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What Is a Straw Man Argument?

The straw man argument is a logical fallacy. It is a type of rhetoric device that tries to destroy an idea or position by arguing against its most ridiculous or misrepresented form. It usually exaggerates the claims, or reduces it to its weakest form, so it becomes easier to attack. Metaphorically, it reduces the position to a “straw man”—a scarecrow, which was used by military as target practice, but is far easier to defeat than an actual enemy in combat.

One typical strategy in a straw man argument is to deliberately leave out key points or considerations in the person’s position, or to take facts or quotes out of context. It is actually very common in political debates, religious conflicts, or even in heated conversations in companies or among couples. Even children can instinctively use the straw man argument. For example, if the parents refuse to allow him to go to a concert, he will reply: “You just want to lock me inside the house and never let me have friends.” Or, if he wants a puppy, he can say, “Why would you want me and the house to be unprotected?” In both cases, the parents’ reasons have nothing to do with isolating the teenager—it could be a school night, for example—nor is refusal to get a dog proof that they are unconcerned with the family’s overall safety.

Politicians also like to argue with each other using straw-man versions of opponent’s positions, perhaps by attacking a soundbyte featured in the news, or leaving out the context or benefits of a particular proposal.

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