A policeman, while on his usual late night patrol, finds a well dressed gentleman squatting under a streetlight.
“Is there a problem sir? Are you looking for something?” Policeman asked the man.
“I lost my car keys officer.” Replied the gentleman.
“Do you need some help?”
“Thanks. I sure could use some help. It’s been an hour since I lost my keys and can’t find them.”
So they both started looking under the streetlight together. After about half an hour, the policeman asks, “Where exactly did you lose your keys?”
“Oh, I actually lost them in the park, half a kilometre down this road.”
“Then why in the world are you searching here under the streetlight?”
“Because this is where the light is.” The gentleman replies with shrug and a look of obviousness on his face.
This might look like a party joke but it has important clues about human behaviour. Please allow me to explain.
Answering an Easier Question
The great mathematician George Polya said –
If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.
Polya’s strategy is pretty good as far as maths problems are concerned. But it may not necessarily work in real life. Unfortunately, most of us use Polya’s strategy routinely and make serious logical mistakes.
Like the gentleman under the streetlight, most humans tend to substitute a hard problem with an easier one. The real problem was “find the lost keys” however it was substituted with another problem – “find an easier way to search.”
In fact, this behavioural quirk is more prevalent when people are debating something and losing an argument. In this situation, instead of trying to solve the original problem i.e. presenting a rational counter argument to opponent’s viewpoint, we find an easier problem i.e. addressing a weaker version of opponent’s argument.
It’s a natural human tendency to use a variety of deceptive techniques to reinforce our opinion and prove our point. So when we get into an argument about either something personal or something more public and abstract, we often resort to constructing a character i.e. an invisible man loosely made of straw, who you find easier to refute, argue, and disagree with. In other words, you portray a position the other person isn’t even suggesting or defending. This is called Straw Man Fallacy.
The name comes from the practice of using human figures or dummies made of straw for military training. It’s always easier to practice shooting your opponent when it’s made up of straw. Besides that, the name is memorable and vividly illustrates the nature of the fallacy.
People believe that when they argue, they do stick to the facts. But the truth is that in any argument, anger will tempt you to reframe your opponent’s position. The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern of argument:
- Person 1 asserts proposition A.
- Person 2 argues against a superficially similar proposition B, falsely, as if an argument against B were an argument against A.
The straw man fallacy follows a familiar pattern. You first build the straw man, then you attack it, then you point out how easy it was to defeat it, and then you come to a conclusion. So while giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, what you’re actually doing is refuting an argument that was not advanced by that opponent. In other words, oversimplifying an opponent’s argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.
The straw man fallacy takes the facts and assertions of your opponent and replaces them with an artificial argument you feel more comfortable dealing with. Quoting an opponent’s words out of context—i.e., choosing quotations that misrepresent the opponent’s actual intentions, also falls under the scope of straw man fallacy.
Prime Time Debate
It’s pretty common these days to see a host of panelists debating on recent social or political issues on prime time TV news. Amidst the chaos created by incessant shouting and mud slinging, if you some how do manage to understand what they are saying, you’d realise that in most cases their arguments don’t seem to make any sense. The news reporter, whose job is to ensure a civil debate in front of national audience, ends up just time boxing every participant’s screen time. Unfortunately, the subject of national political and social issues is pretty complex and you can’t convincingly present your argument in few minutes, so most speakers are left with no choice but to use straw man argument and put up a show about how they decimated their opponent.
In public debates, straw man argument can be annoyingly effective. In response to straw man argument your opponent may be lured into clarifying what his position is not instead of talking about what his position is. And studies have shown that when a lie is repeated, even if the repetition is to refute it, it can make people more likely to believe that it is true.
An ancient proverb says –
Never debate the ignorant in front of the uninformed: the crowd can’t tell who won the argument.
Most viewers are usually uninformed about the issues being discussed. In fact, to be successful, a straw man argument requires that the audience be ignorant or uninformed of the original argument. Which means even an ignorant and lousy thinker can create a false impression of an intelligent and coherent argument by standing up a straw man and then knocking it down. Irony is that even if that person succeeds, he doesn’t really win. At the same time a person who seem to be losing the argument may not necessarily be wrong.
