Logic, part 1: Burn It Down
I’m a designer, software developer and product manager depending on the time of day and environment.
I’m also a father, husband, Christ-follower and baseball fan.
I like taking in new ideas and revisiting old ones.
I like summarizing myself in as few sentences as possible.
I’m thankful for the gift of life.
So begins a short and perhaps unpredictable series of writings on something near and dear to my heart: Logical fallacies.
Wait, before you hit the back button I know what you’re thinking: “Really boring, dude. I get it. Humans are illogical and we have to tip-toe all around what we’re trying to say to avoid coming across as illogical buffoons.”
Never fear, my friend. This will be short, sweet and to the point.
I believe it is very important to foster logic and intellectual honesty for a number of reasons, but mostly because we live in an era where soundbites, off-the-cuff statements and gross generalizations often win the headlines. Humans are complex. We have complex views and opinions. We share in a complex world. When we deal honestly with one another and truly try to understand one another we become better at life. We become better neighbors. Better friends. And, often, better at understanding the varying viewpoints floating around in our collective atmosphere.
So, we’re gonna start this series off with one of my favorites and a real crowd-pleaser in almost any context: the Straw Man. At its most basic, the Straw Man argument is a lazy approach in debate and discussion, focused on ending reasonable discussion entirely, towering above the weakest (and sometimes totally fabricated) version of your adversary’s argument.
Tell me, friend, what’s wrong with this picture: “I would never side with the republican party. They’re backwards folk who insist on displaying their confederate flags, shooting immigrants crossing the borders and letting big business run amuck”.
What this statement has done is effectively tried to immediately generalize a large group of people by proposing that they are all exactly like the worst fringes of said group. If one is not mindful when presented with this type of argument it is easy to get pulled right into the generalization vortex.
Sometimes the straw man is more subtle, such as in this example: “I’m against legalized marijuana. You open that door and next thing you know we’ve got legal heroine addicts pushing their product on every street corner. Our kids don’t need that temptation.” Nobody is going to accept heroine being dished out on every street corner, but it is a logical fallacy to assume that legalization of marijuana will automatically lead to this end.
But, let’s be honesty with ourselves here: You can’t discuss the Straw Man without accepting the reality that almost without fail we ALL invoke this fallacy at one time or another. Our human nature wants to win arguments. We want to shut down our opponent. The straw man provides us excellent kindling. All we have to do is present our faulty argument, light and match, and watch our opponent burn.
A Smart Response
So, how does one respond to a Straw Man argument? First, don’t be afraid to call it out: “Nice try, but if you’re going to make gross generalizations then it would seem you’re not really interested in understanding and debate. You’re interested in winning. I didn’t come to win. I came to discuss. Shall we get back to that?”
Or, you could counter with a better and more accurate picture of the viewpoint being caricatured.
What you want to avoid is being drawn “offsides” and into a world where you try to defend the straw man. Let’s face it, once that straw starts burning you’re liable to get burned yourself trying to put out the fire. Don’t stoop to that level. Let the straw man burn in the corner while you refocus the discuss.
Finally, resist the temptation to counter a straw man with another straw man. This is a fairly common approach: “Fine then, well, your side thinks — insert your own straw man here”. Don’t do this. Nobody grows and learns when we’re chucking straw at one another.Tweet
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To continue this discussion or offer your disgruntled disagreements feel free to hit me up on twitter @swisslehman