This article is part four of a four part series on bad arguments to avoid.
In this article:
- Strawman argument
- Hollow man argument
- Weak man argument
- The principle of charity
- Rapoport’s rules
- Steelman argument
- The Ideological Turing Test
The strawman argument is one of the laziest and most intellectually dishonest debating tactics in the world. Unfortunately it’s also one of the most popular.
When you strawman someone’s argument, you misrepresent it to make it sound much weaker than it really is, and you attack that instead of attacking their real argument.
Strawman arguments generally occur for one of two reasons:
- You don’t know your opponents real argument – so you unintentionally misrepresent it (which is intellectually lazy if you haven’t taken the time to study up and understand what they really believe)
- You do know your opponents real argument – but you intentionally misrepresent it in order to make it sound illogical/stupid/unreasonable in order to make it easier to defeat (which is intellectually dishonest)
Strawman arguments are incredibly common, unfortunately it’s the norm:
- Conservatives strawman liberal arguments
- Liberals strawman conservative arguments
- Religious believers strawman atheist arguments, and they also strawman the arguments of other religions
- The media, talk show hosts, YouTubers, and pretty much everyone strawmans the arguments of everyone they ideologically disagree with, don’t like and/or want to make fun of
- Stand-up comedians and late night talk show hosts also strawman arguments for comedic purposes. They’ll take a celebrity or politician’s often reasonable stance on something, blow it way out of proportion, and then make fun of them for it. Trevor Noah does this every night on The Daily Show.
For this reason, if you want to know what a person/political party/religion really believes, do your own research and ask lots of people from that side, don’t ask someone from the opposition because they’re too likely to strawman them.
The opposition simply cannot be trusted to accurately and honestly state their opponents argument without misrepresenting it.
Why are strawman arguments so popular?
- Because most people are intellectually lazy. It takes time to understand the opposition argument as well as the evidence and reasons for it
- Because most people are intellectually dishonest and will deliberately misrepresent their opponents arguments to try to make them sound illogical/stupid/unreasonable even when they’re not
- Because it’s much easier to defeat a strawman version of your opponents argument, than it is to defeat their real argument
Hollow man argument
“There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly.” – George W. Bush, attacking a hollow man
A variation of the strawman is the hollow man argument.
In a strawman argument you misrepresent your opponents argument to make it sound weaker than it really is, and you attack that instead of attacking their real argument.
In a hollow man argument you attack an argument no one holds and no one is making, destroy it, and then claim victory.
“A hollow man argument is a complete fabrication, where both the viewpoint and the opponent expressing it do not in fact exist, or at the very least the arguer has never encountered them” – Wikipedia
Hollow man arguments don’t misrepresent an argument, they completely fabricate an argument, and an opponent. Instead of beating up strawmen, they “box with shadows”.
“The opposing view is not a caricature but rather a complete fabrication. It represents no particular discussant, and it bears no relation to any view expressed. It is an unoccupied viewpoint. More specifically, the hollow man consists in fabricating an imaginary opponent with an imaginary and impossibly weak argument, and then defeating the argument.” – Scott Aikin, John Casey
Hollowman arguments frequently take the form of weasel words:
“People are saying…”
Hollow man argument example #1
“I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves.” – Barack Obama
Who said that though? Oh, that’s right, nobody. Obama is attacking a hollow man.
Hollow man argument example #2
“There are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words, “anything goes”.” – Barack Obama
You can read more about the hollow man argument here
Weak man argument
The weak man argument isn’t a misrepresentation of an opponents argument like the strawman, nor is it a complete fabrication of an argument like the hollow man, instead it selects only the weakest and worst parts of an opponent’s argument for attack, and then implies that it is the best or the only argument they have.
