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Straw man
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Straw man

Table of contents
1 Original use
2 Rhetorical use
3 Decision making
4 Straw man in law

Original use

A straw man or man of straw is, in its literal sense, a dummy in the shape of a man created by stuffing straw into clothes or some other container. Straw men have been used as scarecrows, combat-training targets, or effigies to be burned. This led to a long history of metaphoric and rhetorical uses to refer a person or thing that is weak or ineffective, especially if it was created specifically to be weak.

In the sport of rodeo, the straw man is a dummy made of a shirt and pants stuffed with straw, traditionally propped up with a broom. The straw man is placed in the arena during bullriding events as a safety measure. It is intended to distract the bull after the rider has dismounted (or has been thrown), with the idea that the bull will attack the straw man rather than attack its former rider. Two so-called rodeo clowns--people dressed in bright colors whose job it is to distract the bull if the rider is injured--are in the ring as well and are usually far more effective than the straw man.

Rhetorical use

The straw-man rhetorical technique (sometimes called straw person) is the practice of refuting weaker arguments than your opponents actually offer. It is not a logical fallacy to disprove a weak argument. Rather, this fallacy lies in declaring one argument's conclusion to be wrong because of flaws in another argument.

One can set up a straw man in several different ways:

  1. Present only a portion of your opponent's arguments (often a weak one), refute it, and pretend that you have refuted all of their arguments.
  2. Present your opponent's argument in weakened form, refute it, and pretend that you have refuted the original.
  3. Present a misrepresentation of your opponent's position, refute it, and pretend that you have refuted your opponent's actual position.
  4. Present someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, refute their arguments, and pretend that you've refuted every argument for that position.
  5. Invent a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs that are criticised, and pretend that that person represents a group that the speaker is critical of.

For example, one might argue "Charles Darwin believed in Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics, which has now been discredited. Therefore, Darwinian evolution by natural selection did not occur." This is a fallacy because the Lamarckian ideas were only a small part of the overall theory; the fact that he was wrong about them does not affect the theory as a whole.

Some logic textbooks define the straw-man fallacy only as a misrepresented argument. It is now common, however, to use the term to refer to all of these tactics. The straw-man technique is also a type of media manipulation.

Often, the straw-man setup is a weaker argument because it makes an unjustifiably wide or strong claim. For example:

Fred: "Poverty is one factor that causes crime".
Alice: "You're wrong to claim that all poor people are criminals. My friend Jack is poor, but he is not a criminal!".

External links

Decision making

A "straw-man proposal" is a simple draft proposal intended to generate discussion of its disadvantages and to provoke the generation of new, better, proposals. As the document is revised, it may be given other edition names, i.e. "stone-man", "iron-man", etc.

Straw man in law

The term straw man can refer to a third party that acts as a "front" in a transaction (i.e., who is an agent for another) for the purpose of taking title to real property or some other kind of transaction where the principal remains hidden or to do something else which is not allowed. A straw man is also "a person of no means," or one who deliberately accepts a liability or other monetary responsibility without the resources to fulfill it, usually to shield another party.

At one time, men of straw were men that could be found in the courts who placed a piece of straw in their shoes (also called straw-shoes). Jurists knew that these men of straw were available to testify for a price, and they would be asked leading questions: Don't you remember that you saw him at the market at the time of the murder? And the straw-shoe's rejoinder would be: yes. Then the straw-shoes would perjure himself for a price in court, just as the jurist had so cleverly (but fraudulently) suggested.