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 ArgumentsSome 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 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?
When defending one's faith, this kind of switch happens far too frequently. Here are some classic examples:
ATHEIST: How dare you Christians say that because I'm an atheist I cannot understand what it means to be moral!
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.