“With a “weak man,” you don’t actually fabricate a position, but rather pick the weakest of the arguments actually offered up by people on the other side and treat it as the best or only one they have.” – Julian Sanchez
For example: If you were an atheist, instead of attacking the strongest religious arguments put forward by apologists like William Lane Craig, a weak man argument would be to attack the weakest and worst religious arguments put forward by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Westboro Baptist Church, and other crazy cults e.g. Islamic terrorists getting 72 virgins for suicide bombing and 9/11, this pastor talking to God on the phone, this pastor raising a guy from the dead, God (or Satan) planting Dinosaur bones in the Earth to test the faith of Christians, UFO’s coming to rescue believers from a catastrophic flood that will end the world etc.
Sure some religious people have those beliefs, but they’re definitely not in the majority, nor are they the best or the strongest or the most compelling religious arguments, so to attack them is to take the easy road, and to be uncharitable to your opponent.
“The weak man argument is lazy, intellectually dishonest, and doesn’t convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. Convincing people would involve directly addressing their arguments or attacking your own weakest points and then explaining why you still believe your position to be reasonable.” – Will Wilson
Nutpicking is an intellectually dishonest exercise that occurs when you cherry pick only the craziest, nuttiest, most extreme members of a group, and then act as if they were an accurate representation of the group as a whole.
Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum coined the term and describes it as:
“Nutpicking is intentionally seeking out extremely fringe, non-representative statements and/or individuals from members of an opposing group and parading these as evidence of that entire group’s incompetence or irrationality.” – Kevin Drum
Nutpicking would be if you were to cherry pick:
- The most ridiculous and cringey SJW behavior to represent the average liberal or progressive
- Nazi’s and white supremists to represent the average Trump supporter
- Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Westboro Baptist Church etc. to represent the average religious believer
- Aggressive feminazis to represent the average feminist
Sure these people definitely exist, there are tens of thousands of them, but they’re definitely not the most accurate representation of the average person in the group.
Nutpicking is often used by journalists and the media to paint a group they disagree with ideologically in a bad light.
e.g. CNN going to a Trump rally, interviewing a bunch of people, but then only showing a highlight reel of the dumbest low IQ rednecks, to give a misleading impression about the group as a whole. It’s dishonest journalism of course, but unfortunately that’s the norm.
Nutpicking is definitely uncharitable and that leads me to the next point…
The principle of charity
The principle of charity is a principle in philosophy that we should all abide by whenever we’re communicating with others.
The principle of charity says:
- Listen and seek first to understand, instead of being in a hurry to argue, contradict, debunk, point out the fallacious reasoning, tell the other person why they’re wrong etc.
- If there are two possible interpretations of your opponents argument, one rational, one irrational, give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re making the most rational argument, the one that makes the most sense
- If an argument or statement doesn’t make sense to you, if it’s ambiguous, confusing, contains missing parts, wasn’t articulated very clearly etc. try to reconstruct it as charitably as possible, in a way that makes the most sense, and interpret any ambiguity in favor of your opponent
- Even if they didn’t explicitly say it:
- What are they most likely trying to say?
- What is the main point they’re most likely trying to make?
- What interpretation would be the most reasonable and make the most sense?
- Evaluate your opponents argument in its best light, and engage with their strongest arguments, rather than just pouncing on their weakest
- Ignore minor issues with your opponent’s argument, if those issues aren’t crucial to the main point they’re trying to make
- Offer friendly amendments to make their argument even stronger
- In a nutshell: Listen and seek first to understand, be respectful, and treat others the way you would like to be treated
“The principle of charity, roughly, requires that we try to find the best – the most reasonable or plausible – (rather than the worst) possible interpretation of what we read and hear, i. e. of what other people say.” – Rosalind Hursthouse, Philosopher
Why you should implement the principle of charity
- It will make you a better listener
- It will make you a better thinker
- It will force you to be present in the conversation
- It will improve your ability to construct your own arguments
- It will make you more likable and pleasant to be around. I think most people generally prefer to talk to people who try to make a genuine effort to try to understand where they’re coming from, rather than to some disagreeable know-it-all who is just trying to “win” the argument, point out the fallacy, tell them why they’re wrong etc.
Apply the principle of charity wisely
If someone is arguing in bad faith, if they’re intentionally using arguments they know are fallacious, if they’re not even trying to be rational or reasonable, it might be wiser to simply address the issues with their argument, rather than trying to identify a rational interpretation for it – or just walk away.
