It’s much easier to knock down a straw man than a real man of muscle and bone.
When one person distorts the argument of another and then proceeds to critique that misrepresentation (whether in writing or speaking), he commits the informal logical fallacy (a defective form of reasoning) known as “attacking a straw man.”
A straw man is often an extreme or exaggerated version of another’s argument or an oversimplification of it. The problem is that any criticism of this distorted argument lacks logical relevance. The real argument has not even been considered.
It is very easy to commit the straw man fallacy, especially when engaged in a face-to-face argument. When a person is in the midst of a truly heated debate he is not usually concentrating on understanding his opponent’s argument in a dispassionate manner. Rather, he is probably thinking about what to say next in order to stay ahead in the debate.
Yet I have a suggestion that often helps people stay on track instead of speaking past one another. I suggest that each debater stop, take a deep breath, and listen carefully to their opponent and then seek to accurately repeat his argument back to him. A person can say something like, “Your central claim seems to be _ _ _ _ _ and your support for it consists of _ _ _ _ _. Now, am I correct in my understanding of your argument?”
Being able to repeat your opponent’s argument usually produces four direct benefits.
First, it ensures that you are not misrepresenting your opponent’s argument and, thus, not committing the straw man fallacy. You also show that you respect your opponent enough to fully consider their case.
Second, people like to know that they have been heard and that their argument has been correctly recognized. They may even be more open to criticism of their argument when they know you have endeavored to understand their position correctly. Attitude and demeanor tend to have a direct affect on personal persuasion.
Third, you can effectively criticize an argument only when you have a correct understanding of it. By first seeking understanding you inevitably help your subsequent logical and apologetic critique.
Fourth, this practice helps illustrate to your opponent (as well as to others who may be listening) that you care more about understanding truth than you do about winning an intellectual argument.
The straw man fallacy is commonly committed largely because people fail to listen carefully to the people with whom they are engaged in reasoning.
Next week I’ll discuss another common logical fallacy.
For more about the importance of logic and critical thinking, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test. For a great handbook in dealing with logical fallacies, see Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments by T. Edward Damer.