Straw Man


Straw Man occurs when

an opponent takes the original argument of his/her adversary

and then offers a close imitation, or straw man, version of the original argument;

"knocks down" the straw man version of the argument (because the straw man, as its name implies, is a much easier target to hit, undermine, etc.)

-- and thereby gives the appearance of having successfully countered/overcome/answered the original argument.
After reviewing the following examples, you can test your ability to identify straw man with student examples...


In the following examples, "B" is guilty of such a straw man - i.e., of substituting a weaker form of an original argument, apparently challenging it successfully, and thereby leading his/her audience into believing that the original argument has been countered.

1. A: Darwin's theory of evolution asserts that human beings developed after a long process of change, from pre-hominid ancestors who are also the source for our primate relatives - chimpanzees, gorillas, etc.. If Darwin's theory is correct, then we can no longer assert with such arrogance that we are above the animals: rather, human beings and human intelligence are simply different, but related results of the same evolutionary process that has produced the rest of the animal kingdom.

B: A is espousing the ridiculous claim that human beings are descended from baboons, and are first cousins of orangutans and chimpanzees. But this - and Darwin - is clearly nonsense. So clearly, God's word reveals the truth of human origins: we are created in the image of God.

2. A: "Those of our people who are forced by circumstances beyond their control to rely on Social Security and government support such as Aid to Dependent Children, Food Stamps, etc. - these victims of an anarchistic economy are now faced with a second threat to their very existence: their already minimal benefits are now being reduced by inflation.

If we are morally committed to supporting these people in the first place, then we must support them consistently: either we approve the proposed increase in Social Security and government support - or we simply turn our backs on those who are unable to help themselves."

B: "A represents naive liberals who only steal the taxpayer's hard-earned money - and throw it away on the idle. This is robbery - and I oppose it.

3. A: The Soviets have shown their intention to abide by arms-control agreements. Of the fourteen arms-control treaties we have negotiated with the Soviets, - all fourteen have been upheld. The next stage in arms-control - the SALT II treaty - is the necessary next step towards actual reduction of nuclear weapons. The treaty provides for a balance of weapons acceptable both to this administration and the Soviet Union. Your ratification of this treaty will be remembered as a significant step towards freeing our children and grandchildren from the spectre of nuclear holocaust.

B: A is simply a naive fool who refuses to see what the Soviets are doing this very day in Afghanistan, in Poland, and in Central America. Treaties with such a nation are meaningless and we are fools to sign them.

4. A: It's not fair that when doing the same work and with the same qualifications, women are paid only $ .70 for every $1.00 that men are paid.

Isn't it reasonable to expect that in equivalent jobs, with equivalent work experience and education, that your sex should have no impact on your salary?

B: Of course not! Everyone knows that bosses go easier on women and what they do. Besides girls are physically smaller and weaker than men, so they need to be protected from the real world.

5. A: The NFL should follow the NCAA in banning the use of anabolic steriods among its players. Prolonged steroid use has proven to be harmful with such side-effects as liver disfunction, cancer, heart ailments, and hormone imbalance. I hope that in the end the NFL will realize that the health of its athletes is the most important issue.

B: A is nothing more than a purist who would have us go back to the days of leather helmets. Doesn't he realize that this is the '80's? Sports technology has given athletes a chance to develop themselves to their maximum potential. He would deny them this opportunity? An athlete owes it to himself to be the best he can be. If he wants to compete, he'll have to use steroids because every other athlete does.

6. A: America needs to be active in the fight against AIDS. It is reaching out to affect more and more Americans every day. AIDS, after all, can be contracted simply from a splash of contaminated blood onto broken skin. By 1990, researchers estimate that more than 5% of AIDS victims will be heterosexuals in long-term,monogamous relationships. We must enact legislation that will make funds available as soon as possible to find a cure for this disease.

B: A is just a "do-gooder" liberal/atheist who rejects God and the Bible. The people who have AIDS are suffering God's punishment for the sin of homosexuality. Helping these people would be to defy God.

7. A: Abortion is wrong because it is the murder of human life. A child in the womb has as much right to live as any child outside the womb. A fetus has most all of his human features intact before birth, and even kicks his mother.

B: The fact that a fetus kicks gives no sign that it is human. A cow kicks - does that mean it is human, and we shouldn't eat beef? Abortion is OK because a fetus is not yet human.

8. A: Abortion is wrong because it is the murder of human life. A child in the womb has as much right to live as any child outside the womb. A fetus has most all of his human features intact before birth and even kicks his mother.

B: A opposes abortion because s/he claims it is murder. But this is absurd. We often let newborn children die because of gross deformity or medical problems such as spinal bifida. And we kill thousands more in the womb each year by allowing mothers to smoke, drink, or use drugs. Abortion may be murder - but it is no worse than the thousand other murders we commit each day without thinking. If A is really opposed to murder, let him/her stop the wars in Central America and Afghanistan - and put an end to the nuclear arms race while s/he is at it!


Straw man is not always quite so obvious.  Consider the way in which the writer of the following example shifts the original objections to pot-smoking into an ostensibly less noxious set of behaviors:

Observers, ranging from psychiatrists to parents, have noticed that people who smoke several joints a day often lack motivation to work, study, exercise, or indeed to do much more than sit around and listen to music.

According to these observers, then, sitting around and listening to music are regarded as if they are behaviorally meaningless. But what's wrong with sitting in a cool room on a hot summer's day, listening to Tchaikovsky after smoking a joint?


Some student examples:

1.  A: “Intuition involves personal interpretations, critical thought, and a strong connection between the mind and one’s external environment.”
B:  “Intuition only involves feelings and not structured ideas and the use of defined principles.  Only things that use defined principles are valid, and therefore intuition is not valid.”

2.  Some of the early studies of Iroquois society asserted that women chose the chiefs, so they had power in Iroquois government.
However, looking more carefully, studies today explain that even though they chose chiefs, women were not very powerful in government because of many other factors.
[The student argues: “The earlier assertion proved to be a strawman...” - BUT: notice - this is not straw man: there is no original argument which is then reproduced in a distorted, weaker version for an opponent to then knock down.]

3.  A: “Defined principles are empty without the humans to interpret them.”
B: “All feminists lack any sort of foundation or structure, and as a result cannot understand anything concerned with reason or logic.”
[Again, this is quite close - but "A" doesn't offer a complete argument, so it is not clear that "B" is presenting a weaker version to then knock down.  This is, however, evading the issue.]

4. A:  “Surely you agree that the U.S. has the fairest legal system and the most organized government.”
B: “If America is the best country in the world, then that only says that the options are poor and few.”
[The same comment holds here as for 2, 3.]