Taxonomy: Logical Fallacy > Informal Fallacy > Red Herring
"Straw man" is one of the best-named fallacies, because it is memorable and vividly illustrates the nature of the fallacy. Imagine a fight in which one of the combatants sets up a man of straw, attacks it, then proclaims victory. All the while, the real opponent stands by untouched.
When your opponent sets up a straw man, set it on fire and kick the cinders around the stage. Don't worry about losing the Strawperson-American community vote.
Source: James Lileks, "The Daily Bleat"
Some of you may have seen the 90-minute ABC network television show entitled "Growing Up in the Age of AIDS". I was one of nine guests on that live program. [A] single 45-second sound bite cost me a long journey and two hectic days in New York City.
Source: James C. Dobson, in a fund-raising letter for "Focus on the Family", February 13, 1992.
Judging from my experience, Straw Man is one of the commonest of fallacies. It is endemic in public debates on politics, ethics, and religion. A straw man argument occurs in the context of a debate―formal or informal―when one side attacks a position―the "straw man"―not held by the other side, then acts as though the other side's position has been refuted.
This fallacy is a type of Red Herring because the arguer is attempting to refute the other side's position, and in the context is required to do so, but instead attacks a position not held by the other side. The arguer argues to a conclusion that denies the "straw man", but misses the target. There may be nothing wrong with the argument presented by the arguer when it is taken out of context, that is, it may be a perfectly good argument against the straw man. It is only because the burden of proof is on the arguer to argue against the opponent's position that a Straw Man fallacy is committed. So, the fallacy is not simply the argument, but the entire situation of the argument occurring in such a context.
As the "straw man" metaphor suggests, the counterfeit position attacked in a Straw Man argument is typically weaker than the opponent's actual position, just as a straw man is easier to defeat than a flesh-and-blood one. Of course, this is no accident, but is part of what makes the fallacy tempting to commit, especially to a desperate debater who is losing an argument. Thus, it is no surprise that arguers seldom misstate their opponent's position so as to make it stronger. Of course, if there is an obvious way to make a debating opponent's position stronger, then one is up against an incompetent debater. Debaters usually try to take the strongest position they can, so that any change is likely to be for the worse. However, attacking a logically stronger position than that taken by the opponent is a sign of strength, whereas attacking a straw man is a sign of weakness.
A common straw man is an extreme man. Extreme positions are more difficult to defend because they make fewer allowances for exceptions, or counter-examples. Consider the statement forms:
The extremes are "All P are Q" and "No P are Q". These are easiest to refute, since all it takes is a single counter-example to refute a universal proposition. Moreover, the world being such as it is, unless P and Q are connected definitionally, such propositions are usually false. The other propositions are progressively harder to refute until you get to the middle two: "Some P are Q" and "Some P are not Q". To refute these requires one to prove the extremes: "No P are Q" or "All P are Q", respectively. So, extremists are those who take positions starting with "all" or "no". For instance, the extremists in the abortion debate are those who argue that no abortions are permissible, or that all abortions are.
Therefore, Straw Man arguments often attack a political party or movement at its extremes, where it is weakest. For example, it is a straw man to portray the anti-abortion position as the claim that all abortions, with no exceptions, are wrong. It is also a straw man to attack abortion rights as the position that no abortions should ever be restricted, bar none. Such straw men are often part of the process of "demonization", and we might well call the subfallacy of the straw man which attacks an extreme position instead of the more moderate position held by the opponent, the "Straw Demon".
T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments (Third Edition) (Wadsworth, 1995), pp. 157-159.
Michael C. Labossiere, "Straw Man"
Analysis of the Example:
Dobson is arguing against the "safe sex" idea of promoting condom usage as a way to limit the spread of HIV. In order to more easily knock down his target, Dobson portrays the sexologists he's criticizing as telling kids "that they can sleep around with impunity". The most prominent proponent of condom usage was Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who testified before Congress to the following:
Scientific evidence indicates that abstinence is the only completely safe way to avoid acquiring AIDS sexually. Except for mutually faithful monogamous relationships with uninfected partners, the use of a condom is the best method of reducing or preventing HIV infection known at this time for those who for one reason or another will not practice abstinence or monogamy.
Dobson chose to attack a straw man rather than the Surgeon General.
Source: C. Everett Koop, "Statement of C. Everett Koop", Committee on Energy and Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, 2/10/1987 (PDF)
Dobson was not saying that the Surgeon General was mistaken but rather certain sexologists. Dobson portrays the sexologists he's criticizing as telling kids "that they can sleep around with impunity." This was indeed a straw man if they didn't believe this, but if they did believe this, Dobson's objection is not as much of a straw man. Ordinarily, something is a straw man if the opponent's position has been distorted, not that a different opponent presents a different position.
Dobson wasn't simply arguing against the 800 sexologists at the conference, but against the "safe sex" message and in favor of abstinence. I don't know whether Koop attended the conference, but I doubt it; I have no idea who was there. As you say, either Dobson misrepresented the views of the sexologists or he didn't. If he did, then he was clearly committing a straw man fallacy, as you concede.
One reason that I quoted Koop's statement was that he was probably the most prominent proponent of condom usage, at least at that time. Of course, statements from those who attended the conference would be better evidence of what they believed, but in lieu of that I offer Koop's statement as evidence of what the "safe sex" message really was. An important thing shown by Koop's statement is that "safe sex" and abstinence were not necessarily contradictory messages, as Dobson implies. Koop first points out that abstinence is the only 100% effective method of preventing diseases from being sexually transmitted, and condom usage is less effective. Of course, Koop never claimed that teenagers could "sleep around with impunity".
But, even if Dobson was not misrepresenting the sexologists' views, he still attacked a straw man. Choosing the most extreme representatives of a view to criticize, and then treating such criticism as a refutation of that view is itself a form of straw man fallacy, as discussed in the Subfallacy section above. Dobson chose to attack the sexologists rather than Koop because they would be easier to knock down: that's a straw man.
Reader Jon Brock writes:
I don't think the safe sex quote is a good example of a straw man argument―or perhaps it needs more clarification. You pointed out that the straw man aspect to the argument was that Dobson painted the safe sex movement as telling kids they can sleep around with impunity. I don't think that's a straw man, primarily because he uses the word "can" and adds "with impunity". If Dobson said "telling kids they should sleep around" you'd be correct―that's a mischaracterization of safe sex. But the idea of "safe sex" is exactly that "you can sleep around with impunity". That's the definition of safe sex. It adds impunity to sex "for those who for one reason or another will not practice abstinence or monogamy".
You can criticize the phrase "safe sex" on the grounds that no sex is completely safe, but it's Dobson who characterized the sexologists' position as one of advocating "safe sex".
If anything, the safe sex proponents who reference the Surgeon General's statement are the ones making the straw man argument. The Surgeon General did not say that sex with a condom is safe, just that it is safer than sex without a condom, and that the only safe action is to not have sex or have a monogamous uninfected partner. Is it really a straw man to recharacterize someone's words in a way that is logically correct?
You're right about what Koop said, so why didn't Dobson address himself to that instead of a bunch of unnamed "safe sex proponents"?
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Charles Morgan and Max Waterman.