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.