Two years ago I posted a three-part series on logical fallacies, which has been one of the most popular series to date. In the series, I discussed three ways conversations break down. The Ad Hominem, Genetic, and Red Herring Fallacies all sidetrack conversations. But there are more fallacies to be aware of and avoid. In this series, I’ll discuss three more common ways conversations are sidetracked: the “Straw Man” fallacy, the “Bandwagon” fallacy, and “Begging the Question.”
Defining The Straw Man Fallacy
Building a “straw man” is building a caricature—something that looks like the real thing, but is not. A straw man (literally, a man made of straw) may look very much like a real person, especially from a distance. But appearances are deceiving, and when we get closer to it and can examine it more fully, it turns out to not be a man at all.
This is analogous to the Straw Man fallacy. It occurs when a person inaccurately describes another person’s view or position. His description sounds right at first hearing, and you believe you now have a good idea of the issue in question.
He then goes on to show why that position is wrong. He points out its weaknesses, and concludes the view should be rejected. You agree with him and, therefore, conclude the idea in question is wrong, false, and not what you should believe.
But what if he intentionally left out key information? What if he painted the view in an unfair light? What if he slyly built a weakness into the position?
If he did, he is guilty of making a “straw man” of the view. He has given you a caricature of the position. It looked like the real thing when he was describing it. But when you look more closely you find it isn’t quite what he described it to be.
Examples of The Straw Men Fallacy
In Our Culture
This fallacy is very common. So much so that we have become used to it, and we hardly ever even recognize it for what it is.
We see it in advertising every day when company A compares its product to company B. Product B is often portrayed in a negative light. Think of ads for cleaners. We see someone struggling to use product B, and the results are still disappointing (usually filmed with a dull colors and inadequate lighting to further emphasize the point). Then product A is contrasted by showing the same person quickly getting great results (in contrast, filmed with bright colors and lighting). Is product B that much harder to use, and are the results that much less satisfactory? Usually not. A “straw man” is made of product B to convince you to go out and buy product A.
Or consider political discourse and debates. It is rare for a politician to not commit the Straw Man fallacy when critiquing his or her opponent. “My opponent believes...” is almost always an indication of what his opponent does not believe!
Individual politicians not only do this: political parties are guilty of this as well, as will become painfully obvious during the upcoming election cycle.
For instance, Republicans often say, “Democrats all believe bigger and bigger government is the answer to all our problems.” Do all Democrats believe government is the solution to all our problems? No. When words such as “all” are used, it is a clear sign the view is not being represented fairly. Democrats will respond that they believe increasing some governmental programs is the solution to some of our problems. Yet this is not always the solution. This is far from what the Republicans say Democrats believe.
From the other side of the aisle we hear Democrats often say, “Republicans don’t care about the poor, and so want to cut taxes that provide vital social services.” Do all Republicans have no regard for the poor? No. The Republican will respond that reducing taxes encourages business growth, which will provide more jobs for more and more of the poor, helping them get out of poverty. This is far from the position the Democrats have described is held by Republicans.
Unfortunately, in our Twitter, Facebook, and “sound-bite” culture the tendency and temptation is magnified. There is not time to outline and nuance the opposite view adequately before beginning a critique. Rather, we are forced more and more to discuss important issues in short, superficial, and inaccurate ways.
In Evangelistic Conversations
The Straw Man Fallacy is equally common in conversations with non-believers. For instance, we often hear, “Believing in Jesus is like believing in a Santa Claus who brings presents down chimneys on Christmas Eve!” This is a false caricature of the Christian faith. Unlike Santa Clause delivering presents, there is solid historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth existed and did what Christians believe he did (including resurrecting—see my series here for more).
Far from one’s “faith” in Santa Claus, the Christian’s faith in Jesus is no different from faith in other objects exhibited every day. When we get in our car, fly on an airplane, walk across a bridge, or get on an elevator we exercise faith in the engineers that designed them, the companies that built them, and the agencies that certified them. If asked, we could give these reasons to justify our faith.
Faith in Jesus is no different. Saying otherwise is a straw man fallacy depicting biblical faith in inaccurate or incomplete ways.
How Do We Avoid Building Straw Men Ourselves?
The more attune we are, the easier it is to spot straw men others erect. However, it is just as easy for us to erect straw men of other’s views (for instance, when discussing other religions). How do we avoid falling into this error ourselves?
The greatest command Jesus gave should be our guide: treat others as you would like to be treated (Luke 6:31). In the same way we want our views to be understood and stated well before someone critiques them, we must understand and articulate well another person’s view before we begin our critique. Only then are we showing love to our “neighbor” and treating him or her as we wish to be treated.
A practical way to do this is by first stating the person’s position as clearly and fairly as possible. Once we do so, we should ask him or her if we got it right, or if they want to clarify our understanding. “Did I do justice to your view? Did we paint it in the best light? How might you add to or nuance what I said?” Only when he confirms we have accurately described his view should we offer our critique.
We only have the right to criticize another’s view when we accurately understand the view. As Malcolm Gladwell said, “Criticism is a privilege that you earn—it shouldn’t be your opening move in an interaction.”
Remembering this helps us avoid the Straw Man Fallacy, as well as foster healthy conversation in which our view will also be heard and understood. This holds true for all areas of differing opinion: political, cultural, religious, and theological. Much less heat and much more light would be generated in our conversations as a result.
Identifying the Straw Man Fallacy is a way we live out Proverbs 18:17: “Any story sounds true until someone tells the other side and sets the record straight.” This is describing the Straw Man fallacy. By questioning him and showing that the case he is presenting is a caricature of the position, light and truth can be brought into the discussion.
Being aware of the Straw Man Fallacy is also a way we live out God’s call to humility. We are acknowledging other’s views are worth consideration, and so we do the hard work to listen and understand. We often may still disagree and critique, but our conversation will be much more healthy and productive.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading, see Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks’ Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking