| Anna Mar, August 08, 2018 updated on July 17, 2020
A straw man is an argument that refutes a position that was not presented by an opponent. It is a common and lazy tactic that nevertheless may influence an audience. The following are illustrative examples.
DeflectionCompletely ignoring the opponents point to talk about something else.A: How will you secure more funding when you run out of cash?B: The reason we are working to make the company more efficient is ...
ExpansionSubtly expanding the opponents argument to refute only the part that you have changed.A: Canadians like hockey.B: Not all Canadians like hockey, Canadians are individuals who are all unique people. Don't treat them as if they can't think for themselves. Some Canadians intensely dislike hockey. You don't speak for all Canadians, you aren't even Canadian yourself.This example contains multiple straw man arguments. Person A did not claim that all Canadians like hockey or that she represents all Canadians or that Canadians can't think for themselves or that she herself is Canadian.
LabelingMischaracterizing the opponents position by applying an inaccurate label to it.A: Admission to university should be based on merit.B: So you believe that only the elite should get an education.
MisrepresentationMisrepresenting the opponent's position.A: We should do something about global warming.B: So you just assume that carbon dioxide is bad because you heard so in social media, did you know that plants need carbon dioxide to survive?A: I did not say that carbon dioxide is inherently bad. Obviously it is a critical element of the atmosphere. However, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ...
Dramatization Dramatizing the opponents argument to make it seem absurd. A: We should have more pedestrian friendly zones.B: You want to close down businesses and schools all over the city just so that you can walk down the middle of the street.
Checkers SpeechThe checkers speech was an address made by Richard Nixon on September 23, 1952. At the time, there were accusations that he had misused funds related to his political campaign. Nixon stated that there was one gift he had received that he would not return: a dog named Checkers that was beloved by his children. The speech was emotional and personal and highly successful in changing public opinion. It is considered an example of a straw man argument because no one was accusing Nixon of improprieties related to the dog.
Straw Man vs SteelmanningA straw man seeks to misrepresent the opponent's argument to make it appear weak or absurd. Steelmanning is the opposite approach that strengthens the opponent's position before refuting it. For example:A: Computers are stupid and will never be as smart as people.B: So you're saying there are certain aspects of human intelligence that computers can not match. Well, that is certainly true but ...Steelmanning is characteristic of an objective argument that seeks the truth over an easy but deceptive "win."
EtymologyThe term straw man first appears in 1585-95 to refer to something that is insubstantial. This is considered an analogy to a scarecrow stuffed with straw that is designed to look like a man without the substantial elements of a human such as a brain. An 1897 definition of "man of straw" reads “The figure of a man formed of an old suit of clothes stuffed with straw; hence, the mere resemblance of a man; one of no substance or means; an imaginary person.”
This is the complete list of articles we have written about influencing.
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ReferencesRandom House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, 1986Universal Dictionary of the English Language, 1897
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