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, Manitoba. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)