Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 6;   February 11, 2004:

Decision Making and the Straw Man

by

In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use is very common.

Natalie interrupted Geoff. "I don't think that's a realistic approach at all. Even if we had the budget, we don't have time to hire thirty people."

Geoff was now on defense. "I never suggested that — I said that to make the scheduled date would require thirty more people. Hiring is probably the worst way to get there."

Playing defense, Geoff's task is not only to make his original point, but also to remove the distortions that Natalie has introduced into the debate by using a technique called the Straw Man fallacy.

Two straw men

Straw men. These huge straw men were set up in 2010 to welcome the Tour de France cycling race which went through Lautrec. Image (cc by ND 2.0) by Robin Ellis.

To use Straw Man, you state your partner's position in a form that's easy to refute. Then you refute your restatement of it, often by showing that it has unacceptable implications.

Most of us use Straw Man from time to time. It's so common that we rarely notice it. Here are some indicators that your partner may have used Straw Man.

A sense of frustration
Feelings of frustration during debate can arise from many possible sources, but check for Straw Man first.
Someone characterizes your position
Your partner characterizes your position, and you have little or no opportunity to critique the characterization before the process of drawing extremely undesirable inferences has begun.
Absolute language
The Straw Man fallacy
is so common that
we rarely notice it
In the characterization of your position, nuances and qualifications are removed, and an absolutist version of your position emerges. Words like every, nobody, all, none, always, never, forever, 100%, completely, and so on are good indicators.
I never said…
If you feel the need to clarify, or to deny that you said something, there's a good chance that your partner has used Straw Man.

If the user of Straw Man prevails, success might be based not on the strength of the argument, but on a distorted premise. And anything constructed on that basis is more likely to be wrong. To manage this risk, be prepared to deal with the Straw Man fallacy when it appears.

Educate
Make sure that everyone understands the Straw Man fallacy, how it works, and what it costs.
Notice characterizations
When you notice that someone's position is being characterized, speak up. Before the implications begin to flow, ask for discussion of the characterization, and gain agreement that it's fair and complete.

When we use Straw Man in the decision-making context, we typically intend to eliminate something from the list of candidates so that the group will choose one of the other options. This is a setup for tragedy. If the ploy works, we will have chosen that option not by comparing it to the options we do have, but to distortions of them. And we will have built our decision on a foundation of straw. Go to top Top  Next issue: Resuming Projects: Team Morale  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

For more on the Straw Man fallacy, see D. Walton, "The Straw Man Fallacy," in Logic and Argumentation, J. van Bentham, et. al., ed. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1996. Available at io.uwinnipeg.ca/~walton/96straw.pdf.

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