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Strawmanning: How to Use the Straw Man Fallacy to Our Advantage

It almost feels like people don’t want to understand what you say. Even though you’ve made your point very clear. You listened to what they had to say, thought through your response, phrased your words carefully and even managed to deliver them in an articulate way. Oddly enough, it’s not exactly that people consider your idea flawed or wrong. It’s that their criticism has nothing to do with what you actually said. If this has happened to you, you may have fallen victim to a very common yet informal fallacy known as the straw man argument, or simply strawmanning.

What Is Strawmanning?

Strawmanning comes from the world of arguing and debating. It’s the act of replacing a potentially strong Proposition A with a similar yet distinctly weaker Proposition B. With one made of feeble straw so to speak. It’s much easier to argue against a straw man than one made of steel, of course.

The intention behind this rhetorical sleight of hand is to create the illusion that your Proposition A has been debunked. In actual fact, however, your argument hasn’t been addressed properly. Let’s take a look at an example. Our culprit is none other than the fictional mastermind Dr Sheldon Cooper of the Big Bang Theory:

Sheldon: I always tell people, if you have only one day in Los Angeles, make it a train day.

Raj: “Train Day?”

Sheldon: The fun starts with brunch at Carney’s in Studio City, a hot dog stand in a converted railroad dining car. Next stop, Travel Town, an outdoor museum featuring 43 railroad engines, cars, and other rolling stock from the 1880s to the 1930s. Then finally, we’re off to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, for dinner at, that’s right, the Hollywood Carney’s, a hot dog stand in a different converted railroad dining car.

Raj: I don’t think we’re gonna do that.

Sheldon: Well, then apparently, you hate fun.

Raj merely made a statement about the likelihood that he’ll go with Sheldon’s suggestion. Attacking Raj on the basis that he would hate fun, in general, is attacking a straw man, Sheldon. And you know it.

What sounds like immoral verbal jiu-jitsu can be quite the immoral verbal jiu-jitsu. But it’s not that simple. Because there’s some surprising merit to this seemingly ugly rhetorical manoeuvre, which we’ll explore by strawmanning and steelmanning the informal fallacy.

Strawmanning the Straw Man

In order to further illustrate how strawmanning works, let’s start by saying that it’s an utterly useless rhetoric game only employed by cheaters and aspiring halfwits. There are only two reasons why anyone would use a straw man argument:

  1. to wear people out by nitpicking their proposition so they eventually give in, or
  2. to bury their point so deep in the haystack of their words that you will never find out what they actually meant.

None of the points above addresses what strawmanning actually is. In being a caricature of the original point, though, a straw man argument can still be deceitfully convincing. With that out of the way, what is the best possible case in favour of the straw man?

Steelmanning the Straw Man

Strawmanning is generally used by at least two types of people. Either unintentionally by those who don’t pay attention or failed to put enough effort into their own argument. Or deliberately by those who have studied both sides of an argument in minute detail. If we want to make a strong case for the fallacy we may want to join the latter group. Here are five elegant ways we could put a straw man argument to good use.

1. Badge of Honour

Being strawmanned can be a badge of honour. Possibly, your counterpart considered your proposition so valid that one of the only viable moves, besides conceding your point, was to secretly replace it with a straw man while hoping you wouldn’t notice. It can give you the peace of mind that you’ve successfully made your point and you can move on.

Person A: …and that’s why everyone should have the right to visit a train museum if they so choose.

Person B: No. As I said, art galleries are much better than train museums.

2. Defence Strategy

Strawmanning can be a powerful exercise for preparing a verbal defence strategy. By building borderline straw men of your own viewpoints, you get a clearer picture of how they could potentially be misinterpreted. This creates the basis to improve your argument or formulate the best version of your views. Though, be careful not to go down this rabbit hole too deep. Unreasonable people tend to find unreasonable ways to misconstrue what was being said.

Person A: People have a right to train museums.

Person B: So what you’re saying is the government should be responsible for providing them?

3. Prompting Correction

Similar to the defence strategy we can harness our urge to correct mistakes. It’s a powerful human habid. We just can’t help our shelves. The power of correction has been beautifully argued by Chris Voss in his book about the art of negotiation. In this context, building a straw man argument can be useful to deliberately provoke a response, for example when you want to tease out the details of a claim or challenge a friend to sharpen his argument.

Person A: Big Bang Theory examples should not be overused because they can alienate an audience.

Person B: Sounds like you’re afraid to lose readers.

Person A: What I’m saying is that this sitcom can be polarising and therefore less universally accessible.

4. Straw Man Proposal

Related to that, a straw man proposal can be valuable when making recommendations, or as a stand-alone. Including a straw man in a list of options can assist in illustrating the strength of the remaining ones by putting them in better perspective. It can also be used to generate a fruitful discussion about the best options. Here’s an example with three recommendations for improving the friends’ way of choosing an activity. Try and spot the straw man proposal:

1. Keep the current decision-making process in place.

2. Have a decision made by the person with the loudest voice.

3. Decide on activities by vote.

5. The Humorous Straw Man

Finally, a straw man argument can be used to great humorous effect. There’s nothing quite like the mischaracterisation of a point of view if the audience is in on it. On a meta-level, the straw man itself becomes the subject of the joke. Its target, on the other hand, would be the person who willfully ignores the elephant in the room.

Elephant in the Room

Sheldon: I always tell people, if you have only one day in Los Angeles, make it a train day.

Raj: “Train Day?”

Sheldon: The fun starts with brunch at Carney’s in Studio City, a hot dog stand in a converted railroad dining car. Next stop, Travel Town, an outdoor museum featuring 43 railroad engines, cars, and other rolling stock from the 1880s to the 1930s. Then finally, we’re off to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, for dinner at, that’s right, the Hollywood Carney’s, a hot dog stand in a different converted railroad dining car.

Raj: I don’t think we’re gonna do that.

Sheldon: Well, then apparently, you hate fun.

Closing Thoughts

Technically, the straw man argument is a fallacy of relevance, an argument that’s beside the point. It’s a low-quality objection as per Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement. You might agree that too often it’s used irresponsibly and insincerely. Though, given the wealth of cognitive biases, intuitive traps and potential for misapplied mental shortcuts we face, I think it’s good practice to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume it was either unintentional or used in good faith

On the contrary, the lines between a straw man and implied meaning in an argument are often blurred. So we may want to practice with them to become better at spotting actual straw man arguments should they be presented to us. That would enable us to address these fallacies or make a mental note in case our counterpart set it as a trap to tangle us up. Luckily, beyond the sinister use of verbal scarecrows, there are plenty of ways to utilise a straw man without having to betray your ideals.