A straw man, known in the UK as an Aunt Sally, is a type of argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position. To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the "straw man"), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.
The origins of the term are unclear. The usage of the term in rhetoric suggests a human figure made of straw which is easily knocked down or destroyed, such as a military training dummy, scarecrow, or effigy. The rhetorical technique is sometimes called an Aunt Sally in the UK, with reference to a traditional fairground game in which objects are thrown at a fixed target. One common folk etymology is that it refers to men who stood outside courthouses with a straw in their shoe in order to indicate their willingness to be a false witness.
The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern of argument:
- Person A has position X.
- Person B disregards certain key points of X and instead presents the superficially similar position Y. The position Y is a distorted version of X and can be set up in several ways, including:
- Presenting a misrepresentation of the opponent's position.
- Quoting an opponent's words out of context — i.e. choosing quotations that misrepresent the opponent's actual intentions (see fallacy of quoting out of context)
- Presenting someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, then refuting that person's arguments — thus giving the appearance that every upholder of that position (and thus the position itself) has been defeated
- Inventing a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs which are then criticized, implying that the person represents a group of whom the speaker is critical.
- Oversimplifying an opponent's argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.
- Person B attacks position Y, concluding that X is false/incorrect/flawed.
This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position fails to constitute an attack on the actual position.
Straw man arguments often arise in public debates such as a (hypothetical) prohibition debate:
Person A: We should liberalize the laws on beer.
Person B: No, any society with unrestricted access to intoxicants loses its work ethic and goes only for immediate gratification.
The proposal was to relax laws on beer. Person B has exaggerated this to a position harder to defend, i.e., "unrestricted access to intoxicants"It is a logical fallacy because Person A never made that claim. This example is also a slippery slope fallacy.
Person A: Our society should spend more money helping the poor.
Person B: Studies show that handouts don't work; they just create more poverty and humiliate the recipients. That money could be better spent.
In this case, Person B has transformed Person A's position from "more money" to "more handouts", which is easier for Person B to defeat. Furthermore, Person B fails to mention what the money could be "better spent" on.
Person A: Sunny days are good.
Person B: If all days were sunny, we'd never have rain, and without rain, we'd have famine and death.
In this case B has falsely framed A's claim to imply that A says that only sunny days are good, and has argued against that assertion instead of the assertion A has made.