Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Straw Man fallacy

Logical fallacies are common mistakes in reasoning. Everyone should know about them. But I'm not just going to explain these fallacies. I also want to examine their underlying reasons, implications, and applications.
So I present the Straw Man fallacy. First, leave it to T-rex:
So basically, any time anyone misrepresents his or her opponent, the misrepresentation is called a straw man. It is my opinion that the straw man is the most ubiquitous of all fallacies. It is actually very difficult not to use a straw man in any debate of moderate complexity. It’s just a simple matter of misinterpreting a few words or incorrectly guessing your opponent’s position. It can be intentional, unintentional, or somewhere in-between.
Sometimes, people even give the misrepresentation a name. A good example is “Darwinism,” which is a label only really used by its opponents (though Sunclipse tells me academics outside the US use it too). I would have thought this was a poor strategy, since it’s relatively easy to point out that Darwinism is just the straw man version of Evolutionary Biology, but the strategy seems to work anyways.
The straw man is the reason that it’s usually good to listen to both sides of a debate. It’s not because both sides are equally correct (God, no!). It’s because it’s very likely that both sides are, to varying degrees, attacking straw men. This is especially true when there is little contact between the two sides.
In a debate involving a large number of people, straw men are inevitable. Usually, different people will hold a spectrum of views on a controversial topic. So if I, for example, argue that Creationism is silly because [insert glaring flaw here], some people can say, “You’re attacking a straw man, because I believe the creation stories are non-literal,” or “But I agree that YEC is ridiculous, no, I believe in OEC.” And they would be right. No matter what argument I use, no matter how valid, it is almost guaranteed to be a straw man with respect to someone in the debate. This raises the question: Is it really a straw man if it’s an accurate representation of someone out there?
Some people get really indignant when they see straw men. In some sense, I think this is ironic, since straw men actually indicate a point where both sides agree—both sides agree that the straw man is wrong. You’d think that maybe occasionally, straw men would lead to two sides coming together in a common celebration of humanity or something, but it never works out that way. More common is the response T-rex gives us. Of course, the straw man fallacy should always be criticized, but since it’s such an easy mistake to make, I’m not sure that the people who use it should always be held morally culpable for it.