Of all the logical flaws you might encounter on test day, a “straw man” argument not only has the most interesting name (and “straw man” is actually the proper name used in logic for this flaw), it also provides some of the most entertaining examples. In the context of an LSAT question, however, the usage is fairly predictable.
Typically, you’ll see a stimulus with two speakers. The second speaker will reframe the first speaker’s argument in a way that makes it easier to attack, and then attacks it at the newly created weak point. Very often, the second speaker says, “but what you’re really saying is…” and then distorts the first speaker’s argument.
The origin of the term “straw man” is generally assumed to be the traditional military technique of creating straw practice dummies for training soldiers how to strike or bayonet the enemy. The transition from that origin to describing this type of logical flaw is fairly intuitive – a straw opponent is easier to defeat.
In real life, as opposed to the LSAT, the use of a straw man argument is sometimes less diabolical than the intentional misrepresentation we see in LSAT stimuli. And, these arguments appear at all levels of discourse, not just down in the political muck.
An interesting example of a straw man argument in a legal context is the Supreme Court of the United States case Schneckloth v. Bustamonte. In this 1974 case, the issue was the definition of “consent” in the context of reasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. More specifically, the Court framed the issue as “what must the prosecution prove to demonstrate ‘consent’ was ‘voluntarily given.'”
One of the Court’s holdings was that “voluntariness” does not require proof that the defendant even knew he had the right to refuse police the consent to search. Justice Thurgood Marshall, in dissent, took exception to this holding, writing that he was “at a loss to understand why consent does not require a knowing choice.” (Opinion, page 285).
Later in his dissent, and taking as accepted the view that consent requires knowledge of the constitutional right being waived, Justice Marshall asked whether the government must “show that the subject knew of his rights, or must the subject show that he lacked such knowledge?” Justice Marshall thought the burden should be on the prosecution. However, the majority disagreed, arguing:
The very object of the inquiry—the nature of a person’s subjective understanding—underlines the difficulty of the prosecution’s burden under the rule applied by the Court of Appeals in this case. Any defendant who was the subject of a search authorized solely by his consent could effectively frustrate the introduction into evidence of the fruits of that search by simply failing to testify that he in fact knew he could refuse to consent. And the near impossibility of meeting this prosecutorial burden suggests why this Court has never accepted any such litmus-paper test of voluntariness.
(Opinion, page 231)
Justice Marshall rejected this assessment, and accused the majority of making a straw man argument, in which it overstated the difficulty the prosecution would have in meeting such a burden:
On this question, the Court indulges in what might be called the ‘straw man’ method of adjudication. The Court responds to this suggestion by overinflating the burden. And, when it is suggested that the prosecution’s burden of proof could be easily satisfied if the police informed the subject of his rights, the Court responds by refusing to require the police to make a ‘detailed’ inquiry…If the Court candidly faced the real question of allocating the burden of proof, neither of these maneuvers would be available to it. The Court’s assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, there is nothing impractical about this method of satisfying the prosecution’s burden of proof.
(Opinion, pages 285-86)
Of course, the Supreme Court is not the only respected institution in which claims of straw man arguments are bandied about. Case in point, check out this clip from a recent Saturday Night Live episode, in which the cast mocks television’s Nancy Grace for engaging in straw man tactics in her argument against the legalization of marijuana in Colorado.
Well played, Nancy Grace. Now, what’s really interesting about this skit is that SNL is itself engaging in a straw man argument by distorting the real Nancy Graces’ position, severely oversimplifying it and exaggerating the character’s delivery of the key words. But the type of argument ascribed to Grace in this skit is typical of those made by politicians and talking heads of all political leanings.
And the use of straw man arguments is not just a traditional sport of American politicians. What we in the United States refer to as a “straw man” argument, our friends in the United Kingdom refer to as an “Aunt Sally” argument, apparently named after a traditional carnival game. Last fall, British Member of Parliament (MP) John Baron argued that his political opponents were resorting to “Aunt Sallies” in the debate over a government proposal regarding what is the appropriate number of active duty military personnel:
A clear sign that a particular line of argument is in trouble is when its proponents create ‘Aunt Sally’ arguments to justify their cause. The Government is proposing to replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists. Many of us who oppose this plan argue that the regulars should not be disbanded until we are sure that the reservist plan is both viable and cost-effective. Yet, the defenders of the plan try to claim that we wish for a ‘Victorian age’ Army or…that we doubt the 30,000 target can be met. The fact that such Aunt Sallies’are so wide of the mark is contributing to the fact that the Government is beginning to lose the argument.
Regardless of the continent, the creed, or the era, straw man arguments are here to stay. Do you have any favorite straw man examples to share? If so, please leave them in the comments!
Photo: “Straw Man” courtesy of Alex Eflon.