August 13, 2009

The Straw Man Fallacy




APOLOGIABy Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, August 13, 2009)

The Straw Man Fallacy
A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning or argument. Some fallacies are so common that they have been given a name. The straw man fallacy occurs when a person criticizes a weak position that an author did not really hold and then concludes—on the basis of the criticized misrepresentation—that the author’s real position is logically flawed.

In other words, instead of the real flesh-and-blood version of the opponent’s view or argument, the critic sets out a straw scarecrow or fake target-practice version of the opponent’s view or argument, and then proceeds to knock down the straw version as if it were the real McCoy.

But finding a logical flaw in a misrepresentation isn’t the same as finding a logical flaw in the original argument.

Some instances of the straw man fallacy are easy to spot. Jane says to John: “Valentine’s Day is overrated, so please don’t purchase me any expensive gifts.” John later tells Jake: “Jane thinks Valentine’s Day exploits men, so she should be okay with me not giving her anything.” Clearly, John has misrepresented Jane’s view (and John may be in some serious trouble).

But other instances of the straw man fallacy are not so easy to spot.

In the preface of an academic book criticizing Intelligent Design theory, Richard Dawkins (Oxford University’s professor for the public understanding of science) writes the following as a summary representation and dismissal of the case for Intelligent Design: “[Intelligent Design] leaps straight from the difficulty—‘I can’t see any solution to the problem’—to the cop-out—‘Therefore a Higher Power must have done it.’” [Richard Dawkins, "Foreword," in Niall Shanks, God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), ix.]

In other words, Dawkins characterizes Intelligent Design (ID) as an argument from ignorance or gaps in our knowledge: I don’t know how X happened, therefore X must have been due to an intelligent designer—and, of course, such an argument is weak (a “cop-out”).

If this is what ID actually does, then Dawkins would have a point. Dawkins’ point is beside the point, however, because he misrepresents the view he is criticizing.

In my study of ID literature (for part of my PhD), I found that ID proponents do not argue, “I can’t see any solution to the problem…therefore a Higher Power did it.” Rather, they argue in a much more sophisticated manner, as follows: (1) The scientific community knows that, after years of investigating X and learning about nature’s capacities regarding X, there is much positive evidence for thinking that non-intelligent causes are not able to produce X; (2) the more we investigate X, the more we know that the structure of X bears features that closely resemble the effects of known intelligent causes; (3) therefore, in view of what we know, it is reasonable to think that an intelligent cause is responsible for X; (4) of course, we could be mistaken, but this is where the known evidence presently points us.

In other words, and contrary to what Dawkins would have us believe, ID’s appeal to an intelligent cause is based on what we know, not on what we don’t know. It’s based (tentatively) on positive knowledge, not on knowledge gaps or ignorance.

In the above case, then, Dawkins commits the straw man fallacy: he criticizes ID by misrepresenting it as a feeble straw caricature.

Whether we agree with Intelligent Design or not, this principle of careful logical thinking remains: If we are going to critique a view, we should at least represent it accurately. No straw men allowed.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, ManitobaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

9 comments:

Dr. V said...

Dear readers of Apologia,

For a look at my criticisms of some of Richard Dawkins' major arguments from his book The God Delusion plus my criticism of an argument from a defender of Dawkins' work, see my recently-published article "Dawkins' Logico-Philosophical Blunder: A Reply to a Dawkins Apologist," Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics, Volume 2, Number 1 (2009): 41-48.

Best regards,
Hendrik

Dr. V said...

P.S. Here's a new book from an atheist philosopher which is sure to spur some careful thinking about intelligent design (and in the process get rid of a few more straw man fallacies): Bradley Monton's Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design (Broadview Press 2009).

Pvblivs said...

     The mechanics of reproduction are quite mindless. Every feature (X) found in a plant or animal is, in fact, produced by these mindless mechanics. Adaptations are also known to occur, producing features for which no mind was involved. Now, I would be interested in what consider evidence that an unknown mindless process "cannot produce X."

Dr. V said...

Hi Pvblivs,

I have a couple of points to make in response to your comment.

1. Whether your comment is to be accepted or not, the fact remains that Dawkins commits the Straw Man Fallacy by misrepresenting the case for Intelligent Design and then dismissing that case on the basis of the misrepresentation. That’s the point of my column; this point is significant (because Dawkins is misleading so many people); and thus the point shouldn’t be missed.

2. In my column I wrote that “there is much positive evidence for thinking that non-intelligent causes are not able to produce X.” What evidence is there for thinking this? For starters, where X = DNA, please take another look at my 26 March 2009 column “DNA and Intelligent Design.” You and I had an interesting discussion there (in the comment section), and I don’t think we need to repeat it here. For this discussion to go further in a productive manner, probably a good place to go would be Stephen C. Meyer’s new book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design.

Best regards,
Hendrik

Brian said...

Dr. V. -

I was happy to come across you blog and will be following.