If your opponent isn’t being charitable with you
If your opponent isn’t being charitable with you, let them know that they’re misinterpreting your argument, and then restate your position again even clearer, and make the point you were trying to make.
Note: This could be an opportunity for you to identify any issues in the wording or phrasing of your argument, and to make it even clearer, so it’s less likely to be misconstrued.
Daniel Dennett in his book Intuition Pumps summarizes a list of rules for “How to compose a successful critical commentary” by Anatol Rapoport that would also be useful when communicating with others:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement)
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism
Let’s take the Principle of Charity and Rapoport’s Rules to the next level…
The opposite of the strawman argument is the steelman argument.
When you strawman someone’s argument you misrepresent it.
When you steelman someone’s argument you present it in its strongest form, even if it’s not the one they presented.
I think steelmanning opposition arguments should be standard, before you state your own argument. It’s intellectually honest, it forces you to think from other perspectives, to get educated on the other side, to find the best counterarguments against your own position, to demonstrate an understanding of your opponents position, and most importantly it makes you smarter.
It’s also foolish to argue or criticize a position you don’t understand, intellectually dishonest to deliberately strawman your opponents argument, and if you can’t defeat the best version of your opponent’s argument, if you need to misrepresent it in order to make it easier to defeat, then your argument isn’t strong enough, and maybe you should reevaluate your position.
“If you know of a better counter to your own argument than the one they’re giving, say so. If you know of evidence that supports their side, bring it up. If their argument rests on an untrue piece of evidence, talk about the hypothetical case in which they were right. Take their arguments seriously, and make them as good as possible. Because if you can’t respond to that better version, you’ve got some thinking to do, even if you are more right than the person you’re arguing with. Think more deeply than you’re being asked to.” – Chana Messinger
Steelmanning your opponents argument is important, because if you attack a strawman, even if it’s unintentional, your opponent certainly won’t be convinced by your rebuttal, because you’re not addressing their real argument, or the real reasons they believe what they believe. They might even protest, “That’s not my argument. That’s not what I’m saying. That’s a strawman”.
When you steelman your opponents argument, however, you demonstrate that you understand their position, what they believe and why, which makes it more likely that they’ll feel heard and understood and listen to what you have to say, instead of trying to interrupt or talk over you.
Once you’ve steelmanned your opponents argument, you can then ask them to accept and validate your interpretation of their argument:
“Have I got it right?”
“Is there anything I’m missing?”
“Have I misrepresented your argument in any way? “
If you’ve steelmanned your opponent’s argument properly, you should have represented it in such a way that they would say:
“Yep that’s exactly what I believe. You said it perfectly. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I wish I’d thought of saying it that way.”
Strawman vs Steelman
I’m going to present three strawman vs steelman arguments for comparison:
- God is real
- 9/11 was an inside job
- The earth is flat
Steelman argument example #1
God is real: Strawman
“You believe in a magic man in the sky! An invisible sky-Daddy who grants wishes!”
Clearly this is a misrepresentation of what most religious believers mean by “God”.
God is real: Steelman
The best arguments for the existence of God are often given by Christian Philosopher William Lane Craig:
Why is there something, rather than nothing?
Why does the universe exist?
Where do the laws of logic come from?
Where did the laws of nature come from?
Where does consciousness come from?
Why does anything at all exist?
Where did it all come from?
The deepest question in all of philosophy.
The argument from contingency seeks to answer this question:
P1: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature, or in an external cause
P2: The universe exists
P3: If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then that explanation must be an external, transcendent, cause. Why? Because the cause of the universe, must be greater than the universe. It must be beyond space and time. Therefore, it cannot be physical or material. There are only two types of things that could possibly fit that description, either 1) an abstract object like a number or 2) an intelligent mind, that is to say, an unbodied consciousness. But abstract objects like the number 7 can’t cause anything
C: Therefore, the explanation of the existence of the universe is an external, transcendent, personal cause. That is to say, there is an unbodied mind that created the universe. Which is what most people have traditionally meant by the word “God”.
