There are no formal rules governing debate in the modern workplace. We're allowed to use whatever arguments we want to persuade others of a point of view we favor. But the decisions we reach are more durable and functional if we operate as if there were formal rules governing debate. One rule I favor personally is a ban on the use of rhetorical fallacies. And one of the most dangerous rhetorical fallacies is the Straw Man fallacy. First identified five hundred years ago, the Straw Man fallacy bedevils us even today, leading numerous groups, collaborators, and entire nations to adopt false conclusions and make bad decisions daily.
A rhetorical fallacy is an error in reasoning. There are dozens of different kinds of fallacies, of which the Straw Man fallacy is one. To employ the Straw Man fallacy to refute an opponent's argument, you construct an argument that isn't a refutation of your opponent's argument, but is instead a refutation of an extreme distortion of your opponent's argument — an extreme distortion of your own making. So, you set up a straw man, and then knock him down. [Brenner 2004]
Other forms of the Straw Man fallacy are perhaps worthy of just as much attention, because they're less obvious when used. In what follows, I describe several of these forms of the fallacy, using the term perpetrator to refer to the person using the fallacy.
The standard form of the Straw Man fallacy — refute an exaggerated form of your opponent's argument — is perhaps the most common. But because it's also among the easiest to identify, other forms of this fallacy — Straw Man variants — could be responsible for far more damage. Identification of two of these variants is due to Talisse and Aikin. [Talisse 2006]
- Weak man fallacy
- In the One of the most common and most dangerous
rhetorical fallacies is the Straw Man fallacy. It
can lead groups, collaborators, and entire nations
to adopt false conclusions and make bad decisions.weak man variant form of the fallacy, the perpetrator doesn't create an extreme form or distorted form of the opponent's argument. To employ the weak man fallacy, the perpetrator selects a subset of the opponent's arguments, soundly refutes that selected subset, and then claims that the refutation of that subset is a refutation of the whole.
- The term weak man derives from the supposition that the perpetrator of this form of the fallacy will likely select for refutation the weaker elements of the opponent's argument, because they're more easily refuted.
- Hollow man fallacy
- In the hollow man variant of the fallacy, the perpetrator doesn't provide a refutation of any part of the opponent's argument. Instead, in one form of the hollow man fallacy, the perpetrator refutes a fictional argument — an argument that has never been put forward by anyone, attributing it anonymously. For example, the perpetrator might assert, "People are saying X," and then refute X, even though the perpetrator has never encountered anyone claiming X.
Four tactics that generate variants of the Straw Man fallacy
To generate more kinds of variants of the Straw Man fallacy, consider four tactics perpetrators might use in constructing a placeholder for the opponent's argument — a placeholder they intend to refute. I'll use the letters in parentheses as a shorthand in the next section.
- Extreme or exaggerated form (X)
- Formulate an extreme form of the opponent's argument, and refute it. The fallacy here is that the opponent isn't arguing for the extreme form. This tactic, used alone, produces the conventional Straw Man fallacy.
- Selected weak element (S)
- Select a weak element of the opponent's argument, and refute it. The fallacy here is that refuting one element of the opponent's argument might not be (probably won't be) a refutation of the whole. This tactic, used alone, produces the weak man fallacy.
- Anonymous (A)
- The perpetrator refutes an argument, claiming that an unnamed opponent used it. The fallacy here is that the opponent might not be arguing in favor of what the perpetrator refuted. This tactic, used with F, produces the hollow man fallacy.
- Fictional argument (F)
- The perpetrator refutes a fictional argument, claiming that the opponent used it. The fallacy here is that the perpetrator hasn't refuted an argument that the opponent uses. This tactic, used with A, produces the hollow man fallacy.
How to generate more variants
The two variants identified by Talisse and Aikin can themselves appear in variant forms. For example, another form of the hollow man fallacy could be one in which the perpetrator falsely claims that an actual person P (whom the perpetrator names), made an argument A. But P isn't associated in any way with the perpetrator's opponent. Nor is there any evidence that the perpetrator's opponent has argued A. Still, the perpetrator asserts that the refutation of A is a refutation of the opponent's entire argument.
We can generate such variants by examining combinations of the four tactics above. The set of all combinations of the four tactics can produce seven additional variants:
- Perpetrator refutes opponent's argument, after attributing that argument to anonymous persons. Perpetrator claims without evidence that the anonymous persons have used the argument.
- Perpetrator refutes an argument that has never been used by the opponent.
- Perpetrator refutes an extreme form of one of the weaker elements of the opponent's argument.
- Perpetrator refutes an extreme form of an argument that the perpetrator attributes to anonymous persons. Perpetrator claims without evidence that the opponent has used the extreme form of the argument.
- Perpetrator refutes an extreme form of a fictional argument that has never been used by the opponent.
- Perpetrator refutes one of the weaker elements of an argument that the perpetrator attributes to anonymous persons. Perpetrator implicitly claims without evidence that the opponent has used the argument.
- Perpetrator refutes one of the weaker elements of a fictional argument that has never been used by the opponent. Perpetrator implicitly claims without evidence that the opponent has used the fictional argument.
It's likely that we can derive from most rhetorical fallacies variants that are more difficult to recognize than are their conventional forms. Try it. Let me know what interesting results you uncover. Top Next Issue
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See also Effective Communication at Work and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.
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