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Straw Man

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Also known as: Fallacy of Extension, straw dog fallacy, scarecrow argument, wooden dummy argument, single-villain ideology


A Straw Man is a classic logical fallacy where a person manufactures a caricature (usually a misinterpretation or oversimplification) of his opponent's argument, and then sets out to attack or dismiss the exaggeration. i.e. Building a straw man and then knocking it down. This is a very dishonest line of argument, since a person puts words into his opponent's mouth then ridicules them.

Its name is derived from the practice of using straw men in combat training. In such training, a scarecrow is made in the image of the enemy with the single intent of attacking it.

The most prevalent use of strawmen argumentation today involves sweeping generalizations and labeling people as being part of pre-demonized ethnic, cultural or social groups: liberals, illegal immigrants, "Socialists", blacks, Jews, etc.


Straw Man examples

  • "I believe it requires more "faith" to accept a theory that says our amazingly precise, intricately complex universe just exploded into being out of nothingness"[1]
The strawman here is that creation and all life "just exploded", or "happened by chance" (perhaps the most common Straw Man example employed by theists). This is of course, a complete mischaracterization of evolution, quantum theory, astrophysics, biology and everything in between. The writer suggests that one possible explanation for life, is that it "just happened". This is the weakest and most shallow answer possible, and is not any idea that a learned scientist in an appropriate field would endorse, yet the person uses this horrible example as a standard by which his opponent's claims should be judged. If he can find a fault in this "straw man" he's created, or if he can get his opponent to suggest, "Yes, it's unlikely things 'just exploded out of nothingness'" then he will declare that he's won the argument.
  • If you don't support our president invading Iraq then you must love Muslim terrorists.
Strawman arguments often paint the world in black and white, also known as a False Dichotomy, as if there is only right and wrong and nothing in between. Pick a position that is politically-correct and if you don't align with it, then by default you must somehow be the exact opposite.
  • Liberals want America to fail in the Middle East.
An otherwise ridiculously ignorant claim can be almost suggested as legitimate if you incorporate a strawman group like "liberals" into the equation. It's not-specific but has been previously defined as some sort of "evil" or "unpleasant" ambiguous group of enemies on which various things can be blamed. Since there is no particular "leader" of the "liberals", there's nobody motivated to defend such ignorant statements and pundits in the media declare by lieu of no argument, their statements are truthful.

Strawmen in the media BY DESIGN

  • Strawman Pundits
An interesting technique that is appearing in mainstream media and specifically news shows like CNN and Fox are "Strawmen commentators" where a very powerful speaker represents one side of an issue, while a weaker ideologue represents the other, (i.e. Hannity & Colmes -- the aggressive overbearing Sean Hannity makes the so-called liberal Alan Colmes appear to be ineffective). Roundtable discussions on networks like CNN routinely feature very skilled debaters on one side, and amateurs or extremists on the other. How often do you see the voice of reason illustrated on roundtable discussions such as Crossfire? You usually see the network's point of view, along with some extremist nutjob, or demonized attention whore as the representative icon of the other side.
  • Strawman Topics
Certain issues seem to lend themselves to strawmen arguments. For example, when advocating tort reform, frivolous lawsuits such as a woman who sued McDonalds and got $3M for being served hot coffee[2] - this suit is held as an example of wasteful lawsuits, as if most lawsuits are of this nature. Furthermore, of course, the characterization of the actual lawsuit in the media is often grossly inaccurate. These types of cases make for perfect straw man arguments (assuming people do not do their own investigating to realize the networks are lying).
Colon Powell scares congress into condoning the Iraq invasion by holding up a fake vial of antrax. Pay attention to my strawman, people! This two-bit Arabian dictator is the biggest threat evah to America! BOOGA BOOGA!
  • Strawman Demons
A very effective way of employing a strawman argument is through Ad Hominem sweeping generalization, which is the setup for the Guilt by association fallacy. If the news media runs a story on the thousand plus people who protested the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and shows a videotape of a stoned college student banging a drum and dancing, they create a strawman implying that anyone protesting the WTO is a wasted hippy. Furthermore the strawman notion of a "tree hugger" has become synonymous with environmentalists, even though a typical person who cares about global warming isn't likely to chain themselves to a tree in protest.
  • Strawman Advertising
Invoking strawmen is a staple in the advertising business, from implying that drinking the right beer will give you wonderful friends and good times, to driving the right car making you more manly, patriotic, or a babe magnet.
  • Fearmongering
Scaring people is a basic component of strawman arguing. A political candidate who suggests that the country would be less safe if his opponent were elected is creating a strawman using fear to motivate people to vote a certain way.
The entire Iraq invasion was perpetrated through an elaborate strawman concocted via the Bush administration's attempt to paint Saddam Hussein as a threat to America.

