What Is Straw Man Fallacy? | Definition & Examples

Straw man fallacy is the distortion of someone else’s argument to make it easier to attack or refute. Instead of addressing the actual argument of the opponent, one may present a somewhat similar but not equal argument.

By placing it in the opponent’s mouth and then attacking that version of the argument, one is essentially refuting an argument that is different from the one under discussion.

Straw man fallacy example
Person 1: I think we should increase benefits for unemployed single mothers during the first year after childbirth because they need sufficient money to provide medical care for their children.

Person 2: So you believe we should give incentives to women to become single mothers and get a free ride from the tax money of hard-working citizens. This is just going to hurt our economy and our society in the long run.

The straw man fallacy can be used to distract from relevant arguments in different contexts, such as in political debates, in the media, as well as in everyday discussions. It is also known as the straw man argument.

What is a straw man fallacy?

A straw man fallacy is a form of logical fallacy or reasoning error. Fallacies are statements or arguments that might sound reasonable or true but are actually flawed and therefore can be deceptive.

Straw man fallacy occurs when someone distorts their opponent’s argument by oversimplifying or exaggerating it, for example, and then refutes this “new” version of the argument—called a straw man argument.

Straw man fallacy

Essentially, the person using the straw man argument pretends to argue against their opponent’s original position, while in reality they have created a distorted version of that position—one that their opponent doesn’t necessarily support and that is easy to rebuke.

Straw man fallacy is an informal logical fallacy. In other words, the problem lies in the content of the argument, rather than its structure (in which case it would be a formal fallacy). More specifically, it is a fallacy of relevance: these fallacies use evidence, examples, or statements that are irrelevant to the argument at hand.

Why is the straw man fallacy used?

People often use straw man arguments to discredit a position or theory to which they don’t subscribe. For example, describing evolution theory as “all random chance” is a straw man argument because it dilutes a complex idea and misrepresents it by only focusing on one aspect of it—random mutations.

Sometimes, people resort to a straw man fallacy to turn their opponent’s argument into an unpopular position that’s easy to rally supporters against because it violates social norms. Claiming for instance that “those who want to legalize drugs are fine with children taking ecstasy and LSD,” is a proposition no one can argue for.

However, it is important to keep in mind that when people commit the straw man fallacy they don’t necessarily do it on purpose. It might be due to a genuine misunderstanding of the other person’s argument.

What are different types of straw man fallacy?

Straw man fallacy can take different forms and may involve:

  • Taking an opponent’s words out of context (i.e., choosing words that misrepresent their intention)
  • Exaggerating or oversimplifying an opponent’s argument and then attacking this distorted version
  • Fabricating claims that the opponent never actually made
  • Changing small but important details in the opponent’s original argument

Regardless of their form, straw man fallacies share this general structure:

  • Person A states position X.
  • Person B describes position Y, a distorted version of position X.
  • Person B argues against Y instead of X, claiming that original position X has been refuted.

Straw man fallacy examples

The “war on Christmas” is an example of a straw man argument used by both sides of the political spectrum.

Straw man fallacy example in media
The expression “the war on Christmas” has been used in the media to denote Christmas-related controversies.

Trivial issues, such as Starbucks releasing a series of holiday cups that don’t feature typical Christmas symbols, have sparked controversy on social media. For example, Evangelical groups equated the company’s move with the actual “removal of Christmas” from the cups. However, the so-called “war on Christmas” isn’t confined to coffee shops. The replacement of “Merry Christmas” with the more inclusive but less explicitly Christian “Happy holidays” is another divisive point.

The argument is that “those who don’t want to say ‘Merry Christmas’ or use Christmas decorations are inherently anti-Christian.” However, this is a straw man argument because it equates the desire to be more inclusive (and acknowledge non-Christians) with a desire to destroy Christmas or prevent Christians from celebrating Christmas. In fact, these are two different things, and one can celebrate Christmas while promoting inclusivity.

On the other side of the spectrum, liberals may scoff at the idea that there is an orchestrated attempt to downplay Christmas, dismissing it as paranoia. This is also a straw man argument because the actual point many conservatives are trying to make is that Christmas is becoming less of a religious holiday for millions of people.

Other interesting articles

If you want to know more about fallacies, research bias, or AI tools, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Frequently asked questions about the straw man fallacy

What is a straw man argument?

A straw man argument is a distorted (and weaker) version of another person’s argument that can easily be refuted (e.g., when a teacher proposes that the class spend more time on math exercises, a parent complains that the teacher doesn’t care about reading and writing).

This is a straw man argument because it misrepresents the teacher’s position, which didn’t mention anything about cutting down on reading and writing. The straw man argument is also known as the straw man fallacy.

How to respond to a straw man fallacy?

When you are faced with a straw man fallacy, the best way to respond is to draw attention to the fallacy and ask your discussion partner to show how your original statement and their distorted version are the same. Since these are different, your partner will either have to admit that their argument is invalid or try to justify it by using more flawed reasoning, which you can then attack.

Why is straw man fallacy a problem?

The straw man fallacy is a problem because it occurs when we fail to take an opposing point of view seriously. Instead, we intentionally misrepresent our opponent’s ideas and avoid genuinely engaging with them. Due to this, resorting to straw man fallacy lowers the standard of constructive debate.

What is the difference between a red herring fallacy and a straw man fallacy?

Although both red herring fallacy and straw man fallacy are logical fallacies or reasoning errors, they denote different attempts to “win” an argument. More specifically:

  • A red herring fallacy refers to an attempt to change the subject and divert attention from the original issue. In other words, a seemingly solid but ultimately irrelevant argument is introduced into the discussion, either on purpose or by mistake.
  • A straw man fallacy involves the deliberate distortion of another person’s argument. By oversimplifying or exaggerating it, the other party creates an easy-to-refute argument and then attacks it.

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, October 09). What Is Straw Man Fallacy? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved April 9, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/fallacies/straw-man-fallacy/

Sources

Lewiński, M., & Oswald, S. (2013). When and how do we deal with straw men? A normative and cognitive pragmatic account. Journal of Pragmatics, 59, 164-177. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2013.05.001

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specializes in writing about research methods and research bias.