Kalām cosmological argument
P1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause
P2: The universe began to exist
C: Therefore, the universe has a cause
This cause must be an uncaused, changeless, timeless, immaterial being (God)
God is the uncaused cause, the prime mover, on which all things depend.
Teleological argument from fine-tuning (argument from design)
P1: The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design
P2: It is not due to physical necessity or chance
C: Therefore, it is due to design
P1: If God does not exist, than objective moral values and duties do not exist
P2: Objective moral values and duties do exist. In our experience we apprehend a realm of objective moral values and duties. Some things are right and wrong independent of our feelings or perceptions about them e.g. murdering babies or rape
C: Therefore, God exists
(If naturalism is true, then objective morals and duties do not exist)
Steelman argument example #2
9/11 was an inside job: Strawman
“On the morning of 9/11, 19 men armed with box-cutters led by a man on dialysis in a cave half way around the world using a satellite phone and a laptop directed the most sophisticated penetration of the most heavily guarded air space in the world. Overpowering the passengers and the combat trained pilots of 4 commercial aircraft before flying them wildly off course for over an hour without them being molested by a single fighter interceptor.
These 19 terrorist, devoted Muslims, who liked drinking and snorting cocaine managed to knock down three buildings with two planes in NY, and in Washington a pilot who wasn’t able to handle a single engine Cessna was able to fly a 757 in an 8000 ft descent hitting the Pentagon in the very same office where DOD staff was working on the mystery of the 2.3 trillion taxpayer dollars the defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld had announced missing the day before.”
Neither the 9/11 truthers, nor those who accept the official story, accept this strawman version of the events of 9/11.
9/11 was an inside job: Steelman
There are many reasons 9/11 was an inside job:
A new Pearl Harbor event was required
The neoconservative think tank The Project for a New American Century which had a stated goal “to promote American global leadership”, said in September 2000 that they needed a “Pearl Harbor type attack” to galvanize the American public to go to war for Pax Americana.
One year later they got one. 9/11 provided the public outrage necessary to justify invasion of the Middle-East (even though Iraq had no “Weapons of Mass Destruction”)
Why was there no military intervention?
Why didn’t NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) intercept any of the four hijacked planes before they hit their targets?
Why did Dick Cheney give stand down orders not to shoot the planes down or even escort them? Even as they headed to Washington D.C.?
How was it possible the Pentagon was hit 1 hour and 20 minutes after the attacks began without a response from Andrews Air Force Base, just 10 miles away and home to Air National Guard units charged with defending the skies above the nation’s capital?
Why was there abundant testimony of explosions?
Why did so many eyewitnesses, Firefighters, Police, officer workers etc. both inside and outside of the Twin Towers and WTC 7 say they heard explosions in the lobby and basements?
Planes don’t bring down skyscrapers
If planes brought down the Twin Towers, why is it that planes have hit skyscrapers before and after 9/11 and all those skyscrapers are still standing?
Fires don’t bring down skyscrapers
Jet fuel isn’t hot enough to melt the massive steel columns running up the core of the building.
Why did the Twin Towers and WTC 7 come down at free fall speed?
Why did the Twin Towers and WTC 7 collapse at near free fall speed and look exactly like a controlled demolition if not for explosives?
If it was just jet fuel and office fires that brought the Twin Towers down, wouldn’t the 50+ floors untouched by fires have slowed the collapse of the higher floors to some degree?
Why did WTC 7 collapse at near free fall speed in the same way that buildings brought down by controlled demolition are, when it wasn’t even hit by a plane and only had fires on a few floors?
Why did Larry Silverstein say to “pull it” (a term for demolition)
Why did the 9/11 commission omit any mention of WTC 7, and offer no explanation for its collapse?
Why is there no video evidence of American Airlines Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon? (there are only a few still frames of a blur despite the fact that there were 80 security cameras surrounding the Pentagon)
If it was a plane and not a missile that hit the Pentagon, why was there no large pieces of aircraft debris found on the crash site?
