watching a christian's youtube video which started with "Atheists will often say X" where I just shouted at my screen "I would never say that!" Just because I would never say X doesn't mean that no atheists would say it. Maybe that video just isn't for me. Maybe if I claim that it is a straw man I am wrong. Maybe that video is just not directed at me. By the way, this kind of thing is part of why I think it is important to have discussions with people who generally agree with you but make an argument that you disagree with. If I hear an atheist say something I disagree with I definitely want to talk about it.

Intentional or Accidental?

There are certainly people who are simply dishonest and will intentionally straw man their opponent's arguments, but I wouldn't be surprised if the vast majority of the time it is an accidental thing. I think most straw man arguments originate from misunderstanding rather than malice. If an argument is confusing or intricate, it should be expected that not everyone will understand it on the first pass. And if you misinterpret part of it and what you think you heard is easy to refute, it is human nature to stop there and write a rebuttal. I think we all do this from time to time, ideally we would make sure we completely understand every argument before we respond, but who has that kind of time?


  1. I've been guilty of straw mans, but it;s always when the people I'm debating against were vague about some aspect of their position so I assumed what I thought most likely. I shouldn't do that, but derailing the conversation to constantly clarify isn't ideal either. If someone says I commit a straw man or any fallacy, I either explain why they are incorrect or admit to it, apologize and ask for clarification.

    No reason to take being called on a fallacy personal, it helps you improve your debate skills over all and moves the current debate in the right direction. Now, when someone gets overly mad about an innocent assumption and uses it to color my over all point as faulty and manipulative (which has happened before) that is fallacious in it's own right.

    1. Those are really good points. I agree that committing a straw man isn't something to be ashamed of, hopefully when people accuse us of straw manning something they can explain it well enough that we understand the mistake we have made.

      In fact, in the past when my Christian straw men arguments have been pointed out it led me to realize that my parents' church was a bit crazy. A simple example, my church had a literal view of genesis and they said that dinosaurs and humans lived side by side. I was shocked the first time I heard that some Christians don't believe this.

    2. Grundy: "No reason to take being called on a fallacy personal, it helps you improve your debate skills over all and moves the current debate in the right direction." I think you hit the nail on the head right here. Admitting when we commit fallacies is how we get closer to the truth, which is the reason for debating.

      Hausdorff: "One man's straw man is another man's actual opinion" This statement made me think quite a bit. It is true. I think Atheists generally assume Christians believe certain things based on their encounters, whats in the media, or as in our case, the churches we grew up in. I also feel this goes the other way as well. Christians generally view atheists from what they've been told about them, or a conversation they might have had. IMO, Atheism is something that kind of a "tricky" point of view, solely because generally most people don't like talking about it. I've known people that I knew didn't believe, but went to church anyway without admitting that they thought that it was silly. It is a social stigma. While I've never lied about it, I still don't really bring it up, unless a conversation leads that way with close friends of mine. However, I think things are changing and people are realizing that there are more of us out there.


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