Friday 9 March 2012

Favourite Fallacies - The Straw Man.

One of the major problems faced by creationists and religious apologists is the mountain of science and scientific theories they need to somehow get past and still persuade themselves and/or their target audience that they have a valid, even superior argument. So they adopt strategies designed basically to pretend the evidence against them just isn't there.

All of these strategies are fallacious of course, but perhaps the commonest devise is known as the Straw Man Fallacy. The straw man is a metaphor for something which can be easily and safely attacked and which looks vaguely like the thing they would like to be attacking but know they can't. Usually, the straw man will be constructed in such a ludicrously childish fashion that it is easily dismantled by anyone with very low intellectual ability, and this of course is where apologists gain by using this device because that is usually a characteristic of the audience they are trying to fool with the straw man fallacy in the first place.

For example, you will see the Theory of Evolution misrepresented as a theory which says a monkey suddenly gave birth to a human or a living animal suddenly changed into another species, or that an entire species changed overnight into a different one so you would not expect to see any of the earlier ones around now. You will also see more subtle misrepresentations such implying that biologists recognise a distinction between evolution which results in a new taxon and evolution which results in mere change in frequency or a variable characteristic within a species. The most popular straw man in this respect is the pretence that the Theory of Evolution predicts and requires a complete set of fossils recording every change in every species throughout its evolutionary history and that the Theory of Evolution depends entirely on this requirement.

A common device used is to conflate two or more scientific theories into one, or more often, two or more straw men parodies of scientific theories such as the big bang, abiogenesis and evolution into one and throw stones at that parody instead of the real science. So you will see arguments attacking the idea that life arose in a big bang or that rocks evolved intelligence.

And of course, where this tactic works most effectively is when it is used on those with low reasoning ability and/or low scientific education who lack the ability to recognise the straw man parody and so take it on trust that it is an accurate and honest representation of science. Combined with their naive ignorance, the attacks from creationist charlatans provide them with the perfect excuse to pretend to know better than those who have spent time learning the subject and acquiring the necessary understanding, and all by learning a few simple parodies and some infantile questions based on them. This is also helped in those cultures where it tends to be assumed that those defending religions are honest and can be relied upon to tell the truth.

So we now see unfortunate victims of this deception swarming onto the Internet and infesting the social network media proudly showing off the 'killer arguments' they have picked up from people who've used this technique on them only to find they're making fools of themselves and displaying both their credulous gullibility and ignorance and ending up discrediting the very thing they came rushing excitedly on line to promote.

The other major group of people on whom this technique works, and at whom it it often aimed, are fellow religionists who have invested so much of themselves in their religion that the cognitive dissonance which results in learning science is too difficult to cope with, so avoidance strategies are readily adopted. Very often too these people will be earning their living from religion so will have made more than just a psychological investment.

Look beyond the straw man to the motives of those who assiduously create them and what do we see? We see people who know they need to create straw men to attack in the first place. What we don't see are people who have seriously looked at the science itself and made an effort to understand it, and who may be genuinely puzzled by it or genuinely mistaken about it. We see people who, if they have looked at all, have only looked for things to parody and misrepresent and have obviously had little regard for the way the body of science grows and develops, so that, for example, a book or paper, or even a popular magazine article from many years ago will be presented as current theory. And of course there will be the deliberate confusion of even the meanings of words where there is more than one current definition, such as the different popular and scientific meanings of the word 'theory' and 'law'.

Perhaps more than any other fallacy, the Straw Man Fallacy exemplified both the dishonesty of creationist and religious apologists and the naive ignorance and intellectual indolence of their credulous victims.

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  1. Nice buddy. i attempted to chronicle many/some logical fallacies over at the six pack blog, but it got lost in the shuffle. Red Herring and appeal to authority, as well as straw-person, are my top ones. As i look at the peeps here in Nor Cal (the believers that is) I can't help but feel that the world would be a better and more rational place if we all knew these kinds of things.



  2. I'm curious about something. Given your reliance on science and the "natural world", would you say that it is impossible for there to ever be any evidence for a god? If not, what could possibly qualify as evidence for a god?

    1. There can be no evidence for anything supernatural, by definition. Anything which can be detected in any way is part of the natural world and so is not supernatural.

      This of course is why the idea of a supernatural god who interacts with the natural world is infantile and absurd.

    2. Miracles. Unfortunately none so far!

  3. The real show-stopper is when apologists claim that logic and science come as a gift from God and the Bible, and if you use logic you admit the existence of God. Think about that single sentence, it's enough make you lose faith in humanity.

  4. @Anonymous: A testable, falsifiable hypothesis would be a good start. Got one?

  5. Kevin, my point is precisely that no such hypothesis can ever exist. And I think we atheists should recognize that. It confuses the issue when atheists act as if they are open to hearing evidence for a god when we know a priori that nothing can ever count as scientific evidence of a god.