Why was evidence hidden?
If 9/11 wasn’t an inside job and a cover-up, why were the security cameras at local gas stations and hotels that would have recorded the Pentagon crash immediately confiscated and withheld from public view as well as 84/85 security camera videos from the Pentagon?
If evidence wasn’t being destroyed, why was the steel from the World Trade Center site quickly disposed of, the vast majority of it taken to Asia for recycling?
“Essentially they blocked off the crime scene and destroyed all the evidence.” – Loose Change
Why do N.Y. City firefighters, Mike Bellone and Nicholas De Masi, claim that they found the black boxes from the planes that hit the Twin Towers, but that FBI agents took them and told them not to tell anyone?
Cell phone calls
Osama Bin Laden
If Osama Bin Laden is the mastermind behind 9/11, why didn’t the FBI list him on their “most wanted” page? Answer: Because they didn’t have enough evidence to link him to it.
“I would like to assure the world that I did not plan the recent attacks, which seems to have been planned by people for personal reasons.” – Osama Bin Laden, September 16, 2001
Why were the videos of Osama Bin Laden confessing to 9/11 fakes?
Why were significant put options placed on American Airlines and United Airlines stocks (bets that the stock price would go down) in the days leading up to 9/11 if no one had any advance knowledge?
Stock trading on these airlines was 45X the normal amount in the days leading up to 9/11!
Larry Silverstein insurance policy
Why did Larry Silverstein lease the Twin Towers and WTC 7 just months before the attack, with a contract escape clause that he would owe nothing if the buildings were attacked by terrorists?
…and why was Larry Silverstein and both of his children (who worked in the Twin Towers) conveniently absent on 9/11?
Why is anyone questioning the official account of 9/11 immediately attacked?
Why is anyone questioning the official narrative account immediately defamed?
If there is nothing to hide, why can’t questions be asked?
9/11 Commission was setup to fail
Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the Chair and Vice-Chair of the 9/11 Commission, said, “It appeared to both of us that the 9/11 commission was set up to fail”.
The reasons they give include:
- The 9/11 commission was setup 441 days after the attacks (why not immediately?) and this was only after pressure from victims families, and a Congressional mandate to force the Bush administration into a formal investigation
- The 911 commission was given an extremely tight deadline to complete its work, and very limited funds. Only $3 million dollars was initially allocated, and then two months later the Bush Administration reluctantly increased the total to $12 million (Over $60 Million was spent investigating Bill Clintons affair with Monica Lewinsky)
- The CIA, Department of Defense, NORAD, the FAA, and various key government agencies repeatedly denied the 9/11 commission access to documents and witnesses and prisoners accused of having a role in 9/11, and provided numerous complications in obtaining security clearances for commissioners and staff. According to Hamilton, “… we were fighting the question of access right up to the end of the Commission’s work.”
While President Bush and Vice President Cheney agreed to testify to the 9/11 commission, they did so only under several conditions:
- They would be allowed to testify jointly
- They would not be required to take an oath before testifying
- The testimony would not be recorded electronically or transcribed, and that the only record would be notes taken by one of the commission staffers
- These notes would not be made public
Why if they have nothing to hide?
See also: Criticism of the 9/11 Commission
Architects and Engineers calling for a reinvestigation of 9/11
Why are 3, 153 Architects and Engineers calling for a reinvestigation of 9/11?
These are just some of the reasons 9/11 was an inside job
Note: I don’t personally believe 9/11 was an inside job, however this is a reasonable attempt at steelmanning the argument that it was
Steelman argument example #3
Steelman: The Earth is flat
Flat earthers believe the earth is flat because:
Your senses tell you the Earth is flat
If the Earth and its atmosphere were constantly spinning eastwards at over 1000mph, we should be able to feel it, but we don’t. We can however, hear, feel and experimentally measure even the slightest westward breeze.
A flat Earth is what we see and experience.
