Logical Fallacies: Understanding the Straw Man Argument

From the Lecture Series: The Art of Debate

By Jarrod Atchison, Ph.D., Wake Forest University

One common logical fallacy, the straw person fallacy, wrongly characterizes another person. This is done through selective use of their quotes and intentional misrepresentation of their statements. How does it work?

This is the second article in a series about Logical Fallacies. Check out our other entries in the series with the first post: Logical Fallacies: False Analogies and ad hominem attacks.

a male and female arguing
(Image: Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Taking a Quote Out of Context

A regular tactic of the straw man argument is to take a quote out of context and misrepresent it. As you can imagine, anyone that is cited as a source for the conspiracy about September 11 has been approached about their quotes to see if they’re really supported or not. Over and over again, we see that the conspiracy theorists have no problem lifting quotations and/or editing significant portions of quotations to make it appear as though there are more people supporting their conspiracy discourse than really exist.

Conspiracy theorists have no problem lifting quotations and/or editing significant portions of quotations to make it appear as though there are more people supporting their conspiracy discourse than really exist.

One of the saddest forms of the straw person fallacy in September 11 conspiracy theories is the consistent misuse of firefighter testimony. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, firefighters were interviewed by major news outlets and asked to describe the scene for the audience at home. The horrors of the event challenged the ability of almost all the eyewitnesses to articulate what they saw. As a result, many of the eyewitnesses used the language that you might expect to describe the devastation. They said things like, “It looks like a bomb went off.”

This is a transcript from the video series The Art of Debate. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The conspiracy theorists, however, wouldn’t represent the firefighter’s quote in context as they struggled to describe the devastation. Instead, they would say experts trained and dealing with the aftermath of incendiary devices agreed that “a bomb went off.” Do you see how this fallacy can work? Many firefighters who were interviewed had their quotes taken out of context just as described. The tragedy is when the quote is lifted out of context through a simple video edit so that the audience sees a firefighter covered in dust and debris saying a bomb went off without the surrounding context.

Learn more: Fallacies in Your Opponents Arguments

Ruining Reputations

Some scientists have had to fight for their reputations after having had their quotes taken out of context. It is difficult for a scientist to answer questions when an audience is looking for certainty because they’re trained to not make bold and conclusive statements. It is one reason lawyers struggle with putting scientists and academics on the stand as expert witnesses.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, scientists were asked questions like: “Was it possible that something other than the planes brought down the twin towers?” The scientists often replied, “It is possible that something other than the planes brought down the towers, but it appears as though the plane crashes produced a catastrophic failure of the steel which brought down the towers.” In the context of the full quote, you can see that the scientist is leaving open the opportunity for something to reveal itself over the course of the investigation. The baseline assessment of the scientists is that it is, in fact, possible for the planes to have brought down the twin towers.

Learn more about cross-examination

The straw person fallacy happens when the scientist is misquoted as saying “Something other than the planes brought down the twin towers.” The scientist did say those precise words, but the larger context demonstrates that the scientist is leaving the final judgment for the investigation. The investigation, for what it’s worth, was done at multiple levels and it involved some of the most well-regarded scientists in the nation. If you are interested in reading more, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report is available online for review. In both of these instances, the difficulty in a debate is to point out the straw person fallacy without knowing the full context and being able to refute the manipulation.

Scientists have had to fight for their reputations after having had their quotes taken out of context. Click To Tweet

Research to Uncover the Full Quotation

Research information
Research the full quotation, present it to the audience, and destroy the ethos or the credibility of your opponents. (Image: Maxx-Studio/Shutterstock)

If you already know the misused quotation that your debating opponent uses regularly, then you can research the full quotation, present it to the audience, and destroy your opponent’s ethos or credibility. But what do you do if you have never heard the quote before? That is one of the more difficult situations to encounter.

Having a period of time during a debate for preparation is precisely the way to deal with the straw person argument fallacy. The best debaters use that short break to research, so use your access to vast amounts of information to your advantage.

Learn more about navigating the unexpected in a debate

If you don’t have access to the information during the debate, then demonstrating that your opponent is using evidence out of context is extremely difficult. Fact checking is simply not available in all instances. In my experience, the more you debate a particular controversy, the more likely you are to catch the straw person fallacy. Studying and researching the September 11 conspiracy and others, will help you be more prepared to catch some of the key quotations that are taken out of context.

Common Questions About Straw Person Fallacy

Q: What is straw man fallacy?

Straw man fallacy is attributing a belief to a person without proper evidence or quoting a person out-of-context.

Q: How do you avoid straw man fallacy?

In order to avoid either using or being duped by straw man fallacy, you should do your best to find the original source that provides a full context of what this individual is stating (as opposed to a 10-second sound bite) and look to a variety of sources to get multiple perspectives.

Q: How do you respond to a straw man argument?

If an opponent uses a straw man argument against you in a debate by misquoting you, you should call your opponent out on it by comparing your original statement to the opponent’s distorted version of your statement.

Q: What is the basic pattern of a straw man argument?

When a person uses a straw man argument in a debate, he/she will usually refute your claim by stating something you said in a way that twists your words around or takes your words out-of-context.

This article was updated on September 10, 2019

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