Monday, August 20, 2012

When a Strawman Becomes A Red Herring

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that makes the distinction between the logical implications of a view and what the adherent actually believes. The implications necessarily follow, but the person's beliefs do not necessarily follow. I pointed out that it is important when critiquing a view that if an adherent does not believe the implications, we should make that clear- we are critiquing the logical consistency of the worldview, not what the person believes. I explained that if this distinction is not made clear, the adherent to the worldview will likely see this as a strawman of their view and dismiss the critique as not applying.

When this distinction is not made clear, the adherent may focus on the proposed implications- the accusation of the commission of the strawman fallacy. Ironically, if the person offering the critique of the view makes the distinction clear, then the adherent is actually maintaining the strawman- they are claiming that the person critiquing the view is attributing the implications to the adherent even though they make it clear that they are not.


This can be quite frustrating for the person offering the logical critique of the view for two reasons. First, because of the fact that the adherent is accusing them of attributing something to the adherent that they didn't. The accusation of committing the strawman fallacy is a serious one that needs to be investigated honestly, but when its obvious that we have not committed such a fallacy (and we can clearly evidence our innocence), it can be extremely irritating...and quite discouraging when the false accusation comes from within the Christian community. As mentioned above, when someone falsely accuses a person of committing the strawman fallacy, they are the ones who are truly guilty of the fallacy. As with all strawmen (if maintained even after evidence to the contrary is provided), they show very little respect for the misrepresented view and little interest in understanding it properly.

Second, when someone wishes to focus on their accusation of a strawman, they are avoiding the actual issue. The whole point of providing a logical critique of a view is to show that it is logically incoherent or inconsistent. Implicit in that critique is that anyone who believes something other than the necessary implications is being inconsistent. When an adherent insists on accusing the person offering the critique of putting up a strawman, they are avoiding the two issues at hand. They are not only guilty of committing the strawman, themselves, but they are also guilty of avoiding the issue- the red herring fallacy.

In such a critique, the person is offering two different problems of inconsistency: the first is internal to the view, and the second is between the view and the adherent's beliefs. As I have stated many times in the past, if your worldview is true, then there will be no inconsistency internal to the view or between the view and your beliefs. So, if the adherent actually holds what is true, they should be able to defend against both of the accusations made by the person offering the critique. When an adherent to the view being critiqued addresses the challenges at hand, they are not (falsely) accusing the other of committing the strawman, nor are they avoiding the issue- no fallacy is being committed, and neither side feels disrespected.

If an adherent defends their position, then implicit in the defense is the accusation of a strawman, but the lack of an explicit accusation keeps emotions in check. Because the conclusion (strawman) is so emotionally charged, its best to leave the conclusion to be assumed. Of course, the person offering the critique needs to be ready to defend their critique if the adherent puts forth a case that undermines or falsifies their case. At this point, respectful, academic dialog may continue. If the adherent is able to maintain their position, then the person offering the critique needs to be willing to understand that they were actually offering a strawman, and need to pull back.

If the person offering the critique is actually wrong and is honest and logical in their thinking, they will come to the conclusion on their own. When that takes place, the emotion is not nearly as high, and it is much easier to accept and make the change. That is why it is best to not make the accusation from the adherent of the person offering the critique erecting a strawman.

But, on the flip side, if the person offering the critique is able to maintain both of their claims, the adherent needs to be willing to recognize that there is inconsistency within their view or between the view and their beliefs. Again, not making the strawman accusation explicit, but rather offering reasons that they are wrong avoids the emotional conclusion. Also, if they are actually wrong and is honest and logic in their thinking, they will come to the conclusion on their own- it is easier to make the change.

And I can't cover the possibility of one or the other is wrong, without offering that they both are. In this case, neither side actually has the logical upper hand, but both have sound and unsound points. Both sides need to avoid the accusation of the strawman (to ultimately avoid the red herring), and both need to be willing to recognize when the other side has a sound point, and adjust either their critique or view.

There must be humility on both sides- you never know when you might be the one who's offering the strawman or insisting on a false strawman to the point of committing the red herring fallacy. If you're in the wrong, change whatever needs to be changed and move on. Admitting a problem will only take you closer to what is true (if your view is wrong) or allow you to soundly show views to be wrong (if your critiqued understanding is incorrect).

See also:
Reasons In and Out of a Worldview
Are You Addressing A Worldview or its Adherent?

1 comment:

  1. "As with all strawmen (if maintained even after evidence to the contrary is provided), they show very little respect for the misrepresented view and little interest in understanding it properly."
    >>>

    I just spent about a week debating on Twitter with a "future physicist" and the guy just couldn't stop erecting strawmen. Even after pointing them out, he maintained that he hadn't -with some nice lawyer type language- saying that he hadn't actually/specifically said "X, Y, and Z". He tried to pull a tautology on me, but I was having none. If I had hair, I would have pulled it out. I did better than a double facepalm, my cat lent me a paw additionally. Ok, done ranting lol. Great article.

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