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Fallacies: Straw Man Fallacy

In this Wireless Philosophy video, Joseph Wu (University of Cambridge) introduces you to the straw man fallacy. This fallacy is committed whenever someone misrepresents an opponent's claim in arguing against it.

Speaker: Joseph Wu, University of Cambridge.

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Video transcript

(music) Hi. I'm Joseph Wu, and I'm a philosophy graduate student at the University of Cambridge. In this video, I'll explain he Straw man Fallacy, an informal fallacy that comes up all the time. Let's start off with an example to see how it works. Suppose my friend Maureen presents the following argument: Premise 1: Advertisements for beer encourage underage drinking. Premise 2: Underage drinking often has negative consequences. Conclusion: Therefore, advertisements for beer should be banned from TV And, let's say I respond with the following objection: "Well, yeah, but people will never give up drinking beer! They've been doing it for ages!" Is this a good response to Maureen's argument? No! Because Maureen never claims it would be a good idea to give up drinking beer. That's not her argument at all. In this scenario, I've committed the Straw Man fallacy since I've attacked a position that Maureen never advances. The Straw Man (or Straw Person) fallacy occurs when an opponent's position is misrepresented in order to make it easier to critique. Just like how a man made of straw is intended to resemble an actual man, a Straw Man fallacy occurs when an opponent's position is presented in a way that resembles the original claim, but is not the actual claim advanced. It creates the illusion that a position has been refuted or critiqued by switching out the original position with a different one. To see this more clearly, Consider the following two claims: Advertisements for beer should be banned from TV. This is Maureen's original claim. People should stop drinking beer. This is my portrayal of Maureen's original claim. And these are two very different claims. Maureen only endorses the first one based on our conversation. However, my objection is to the second claim, which is much easier to refute. This is because the second claim is a very extreme view. It would take a lot of good arguments to convince others that people should stop drinking beer. But in our argument, I have improperly attributed this extreme view to Maureen, and then proceeded to attack it. Since this claim is much easier to refute than her original claim, I have committed I have committed the Straw Man fallacy. The general structure of Straw Man fallacies goes like this. First, person one advances position X. Second, person two presents a distorted version of position X. Let's call this position Y. Third, person two attacks position Y. And, fourth, person two concludes that position X is false. In the Straw Man fallacy we have just considered, The original view is exaggerated to a very extreme view and then attacked. But there are other ways in which a position can be misrepresented as well. Sometimes a position can be oversimplified to the point of being absurd. Here's an example of that: Suppose my friend Gio presents the following argument: Premise 1: The theory of evolution says that humans are no different from apes. Premise 2: Humans are different from apes because humans are obviously smarter. Conclusion: Therefore, the theory of evolution is false. Is this a good argument? Clearly not, since the theory of evolution does not claim that humans are no different from apes. Gio has falsely characterized what the theory of evolution says and then proceeded to attack it. He has committed the Straw Man fallacy. But it's worth noting that the structure of his argument is valid. So for anyone not familiar with evolutionary theory it might seem as though Gio has provided a good argument against evolution. And this is why Straw Man fallacies can often be difficult to spot. The Straw Man fallacy is prevalent in politics as well. And it is not just used to misrepresent an opponent's position. Often, straw men are set up to distract people from difficult topics that politicians want to avoid. For example, consider how politicians construct straw men responses by answering a question they were never asked. Suppose a politician is being accused of illegally using campaign funds for personal use. Let's say a reporter asks the politician directly, "So, did you, or did you not, use campaign funds for personal spending?" And, the politician might respond with something like this: "That's an excellent question." "I've received a lot of generous donations to my campaign." "My favorite donation has been a handwritten card thanking me for everything I've done." "I really love that card especially since I value the dedication of working class people." In this example, the politician sets up a straw man by responding to a different question than the one originally asked. The question was whether campaign funds have been used for personal spending. But the politician provides an answer to the question, "What has been your favorite campaign donation?" This is a much easier question to answer, and, it allows the politician to avoid answering the original question while also portraying himself, or herself, positively. Straw Man fallacies are everywhere. And you've probably come across variations of the examples presented here in your everyday life. Sometimes, Straw Man fallacies are intentional, which is often the case in politics. But other times they are unintentional. Like when someone genuinely misunderstands an opponent's claim. In order to keep discussions productive, it is important to grasp the exact position being advanced before proceeding to attack it. Otherwise, you may be guilty of committing the Straw Man fallacy.