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What Is a Straw Man Argument? Definition and Examples

Updated on
June 2, 2022
Students
What Is a Straw Man Argument? Definition and Examples

Imagine arguing with a scarecrow. You can make any argument you want and the scarecrow won’t argue back. In fact, you can do more than make any argument you want . . . you can position the scarecrow’s argument any way you want, tailoring it into the perfect position for you to argue against.

When you make a straw man argument, you’re essentially arguing against an imaginary scarecrow. It’s an easy way to make your argument sound infallible—and that’s what makes it a logical fallacy. 

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What is a straw man argument?

A straw man argument, sometimes called a straw person argument or spelled strawman argument, is the logical fallacy of distorting an opposing position into an extreme version of itself and then arguing against that extreme version. In creating a straw man argument, the arguer strips the opposing point of view of any nuance and often misrepresents it in a negative light. 

The straw man fallacy is an informal fallacy, which means that the flaw lies with the arguer’s method of arguing rather than the flaws of the argument itself. The straw man fallacy avoids the opponent’s actual argument and instead argues against an inaccurate caricature of it. By doing this, the straw man fallacy is a fallacy of relevance, because with it the arguer doesn’t engage with the relevant components of their opposer’s position. 

Other common logical fallacies include the following:

  • Ad hominem
  • Red herring
  • Equivocation
  • Slippery slope
  • Hasty generalization
  • Appeal to authority
  • False dilemma
  • Bandwagon fallacy
  • Appeal to ignorance
  • Circular argument
  • Sunk cost fallacy
  • Appeal to pity
  • Causal fallacy
  • Appeal to hypocrisy
  • Tu quoque

History of the straw man fallacy

One of the earliest references to the straw man argument dates to Martin Luther. In his 1520 book On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he claimed that one of the church’s criticisms of him was that he argued against serving the Eucharist according to one serving practice despite his never actually making that argument. He described this criticism as “they assert the very things they assail, or they set up a man of straw whom they may attack.” 

Later recognition of the straw man fallacy as a distinct logical fallacy dates to the twentieth century. Generally, scholars agree that the term originated with the idea of setting up a simplistic imagined opponent that’s easy to knock down, like a scarecrow or a military training dummy. 

How does a straw man argument work?

A straw man argument is constructed by presenting an opposing position as a warped, extreme version of itself. There are a few different ways an individual might turn a reasonable argument into a straw man:

  • Oversimplifying it: An arguer might regurgitate a complex or layered issue as a simple, black-and-white one.
  • Focusing on just one part of the opposing argument: By doing this, the arguer ignores the various factors at play and, similar to oversimplifying the opposing argument, presents a tiny sliver of it as if that sliver were the whole thing.
  • Taking it out of context: For example, an individual campaigning for better pedestrian safety measures might say, “cars are dangerous,” and their opponent could turn this into a straw man by claiming the campaigner thinks cars should be banned.
  • Presenting a fringe or extreme version of an opposing argument as the mainstream version of it: For example, one might create a straw man by claiming that all vegans are opposed to all forms of animal captivity, including pet ownership.

Straw man arguments are used in a few different ways. In a live debate, one might be used in an attempt to back the opposing debater into a corner and force them to defend an extreme or unpopular take on their position. In a piece of writing, a straw man argument makes it easy for the writer to make their position look rational and appealing. By doing this, though, the writer is giving readers a biased look at the issue they’re discussing. When readers aren’t familiar with the topic, this can give them the wrong idea and prevent them from developing well-reasoned opinions on it. And when readers are familiar with the topic, it can make the writer look foolish and cause readers to take their position less seriously. 

When and why is the straw man fallacy used?

You’ve probably seen and heard straw man arguments in webcomics, on podcasts, on talk radio, in blog posts, and on television. They often appear in political rhetoric. You might have even used them yourself, even without realizing it. 

People use straw man arguments for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s to turn the opponent into a boogeyman that’s easy to rally supporters against. Other times, it’s due to a genuine misunderstanding of an opponent’s position. Keep both of these points in mind when you find yourself having to counter a straw man argument.

The easiest way to identify a straw man argument is to determine whether an argument sounds too simple or extreme to be true. Take a look at these statements:

  • My opponent hates animals and doesn’t care how many will be displaced by his project. 
  • Our new principal wants to ban everything that’s fun. 
  • Their only priority is to make more money for their shareholders. 

