Dissonance and Straw Men

Philosophy, Psychology

As a person with opinions, and even more as a person who voices his opinions on a regular basis, I often face people who disagree with me. That's all fine and dandy, after all, controversy and philosophical discussion is (usually) enlightening for everyone and something to be encouraged. But there's one thing that inevitably happens in a controversy, regardless of the subject ? wherever you go, you're bound to see a straw man or two. I intend to explore this, as well as give a theory I have as to why people are so prone to building straw men.

First, I guess I should explain what ?straw man? means in this context. The straw man fallacy is a logical fallacy ? a mistake or untruth ? commonly mentioned in the context of argumentation and logic theory. The straw man fallacy has this form:

  1. Person A makes a claim.
  2. Person B distorts or exaggerates A's claim and then attempts to disprove or argue this distorted claim instead of A's original claim.
  3. Having done so, B establishes that A's original claim must be false.

In other words, the straw man fallacy is committed when someone takes someone else's argument, turns it around so that it looks like the other person's saying something he's really not, and then argues that instead. The name ?straw man? stems from step two: Person B builds a ?straw man? that resembles the original argument, but is ? like most straw men ? easier to knock down than the real thing. A few examples is always good:

  • A: Religious or mythical beliefs should always be scrutinised and criticised, just like scientific claims.

    B: Are you saying people should be persecuted for their beliefs? Wake up, this is the 21st Century, everyone has a right to their own beliefs!

  • A: Our nation must have a pro-active stance in this war.

    B: Why do you want to send thousands of our young to die in battle?

A lot of the time, straw man fallacies are easy to spot, as they can appear outright ridiculous and detached from the original claim; they are usually easy to refute in those cases, as this disconnection can easily be pointed out. Sometimes, however, straw men are more subtle and hard to spot; in those cases, the discussion sadly tends to derail and end up far away from the original argument, which is by then forgotten ? this is of course exactly the point of the straw man to begin with! When a person knows he can't argue something logically, his only chance is to divert attention away from the topic ? or so my theory states.

Before going further, there is one additional concept that needs be explained: cognitive dissonance. This concept is from psychology, and has a whole branch devoted to it, originally proposed by a psychologist named Leon Festinger at some point in the 20th Century. Cognitive dissonance is basically a state of mind brought upon by a conflict between what one believes/knows (one's existing cognition) and new information (a new, conflicting cognition). If a person is of a particular belief, and is later informed of a fact or some other new information that disagrees with this original belief, the result is a state of dissonance. Now, dissonance is a so-called ?negative drive state? ? it is a highly undesirable state for a human to be in (much like hunger or fatigue). Anyone caught in this state would immediately try to exit it.

In order to escape cognitive dissonance, something typically has to change. There are two reactions that are most common: either the person would have to adjust what he knows about the subject and resolve the conflict through absolution, or he would have to reject the new information and dismiss it, thus remaining safe in his previous knowledge. The former is, as perhaps is obvious, much harder than the latter, because it involves the person admitting to himself and perhaps to others that he has been wrong, or tricked, or whatever fits your context; in any case it involves an admittance of error. It might be worth pointing out that this doesn't mean the former is always the valid choice; it happens that the opposing view is incorrect, and that it needs to be disputed and dismissed. Other reactions might involve complete distantiation from the topic: one suddenly does not wish to discuss it at all, preferring uncertainty to dissonance. Another way is to pre-empt cognitive dissonance by avoiding anything that might provoke dissonance completely.

In any case, cognitive dissonance is something people face all the time. It is my opinion, however, that even though dissonance can be seen as a negative drive state, it's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you know how to deal with it. The reasons for this are simple: If you were in the wrong cognition, you must adapt and change to the new one ? it must always be better to be right than to be wrong (this is about as axiomatic as it gets, isn't it?). If you were in the right cognition to begin with, the new cognition should be refuted by logical reasoning (if not else, to relieve the other party of any misconceptions ? and perhaps put them in a state of dissonance!). Therefore, opinions must be constantly challenged, new ideas tried and discussed, until it can be determined what the right cognition is.

So what does this have to do with straw men? Now that we have all the prerequisites, I'm going to explain my theory.

Controversies always include conflict; indeed, that's the very essence of a controversy. Because of this conflict, dissonance is bound to crop up repeatedly during the discussion; one side will posit claims that the other side doesn't agree with, causing them dissonance; they will then either adapt to or refute the claims, perhaps leading to dissonance on the part of the other, and so on. And invariably in arguments, at some point a straw man is going to rear its ugly head; it's almost uncanny how sure you can be about that.

Sooner or later, one side is likely to find themselves overwhelmed by evidence; it becomes impossible for them to logically argue their point any more within the domain of the discussion. They have reached a point where their dissonance can no longer be resolved through arguing the claim any more; their only resorts are to cop out or admit they were wrong ? both being a form of defeat. This is of course a difficult thing that we would often go to great lengths to avoid; so, what do we do?

