5X5 Episode 41

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5X5 Episode 41
Straw Man Argument
15th October 2008

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5X5 40 5X5 42
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Skepticism 101 - Logical Fallacies: Straw Man Argument[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5x5 and tonight we're talking about logical fallacies. This will be the first in a series of 5x5s discussing different logical fallacies. But first a quick background. This refers to the making of a valid or sound argument. A sound argument is one in which the premises are true and the logic is valid. Arguments can be broken down into: premises – premises are facts upon which the argument is based; a conclusion – that's what you're trying to get to; and then a logical connection – the thing that connects the premises to the conclusion. In order for an argument to be sound the premises must be true and the logic must be valid. If the logic is not valid we call it a logical fallacy. There are many, many different types of logical fallacies. It is worthwhile being familiar with them. If you are not familiar with these logical fallacies, then you are liable to commit them yourself. 
We're gonna start by talking about a very common logical fallacy called the straw man argument. In essence, a straw man argument is when someone argues against either an exaggerated or caricatured version of their opponent's belief or position. Essentially, they manufacture or make up a position that is easier to attack. And then they attack that position that they made up rather than the actual position held by the other side. 

E: And this was derived by the military in their combat training. So, what they would do is they would make their enemy as a scarecrow, a manlike figure stuffed and made of straw. Since it's immobile and can't fight back, it's not very realistic. It's very easy to set down, to pierce your bayonet through, and to do your military practising against. But it's not a real fight, it's not a real competitor. It's just something you set up, so it's easy to knock down. 

S: There are many examples of straw man arguments. We encounter them all the time. Creationists, who are encyclopedias of logical fallacies, frequently use a number of them. The infamous crocoduck, put forward by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, the half-crocodile, half-duck that they say should exist if evolution were true, or at least weird hybrid creatures like it should exist, is a straw man argument. Because evolutionists do not believe that bizarre half-crocodile or half-duck or similar type of animals needs to exist in order for evolution to be true, or ever did exist. It is quite an absurd straw man argument. 

B: It's important to point out that the straw man logical fallacy is unlike many other logical fallacies in that people don't always just slip into them unintentionally. It's an ancient debating technique that people use as a deliberate tactic for scoring points in debates. The other side of that coin is for those that unintentionally commit this fallacy often it stems from their sloppy understanding of their opponent's argument. Often they're arguing against their own misconceptions. 

J: You know, I would actually think that that is probably more common than it being done solely deliberately. You know, I find in the blogosphere that, you know, you read back and forth, it's very common to find people misquoting or not truly understanding what it is that their opponent is talking about. 

S: That's right. That derives usually from a deliberate attempt to mischaracterize your opponent's views, specifically so that they would be easy to knock down. Or often I think that straw man arguments are made by those who don't understand their opponent's position. So they are being intellectually lazy or sloppy or they simply do not understand the other view. So it is always a very good idea to make a concerted effort to really fully understand the opposite opinion from what you hold, your opponent's viewpoint. If you are simply arguing against a caricature or straw man of that argument that may be why you disagree. Because you don't really understand what their position is in the first place. 

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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