Of the many types of logical fallacies, the straw man fallacy is particularly common in political debates and in discussions over controversial topics. The basic structure of the argument consists of Person A making a claim, Person B creating a distorted version of the claim (the "straw man"), and then Person B attacking this distorted version in order to refute Person A's original assertion.
Often, the distorted interpretation is only remotely related to the original claim. The opposing argument may focus on just one aspect of the claim, take it out of context, or exaggerate it. The straw man argument, in this way, is an example of a red herring. It's meant to distract from the real issue being discussed and is not a logically valid argument. The best way to understand this phenomenon is with some straw man fallacy examples.
Person A: The children's winter concert at the school should include non-Christmas songs too.
Person B: You won't be happy until Christmas songs are banned from being played on the radio!
This example of a straw man argument is related to slippery slope reasoning. Person A may be requesting a more diverse or inclusive selection of songs at the children's winter concert. However, Person B interprets this request as a desire to remove all Christmas songs from public performance entirely. Whether or not Christmas songs are playing on the radio is not related to whether the children's concert will include songs from other traditions and holidays, like Hanukkah or Diwali.
Bernie Sanders: "The time has come also to say that we need to expand Medicare to cover every man, woman, and child as a single-payer, national healthcare program."
John Delaney: "We should have universal health care, but it shouldn't be a kind of health care that kicks 115 million Americans off their health care. That's not smart policy."
Senator Bernie Sanders has been a champion of the "Medicare for All" movement for a number of years. He hopes to replace private insurance with a publicly run national program instead. Presidential hopeful John Delaney is guilty of the straw man fallacy in that he references kicking "115 million Americans off their health care," but that is beside the point. Sanders does not wish to "kick" people off healthcare; he wishes to replace it with a single-payer option.
Elon Musk: "Self-driving cars are the natural extension of active safety and obviously something we should do."
Opponent: Self-driving cars aren't safe! Did you hear about the self-driving Uber SUV that killed a pedestrian in Arizona?
Autonomous vehicles, known more generally as "self-driving cars," are a great source of controversy. Tesla CEO Elon Musk believes that the driverless technology is where we should be headed, stating that is the "natural extension of active safety." An opponent might point out potential risks, like the case of the self-driving Uber in Arizona that failed to stop. However, Musk never stated that self-driving cars are 100 percent perfect and safe; he believes they are a move toward improved safety compared to conventional cars with human drivers.
Parent: No dessert until you finish your chicken and vegetables!
Child: You only love me when I eat.
Dinnertime can be a source of great frustration for many parents of young children. Generally speaking, moms and dads who are encouraging their kids to finish their supper have the children's best interest at heart. They want them to have enough nutrition to grow up healthy and strong. The child, in this scenario, feels like her parents' love is based solely on her ability to eat her supper, but that is not at all the motivation behind the parent holding dessert back.
Scientist: Evolution explains how animals developed, adapted and diversified over millions of years.
Opponent: If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys? And why don't we have three arms? Wouldn't that give me a competitive advantage?
Ever since Charles Darwin published his book in 1859, his theory of natural selection and evolution has been a great source of debate. The opponent here is using an example of a straw man fallacy because of the misunderstanding of the theory. Evolution does not state that humans evolved from monkeys; it states that humans and monkeys have a common ancestor, and the two species evolved through different paths to where they are today.
Now that you've seen the ways a statement can be distorted or taken out of context, here are some ways to counter those arguments and steer the conversation back on course:
Point out why you believe the objection is a straw man argument. Challenge your opponent to justify their distorted view and explain how it is identical or equivalent to your original assertion. Your opponent must then defend their view.
Ignore the straw man argument entirely, and simply continue elaborating on your original point. That will move the discussion back to the point you are trying to make.
Choose to accept the straw man argument, but go on to state why it is unrelated and irrelevant to the stance you are taking. In the self-driving car example above, you might acknowledge the Arizona incident. Then, you can cite statistics indicating how self-driving cars have fewer accidents than human-driven cars on a per-mile basis.
Calmly countering the straw man fallacy will allow you to regain control of the topic. This will stop the conversation veering off on a tangent and moving further and further away from the original point being made.
Being able to recognize, identify and understand logical fallacies will empower you to better interpret and evaluate the value of what someone has to say. Beyond the straw man fallacy, you should also be on the lookout for examples of begging the question and ad hominem arguments. They often work together. A personal attack on a person's character is often irrelevant when discussing the actual issue at hand!