Many people formed their first impression of Kamala Harris during the democratic primary debate. She argued that when Biden was a Senator he voted for a bill that opposed bussing. There was a little girl in California, she said, who was bussed to school every day. “That little girl,” she said, “was me.”
Many people watching the debate were moved by what Harris said. The problem is that her remarks to Biden committed a logical fallacy.
The purpose of the debate was to help discover the strongest candidate for the party. A fair evaluation of Biden’s credentials would have included a range of factors. By focusing on only one incident, Harris was misrepresenting Biden’s record.
Biden had in fact worked on hundreds of bills to eliminate segregation and move civil rights forward. By focusing on just one example, Harris was constructing a false image of her opponent and then attacking that false image. Why? Because the false image was easier to attack than the real man.
There’s a name for this kind of misrepresentation. It’s called a “straw man.”
What is a Straw Man?
The straw man is a logical fallacy that replaces something (a person, a viewpoint, an argument) with a distorted version that blows the original out of proportion to make it easier to attack. It’s one of the most common fallacies–like a hasty generalization, ad hominem, or slippery slope.
The term “straw man” is based on a metaphor. The arguer doesn’t attack the “real man,” that is, the real person, argument, or claim. The arguer instead constructs a fake man made of straw, and then attacks that straw man. The arguer then claims to have defeated the real person, argument, or claim, even though the arguer hasn’t said anything about it. That’s where the fallacy comes in: you can’t defeat something you don’t deal with at all. The arguer can’t win the argument because he hasn’t dealt with the real person, argument, or claim; he has dealt solely with the straw man.
People use straw man fallacies knowingly or unknowingly to avoid challenging a stronger opponent. Politicians often make use of the straw man to attack opponents. They create a distorted image of an opponent’s position or an opponent’s argument by magnifying some things and minimizing others, then attack the distorted image. Harris’ attack on Biden is an example.
Here’s another example that illustrates what a straw man fallacy looks like:
Wife: “I’d rather go to a beach than a big city.”
Husband: “Why do you hate big cities?”
Explanation: The husband has constructed a straw man of the wife’s claim. The wife never said that she doesn’t like big cities. The husband instead misrepresents what she says to make her preferences seem more extreme than they are.
Many people construct straw men accidentally because the misrepresented view resembles the original. A straw man can even fool the person who made the original claim: the wife might get tricked into defending the straw man that her husband has constructed, and never steer the conversation back to her original claim.
Here are some more examples of a straw man argument:
Mom: “I want you to leave your phone on the kitchen counter at night so you can get a better night’s sleep.”
Son: “You never want me to talk to my friends.”
Explanation: Mom never mentioned anything about her son not talking to friends. The son is attacking her request by distorting it.
Person A: “Nuclear energy provides a safe, reliable way of combating climate change.”
Person B: “I don’t want nuclear waste in my backyard!”
Explanation: A real argument against Person A’s claim would try to show that nuclear energy is not a safe, reliable way to combat climate change. Instead of trying to show that, however, Person B attacks another claim that is not relevant to what Person A said. Person A didn’t say anything about storing nuclear waste in Person B’s backyard. Person B is taking a complex claim and replacing it with a simpler, unrelated claim that’s easier to attack.
John: “The new $6 Trillion federal government budget is going to inflate the US dollar because it’s just printing more money.”
Explanation: Whether or not the budget will trigger inflation is a complex issue. By focusing on just one part of the budget, John is oversimplifying the real-world complexities in order to make the budget easier to attack. In particular, John doesn’t take into consideration other parts of the budget that aim to grow revenue by raising taxes.
How to Disarm a Straw Man
Knowing how to disarm a straw man is an important critical thinking skill. It involves describing the difference between the real thing and the misrepresentation of it. In other words, disarming a straw man has two components:
- Describing the real issue (person, view, or argument);
- Explaining why the issue (image, view, or argument) that’s being attacked isn’t the real one.
For example, to disarm her husband’s straw man, the wife can reply as follows: “I said that I prefer the beach over the big city; I never said that I hate big cities.”
To disarm her son’s straw man, the mom should reply as follows: “I said that I want you to sleep better by leaving your phone on the counter; I never said that I don’t want you to talk with your friends.”
To disarm Person B’s straw man, Person A should reply as follows: “I said we should look into nuclear energy as a safe and reliable way to combat climate change. I didn’t say anything about storing nuclear waste in your backyard.”
To disarm John’s straw man, you can reply as follows: “The budget is very complex. There are parts of it that aim to grow revenue by raising taxes. It might be the case that the revenue generated by higher taxes is enough to offset inflation.”
Build a Steel Man Instead
Free thinkers are concerned with knowing and understanding what’s true. When it comes to evaluating other people’s arguments and viewpoints, they don’t misrepresent others’ arguments to make them seem weaker. They respond to the real argument. At their best, they go a step further than that: they reconstruct opposing arguments to make them as strong as possible. In other words, they don’t build straw men; they build steel men.
Free thinkers know that people aren’t always skilled at formulating the best arguments for a view. So they take the burden on themselves to formulate the best versions of those arguments. Constructing a version of an argument that’s stronger than the original is the opposite of constructing a straw man.
Free thinkers construct steel men because they’re committed to knowing and understanding what’s true, and they know that to achieve that goal, they need to evaluate the best defenses for and against various claims.
By contrast, straw man-building is motivated by a tribal mindset that seeks to defeat opponents at any cost—even at the cost of knowing what’s true.