*L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900).
“A straw man (sometimes written as strawman) is a form of argument and an informal fallacy of having the impression of refuting an argument, whereas the real subject of the argument was not addressed or refuted, but instead replaced with a false one. One who engages in this fallacy is said to be “attacking a straw man”.
The typical straw man argument creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent’s proposition through the covert replacement of it with a different proposition (i.e., “stand up a straw man”) and the subsequent refutation of that false argument (“knock down a straw man”) instead of the opponent’s proposition. Straw man arguments have been used throughout history in polemical debate, particularly regarding highly charged emotional subjects.
Perhaps the earliest known use of the phrase was by Martin Luther in his book The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), where he is responding to arguments of the Roman Catholic Church and clergy attempting to delegitimize his criticisms, specifically on the correct way to serve the Eucharist. The church claimed Martin Luther is arguing against serving the Eucharist according to one type of serving practice; however, Martin Luther states he never asserted that in his criticisms towards them and in fact they themselves are making this argument. Their persistence in making this false argument causes him to coin the phrase in this statement: “they assert the very things they assail, or they set up a man of straw whom they may attack.”
The term’s origins are a matter of debate, though the usage of the term in rhetoric suggests a human figure made of straw that is easy to knock down or destroy—such as a military training dummy, scarecrow, or effigy. A common but false etymology is that it refers to men who stood outside courthouses with a straw in their shoe to signal their willingness to be a false witness. The Online Etymology Dictionary states that the term “man of straw” can be traced back to 1620 as “an easily refuted imaginary opponent in an argument.”
The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern of argument:
- Person 1 asserts proposition X.
- Person 2 argues against a superficially similar proposition Y, falsely, as if an argument against Y were an argument against X.
This reasoning is a fallacy of relevance: it fails to address the proposition in question by misrepresenting the opposing position.
An example often given of a straw man is US President Richard Nixon‘s 1952 “Checkers speech“. When campaigning for vice president in 1952, Nixon was accused of having illegally appropriated $18,000 in campaign funds for his personal use. In a televised response, based on an earlier Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s Fala speech, he spoke about another gift, a dog he had been given by a supporter:
It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, six years old, named it Checkers. And, you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that, regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.
This was a straw man response; his critics had never criticized the dog as a gift or suggested he return it. This argument was successful at distracting many people from the funds and portraying his critics as nitpicking and heartless. Nixon received an outpouring of public support and remained on the ticket. He and Eisenhower were later elected.”