Bryan Caplan  

The Straw Man Straw Man

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When I criticize painfully foolish positions, people occasionally accuse me of "straw manning" my opponents.  I say the shoe's on the other foot: They're straw manning me.  Consider the following:

1. Criticizing specific person X for a painfully foolish position he doesn't hold.

2. Criticizing a specific person X for a painfully foolish position he holds.

#1 is clearly straw-manning, but #2 isn't straw-manning at all.  If X actually accepts a ridiculous view, there's nothing illogical or sneaky about pointing out its absurdity.

OK, what about "collective straw manning" - questionably accusing a group for its painfully foolish positions?  Now we have:

3. Criticizing a viewpoint for a painfully foolish position no adherent holds.

4. Criticizing a viewpoint for a painfully foolish position some adherents hold.

5. Criticizing a viewpoint for a painfully foolish position many adherents hold.

6. Criticizing a viewpoint for a painfully foolish position most adherents hold.

#3 clearly qualifies as straw manning.  But #4, #5, and #6 only count if the critic claims the painfully foolish argument is more widespread than it actually is.  If you claim that most adherents of a viewpoint make a painfully foolish argument that only a minority actually holds, you're being intellectually unfair.  If you claim that most adherents of a viewpoint make a painfully foolish argument that most actually holds, the fault is theirs for holding it, not yours for exposing it.   

To validate accusations of straw manning, then, you can't just focus on the bone-headedness of the views the critic imputes to his opponents.  No, you have to study public opinion, to compare the alleged prevalence of the bone-headed views to their measured prevalence.  And as a public opinion researcher, I can tell you that tons of bone-headed views are very popular indeed.  Indeed, bone-headed views are so ubiquitous that you can easily spend your whole life without hearing even a whisper about their inadequacy

Examples: I can truthfully say that until I started studying economics when I was 17, I had never heard that the minimum wage or drug safety regulation had any conceivable downside.  "Raising the minimum wage makes the poor richer, end of story" and "Stricter drug safety regulation makes everyone healthier, end of story" weren't straw men.  They were the only men in sight.

Of course, what's good for the goose is good for the gander.  While my conclusions are unpopular, many people who share my conclusions make painfully foolish arguments.  Like: "The drug war's a failure because there are still drugs" and "Immigrants don't hurt native wages because they only do jobs that Americans won't do."  I've heard libertarians (and more than a few non-libertarians) say them many times.  So when critics of libertarianism attribute these crummy arguments to libertarians in general, I can't fairly accuse them of straw manning, either.

So when does straw manning become a live issue?  Consider:

7. Criticizing leading adherents of a viewpoint for painfully foolish positions held by the viewpoint's rank-and-file adherents.

8. Criticizing the best adherents of a viewpoint for painfully foolish positions held by the viewpoint's rank-and-file adherents.

To qualify as straw manning, of course, the leading/best adherents have to reject the rank-and-file's painfully bad positions.  Since leadership is largely a popularity contest, straw manning leading adherents remains fairly rare, too.  Few intellectual leaders rise to the top of their local pecking orders by pedantically explaining all the ways their side should amend their beloved tenets. 

Straw manning viewpoints' best adherents is much more common.  To seriously attempt it, after all, you have to actively search for the smartest, most thoughtful advocates of conclusions that rub you the wrong way.  It's far more convenient is to assume the best adherents of the viewpoints you disagree with are scarcely better than the rank-and-file.  And it is this assumption that most reliably leads to genuine commission of the straw man fallacy.




COMMENTS (13 to date)
James writes:

How is "The drug war's a failure because there are still drugs" foolish?

In plain English, failure means not acheiving a goal. Well, the DEA actually has a mission statement which begins

"The mission of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States and bring to the criminal and civil justice system of the United States, or any other competent jurisdiction, those organizations and principal members of organizations, involved in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit traffic in the United States; and to recommend and support non-enforcement programs aimed at reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances on the domestic and international markets. "


If the drug warriors could somehow bring it about that there were just ten thousand drug users in the US, then this would be a foolish argument, a demand for perfection. But the drug war hasn't been that effective. Not even close.

This DEA was established more than 30 years ago and illegal drugs are available on the black market in every single city in the US. There are countless drug trade organizations that seem to stay in business year after year. If this state of affairs doesn't count as a failure to achieve the DEA's mission, then what would?

Lliam writes:

If one writes a thought piece aimed at de-bunking a philosophy, and in doing so one selects for attack only the most obviously untenable positions without addressing the best arguments in its favour, then I think one can legitimately be accused of strawmanning. I think that's true even if those positions are held by many or most of the adherents to that philosophy. The reason being that you've not really debunked the philosophy, you've just pointed out that many or most of its adherents believe stupid things, which is true for all philosophies.

With regards to criticising an individual, criticising a specific, stupid position held by that individual isn't strawmanning if that's all you're doing. If on the other hand, you're seeking to discredit a political candidate, for instance, by pointing out all of the manifestly stupid positions he or she holds, without addressing their best or most defensible positions, then I think that could also be considered strawmanning. As you point out, being a political candidate requires people to appear to agree with the manifold foolish opinions of their side's rank and file, and I don't think any (serious) political candidate would look good if all of the stupid things they'd had to agree with over the years were laid out on a page.

Tom West writes:

To quality as straw manning, of course, the leading/best adherents have to reject the rank-and-file's painfully bad positions. Since leadership is largely a popularity contest, straw manning leading adherents remains fairly rare, too.

