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Straw man

Table of contents
1 Original use
2 Rhetorical use
3 Straw man in law

Original use

In the sport of rodeo, the straw man is a scarecrow-like figure, made of a shirt and pants stuffed with straw, and, traditionally, propped up with a broom. The straw man is placed in the arena during bullriding events as a safety measure. It is intended to distract the bull after the rider has dismounted (or has been thrown), with the idea that the bull will attack the straw man rather than attack its former rider. Two so-called matadors--people dressed in bright colors whose job it is to distract the bull if the rider is injured--are in the ring as well and are usually far more effective than the straw man.

Rhetorical use

The term straw man has come to be used metaphorically to describe ideas or things that are meant to be torn apart. Many people who use the term do not realize that its roots are in the sport of rodeo.

In one example of metaphorical use, the straw man rhetorical technique is the practice of refuting weaker arguments than your opponents actually offer. The terminology is based on a combat metaphor--instead of fighting with your real opponent, you set up a straw man and proceed to knock it down. It is not a logical fallacy to disprove a weak argument; rather the fallacy is declaring one argument's conclusion wrong because of flaws in another argument.

One can set up a straw man in several different ways:

  1. Present one of your opponent's weaker arguments, refute it, and pretend that you've refuted all of their arguments.
  2. Present your opponent's argument in weakened form, refute it, and pretend that you've refuted the original.
  3. Present someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, refute their arguments, and pretend that you've refuted every argument for that position.
  4. Invent a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs that are criticised, and pretend that that person represents a group that the speaker is critical of.

For example, one might argue "Charles Darwin believed in Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics, which has now been discredited. Therefore, Darwinian evolution by natural selection did not occur." This is a fallacy because the Lamarckian ideas were only a small part of the overall theory; the fact that he was wrong about them does not affect the theory as a whole. Some logic textbooks define the straw man fallacy only as a misrepresented argument. It is now common, however, to use the term to refer to all three tactics. Straw man is also a type of media manipulation.

Often, the strawman set up is a weaker argument because it makes a wider or stronger claim. For example:

Fred: "Poverty is one factor that causes crime".
Alice: "You're wrong to claim that all poor people are criminals. My friend Jack is poor, but he is not a criminal!".

A "straw man proposal" is a simple draft proposal intended to generate discussion of its disadvantages, and to provoke the generation of new, better, proposals. As the document is revised, it may be given other edition names such as "ironman", etc.

Straw man in law

The term straw man is used to refer to a third party that acts as a "front" in a transaction, i.e. who is an agent for another for the purpose of taking title to real property or some other kind of transaction where the principal remains hidden or to do something else which is not allowed. Probably originating from the Athenian man of straw who were men that could be found in the courts who placed a piece of straw in their shoes (also called straw-shoes). Jurists knew that these men of straw were available to testify for a price, they would be asked leading questions: Don't you remember that you saw him at the market at the time of the murder? And the straw-shoes rejoinder would be: yes. Then the straw-shoes would go and perjure himself for a price for that jurist in court, just as the jurist had so cleverly (but fraudulently) suggested.