The straw man fallacy is simple: instead of arguing against someone’s (or for your own1) established opinion, you argue a weakened form of it. This makes it easier to ignore the difficult parts of the argument while convincing yourself (and others) that you are correct.
While it is intellectual dishonesty to claim to refute someone’s viewpoint by arguing against a modified viewpoint, many times it is done without realization. It can be because of personal bias or a failure to understand the alternate position. Using a straw man argument doesn’t automatically make someone a bad person.
It is common in internet discussion for the straw man to be pointed out and then promptly ignored. This is its own kind of fallacy. Just because someone uses a straw man does not mean that they made an invalid point. It may not be a proper refutation of another point, but it might have merit on its own.
This is important because there are places where straw man arguments are expected and acceptable. This is the case for most generalized opinion pieces. Because of their general nature, there is rarely a specific opposing view. Differentiating between what one believes and what one does not believe is required to establish a viewpoint, but sometimes there is no single opposing view.
How is one to establish a viewpoint, while properly considering alternatives, without a specific opponent? How, for example, is one to evaluate Christianity as a whole when there are 34,000 individual denominations and millions of different viewpoints?2 In discussing whether anecdotal evidence should be used to determine the legitimacy of religions, Owen Baxter notes:
…I am open to look at all possibilities, but because of this I recognise that if I took all the possible sources of knowledge (all the religions, all the paranormal claims, all the philosophies, all the informal logic, and all the rigorous science) I would never arrive at any conclusion.
This lack of finality is incredibly frustrating! There is so much anecdotal evidence to support Christianity, that it is impossible to exhaustively sort through the fact and fiction. It gets even worse if you include all the other religions and potential sources of knowledge. Thus, straw man arguments are a requirement. If you wish to state an opinion, you will almost certainly make a straw man argument.
While straw man arguments may be inevitable, they are not satisfying. It is impossible for someone to evaluate and debate all competing viewpoints. We can condense and summarize or select specific viewpoints to address, but inevitably we are forced to rely on our own judgment when making decisions about what to believe. Our judgment involves fact, opinion, and yes, anecdotal experience. We can and will get it wrong.
Wikipedia lists the straw man fallacy as informal. It is correct on this point. The next time you see this type of argument try to work around it or even with it rather than reject it outright. Be reasonable and realize that sometimes it is okay to use it. And sometimes it is just an honest mistake.
1 If I made a statement of belief and then used a straw man argument to support it, I am just as guilty of the fallacy as if I was arguing against a straw man of an opponent’s viewpoint. There is probably a different term for this, but the mechanics of the fallacy are the same.
2 In discussing atrocities committed in the name of religion, it is not uncommon to bring up Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. The vast variety of viewpoints makes it difficult to pin any of these atrocities on any single viewpoint. This is not to say that there are not valid points in these arguments, but that it isn’t nearly as cut and dry as the arguments would suggest.