Why, we construct a straw man, of course. Usually this straw man consists of a regular old exaggeration of the claim, or perhaps bringing up claims that were never mentioned in the first place but seem relevant or implied, or coming up with brand new points entirely. This will give them some refuge, as they can continue to argue a point ? not the same point, mind you ? hoping that the original one will be forgotten. This derailing of the topic is extremely common, especially in public discussion fora, such as on the Internet, and horrifyingly efficient. If the erring party manage to derail the conversation enough, they can usually crush some completely irrelevant argument that the original author never claimed, and even emerge the victor in the eyes of onlookers!

As we see, it seems that cognitive dissonance and straw men are closely knit; of course, that isn't to say everyone who offers a straw man suffers from cognitive dissonance, or that every dissonant person is going to construct such a fallacy. But, the connection is there, and it might shed some light on the reasons why people even start constructing such fallacies to begin with. As for ways to combat this behaviour so that it never happens to begin with... all I can really recommend is that you stay as verbose as possible throughout the entire discussion. Point out exactly what you mean and make sure there's no doubt what you mean by your words. If someone should try to stray from the topic, point out that what they're saying is irrelevant and bring them back on topic; usually it helps to demand that they answer a previous, well-formulated question (providing you've asked one ? it takes some foresight). Be on the lookout for anything that might be a straw man, and be unrelenting and don't let your opponent even begin to construct one; it's a sure road to disaster.

On the topic of defeat.

Sometimes when I argue, I know I'm right, but the other person doesn't simply seem to "get it" -- he refuses to acknowledge the new cognition. And I'm not the greatest debater in the world. Does giving up at that point constitute as defeat?

A: Evolution is crap! God created man!
B: But scientific evidence doesn't support that theory.
A: Evolution is crap! God created man!
A: Linux is just as vulnerable as Windows XP.
B: (a huge post about the differences of Linux and Windows with possible attack vectors analysed in depth leading to a conclusion that Linux is not as vulnerable as Windows XP)
A: Linux is just as vulnerable as Windows XP and I didn't even read your post.

What then? Does it mean I lost the argument? Does it invalidate what I think of the subject?


So what's the name of that fallacy then? If it can even be called a fallacy?

It doesn't constitute an argument to begin with, so it can't be true or false. It's just stupid people idiotically repeating stuff and ignoring what you're saying.

[It's just stupid people idiotically repeating stuff and ignoring what you're saying.]

And what if I do the same thing while I know I'm 100% right and he is 100% wrong? E.g. "I know I'm right, but I don't have the time nor the will to explain to you why you are wrong."

Whoever is actually posing logically sound, rational arguments is probably right. That's no excuse to cop out of a situation though; I recommend immediate and harsh physical punishment, such as a swift punch in the gut or something like that. Just not knowing much or thinking much about things is no biggie - just enlighten them. Active, stupid ignorance should be severely punished.

[Active, stupid ignorance should be severely punished.]

Why are you racist?

Now that's a straw man!


[A: Religious or mythical beliefs should always be scrutinised and criticised, just like scientific claims.

B: Are you saying people should be persecuted for their beliefs? Wake up, this is the 21st Century, everyone has a right to their own beliefs!]

That's a straw man, alright. But that's an easy straw man and partially caused by person A not expressing himself clearly. Just reply with "did I say that?" Which will probably, in return, get a defensive reaction like "you implied it! I saw you imply it! You lousy bugger! You and your prejudices!" Which, as common logic dictates, is best answered with a swift punch in the gut or, if you're feeling daring, a fast, but not too hard kick in the balls.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is civilization.

[A: Our nation must have a pro-active stance in this war.

B: Why do you want to send thousands of our young to die in battle?]

That, however, is not a clear straw man. Pro-active stance, in this context, as any greasy-haired pot-smoking peace-mongering bad-smelling hippie will tell you, clearly means sending some unfortunate soldiers off to die and it is generally agreed, especially among those who are being sent off to die, that this is a very bad idea.

Pro-active, when it comes to war, does not mean stocking up on ammo, polishing tanks and playing violent video games on the computer. It generally means bombing countries that have brown people and shouting "remember the atrocity that was commited against us that will excuse the atrocity we are commiting right now! Oh and there was some other bad bloke too! You can hang him, if you want! And so on! Hurrah!"

/And sorry about that. Just watched Monty Python's Meaning of Life./

>...clearly means sending some unfortunate soldiers off to die

Being too hasty with words like "clearly means" is the source of many a straw man.

Then could you define a "pro-active stance in war"?

Maybe my previous statement would be a tad bit better if "clearly means" were to be replaced by "commonly means"?

It could range from aiding one side with resources and providing intelligence to launching outright invasions and sending in troops. It's really up to the person in question to define further, and the term "pro-active stance in war" covers all of these.

In any case, a "pro-active stance in war" would mean either sending people off to die or supporting sending people off to die. In that regard, the straw man example wasn't really a true straw man. You did clearly imply that you would advocate sending people off to die. That conclusion was just one step away. Let's examine.

