Fallacy: Straw Man

Politician: My opponent believes that higher taxes are the only way to pay for needed improvements. She never met a tax she didn't like. But I have a better idea: let's cut waste in government first.
Why are politicians always so willing to tell you what the other side thinks? One reason is that, in explaining someone else's views, we have a chance to oversimplify and even falsify them. In the example above, is it really likely that the opponent prefers raising taxes to cutting waste in government? Probably, her position is much more complex than that, and makes better sense. But in oversimplifying her position, this politician makes it seem the choice between them is obvious. And that is the purpose of this technique, which we call "straw man" (like a scarecrow) because it relies on the creation of a false image of someone else's statements, ideas, or beliefs.
A "straw man" is rarely based on actions, instead of comments or beliefs. Usually actions are too unambiguous to suffer the oversimplification of a "straw man," and simple mischaracterization is not a fallacy, but a weakness in the support of a claim. For example, claiming someone has voted for raising taxes, when the vote was really in favor of a bill raising some taxes but cutting many more, would not be a "straw man" in itself, but might be used in combination with mistatements of the person's comments and policies to create a false-image fallacy.
Politics provides lots of examples of the "straw man" fallacy, some fairly subtle. In the 1988 vice-presidential debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle made the mistake of deflecting questions about his youth and inexperience with the observation that John F. Kennedy was even younger when he ran for president. Then Bentsen, in a famous retort that was the most telling moment of the debate, said to Quayle, "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. And, Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." This proved to be an effective and memorable remark--but did Quayle ever say he was a "Jack Kennedy"? Did he really intend to compare himself to Kennedy, or was he using Kennedy merely as an example that one's age doesn't necessarily determine one's qualifications? Bentsen, obviously a consummate debater, was able to create a false image of his opponent's remarks with the man still standing there in front of a national television audience.
One person's account of the statements or views of another is not always a case of a "straw man" fallacy. But you can judge such an account in the same way you judge any authority or expert testimony: by who that authority is, by the apparent accuracy of the account, and--in the case of straw man--by the likelihood that the person being discussed would agree, for the most part, with the description of his or her statements or views.

Exercises:

1. Which of the following is an example of the "straw man" fallacy, creating a false image?

Bob Dole: "Bill Clinton is liberal, liberal, liberal."

Bill Clinton: "No, I don't think Bob Dole is too old to be President. But I think his ideas are old."

Bob Dole: I guess when you don't have any ideas of your own, you say the other person's ideas are old."

Bill Clinton: "We want to build a bridge to the future. Bob Dole talks about building a bridge to the past."

1. Which of the following is an example of the "straw man" fallacy, creating a false image? You answered:

Bob Dole: "Bill Clinton is liberal, liberal, liberal."

Dole isn't distorting or oversimplifying Clinton's ideas or comments here, he's just calling names. Depending on the context, such name calling might fit some other categories of fallacies, but not straw man.

1. Which of the following is an example of the "straw man" fallacy, creating a false image? You answered:

Bill Clinton: "No, I don't think Bob Dole is too old to be President. But I think his ideas are old."

Clinton uses two rhetorical devices here--first, he mentions to Bob Dole is too old without having to say it literally, and then he attacks Dole's proposals without looking at those ideas in full. But neither of these is an example of a straw man fallacy.

1. Which of the following is an example of the "straw man" fallacy, creating a false image? You answered:

Bob Dole: I guess when you don't have any ideas of your own, you say the other person's ideas are old."

This is actually an example of a false dilemma, because Dole is suggesting that either Clinton accepts Dole's ideas, or Clinton has no ideas of his own; there are certainly other possibilities. But this is not a straw man, because Dole doesn't oversimplify Clinton's comments or beliefs, he just denies Clinton has any.

1. Which of the following is an example of the "straw man" fallacy, creating a false image? You answered:

Bill Clinton: "We want to build a bridge to the future. Bob Dole talks about building a bridge to the past."

Correct!

Bob Dole did talk about restoring the values of an earlier America, but Clinton created a false image by suggesting that he was looking forward while Dole was only looking backward.

Congratulations

You have finished the section on the "straw man" fallacy.