Monday, August 31, 2009

Doggerel #199: "Straw Man"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

There are many woos out there who like to imitate skeptics. To do so, they often shout the names of fallacies without understanding them. "Straw Man" is a real fallacy that often falls victim to this. The real nature of the fallacy is easy to illustrate: Imagine there are two boxers about to face off against one another. One hastily constructs a scarecrow out of straw and puts a caricature of his opponent's face on it. He then beats the stuffing out of this straw man and declares that he has defeated his flesh-and-blood opponent. That is the straw man fallacy: Claiming victory over an opponent after refuting a weak parody of his argument.

Sometimes there is merit to the accusation but no follow through: I am often forced to guess what my opponent is arguing if he presents only non-sequiturs to link his premises to his conclusion. If I guess wrong, then yes, I have inadvertently performed the fallacy. The appropriate response, of course, is to point it out AND explain precisely what you really are claiming. That latter half is so commonly missing, and what typically turns it from legitimate criticism to doggerel. I can't win an argument against someone who won't give me a target to analyze.

Other times, it seems to result from a skeptic taking an opponent's principle to a logical extreme, or finding an interaction that results in a contradiction or an absurdity. In such a case, the accuser needs to point out what part of his hypothesis prevents those things. Again, I seldom see them doing this.

Accusing your opponent of this fallacy invariably means that you should be prepared to communicate your real position in detail. Debate requires communication. There's no reason to hold back.


Infophile said...

I am often forced to guess what my opponent is arguing if he presents only non-sequiturs to link his premises to his conclusion.

There's actually an alternative to this, though it won't always work. It's called the Principle of Charity, where you try to construct the most charitable interpretation of your opponent's argument possible before taking it on. If it's right, great. If they were thinking something worse, you can come out with, "Oh, I thought you were just making a wrong argument. If you want to make a bad argument..."

Of course, sometimes you may still underestimate their argument, though you're no worse off then than you were before. You'll still get accused of making a strawman argument no doubt, but this just doubles the weight of calling them out on it.

Valhar2000 said...

A certain type of troll would insist that you are mangling their argument no matter how charitable you make the interpretation. Indeed, I could see Bronze Dog making an interpretation so charitable that a troll would not een recognize it as his argument, and therefore instinctively recoil from it.