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Common Logical Fallacies Study Guide (page 3)

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Updated on Sep 20, 2011

Tip

It's important to know the difference between an insult and an ad hominem fallacy. An insult just tries to belittle someone; an ad hominem fallacy tries to attack an argument based on the person making it.

Straw Man

This fallacy got its name from an old question, "Which is easier to fight, a real man or one made of straw?" If given the choice, most people pick the straw man, because it's so weak that it could be toppled by a breeze. Thus straw man fallacies deliberately distort an opponent's view on an issue in order to create an argument that's easier to win . . . it'll be a breeze!

The weaker position, or straw man, is usually an exaggerated or distorted version of the real position. Suppose a couple is having an argument about money. The wife is upset because her husband has been charging expensive items on their charge card. "You have to be more careful with our money," she tells him. Her husband retorts, "Why should I listen to you? You don't want me to spend a penny!"

Where is the straw man? Instead of acknowledging the issue his wife brought up, the husband distorts it by exaggeration. By changing his wife's claim to something ridiculous, he dismisses it. She didn't say he should spend nothing (an extreme view), but just that he should be more careful.

Note that the straw man fallacy attacks a position that isn't actually held by the opponent. A conclusion is drawn that ignores the real issue, so the person defending him- or herself has to bypass the real issue, too. In the previous scenario, the husband dismisses his wife's real argument—that he should be more careful with their money—by creating a new and unreasonable position for his wife to argue against. She's forced to counter his argument with something like, "I never said you shouldn't spend any money. Of course you should, you helped to earn it!" He never takes responsibility for the original issue.

It's difficult to defend against a straw man fallacy because you're forced to refute an extreme position you weren't taking in the first place, while trying to bring the focus back to the original argument. For example, it's a straw man fallacy to say that all Republicans care only for the rich or all Democrats want to create and defend a welfare state. Imagine a Democrat who does support welfare faced with such a remark. First, the person would have to try to show that the remark is excessive, then try to bring the discussion back to a reasonable view of the benefits of welfare.

Examples

  • We are all being asked to take a pay cut until the economy picks up. I can't believe they expect us to live on nothing!
  • You want me to vacuum the family room? I just cleaned it up two days ago. I can't spend my life cleaning, you know.
  • Congress is voting on reducing military spending. What do they want us to do, defend ourselves with paper airplanes?

In Short

Why would someone want to use a distracting technique? Perhaps they are faced with an argument they feel they can't win or they are uncomfortable discussing a certain topic. Whatever the reason, techniques such as red herrings, ad hominem attacks, and straw man are commonly used, not only by politicians and pundits, but by schoolchildren, business people, and friends. Learning how these fallacies work will hone your critical-thinking skills and help keep you from falling victim to their faulty reasoning.

Skill Building Until Next Time

  • Think of an issue you feel strongly about. Now, come up with an argument against that issue that includes an ad hominem attack. Make it as effective as you can. How would you argue against it, without getting defensive?
  • Listen for a few minutes to a radio program known for its controversial host. As the host discusses his or her opponents, note how many times straw man is used. How extreme are these arguments, and what are the real issues they are distracting the audience from?

Exercises for this concept can be found at Common Logical Fallacies Practice Exercises.

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