Variations on Strawman

A strawman argument is a type of Red Herring, a distraction, often designed to divert attention away from qualifying the real issue. It's often used as an Ad Hominem to dismiss a person's arguments prior to consideration:

What do you expect from someone who used to be friends with Louis Farrakhan? I wouldn't trust a word he says.

Guilt by association is a classic variation on the strawman argument.

Famous Real Strawmen

Virtually any historical figure of importance has a slightly distorted reputation, but some more than others have become much larger than their real life's work warrants and have become symbolic strawmen often invoked to shut down an argument:

  • Adolf Hitler - The quitessential strawman. To invoke his name in an argument is to immediately kill off any intelligent discourse. Whatever extent to which Hitler was universally immoral or "evil", pales in comparison to his value as a metaphor for anything and everything anyone who is decent should stand against.
  • Michael Moore - His work has been so heavily demonized, he is largely considered to be a propagandist on par with other historical figures who really did go out of their way to distort facts and figures. Nonetheless, a careful analysis of Moore's work and his statements will show a consistent attempt to show the truth and back up claims with facts and sources that are non-biased.
  • Hillary Clinton - This woman was a GOP demon all through the 1990s for reasons nobody can seem to understand. Her husband may have committed adultery, but her reputation seems to have suffered the most. Now Hillary is synonymous with lesbians and socialism.
  • Ronald Reagan - This is a great example of a false-positive strawman. Ronald Reagan is greatly revered in conservative circles for being a "great president" and having a sound economic and social policy, but in reality, his record is anything of the sort. Invoking Reagan's name has become a sort of sacred pilgrimage for republicans, and likely because he is now deceased, it is considered taboo to speak critically of him or his policy. A perfect strawman.
  • United Nations - In many circles, most notably the American media, the U.N. has become a metaphor for the potential loss of American autonomy and power. Characterized on CNN and Fox News as an ineffective, bumbling, racist, corrupt organization run by evil foreign leaders intent on destroying America, very little mention is made of the fact that the United States has more control and influence in the U.N. than any other nation, picks-and-chooses whether to pay attention to them, and the media largely ignores the plethora of valuable, life-saving programs the U.N. is involved in. Instead, the reference is often invoked to scare and provoke people into backing the contention that the United States should not pay attention to any other world leaders with whom they disagree.

Video examples

Pat Robertson creates a huge straw man, by characterizing liberal college professors as "communists", "killers", "people who beat up on students" and "termites" attacking the very fabric of academia:

Watch Keith Olbermann call out Bill O'Reilly for creating an elaborate straw man argument centering around some supposed "Secular Progressive Conspiracy" to destroy Christmas:

The way O'Reilly paints things, you'd think anyone who wants the holiday season to be more in tune with its true Pagan roots is part of some highly-organized cabal of mysterious secular soldiers. Yea right.

Fox New's Neil Cavuto strawmans an atheist who argues it's inappropriate for a presidential candidate to use religious propaganda in a campaign ad:


  1. . from christianity.about.com/b/2005/12/20/judge-rules-out-intelligent-design.htm
  2. . http://www.centerjd.org/free/mythbusters-free/MB_mcdonalds.htm

See Also


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