The Straw Man Fallacy: What You Say

The “Straw Man” Fallacy And President Obama
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.

If your opponent tries to use a “straw man,”  consider yourself fortunate.  It’s usually easy to recognize, and can be easily refuted if your opponent is intellectually honest.  (If your opponent is not intellectually honest, it doesn’t matter what you say, but you can try out the tactics suggested here for practice.).

Definition of the “straw dog” fallacy or argument The “straw dog” is well named.  It’s an argument in which one combatant sets up a man of straw, attacks it, then proclaims victory.  It follows this pattern:

  • Person A holds position X.
  • Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
  • Person B attacks position Y.
  • Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This argument is a fallacy because refuting a distorted version of a position does not constitute refuting the position itself.

Wikipedia makes this telling point:  “To attack a straw man is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting it with a superficially similar yet un-equivalent proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.”

Tactics. What do you say when someone uses the “straw man” fallacy?

You can say, “That sounds like a ‘straw man.’ Is it?”  If your opponent is skillful, he/she will say, “Absolutely not,” and then try to show that he/she characterized the position correctly.  If your opponent says, “What do you mean?” that gives you a chance to show that the position has been described incorrectly.

Or you can say, “That’s not an accurate description of the position. It’s a straw man. You may not agree with the position, but don’t misrepresent it.”

An example of the “straw dog” fallacy. Critics have never stopped complaining about the Nobel Prize being given to President Obama.  They argue that Obama had not done anything significant at the time he received the award except give speeches.  Criticism of Obama’s Nobel Prize became more intense in 2011 when he ordered air strikes against Libya..

To counter the “straw man,” you might say, “Every award has requirements.  Do you know exactly what the requirements are for the Nobel Prize?”   (They won’t.  He might say that Obama had not been on the job long, etc. You can counter by asking, “Do you know if time on the job one of the Nobel requirements?”)

Then say, “I’ve done a bit of research on this.  According to the Nobel Committee, it was given because of Obama’s efforts to strengthen multilateral diplomacy instead of unilateral diplomacy. They were very impressed by Obama’s position on nuclear weapons.”  Then you can say, “Since those are the criteria for making the award, has Obama worked to ban nuclear weapons?”  “Has Obama engaged in multilateral diplomacy?”    (It will help if you read the press release that the Committee issued.  It is below.)

You might mention that the Nobel Prize Committee never called upon the President to be a pacifist nor to disavow the use of force under any circumstance..

To win any argument when a “straw man” is used, you must dispose of the “straw man” before proceeding.  Don’t even think about arguing with the “straw man.”  That’s what your opponent wants you to do.

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2009: Text of Official Press Release

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.

The Words Lincoln Lived By

“This is a book to cherish and share.”—Bill Marriott, CEO, Marriott International, Inc.

“Not only does Griessman give us Lincoln quotes, but he also weaves each one into a little jewel of an essay on that particular subject.” Wayne C. Temple, renowned Lincoln scholar, Illinois State Archives

A stirring, inspirational treasury of quotations from our greatest and most admired president, the book offers rich material for interpretation, reflection, and spiritual guidance.

You will also enjoy Lincoln Speaks To Leaders by Gene Griessman and Pat Williams.

Don’t leave yet. You’ve found a goldmine. Check out additional power phrases and unusual quotations.

Gene Griessman is an internationally known keynote speaker, actor, and communication strategist. His book “TheWords Lincoln Lived By” is in its 23rd printing and “Time Tactics of Very Successful People” is in its 43rd printing. His training video “Lincoln on Communication” is owned by thousands of corporations, libraries, and government organizations. He has spoken at conventions and annual meetings all over the world. To learn more about his presentations, call 404-435-2225. Learn more at Atlanta Speakers Bureau or at his website. His latest book “Lincoln and Obama” has just been released by Audible.
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