Monday, March 31, 2014

Fallacy Monday: The Strawman Fallacy [Clinton Wilcox]

Here is the introduction to this series, and here is my discussion of the first fallacy in this series. In today's article, I'm going to be looking at the strawman fallacy.

Simply stated, the strawman fallacy is committed when you attack a similar argument to the one a person presents, but is a distorted version. So you are responding to a different argument which means that your response does not engage with and rebut his argument.

According to Daniel T. Edward in Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments (Wadsworth, pp. 157-159), the origins of the term are unclear. The usage of the term in rhetoric suggests a human figure made of straw which is easily knocked down or destroyed, such as a military training dummy, scarecrow, or effigy (as cited and quoted by Wikipedia).

The reason that this is a fallacy should be obvious: By attacking a similar but distorted argument, you are not really addressing the argument made. So the argument stands, but it may appear you have defeated it because of the similarities.

Here are a couple of examples of this fallacy in action:

A common pro-choice strawman argument is: If abortion is homicide, then masturbation is mass murder. I have given this argument a much fuller treatment elsewhere, but essentially, as Scott Klusendorf mentions in his book The Case for Life, this makes the elementary mistake of confusing parts with wholes. Sperm cells are part of the parent organism's body, whereas the unborn is a whole, separate, individual organism of the human species that develop themselves from within into a more mature version of themselves, along the path of human development. All of us began life as a zygote, then developed into an embryo, fetus, newborn, infant, etc.

A common pro-life strawman I hear is when a pro-life person misunderstands bodily rights arguments. When a pro-choice person tries to argue they have a right to refuse life-giving treatment to the unborn, pro-life people often mistake this as the much weaker argument that a woman can do whatever she wants to or with anything in her body. It's important to keep these two arguments separate in your mind. Here is an article I've written on this very topic for clarification.

This is one fallacy that is easy to make but is also easy to avoid. If we just take the time to really understand what the other person is saying, then we can easily avoid frustrating them by responding to something they're really saying and not misrepresenting them or their views.


  1. I surprised we don't attack the bodily autonomy argument more. "Pro-choicers" routinely mock our argument that 1-day embryo is a person. All we have to do is bring up the draft and conscription to show how ridiculous the idea is that you have absolute control over your body.

  2. Thanks for your post, Clinton! I appreciate that your series provides examples of fallacies on both sides of the debate; I think it allows readers to think more critically about the topic.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. I believe that as pro-life people, we should even be critically analyzing our own arguments, then using the good ones and avoiding the bad ones.

  3. It's Tuesday...I hope I didn't miss your fallacy Monday.

    1. Hi, Mariann:

      You didn't miss it. I've been kind of busy, preparing for a presentation on Thursday as well as an upcoming seminar that I'm speaking with. So I just didn't have much time to write an article for the series. I'll post the next part in the series next Monday (and possibly another article or two later this week).


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