Looking forward to more...

photosynthesis said...

Dawkins was summarizing. Not misrepresenting. I have read the literature on intelligent design. I have even chatted with Michael Behe. Their arguments always boil down to appeals to ignorance.

You are using a hard-to-spot straw-man. By not reading the more complete analysis of intelligent design by Dawkins (or whichever author he was "prefacing"), but only the conclusion (presented in that preface), you are also committing the hasty-conclusion fallacy.

Dawkins conclusion is well-founded. Only not completely presented in those words you show. It would be a straw-man fallacy if Dawkins did not do any analyses before reaching that conclusion, and if Dawkins were not inviting you to read further to find out why he concludes that way.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

G.E.,

Re: your claim - "[Intelligent Design] arguments always boil down to appeals to ignorance". I have been to a Behe lecture or two, I have listened to Behe chat with others, I have listened to some of his recorded lectures, I have seen him in panel discussions, I have read his work, I have read and studied multiple other ID authors, I have listened to debates about ID, viewed ID films, studied criticisms of ID, did part of my PhD qualification area on ID, etc. I'm pretty sure that the ID arguments aren't the way you say they are. What I state in my column is more accurate.

Re: Dawkins. If Dawkins is summarizing the ID position, then he is misrepresenting the ID position in his summary. For an accurate summary of the ID position, see my column. Also, for a few more criticisms of Dawkins' arguments (from his book The God Delusion), see my article "Dawkins' Logico-Philosophical Blunder: A Reply to a Dawkins Apologist," Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics, Volume 2, Number 1 (2009): 41-48.

Cheers,
Hendrik

photosynthesis said...

Hendrik,

I have been to a Behe lecture or two, I have listened to Behe chat with others, I have listened to some of his recorded lectures, I have seen him in panel discussions, I have read his work, I have read and studied multiple other ID authors, I have listened to debates about ID, viewed ID films, studied criticisms of ID, did part of my PhD qualification area on ID, etc. I'm pretty sure that the ID arguments aren't the way you say they are.

So have I. But in my chats with behe I have pointed him up to the research that he, for some strange reason does not find, research that explains how those things he wants to deem as designed are evolved.

Look at his main argument: irreducible complexity. One you probe through, it reduces to their belief that, since such things could not do what they do without any of their components, they have to be designed (sounds positive for sure, as you say). But once you examine closely, and talk to them, you discover that what they truly mean is: since we cannot imagine how something that would not work without any of these pieces could evolve, it is designed.

That is an appeal to ignorance, supported by willful ignorance.

Dawkins was summarizing his (Dawkins's) conclusion. If you wanted to know why such conclusion you would read the book, arguments, not just the summary. By reading only the summary you remain ignorant of the reasons behind the statement, and thus commit a straw-man fallacy. It might be an honest mistake, but still a fallacy, and failure to properly put things into context.

The reason why you do not see the problems with Behe's and other IDers is your approach as a layman. Which is understandable. Yet, if I have doubts, I check and double check before jumping to conclusion (such as your charge of "straw-man" fallacy to Dawkins without reading how we can conclude that ID "theories" are appeals to ignorance.).

I read your critique to Dawkins long ago and found it quite faulty. I explained a few problems to you Hendrik. But to no avail.

Anyway, whatever you say my friend.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

G.E.,

I have some replies to what you wrote.

G.E. wrote:

But once you examine closely, and talk to them [the ID proponents], you discover that what they truly mean is: since we cannot imagine how something that would not work without any of these pieces could evolve, it is designed.

That is an appeal to ignorance, supported by willful ignorance.

Hendrik's reply:

I've discovered that what they truly mean is this: Since we have evidence for thinking that non-intelligent causes can't/probably can't do the job, and since we have evidence for thinking that what we're investigating closely resembles that which intelligent causes can and do produce, it's reasonable to go with the intelligent cause hypothesis.

This is not an appeal to ignorance; it's an appeal to what we know.

G.E. wrote:

Dawkins was summarizing his (Dawkins's) conclusion. If you wanted to know why such conclusion you would read the book, arguments, not just the summary. By reading only the summary you remain ignorant of the reasons behind the statement, and thus commit a straw-man fallacy.

Hendrik's reply:

I read the whole book, very carefully. And therefore I am not, as you say, "ignorant of the reasons behind the statement."

I marvel at how quick you jump to the conclusion that someone is being ignorant. And you do this without checking and double checking....

G.E. wrote:

The reason why you do not see the problems with Behe's and other IDers is your approach as a layman. Which is understandable. Yet, if I have doubts, I check and double check before jumping to conclusion...

Hendrik's reply:

Yeah, right.

G.E. wrote:

I read your critique to Dawkins long ago and found it quite faulty. I explained a few problems to you Hendrik. But to no avail.

Hendrik's reply:

That's interesting. My paper was published just this past summer....

finis