See how all of these statements contain simple statements that lack nuance? That’s a key characteristic of a straw man argument. In reality, the opponent in the first statement might be focused on his project’s development and prioritizing it over ecological concerns, but that doesn’t mean he hates animals. The principal in the second statement might be making changes at their school, but to say they want to ban everything fun shuts down any opportunity for productive dialogue in the conversation about these changes. And in the third statement, the company being discussed very well might prioritize keeping up their shareholders’ earnings —but it’s highly unlikely that’s their only priority. 

How to counter a straw man argument

To counter a straw man version of your position, restate your position in the clearest, most definitive language possible. The clearer you are, the more difficult it is for your opponent to distort your works or take them out of context. This works as a straw man prevention strategy as well as a straw man rebuttal strategy. 

When you’re actively being misrepresented by a straw man, stay calm and try to avoid straw-manning your opponent in return or letting your argument devolve into other fallacies, like the tu quoque fallacy (wherein you accuse your opponent of the same wrongdoing you yourself are accused of). Regardless of what you’re responding to, using fallacies in your discourse only undermines your position. Here are more effective ways to counter a straw man argument:

  • Asking your opponent to elaborate on their claim: Depending on the claim, ask them where they got their data or how they came to that conclusion based on what you’ve said and done.
  • Pointing out that your opponent is misrepresenting you: Simply call it what it is: a straw man argument. 

Countering straw man arguments isn’t the only skill you need to develop to protect your work from being undermined this way. You also need to know how to recognize them in your own writing. When you’re writing an argumentative or persuasive essay, it can be easy to use straw man arguments—even accidentally!

Before representing an opposing argument in your writing, be sure you understand it accurately. One way you can test this is by imagining you hold the opposing point of view and writing out a well-articulated argument from that position. If possible, ask somebody who holds that opposing position if your understanding of it is accurate. 

No matter how strongly you oppose another position, understanding it accurately is important for a few reasons:

  • Understanding the opposing perspective enables you to craft a stronger argument of your own. When you’re able to think critically about an opposing argument and formulate well-thought-out responses, your writing is more impactful. 
  • In a debate or another scenario where you’ll have a back-and-forth discussion with your opponent, understanding their position completely can enable you to anticipate their rebuttals and plan your responses accordingly.
  • Understanding opposing points of view also enables you to empathize with your opponents. By understanding their perspectives, you can have more productive discussions with them—and when the goal is policy change, this can help you work together toward a mutually beneficial solution. 

Check for straw man arguments (and other logical fallacies) when you read through your first draft. Revising them could mean going back and doing more research on the issue you’re discussing—so make sure you give yourself adequate time for additional research before you start working on your assignment. 

Straw man argument examples

Here are a few more straw man argument examples. Keep in mind that straw man arguments often arise as reactions to others’ statements. 

 

Person 1: Because of the thefts in our building, I think we should add more security cameras.

Person 2: So you’re saying you don’t trust your neighbors?

 

Person 1: I think we should mute debaters’ microphones when it’s their opponents’ turns to speak so they can’t interrupt each other. 

Person 2: I disagree because I support free speech. 

 

Person 1: Our restaurant’s policy is that nobody under eighteen is admitted after 8 p.m.

Person 2: Why are you against families eating dinner together?

Person 1: We welcome guests of all ages before 8 p.m., but at night, we maintain an adults-only atmosphere. 

Person 2: Your restaurant discriminates against families with kids. 

Straw man argument FAQs

What is a straw man argument?

A straw man argument is the logical fallacy of distorting an opposing position into an extreme version of itself and then arguing against that extreme version.

How does it work?

A straw man argument is constructed by presenting an opposing position as a warped, extreme version of itself. By doing this, the arguer attempts to make their opponent look ridiculous and/or make their own position seem like the only rational option. 

What are some examples of a straw man argument?

Example 1

Person 1: Because of the thefts in our building, I think we should add more security cameras.

Person 2: So you’re saying you don’t trust your neighbors?

 

Example 2

My opponent hates animals and doesn’t care how many will be displaced by his project. 

 

Example 3

All vegans are opposed to animal captivity, including pet ownership.

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