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What does "Straw Man" man?

Hi Joel

I am a native English speaker, but not of the American variety. Sometimes in the JOS forums I have read the phrase "building a straw man" or a "straw man argument". I have no idea what that means. I can't even work it out from context. Can you enlighten me?


Herr Herr
Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Creating an argument for the purpose of knocking it down.

Joel Spolsky
Fog Creek Software
Wednesday, May 12, 2004


A "straw man" is an informal fallacy which is committed whenever someone argues against a position which the other person does not actually hold. By refuting some other position - usually easier to dispute and / or more extreme - it is imagined that the real position was also refuted.


Good concise definition.

Disclaimer: I neither support nor condemn atheism or religious belief.

Precise Definition Man
Wednesday, May 12, 2004

I don't think the definition is as clear as it could be.

The "Straw Man" fallacy is an arguing technique.  (Although as often as not, the perpetrator isn't really concious that he's doing it.)  The arguer will state his opponent's position incorrectly, and argue against that false position rather than his opponent's *actual* position.  The name refers to the ease with which he defeats or knocks over this fake man or false position.

(To aid the non-native English speaker: "scarecrow" is the English phrase for a fake man made of straw to trick birds into believing a man is nearby.  The term "Straw Man" derives from that image.)

The field of logic has named several similar informal fallacies, and any logic textbook (for instance, Hurley) will describe the Straw Man and give examples.  These are called informal fallacies because they are detected by examing the content of an argument, rather than its form.

Conversely, formal fallacies can be detected purely by their form, for example "All A are B, all C are B, therefore all A are C" is an invalid argument regardless of which A, B, and C you choose.  Even when all A *are* C, this conclusion cannot be presumed to follow from the premises, and the that's easy to demonstrate with an example where both premises are true:  "All dogs are animals, All birds are animals, therefore all dogs are birds."

Sorry to drone on, but as you've guessed, I find the field very interesting, and recommend to any students reading this that they take an introductory logic course.  It will serve you well throughout your life -- one of the subjects you can be certain to use quite often after your school days through.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Bob, give us a couple of links in case there's nothing on the telly.

Stephen Jones
Thursday, May 13, 2004

"A straw man has two features: it is easy to knock down, and it is a poor substitute for a real man."

Keith Wright
Thursday, May 13, 2004

Was not one of the competing specs for what was to become Ada also called straw man then wooden and then iron?

Do not have the ref handy now.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

I've also heard and used the term "strawman" for a similar but more useful technique used in requirements gathering discussions. When the participants seem stuck and unable to explain what they're looking for, you propose something that is *obviously* wrong.  The other folks will tell you what's wrong with the "strawman" proposal you just made; frequently, that's enough to get ideas flowing.

Edmund Schweppe
Thursday, May 13, 2004

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