The horizon always appears completely flat
The horizon always appears completely flat 360 degrees to the observer, regardless of how high you go up there is not any curvature to be seen. Any curvature you think you see is from curved airplane windows, Go Pro cameras and fisheye lenses (which NASA loves to use)
The only photographic evidence that the Earth is round/spherical comes from NASA who has been caught manipulating images and evidence before.
Airplanes would have to dip
If Earth were truly constantly spinning eastwards at over 1000mph, airplane’s would constantly have to dip their noses downwards every few minutes to compensate for the curvature of the earth.
If an airplane didn’t do this it would soon find itself at over 80, 000 feet in just half an hour in “outer space”.
Airplanes flying west should get to their destination faster
If the Earth was constantly spinning eastwards at over 1000mph, then the average commercial airliner traveling eastwards at 500mph in the same direction should logically never be able to reach its destination. Westward destinations should also be arrived at 3X the speed, since if you’re flying westward at 500mph, and the Earth is rotating at 1000mph in the opposite direction, then a distance of 1,500 miles would be covered in one hour, instead of 500, but this is not the case.
If a helicopter hovers for several hours it can still land in the exact same spot. How is this possible if the Earth is spinning eastwards at over 1000mph?
If gravity is really a force strong enough to hold the world’s oceans, lakes, buildings, people etc. stuck to the surface of a spinning ball, then how is it possible for gravity to also simultaneously be weak enough to allow for little bugs, birds, and planes to take-off and travel freely unabated in any direction?
No peer reviewed studies
There is not one peer-reviewed scientific study that proves the Earth is a globe
The Bible says so
This may not be credible to non-believers, but to Christians there are 60 Bible verses describing a flat earth inside a dome
Note: I’ll be honest, steelmanning the flat earth was incredibly difficult. I went in knowing that the arguments and evidence would likely be cringeworthy before I began, but I was curious as to how flat earthers would try to justify their claims, however the more I investigated, the cringier it became. I still wonder if it’s a giant masterful troll.
Finally, let’s take steelmanning up a notch…
The Ideological Turing Test
How well do you really understand your opponents position?
Could you argue your opponent’s position as well, if not better, than they can?
If not, you probably don’t know it well enough.
“If you can’t intelligently argue for both sides of an issue, you don’t understand the issue well enough to argue for either.” – Reddit user
A good way to test the depth of your understanding of opposition arguments is with the Ideological Turing Test.
The Turing Test (developed by computer scientist Alan Turing in 1950) is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from that of a human.
The Ideological Turing Test is a concept invented by economist Bryan Caplan to test your ability to make arguments for opposing viewpoints.
If you could argue/speak/write for an opposition viewpoint so persuasively that an outside observer listening to you believes that those are actually your viewpoints, and can’t tell the difference between you and an actual supporter of those viewpoints, then you would pass the test.
Anti-abortionists, could you pass an Ideological Turing Test for pro-choicers?
Feminists, could you pass an Ideological Turing Test for MGTOW or MRA?
Muslims, could you pass an Ideological Turing Test for Atheists, Christians or Hindus?
Trump haters, could you pass an Ideological Turing Test for Trump supporters?
The Ideological Turing Test is an excellent way to assess how well you understand the arguments and rationale of those you disagree with, and how well you can think from their perspective.
If you truly understand your opponents position, you should be able to argue/speak/write so persuasively from that perspective, that it’s indistinguishable from a person who actually holds that viewpoint.
Let’s summarize the key lessons in this article:
Misrepresenting an opponents argument to make it sound weaker than it really is, and then attacking that argument instead of attacking their real argument
Fabricating an argument no one holds and no one is making, destroying it, and then claiming victory
Selecting only the weakest and worst parts of an opponent’s argument to attack
Cherry picking only the craziest, nuttiest, most extreme members of a group, as if they were an accurate representation of the group as a whole
Principle of Charity
Evaluating your opponents argument in its best light, and interpreting any ambiguity in favor of your opponent
Presenting your opponents argument in its strongest form, even if it’s not the one they presented
Ideological Turing Test
The ability to argue/speak/write for an opposition viewpoint so persuasively that it’s indistinguishable from a person who actually holds that viewpoint