    1. I imagine a large finger protruding from the sky and pointing at Africa then seeing AIDS and famine instantly cured, would go some way towards it. The kind of thing the writers of the Old Testament and Qur'an claim to have seen and found convincing, though maybe slightly less dramatic than a divine digit and eradication of a virus.

    2. I'm being serious, and I think if you are too, you would admit that the vision of a hand in the sky, the provision of food, and the elimination of a virus are not evidence for a god. If you did count it as evidence, you would be no better than the theists who cite the complexity of life, the universe, etc. as evidence of a god. You would be using "god" to fill in the gaps of your understanding.

      What's so wrong with simply acknowledging that science assumes a natural world, and that this assumption makes it impossible for there to ever be any scientific theory or evidence regarding anything supernatural?

    3. What did you not understand about "There can be no evidence for anything supernatural, by definition. Anything which can be detected in any way is part of the natural world and so is not supernatural.

      This of course is why the idea of a supernatural god who interacts with the natural world is infantile and absurd."?

    4. I was responding to your finger in the sky remark, and also your post that you linked to, which, in light of your statement that there can be no evidence for anything supernatural, seems odd, since you would know the answer to "Why didn't he...?" (answer: Because none of those things would be evidence).

      I hope you can forgive my confusion. I was having trouble understanding which of your two positions is the real one.

    5. I would have thought the finger in the sky remark was obviously tongue in cheek, especially given my earlier comment.

    6. I have a serious philosophical problem with a "what if" argument in which the thing being posited is completely impossible and (come on, be serious) can not happen. "If you saw a great big golden being appear in the sky and start lifting people up into the air to the sound of glorious music, you'd believe then, wouldn't you?" Fact is (assuming I was fully in control of my cognitive faculties, e.g. I had not consumed substances which alter my ability to process my own sensual inputs) I probably would. "So, then you're not an atheist are you?" crows the reply.

      My logical abilities are somewhat rusty, but is this not an abuse of the logical technique of arguing a vacuous truth?

      The point is, it won't happen. The only sensible reply to that sort of argument is "But it won't happen, so the question won't arise." And if the asker continues to believe that such events are commonplace, recommend they embark on psychiatric treatment.

  6. Serendipitously, I just wrote about how the anti-vaccination lunatics use stupid strawman arguments to make their points. I wonder if there's a Society of Pseudoscience and Junk Science meeting where they all meet to share strategy.

  7. US didn't take Science seriously until CCCP showed them how incompetent their school curriculum was. Only when they felt humiliated did the US government move towards serious science education in their country. Some would argue that the only reason why US put a man on the moon was because of the German rocket scientists they captured, otherwise that as well would have been a major failure.

    CCCP was first to the moon the first man in space the first to land on Venus and Mars the first space station, the first woman in space the first .........I can go on for hours.......

    Religion is too convenient for the people in power. They want the proletariat to know just enough where they can run the machines. Reminds me of the class system in India, the only way out of that system is nirvana, trying to leave it requires leaving India otherwise.

    The bourgeoisie look at us like one would look at an animal and know that a certain percentage will get out but for the most it is enough just living a delusion.

    It has been done before, Augustus was a master, made rich richer and gave the poor work food and entertainment. Bread and Circuses my friends.

    The point is most do not want to think for themselves they want someone to tell them what to think, they need authority to make them feel safe and in control.

    Debating unicorns dragons jesus is a complete waste of time at this point any intellectual will tell you that the bible is a work of fiction, once examined how many times need we go back to this and waste our talent disproving creation myths that are obviously false.

    Well that was my 3 minute rant while standing in line at Safeway. Peace.

  8. We do it too.

    In particular, I've seen an awful lot of attacks on the literal truth of their Bible, which few if any serious Christian theologians believe in. Or on the assumption that believers in one religion can never accept that other religions also present a valid version of the truth.

    Just re-read longplainfirstnation's comment: good example. No, we don't need to debate the literal truths of creation stories, but we do well to look for what the metaphors tell us about ourselves and the way we relate to the universe.

    1. What the theologians believe is a distraction. What matters is what the masses who have been deluded believe, and the answer is that they believe that if they stop believing the bullshit being shovelled into their heads, bad things will happen to them. Which is a nasty form of emotional blackmail.

      Pointing out that the Bible isn't literally true is often a first step at getting the most heavily indoctrinated to realize that they've been brainwashed.

  9. Hi Rosa,

    Great article. I have two questions, hopefully you have time to respond to.

    1. If someone makes an argument that you consider weak.....for the sake of the question lets use your example, a creationist saying that evolution amounts to an ape giving birth to a human. How can you respond/defeat the argument without leaving yourself open to an accusation of defeating a straw man?

    2. I agree that a creationist saying evolution is the theory that an ape gave birth to a human is guilty of the straw man fallacy. That being said, as a creationist myself, and knowing many others, I don't know anyone that believes this about the current evolutionary model. So what is to stop me of leveling a "straw man" accusation against your "straw man" accusation, leading to a back and forth mish-mash of straw!?