In his book, You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney writes –
It happens so often, professional debaters and science advocates are trained to look for the straw man fallacy both in themselves and opponents when asserting their opinions or shooting down the claims of others….Within any debate over a controversial topic, you will see straw men tossed out by both sides. Sometimes people morph the straw man into a warning about a slippery slope where allowing one side to win would put humanity on a course of destruction. Any time someone begins an attack with “So you’re saying we should all just . . .” or “Everyone knows . . . ,” you can bet a straw man is coming.
Nassim Taleb, author of Antifragile, observed –
The difference between the politician and the philosopher is that, in a debate, the politician doesn’t try to convince the other side, only the audience.
And that’s one more reason for you to stay away from prime time news. The news in popular media is almost useless for creating any kind of informed opinion about world events. It’s even dangerous. The conclusions you arrive at based on the prime time debate can lead you to expensive mistakes especially in stock market. News only creates an illusion of understanding.
Reminds me of Richard Feynman’s words –
It’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.
Flavours of Straw Man
Straw man fallacy has few subtle flavours to it. Here are three of them –
The first is the basic representative form in which the offender tries to misrepresent opponent’s position.
Second is selection form. It focuses on a partial and weaker (and easier to refute) representation of the opponent’s position. When you easily refute this weaker position, you can claim that you have refuted the opponent’s complete position. Selection form is similar to the fallacy of hasty generalization, where the refutation of an opposing position that is weaker than the opponent’s is claimed as a refutation of all opposing arguments.
Hollow man argument is another flavour of straw man fallacy. It is one that is a complete fabrication, where both the viewpoint and the opponent expressing it do not in fact exist, or at the very least the arguer has never encountered them. Such arguments frequently take the form of vague phrasing such as “some say,” “someone out there thinks” or similar weak words, or it might attribute a non-existent argument to a broad movement in general, rather than an individual or organization.
We saw the examples above where straw man fallacy is intentional like in politics. But straw man argument isn’t always a deliberate choice. In fact, it’s largely a cognitive bias. Most people don’t even realise that they are making a severe logical mistake by addressing a different problem.
In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes –
You will not be stumped, you will not have to work very hard, and you may not even notice that you didn’t answer the question you were asked. Furthermore, you may not realise that the target question was difficult, because an intuitive answer to it came readily to mind.
So it’s not just about fooling others. Remember the gentleman under streetlight? In a way, he created an amusing and rational looking argument to fool himself. And, the first rule, says Feynman, “is that you shouldn’t fool yourself because you’re the easiest person to fool.”
Evaluating the quality of a business rests on judging the intentions and honesty of the management running the business. A crooked management, in spite of being able and intelligent, often takes the minority shareholder for a ride.
Learn to spot the straw man fallacy in management communication and public statements. It will help you find out if the management is talking sense or just covering up their mistakes/misdeeds with intelligent sounding reasons.
Here’s another example where straw man fallacy manifests itself. We often replace a question like “should I invest in Tata Motors stock?” with an another question i.e. “Do I like Tata cars?” Notice that the latter is easier to answer. So we get busy finding answers to the easier one and that sows the seeds for severe mistakes.
Don’t forget to pay attention next time you disagree with someone. Observe, if your mind is creating a man out of straw. Whenever answering a difficult question, or listening to some’s view point, ask yourself – are we still discussing the original question? Or have we substituted an easier one?
In history, you’ll find use of straw man technique repeatedly throughout all sorts of debates. Particularly in arguments about highly charged emotional issues. In these cases a fiery, entertaining “battle” and the defeat of an “enemy” is valued more than critical thinking or understanding both sides of the issue. Clearly, a deliberate attempt of using straw man argument represents a wilful refusal to engage in a genuine argumentation.
What if you find yourself on the receiving end of straw man argument? You should point out the logical fallacy and try to bring back the discussion on the right track. However, if opponent keeps pulling out straw men from his hat, heed the advice of the wise man who said –
If you wrestle with a pig, both of you will get dirty and the pig will love it.
Well, to that I have nothing to add.
Take care and keep learning.