The original:
[A: Our nation must have a pro-active stance in this war.

B: Why do you want to send thousands of our young to die in battle?]

And with a bit of doctoring:
[A: Our nation must have a pro-active stance in this war.

B: What do you mean?

(Lightest possible way to answer it, I guess.)
A: Well, we could support country X in their invasion of country Y. I don't think we should get involved, but rather just offer our know-how.

B: Why do you want to support country X's plan of sending thousands of our young to die in battle?]

Then again, taking any kind of non-neutral stance in any kind of war pretty much means sending people off to die or supporting the idea of sending people off to die.

Is this a Straw Man?
The discussion is about "Instant Death" in video games - does/did it mean that a game was a bad one.
Someone says:
I think it's more a case that our perceptions of games and how they should work have changed (evolved?). Twenty years ago this kind of gameplay was normal and accepted. Now it wouldn't go down very well to people used to continues and more forgiving gameplay mechanics.

I don't think we could say either is right or wrong. But instead that each refelects a different approach to platform gameplay.

Someone else replies:
(I am well aware that this is an extreme example, but it illustrates my point - please don't make more of it than is necessary): By that logic slavery was neither right nor wrong, because it was normal and accepted X number of years ago.

I remember that discussion. You'll notice that's ME replying with the slavery analogy; and no, it's not a straw man, because it doesn't distort or exaggerate a claim; it draws a parallel to something else, and is very explicit about it.

The claim is: something can be acceptable when viewed in its historical context, even if it is not now acceptable

The distortion is: computer games are analagous to slavery

This is a straw man because it is easier to condemn slavery than to condemn gameplay in computer games

Arguing along these lines, anything that was once common is as bad as slavery, such as wearing top-hats or preserving meat in salt, and this is clearly absurd.

No no no, you got it all backwards. You see, there's one thing you must never do when considering an analogy: Taking it further than the original author intended.

That means: The analogy was intended to point out this fact: "Just because something is or was commonly accepted/considered good, doesn't mean it really is good."

Interesting note: By portraying my analogy that way (distorting my original claim!), you committed the straw man fallacy yourself.

Oh, and one thing I forgot to point out: For it to be a straw man, it has to be a distortion of the original claim by the opposing party. Just exaggerating by way of example, or exaggerating ones own claim in general, is not a straw man.

If that's the case, I have not distorted your claim so much as misunderstood it. If the analogy was only intended to serve the purpose you describe above, why mention slavery at all? Surely stating the 'fact' above would suffice.

Oh, and one thing I forgot to point out: I've also heard somethingsimilar called an 'Aunt Sally' - setting up a (weak) case only to demolish it. I suppose this would occur more in a speech than a debate.

For the meaning of Aunt Sally, see here http://www.mastersgames.com/rules/aunt-sally-rules.htm

I used slavery in my analogy mainly because it is an extreme example and it therefore most effectively demonstrates the analogy. I mean, using a dubious/ambiguous case wouldn't be very helpful, would it?

Remember, analogies should never, EVER be extended by anyone else than the person who stated the analogy to begin with. Even worse is mixing analogies; now that's a disaster waiting to happen.

Aunt Sally sounds pretty much like the same as a straw man, and the origins are of the same mind... a straw man being an easy-to-kill facsimile of something else.

"usually it helps to demand that they answer a previous, well-formulated question (providing you've asked one � it takes some foresight)."

That's the most important part. Because if you ask a stupid question, or make a stupid argument, you get a stupid answer.

In the first example:

A: Religious or mythical beliefs should always be scrutinised and criticised, just like scientific claims.

B: Are you saying people should be persecuted for their beliefs? Wake up, this is the 21st Century, everyone has a right to their own beliefs!

The first argument is quite clear, but the second doesn't even make any sense.

Elver: What then? Does it mean I lost the argument? Does it invalidate what I think of the subject?

It means there was no basis for a discussion in the first place.

[It means there was no basis for a discussion in the first place.]

Well, no. As X-G so aptly put it, it just means that the other party, or in the case of the example (which, incidentally, was from real life itself), you, are a "stupid person, idiotically repeating stuff and not listening to what the other party is saying." It certainly does not mean that there was no basis for the discussion in the first place.

In the first example, what the first party is trying to say is that people should be made to think about what they believe in. What the other party is saying is that people should be able to believe in things without being questioned and should not be persecuted for their beliefs.

Which, really, seems to be an odd self-cancelling argument. If you can believe in anything without being persecuted for it, you can also believe in persecuting other people and justify it with your beliefs. E.g. "God made me do it."

Just relax a bit... do like me, I just don't care about arguing with someone... I think what I think, and I really don't care about what anybody else think about it... relax... and enjoy..

As Mr. Ellison says, you're not entitled to your opinion, but you are entitled to your INFORMED opinion. Try and get one before you argue anything.

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