    I feel like the straw man fallacy is a good thing to keep in mind, but its hard to really pin someone down on. I talk to atheists a lot, and you wouldn't believe the infantile arguments I get, that I have to knock down. I am not saying that all atheists have infantile arguments, but I encounter many. How can I not commit this fallacy if I am responding to a real life straw man? And vice versa, because there are plenty of real life Christian straw men as well!

    Look forward to your thoughts.

  10. 1. Are you suggesting that we shouldn't respond to your straw man fallacies but should just let them go? Isn't pretending to have won the reason you use them in the first place? Clearly, the intention is to fool the audience. I can understand your concern that we might expose the deception.

    2. Ah! The 'No True Scotsmen' fallacy. How did you know you would require yet another fallacy?

    1. 1. No I am not suggesting that at all. I am just wondering if there is any way to respond to a bad argument publicly, without being open to a straw man accusation?

      2. Never heard of this one. Would it answer my question?

  11. On the appeal to religionists. I think it pays to remember that apologetics is virtually always an effort to preach to the choir. The arguments may be framed as a response to atheists, but the intended audience is generally one's co-religionists. Hence, teh utility of the straw man argument. It serves not only to provide a putative refutation of the position under attack but to actually replace that position wit the straw man. If done well, the audience may develop elaborate ideas about the errors of atheism, etc., all without ever having encountered them.

    1. @RosaRubicondior:

      The previous commenter did have a point in relation to questioning assertion of claims of validity of truth using only empirical methods. Empiricism is valid but only with in the realm of the natural sciences is it suited. The social sciences do not employ methods of empiricism for enquiry - no empirically falsifiable requirements required.

      The definition you give I would argue is not entirely accurate "Anything which can be detected in any way is part of the natural world and so is not supernatural." We can detect that we are feeling emotion however it is not emprically verifiable however is very real and valid to the person feeling the emotion. I would expand that to include measureable and quantifiable.

      There are approaches to knowledge that are not empirically verifiable and to attempt to would be offer little value.

      As mentioned prior logic is one, as is mathematics and language. Rationalism in general is another as is Idealism.

      The Anon mentions "Kevin, my point is precisely that no such hypothesis can ever exist. And I think we atheists should recognize that:. Although some of the further conversation I would argue was clumsily delivered the recognition that empiricism is simply one approach (albeit a good one) amongst other epistemological approaches is valid.

      This was a statement that in my opinion is entirely valid.

      Brimshack: "apologetics is virtually always an effort to preach to the choir" I would hope that an objective atheist that in order to offset any Confirmation bias associated with this statement, value free objective appraisal would be the goal.

      "if done well, the audience may develop elaborate ideas about the errors of atheism, etc., all without ever having encountered them." Am I reading this correct? Have you considered the remote possibility that the errors or arguments made may in fact be valid? Are you asserting arguments should be prevented that discuss the illogical position that atheism asserts in relation the position of the non-existence of deities. The assumptions that underpin empiricism and the assumptions made about our reality that also impact the validity of certainty when dealing with assertions of truth? The arguments that atheism is arguably not intellectually as sound as agnosticism? - Is this what one wishes to not discuss?

      The problem with the Straw Man allegation is that it attempts to enforce a scientific or mathematical type rigour to an English language based discourse. Instead of allowing language to flow and for arguments and underlying assertions to be given voice and for reason be developed in wider contextual viewpoints.

      The "straw man" allegations ensures discussion flows in a typical top down reductionist approach - similar to the scientific method. Discussion boards are called discussion for a reason. The treatment of concepts and clarification of position is often circular in flow - this allows for deeper treatment and for a better understanding of the issues. Metaphors are often introduced - these are often called "straw man"

      Insisting that conversation flow only according to one view point is not discussion at all.

    2. >Empiricism is valid but only with in the realm of the natural sciences is it suited.


      And it was of course reality which we were discussing.

    3. Thanks for publishing my comment. Appreciate the opportunity given to have a say (rant) on your blog.

    4. Empiricism (or if you prefer, pragmatism or pragmaticism) is really the only valid method of obtaining most information about reality. Rationalism is also a valid method -- and the foundation of mathematics & logic -- but does not give you any information unless you have premises -- and the premises can only be found through empricism. (Believing that you can use rationalism without empricism to determine facts about reality is Aristotle's blunder.)

      Received wisdom is only as valid as the use of empiricism and rationalism among the person you got it from, though it is necessary due to the sheer amount of work involved in personal testing and experimenting. (As a side note, direct personal sensory experience is empirical, but interpretation of such experience.... isn't.)

      Idealism is simply wrong; it doesn't work, it leads to bogus conclusions. This is Plato's blunder.

      So in short, I'm saying that other epistemiological approaches -- the approaches other than the combination of empiricism and rationalism -- are not correct, and we know this because they keep leading to wrong conclusions, over and over, for thousands of years. (Valid has a technical meaning in logic. Technically, any rational approach is *valid*. Religious forms of epistemiology are frequently invalid as well as being incorrect.)

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