Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The trouble with Straw Men...

A "Straw Man" means misrepresenting a position in such a way that the position is easier to refute. It is becoming quite popular on the internet to label arguments as a "straw man".

It is my opinion that people tend to be too quick to cry "staw man".

I get into a lot of discussions about theology, so I see a lot of arguments, and people claiming their position is being staw manned. More often than not, I think these claims of "straw man" are incorrect (and not just when I'm the one being accused of it!).

The root of the problem is that there are so many minor variations within positions. Two people might agree on 99% of their theology, but disagree over 1% of it. So though one hundred people might hold to the same overall position, they will each have minor variations, such that no two of them hold to exactly the same view.

Say someone else then comes along who holds to quite a different view. They try to explain what they think is wrong with the view that the hundred people hold. After their explanation, every single one of those hundred people will think "their explanation wasn't my exact view." Obviously, since the hundred people have slightly different views, it is unfair to expect someone to describe their exact view. Even if it was their exact view, the person doubtless will have used different words and phrases, which though they meant the same thing were not what the hearer themself would have used.

As a result, the hearers' judge the new-comer's explanation to be a misrepresentation of their position. Thus they call it a "straw man".

My point is that, in my experience, most of the time it is not a straw man.

A simplication is not a straw man. In arguing against a broad position, it is necessary and reasonable to simplify. When there are a hundred people who hold the position, it is quite reasonable to only deal with the major points that they hold in common.

A rephrasing is not a straw man. Everyone is allowed to use their own words to describe concepts. Just because someone doesn't use the exact words you do, it doesn't make their words wrong.

A value judgment is not a straw man. Everyone is entitled to their value judgments.

An opinon about the logical outworkings of the position under scrutiny is not a straw man. It is not a straw man if someone thinks your position logically entails that God is a rabbit. They might well be mistaken, but it isn't a "straw man" for them to state their view.

I find that what usually is happening when a "straw man" is alleged is that the hearers want to find a reason to dismiss anything criticial to their position. They seize on things like "it is different to how I would have phrased it" as a reason to dismiss an entire argument even when the argument is a general one and has nothing to do with the detailed phrasing at all. Rather than looking at the force of the criticism, and altering it subtly to apply directly to their own position, they prefer to pretend that their position is immune to the argument just because they can convince themself their position is miniscully different to the one being attacked.

In other words, ironically, those who claim "straw man" are more often than not themselves engaging in a straw man. They straw-man the opponent's argument. Having straw-manned the argument against them in their own minds, they then turn around and claim that the other person was the one doing the straw man. Basically they are just more interested in continuing to believe whatever they already believe than being seriously open to criticism.

In short, if someone complains that you are straw manning their position, I suggest you understand that as actually meaning "I have no real interest in open dialogue. All I want to do is convince myself you are wrong."

That said, of course it is possible to straw-man someone and you shouldn't do it. However, a real straw-man will be obvious to everyone.

...this rant was inspired by Nathan's post on contrasts


Blogger Scott said...

Phew, that's a lot of straw.

Sometimes I think people confuse a 'straw man' argument, and a case of 'exluding the middle', where someone highlights the absurdity of an extreme view in order to boslter confidence in the opposite extreme. Bad bad bad.

Blogger Nathan said...

Heh... so uh... according to you, did I use straw man correctly?

Blogger Andrew said...

Yeah Nato, your use was fine. Though perhaps your use would be better labeled a "false dichotomy" (another overused phrase that needs its own rant). The difference between the two is fairly subtle, and probably irrelevant in your case.


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