Sorting Through Sophistries:
The Scarecrow and the Steel Man

By Gabriel Blanchard

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain ...

A View From the Motte

We have been strolling through the bailey of sophistries for some time now, observing the variegated flowers that grow in its soil. Here is a patch of equivocations and ambiguities, bright as false sunflowers; there, like a bed of pansies (said to be named for the French pensée, “thought”*), a dewy absence of context; in a third place, almost man-high, like the beautiful but poisonous foxglove,** the many-trumpeted abuses of the square of opposition.

Having been thus lulled by the pleasant atmosphere of the bailey, we might be considered pardonably startled by the appearance of five monstrosities at the gate, and forgiven if we ran to the high, jewel-green motte and barred it against them. From here we may peer out to scrutinize them safely. What are those things—a couple of rabid animals, it seems, one a big cat type and the other a vile little dog; a humanoid robot (why do they design them to look like people? what a creepy thing to do); an oddly-dressed young lady—oh, of course: look at those shoes, it must be the Wicked Witch of the East, who evidently has found a spell to restore her youth. Yet more intimidating than any of those four is the fifth: a nightmare out of H. P. Lovecraft, a shuffling mountain of rotting organic matter, with a badly-faked anthropoid getup tied onto him in bits, here and there, and reeking like a cesspit. It looks for all Oz like an animate scarecrow.

Straw-manning is one of the commonest fallacious devices in existence, and has been for millennia. It is used accidentally and on purpose, online and offline, in formal debates and casual chats. Unluckily, the straw man’s issue is the opposite of that which afflicts the Scarecrow. The Scarecrow is a clever person who thinks he has no brains: the straw man … well, maybe the Scarecrow has his.

Green Glass Spectacles

The straw man is a little like an inside-out motte-and-bailey. The standard motte-and-bailey, you’ll remember, is a strategic distortion or understatement of one’s own real views, presenting them as something much more modest than they really are. The idea is that, if serious argument arises, the sophist only needs to defend the highly fortified motte; in practice or more casual discussion, for which most people are less attentive to the intellectual underpinnings of things, they’re allowed to enjoy the range and liberty of the grassy bailey (and all the foxgloves they can eat). A straw man, however, is a dummy constructed to resemble someone else’s views or arguments. The sophistical function of a straw man is to be an easy opponent to refute (as the motte-and-bailey is a false version of oneself that is easy to defend). The straw man can be made of exaggerations, oversimplifications, invalid syllogisms, quotes taken out of context—anything, as long as it can be made to seem like the opponent’s view. The sophist then takes the straw man to pieces, and claims to have won the argument.

For example, let us say Mr. A is debating Miss B about the Korean War: he asserts that, according to the principles of just war theory, the United States should not have gotten involved. Miss B indignantly replies, “Oh, so the United States has no right to defend its allies against conquest?” The reason this is a straw-manned reply is quite simple: what Miss B is ostensibly replying to is something Mr. A never said. Mr. A might be wrong in his analysis of just war theory, or in how he applied it to the Korean War—but he made a specific claim about that war in particular, not a general statement about the rights or wrongs of the United States.

Some Have Entertained Scarecrows Unawares

In one way, the sophistical straw man (unlike literal scarecrows) is naturally occurring. After all, when we talk to people about a topic, do we habitually do so with people we dislike, or with our friends? And while few of us agree with all of our friends about everything, how many of us disagree with most of our friends most of the time? Which means that when we discuss views which oppose our own, it’s likely to be with other people who agree with us; and that means in turn that the opposing views in our conversation aren’t exactly coming from the horse’s mouth.

The human mind is generally far more eager to praise and dispraise than to describe and define.

Just to be clear, the point is not that we should be ashamed of enjoying like-minded company. If we always favored disagreement over agreement and discomfort over comfort when socializing, it’s doubtful how long, or how much, all that society really would help others or ourselves! But we do have to bear in mind that socialization is good for some purposes, not every purpose, and one of the goals it isn’t good for is telling you about people outside your circle.

Moreover, we don’t often stay neutral about ideas we think are false (if we even started out neutral). It’s natural to dislike things we think are false, and it’s hard to pay serious attention to things we dislike! And when the thing is an idea, we’re extra prone to “get to the point”—that is, to skip anything our opponent actually said, and get right to sharing our unattractive interpretation of what we feel our opponent meant.

This is part of the reason you may frequently see historians dismiss such-and-such an author or document as having little value for understanding its subject, on the grounds that it is “a hostile source.”† Even hostile sources can relate facts; the problem is that disentangling fact from interpretation, and both from implication, rumor, guess, possibility, omission, distortion, and error, is perhaps at its most challenging in a hostile source. Many of us have had the experience of learning how friends interpreted our words or actions in ways totally foreign to our intent or whole personality. Now imagine an enemy interpreting those same words or actions—and now imagine that in six hundred years, someone who grew up in a radically different world is trying to make sense of you, using just that enemy’s interpretation of your behavior. I dare say you see the problem!

Flesh Men and Metal Men

There are various remedies to straw-manning, depending on exactly how it’s done. It can be as simple as going to an original source and actually reading it (when dealing with a straw man of somebody else), or saying “That’s not what I said” (when dealing with a straw man of ourselves). When straw men are built on a possibly-sincere confusion, a more detailed analysis tends to be needed: one that shows exactly what the differences are between the straw man and the real thing, and why those differences are important.

One final note. As the Scarecrow keeps the company of the Tin Man, so straw-manning has a kind of benevolent mirror image, known as steel-manning. This is the practice of taking some other party’s beliefs and restating them in a stronger form, replying to a more coherent and credible version of their view than they have offered. In a sense, this could be regarded as a fallacy; it is more often (and more properly) classified as a rhetorical technique, one that greatly increases the credibility of the person who uses it. This is because, exactly as a straw man implies muddled thinking, lack of confidence, and being afraid of honest argument, a steel man displays clarity, courage, and a kind of intellectual honor or courtesy that seems to have no name in English, but which the present author tends to think of as chivalry. A chevalier never dueled an opponent while he, the chevalier, had any unfair advantage: if his opponent had lost his horse, the chevalier must dismount before engaging; if his opponent had lost his shield, he must set his own aside. So here. Of necessity, one’s opponent is (in Antony’s words) an honorable man, but even honorable men are not always at their mental best; it is the part of the chivalrous debater to discreetly supply him with the better arguments for his own position that, no doubt, he has forgotten purely temporarily and by bad luck. Knights do not fight duels with children.

*This is why, in Hamlet, Ophelia explains that the pansy she has sewn is “for remembrance.”
**This is quite true, incidentally. All parts of the foxglove plant contain the chemical digitalis (a.k.a. digoxin). Digitalis stimulates the heart muscle, and thus has medical applications when administered with expert knowledge and attention; it is one of the oldest medicines in the world in this application. However, digitalis has such a steep dose-response curve that a small overdose can cause arrhythmia, vomiting, and even death.
†Carried to an extreme, this can become its own problem, a fallacy known as “poisoning the well.” But, in the study of history (and certain other fields, like criminal law), deciding whether and to what extent the available witnesses are trustworthy is an essential step in the process. The decision to trust or distrust becomes fallacious not by being a decision—that’s unavoidable—but by being made for silly reasons.

Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you’d like to read more from the Journal, why not read up on two of the great definers of the code of chivalry, Thomas Malory and Christine de Pizan; if you have a classical bent, consider our biographies of Seneca and Procopius; or, if your mind is hankering to turn to something more scientific, take a look at our profiles of Margaret Cavendish, Louis Pasteur, or John Maynard Keynes.

Published on 11th April, 2024.

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