Of course the leadership isn't going to disavow the tenets of many of the people who are actually doing the work to get them elected, but they aren't (usually) acting those beliefs either.

Honestly, I consider it straw-manning unless there's some real indication that the leadership is taking absurd views strongly enough that they're acting upon it.

Otherwise, it's simply life among human beings.

Eric Rall writes:

Criticising a painfully bad foolish position made by a specific person can be done in a way that implies without actually claiming that the position is more common among adherents than it actually is. This is not strawmanning, but it's still deceptive for similar reasons, even though the deception may not be overt or even intended. The most common form I've seen is when people highlight and argue against conspicuously bad arguments by their ideological opponents while completely ignoring better arguments, making it easy for a casual observer to imagine that only the bad arguments exist.

Various terms I've seen for this are "Weak Man", "Tin Man", and "Nutpicking".

Yaakov writes:

Personally, I find accusing people of straw-manning in an argument between opposing views as rude. When discussing issues, people do not always have the time to completely explain themselves. If somebody makes a false proposition this can be corrected without accusations of straw-manning. In my view, the use of the term straw-manning should be reserved to educating proponents.

As a libertarian, I get "straw-manned" often. It seems that critics of libertarianism can't help but distort libertarianism beyond all recognition, and then they criticize the distortion. For example, many critics have derisively called Somalia a "libertarian paradise"! Somalia is libertarian? You can't get more absurd than that.

John V writes:

Good Post.

We need to classify what Krugman does as well:

Attacking the worst non-left-wing economic arguments held by the most economically weak adherents (ie GOP Pols, talk radio and Fox News gas bags etc.) while pretending the real/better arguments don't exist.

It's not a strawman per se but it's not quite dishonest nonetheless.

Tom West writes:

For example, many critics have derisively called Somalia a "libertarian paradise"! Somalia is libertarian? You can't get more absurd than that.

I believe that if you dig a bit deeper, the thought process of those claiming "Somalia is a Libertarian paradise" is rather more like:

If government is sufficiently weakened, then other organizations will inevitably take their place, although unlike the government, which at least nominally exists to serve the people, these organization will serve their own interests.

Therefor Somalia is what you get if Libertarians were able to get their "paradise" of a tiny government (except in the West, the expected pseudo-government would be a conglomeration of commercial interests rather than military).

For many, this is compounded by the truth of this outcome being *so* obvious (to the speaker) that it's inconceivable that Libertarians could not know this, in which case replacement of the government by some sort of fascist corporate state *must* be what those evil Libertarians desire.

It's the mirror image of those who know that Leftists are only in it for their personal power.

As such, I don't consider them attacking straw-men. They're attacking what they believe the Libertarian's policy would actually achieve.

John Schappert writes:

"The drug war's a failure because there are still drugs"

I guess someone could say "the drug war is a failure because it has led to millions being imprisoned; widespread and lethal violence due to the premium generated in drug prices thanks to the illegality of the product; the fact that drugs are still readily available; the manifold direct and indirect costs of policing personal choices (lawyers, judges, courthouses, sheriffs, bailiffs, parole officers, parole committees, jailors, jails, halfway houses, police officers and administrators, DEA officials, all the attacks on individual rights related to attempts to police drugs, border security, theft to support expensive habits, marginalization, increased profits to successful criminals, and on and on and on); and no evidence to support the idea that the policies have reduced abusive drug use one iota", but doesn't that take rather a long time? Isn't the key point that the war on drugs hasn't achieved its main objective, which is reducing the availability of drugs?

LD Bottorff writes:

I have to agree with Professor Caplan that arguing that the drug war's a failure because there are still drugs is straw manning. Listen carefully to the proponents of continued drug prohibition and many of them are OK with the war on drugs raising the costs of drugs so that fewer people will try them. This is a very different than asking: Is the benefit of slightly reducing drug use worth the cost of millions of incarcerations, and tens of thousands of deaths?

Hazel Meade writes:

Great post. Should to be used as a set of guidelines by anyone interested in furthering honest intellectual debate and NOT strawmanning their opponents.

Although, Tom West has a good point. Calling out the leading/best adherents of a viewpoint for the boneheaded arguments of the rank-and-file isn't strawmanning if the objective is to get the leading/best adherents to disabuse the rank-and-file of their boneheaded ideas. This is how progress is often made. The rank-and-file won't listen to the OTHER side, but they will listen to a credible authority on their own side. Thus the leading/best authorities have an obligation to educate their own side if they are interested in an honest debate.

What I see more often though, is that the leading adherents of a viewpoint will avoid disabusing the rank-and-file of the stupid/bad arguments, either because they are afraid of losing status within the movement, or because they feel it's ok to let people believe dumb things if it promotes the right political agenda.

Hazel Meade writes:

The most common form I've seen is when people highlight and argue against conspicuously bad arguments by their ideological opponents while completely ignoring better arguments, making it easy for a casual observer to imagine that only the bad arguments exist.

It's also possible that some people really only ever encounter the conspicuously bad arguments. And therefore naturally think those really are the only arguments actually being made.

It's not strawmanning if you've never actually heard the good arguments.

James writes:

LD Bottorff:

"I have to agree with Professor Caplan that arguing that the drug war's a failure because there are still drugs is straw manning."

Straw man arguments incorrectly attribute some view to the "other" side. Pointing out that the drug war is a failure doesn't do this. All the agencies responsible for enforcing drug laws in the US have mission statements and they have all failed according to their own definitions of success.

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