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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Beware of Straw Men!

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Ray Bolger was originally cast to play the part of the Tin Man instead of the Scarecrow. According to Wikipedia, he longed for the part, though. Luckily, he was recast as the straw-filled character movie audiences have come to know and love. Bolger's character is someone you would want to embrace, a true friend who can sing and dance his way into your heart.

However, many times I find people much too easily embracing another type of straw man, one that should be avoided at all costs. I'm referring to the straw man constructed by those arguing for one particular position over another. I've discussed some of the different ways to argue about a position. I don't mean a fight, but the rational exchange of ideas. Sometimes when building their argument, people make mistakes. These are known in logic as fallacies and the straw man is a classic fallacy. Basically, one constructs a straw man when they argue against a position that the other person doesn't hold, or they mischaracterize the other person's position. Usually, this kind of mischaracterization is used so that, like a straw-filled sparring dummy, the person's argument is easier to knock down.

Examples of Straw-Man Arguments

Some examples of straw-man arguments are easy to see. In their book The Fallacy Detective, Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn use the following example of a straw man:

POLITICAL CANDIDATE A: Due to this year's budget problems, I think our state should decrease the amount of money going to the schools. This would solve the problem. We could bring the amount of money back to normal next year.

POLITICAL CANDIDATE B: My fellow citizens, is this what you want in a candidate? Someone who is against our schools, against our children's education, and against our futures?

As you can see, Candidate B does not talk about the question that Candidate A is focusing on: solutions to a budget problem. Instead, Candidate B misrepresents Candidate A's position to make it sound as if he is seeking to cut school funding because he doesn't want schools to succeed. It's much easier to win an argument in the minds of the people when you create a faulty position and then turn around and argue against a position that the other person never took. That's why the Bluedorns classify a straw man as an attempt to avoid the real question.

When defending one's faith, this kind of switch happens far too frequently. Here are some classic examples:

CHRISTIAN: Without a wholly good God, there is no way to ground moral values. Therefore atheism cannot hold to objective morality.

ATHEIST: How dare you Christians say that because I'm an atheist I cannot understand what it means to be moral!

In the above exchange, you can see that the Christian wasn't discussing whether the atheist could recognize or comprehend what it means to be moral. That's a knowledge question. Rather, he was making the claim that there is no logical basis for believing such morals, even though they are recognized, should carry authority over someone's actions. This is known as the moral grounding problem.

ATHEIST: Science is based on reason while religion is only based on faith.
In such a statement, there are really two straw men. The one easier to identify is that religion (usually meaning Christianity) is only based on faith. This simply isn't true as Christianity from its very beginnings have relied on the evidence of the eyewitnesses and the empty tomb (ref Acts 2:32, Acts 3:15, 1 Cor 15:3-8). Even so far as appeal to the crowd with phrases such as "as you yourselves know."

Secondly, the statement mischaracterizes science as somehow being completely devoid of passion or bias. The history of science argues otherwise, with huge fights breaking out over various positions. Because money and position are now a part of the scientific process (most on the university campus has heard the canard "publish or perish") it is easier for people to inadvertently become biased in their research. In fact, that's what this recent article in the science journal Nature warns. They noted within the field of pharmaceutical development "Science's internal controls on bias were failing, and bias and error were trending in the same direction — towards the pervasive over-selection and over-reporting of false positive results." This doesn't mean that every scientific discovery is biased, but it does demonstrate that science is not somehow immune from bias any more than any other field of study.

Imposing a straw-man fallacy during an argument is not playing fair. It judges another person for a view that he or she doesn't hold and then pretends to make the perpetrators seem more intelligent than they are. If we are going to engage others, we must make sure that we properly understand their specific position. Tomorrow I will talk more about that.


  1. Anti-gay proponents are notorious for bringing up straw men arguments when the issue of gay marriage is brought up with saying; "If two men can get married, why not a man and his dog? A man and a toaster? If you believe one is O.K? You open the door for the others to happen."

  2. Actually, those would be examples of slippery slopes, not a straw men. Those objections are raised based on the argument that marriage is rooted solely in the desires of the individual or individuals to be happy. I've never seen it offered as a real possibility, though. I've only seen it used as an argument to ridiculousness. If you have an example of where someone raised it as a real possibility, I'd like to read it.

  3. Thank you for this post. Do you mind if I share it translated into Portuguese here in Brazil with links to your site?
    Thanks. God bless!


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