How Not to Argue

Here’s a common and misguided way make a point or win an argument.  Take your favoured option and contrast it with a shoddy alternative, or “straw man.” Politicians use straw men by describing opponent’s position in such an oversimplified and biased way that the opponent looks a bit ridiculous. Business people use this technique too. Here’s a picture of straw man example, that was doing the rounds on LinkedIn a while ago.  It draws on the current meme “you should love everything about leadership unless you’re a mild psychopath.”

A ridiculous straw man description from LinkedIn

Straw Men Persuade No-one Worth Persuading

This straw man technique persuades a two main groups.  The first group is people who already agree with us.  The second is people who don’t really care that much and want to make a quick decision so they can stop thinking about it. If we want to engage someone who actually cares about the subject we’re raising, the evidence shows that we’ll put them off if we use a straw man. People who care about a subject naturally find holes in such naive comparisons, to the protagonist’s discredit. Here’s the effect of 1 candidate using a straw man, in a couple of experiments where people were asked 1 to choose between 2 candidates.

Straw man arguments don't persuade people who care

So use that straw man if your objective is to get approval from people who already agree with you.  Maybe use it if you’re after people who don’t really care. If you want to challenge people’s thinking properly, engage, and even persuade them in a subject they care about, then present the alternatives fairly.  Explain in a balanced way why you and they should prefer the case you’re making. And please put that straw man on the top of the bonfire where he belongs.

by Steve Hacking