We recently decided, on the basis of coming across these things all the time, to write a series of blog posts about logical fallacies.  Our hope is to give you the tools to recognize flawed arguments more quickly, before they lead to poor decisions.

Today’s logical fallacy: the strawman.

A strawman is a sham argument that is set up to fail.  In other words, person A makes argument X, person B reframes argument X into a twisted, weak and easily refutable version which we will call argument Y, then person B refutes argument Y and claims intellectual victory. We come across these all the time.  The best example of a strawman is in the nouveaux classic “Thank You For Smoking,” where a debate about the best flavor of ice cream is reframed as a debate over the merits of freedom.

The entire movie is a classic, and this scene specifically is one of my favorites.  “The merits of freedom” is a strawman argument because the initial topic – vanilla versus chocolate – is replaced entirely by a debate about freedom versus oppression. Remember, neither Nick nor his son are taking the “anti-freedom” position, though Nick has painted his son as having done that simply so he can easily refute that sham position and claim victory inasmuch as he’s “pro-freedom.”

Naturally, strawman arguments constantly appear in the financial press, too, especially during debates about political topics and the connection between institutions, agencies and the markets.  This is far more common than you think, especially in live debates where it’s far easier to reframe issues than it is to address the merits of the counter-argument.  It’s also far more compelling since we are wired as emotional creatures to more naturally accept the positions of people we believe to be “like us.”  In the video, Nick paints his son as anti-freedom; As a result, I’m now far more likely to also reject the son’s position on the superiority of chocolate over vanilla.

So how do we guard ourselves from falling prey to this tactic?  One way is to simply check whether the final conclusion is directly in line with the initial positions of the debate.  If we started out by debating “vanilla versus chocolate” and we ended up way off-topic concluding that “freedom is better than oppression,” there’s a very good chance someone dropped a strawman argument.