Informal Logic 101: How to Think and Argue Better, Part 10

Part 10: Scarecrows, Decoys, and Invisible Elephants

We get three lessons today, boys and girls, as we head into the home stretch for this series (sort of)!

Straw Man

Everyone has heard of this one. You don’t have to be involved in debates and discussions on controversial topics for long before someone accuses someone else of the “straw man fallacy”. It refers to the rhetorical act of intentionally misrepresenting the position of one’s opponent or interlocutor (or, at least, particular aspects of their argument), whether with a caricature or by oversimplifying it, so that it is easier to defeat. Like setting up a man made of straw, it is easier to knock down than the real thing. Of course, this is not fair, and any points scored against an inaccurate representation is irrelevant to the soundness & validity of the actual view. Many times, the straw man is accompanied by other fallacies (e.g., ad hominem, hasty generalization, suppressed evidence).

StrawmanOne can observe this in the public debate on Anthropogenic Catastrophic Global Warming (ACGW), aka “Climate Change”, where pundits and laymen alike on both sides usually end up presenting, or assuming, a straw man version of the other side. Sometimes, this is just the natural result of using slogans, sound bites, and mocking retorts. But, even in longer, more substantial articles and discussions, there often seems to be a straw man element. (Hey! Stop looking at me like that!) The Intelligent Design vs. Naturalism issue is another example. I often see ID’s opponents summarizing the ID position inaccurately, usually conflating it with religion/creationism, claiming that it’s merely a god-of-the-gaps argument, and/or stating or implying that ID ignores (or cannot account for) demonstrable natural processes.

Unfortunately, the straw man fallacy can be committed unwittingly, if the person has not taken care to research and sufficiently understand the opposing side’s position. This might be due to laziness, lack of time to prepare, or especially in the “heat of battle” of an unplanned confrontation. (We all do it, so don’t get too self-righteous!) Prof. Samples suggests a great way to avoid doing this is to repeat — probably by paraphrase — your opponent’s argument back to him/her for confirmation. (E.g., “So, if I understand you correctly, you’re position is…. Is that about right?”)

This goes back to what we said in Part 9 about the “Intellectual Golden Rule” — take a respectful approach to assessing and critiquing the (world)views and positions of others. People will be more likely to afford you the same courtesy, when they realize you have taken (or are taking) the time to understand and represent their position accurately and fairly. They may even be more open to your critique and to reconsidering their position.

Just as an aside, this reminds me of the tactical approach that Greg Koukl teaches. Koukl recommends a 3-step approach centered around asking questions. First, you do some fact-finding by asking, “What do you believe?” (Or, something similar, like, “What do you mean by that?” or “Would you explain your view, please?”) Then, follow up with, “How did you come to that conclusion?” Once you know what your opponent’s position is and their reasoning for it, you can present your own position, opening with something like, “That’s interesting, and you make some good points. But, have you ever considered….?”

LESSON: “Take the time and effort to gain a correct understanding of an opponent’s position.”

Red Herring

This fallacy has many variations and related concepts, but we’ll stick with “red herring”. It refers to the introduction into the discussion of something that diverts attention from the true subject/argument, perhaps (but not necessarily) branching off onto several “bunny trails”. This extraneous or secondary thing may be somewhat related to the topic at hand, even worth pursuing at some point. But, it is ultimately irrelevant to the issue at hand and unproductive, serving only to draw attention away from (what should be) the true focus of the discussion.

Example —

Pro-Lifer: … So, the majority of scientists and philosophers agree that the unborn entity within a pregnant human female is indeed fully human and separate from its mother. The unborn cannot ethically be destroyed for reasons of convenience. We need to get Roe v. Wade overturned and put a stop to this human holocaust, which has cost the lives of over 56 million helpless children since that ruling in 1973.

Pro-Choicer: I just don’t buy it. There’s still the whole “personhood” issue. Besides, what about all those women who will still have, or have already had, abortions? Are you going to convict them and their doctors all of murder? Would you really throw all those women in prison, or even execute them? Can you imagine the impact on society? What about all the families that would be impacted, the children that would lose their mommies? And you call yourself ‘compassionate’!

Pro-Lifer: Those are valid issues and concerns, though I don’t think any serious-minded pro-lifers are advocating what you describe. Such matters would be for the legal system to sort out later, just as they did prior to Roe v. Wade’s passing. But, can we stick to the main issue? The unborn are human and deserving of their constitutionally-recognized, God-given right to life….

red herring - Im here to distract youLike the straw man, the red herring may also be either intentional or unintentional. If intentional, one has to wonder why the person does it. Are they confused? Are they losing the argument? Do they just want to distract and throw you off? In fact, even accusing the other guy of a straw man fallacy may be a red herring. If it’s unintentional, it may simply be the result of poor logic, or an external distraction causing one to lose her/his train of thought, or s/he just has a lot of questions binging around in her/his head. (Of course, I use “head” symbolically for the mind, since questions are ideas, they have no physical form, and therefore can have no physical location.) Regardless, we must do our best to keep focused, be alert to when the discussion gets off track, and graciously pull our opponent back on track by reminding him/her of the main point being examined or addressed.

LESSON: “Stay on topic when offering a rebuttal.”

Suppressed Evidence

Here is another common fallacy. This “act of suppression” occurs when one ignores, or unfairly diminishes the relevance of, select evidence in an effort to emphasize only that which works most strongly in favor of his/her own case. It is often done in combination (intentionally or not) with other errors and fallacies (e.g., straw man, as mentioned earlier). Obviously, this is an unfair and intellectually dishonest practice.

Christians are sometimes guilty of this when arguing about theological positions (e.g., free will vs. predestination, eschatology, present-day gifts of the Spirit vs. cessationism, old-Earth vs. young-Earth, etc.). They may ignore certain biblical verses/passages that provide more support for the other guy’s view and/or cause problems for their own. Politicians discussing the best economic policy will sometimes focus on theory while leaving out any real-world examples that work against them. Scientists and philosophers of science will sometimes get so involved in supporting their preferred theory that they tend to “forget” counter-evidence or fail to acknowledge that the evidence is at least equally explainable by one or more other theories. It is one thing to leave out certain details for reasons of available time, space, or practical expediency, but intentionally not acknowledging certain facts in favor of your opponent’s position is lazy at best and dishonest at worst.

I know it’s tempting to try to stack the deck in your favor, but you should resist. If you are not sure about the soundness or validity of your case or not sure how to handle certain (counter-)evidence, the right thing to do is refrain from dogmatic claims and admit the tentativeness of your position. It is OK to say you aren’t sure about something and will do some more research, perhaps promise to return to it in a later discussion. People tend to appreciate honesty and will be more likely to admit when they themselves are a little uncertain about something or  to recognize a weakness in the reasoning for their own position. It all comes back to the “Intellectual Golden Rule”.

LESSON: “Render a fair assessment of all evidence for an opponent’s position.”

That does it for the fallacies covered by Prof. Samples. But, there are many more to examine, and I’ll probably cover a few in the coming months and maybe beyond, perhaps adding a couple of case studies. So, consider this an ongoing (but sporadic) series and check back every couple months or so (assuming you aren’t a subscriber) for new entries on the Informal Logic 101 main page. ‘Til then, thanks for reading, remember to think and argue critically but fairly, and beware of logical fallacies!



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