The Strawman Fallacy occurs when a debater constructs a more easily defeated version of his opponent's position to attack, rather than addressing his real arguments. The fallacy takes its name from straw dummies used in old-fashioned combat training; these dummies were made to look like a potential opponent, but provide no actual resistance. The fallacy itself is comparable to defeating such a dummy, then proclaiming you have defeated an actual opponent.
While most people will not be fooled by a blatant misrepresentation of their position, careful use of a strawman can make them defend a carefully undermined version of their position, allowing their opponent to apparently destroy them with a prepared rebuttal.
- Steelmanning, where the strongest (hence the use of the word "steel"; i.e. an armorplated straw man) possible interpretation of an argument or position is rebutted, even if it is not necessarily the position the opponent actually presented.
- Ironmanning, where one's own or another's position is intentionally misrepresented, to make it appear that one's arguments are stronger than they actually are in order to more easily defend a position, or to make it appear that one's critics are unfair or shrill. Also known as a Motte and Bailey fallacy.note
Looks like this fallacy but is not:
- When the argument being refuted is not misrepresented.
- This can include when the representation is insulting or crude, but accurate.
- Reductio ad absurdum ("reduction to the absurd"), a legitimate debating technique where it is demonstrated that a natural conclusion of an un-distorted version of the opposing argument is bizarre or absurd.
- When the argument being refuted is explicitly spelled out as being hypothetical or weakened, either as part of a lead up to attempting to refute the actual argument, or trying to explain why a person or system of beliefs holds or may hold certain other positions. (Although if the disclaimer is not clear enough, the result can veer unintentionally into strawmanning.)
- While a Strawman will extrapolate details into a second, weaker argument in order to apparently defeat the first, a Red Herring will establish a second, different argument to try to make everybody else involved forget about the first one.
Alice: Health insurance is too expensive. Something must be done to bring down the costs.Bob: It wouldn't be so expensive if doctors didn't order so many unnecessary, expensive tests.Alice: Most of those tests are not unnecessary! They save lives!
- Bob has successfully sidetracked Alice from the cost of health insurance to the necessity of many medical tests. This is often done subtly by altering the meaning of one of the terms used in the original argument, to rebut what appears to be the same argument but is actually a totally different one.
Accent (aka Amphiboly)
- A sneakier form of Strawman; here, rather than actually altering their opponent's words, a debater shifts emphasis to make their opponent appear to be saying something else. For example, "We should not speak ill of our friends" (stating we should be kind to friends) becomes "we should not speak ill of our friends" (we can speak ill of anyone else). Commonly used for humour value if it involves a Suspiciously Specific Denial, but it's still a fallacy if used as part of an argument; like Strawman, it's an attempt to evade addressing the opponent's real point.
Bob: I can't believe some people. I'd never do anything like that with a domesticated horse, it's despicable.Alice: Prefer them wild, do you?
Suppressed Correlative (aka Lost Contrast)
- A special type of Strawman, this occurs when a debater is arguing using a correlative (a statement that "all things are either A or not A") and their opponent attempts to redefine A such that all things that were previously excluded are now included.
Alice: Well, I say art is a word that refers to something that displays superior craftsmanship, and so this unmade bed isn't art, as anyone could make it.Bob: I define "art" to refer to any form of human expression, and so the unmade bed is art.
- In this extended form it should be clear what the problem is; Bob is addressing a claim Alice obviously never made (that the unmade bed was not a form of human expression) and therefore using a distorted version of her position to rebut her. This is true even if the Suppressed Correlative uses the word in a more technically correct way than the original; if you know your opponent is using a word incorrectly, it follows you know what they intended it to say and should rebut that argument.