“Did you notice the straw man argument?”
As someone who reads a lot online, I see the above statement and its many variants a lot. My first rule of websurfing is to never read the comments section of an article or blog post. This is as much about saving myself time as it is about saving myself the mental grief of experiencing someone else’s tenuous hold on reason. But every now and then I slip up and accidentally read someone’s response to an article or blog post I’m reading and I’ll see this little gem of narcissistic conceit.
What’s my problem with someone saying something is a straw man argument? There are two, actually. The first problem I have is the fact I normally see this statement used incorrectly. A “straw man” argument is an intentional logical fallacy used to circumvent and misrepresent some other argument. Someone needs to make an argument, or there needs to be some commonly understood argument already pre-existing for the fallacy to apply. The straw man argument does not apply if someone is making a genuine attempt represent an argument, to the best of their ability. This is a bit nuanced, but straw man arguments need to be intentional. If someone doesn’t understand the position they’re attacking, that’s one thing. If they’re intentionally trying to persuade people through what are in essence lies, that’s propaganda. And if it is propaganda we’re concerned with, we should label it as such, and not worry about calling straw man reasoning. It’s not reasoning at all.
The second problem, and by far the most common problem, I see whenever someone responds “straw man” to someone’s column or blog post is the fact they really mean someone makes an incomplete argument. Writers, columnists especially, are limited in the amount of space they can use to make an argument, or the amount of time they can spend on one issue before moving on to the next. Thus, columnists often present an idea as simply and briefly as possible, with the expectation that the reader is already familiar with the subject at hand. It’s about saving space and time. Then the writer must present a counter-argument that will similarly need to be as brief and simply stated. Because people naturally favor their own views, most column space is going to be spent of presenting the author’s ideas, not in providing a definitive treatise on the entire subject. Just because this process naturally leaves gaps does not mean the author is committing the “straw man” fallacy. It only means they’re a columnist or writer trying to present an idea or ideas in a way that’s entertaining and somewhat informative. They can’t be definitive, since to be definitive requires years of research and hundreds of hours spent writing hundreds of pages of stuff, and who has time for that?
The “straw man” reply is one way of avoiding talking about the issue at hand at all, and instead getting embroiled in a discussion about that nature of informal logical fallacies. Thus, I suggest never saying “straw man” in response to any opinion piece, even one where the authors purposefully commit that fallacy. The better response is to say “you simply get xyz position wrong, which is why your conclusions are wrong.”
And if you’re reading an article where someone obviously commits the straw man fallacy, stop reading. You’re not reading an opinion piece, you’re reading crap.
Filed under: Philosophy