Productive arguments serve two purposes: to open our minds to truths we couldn’t see — and help others do the same. Here’s how to avoid common pitfalls and argue like a master.
We’re often faced with situations in which we need to argue a point, whether we’re pitching an investor or competing for a contract. When being powerfully persuasive matters, it’s important that we don’t use bad arguments that prevent useful debate instead of furthering it. To do this, it’s useful to know some common ways people remove the possibility of a meaningful discussion. While it can be a challenge to keep our cool and not sink to using bad arguments when responding to a Twitter troll or during a heated confrontation over Thanksgiving dinner, we can benefit from knowing what to avoid when the stakes are high.
— Charles Dickens
“If the defendant be a man of straw, who is to pay the costs?”
— Charles Dickens
To start, let’s define three common types of bad arguments, or logical fallacies: “straw man,” “hollow man,” and “iron man.”
Straw man arguments
A straw man argument is a misrepresentation of an opinion or viewpoint, designed to be as easy as possible to refute. Just as a person made of straw would be easier to fight with than a real human, a straw man argument is easy to knock to the ground. And just as it might look a bit like a real person from a distance, a straw man argument has the rough outline of the actual discussion. In some cases, it might seem similar to an outside observer. But it lacks any semblance of substance or strength. The sole purpose is for it to be easy to refute. It’s not an argument you happen to find inconvenient or challenging. It’s one that is logically flawed. A straw man argument may not even be invalid; it’s just not relevant.
It’s important not to confuse a strawman argument with a simplified summary of a complex argument. When we’re having a debate, we may sometimes need to explain an opponent’s grounds back to them to ensure we understand it. In this case, this explanation will be by necessity a briefer version. But it is only a straw man if the simplification is used to make it easier to attack, rather than to facilitate clearer understanding
There are a number of common tactics used to construct straw man arguments. One is per fas et nefas (which means “through right and wrong” in Latin) and involves refuting one of the reasons for an opponent’s argument, then claiming that discredits everything they’ve said. Often, this type of straw man argument will focus on an irrelevant or unimportant detail, selecting the weakest part of the argument. Even though they have no response to the rest of the discourse, they purport to have disproven it in its entirety. As Doug Walton, professor of philosophy at the University of Winnipeg, puts it, “The straw man tactic is essentially to take some small part of an arguer’s position and then treat it as if that represented his larger position, even though it is not really representative of that larger position. It is a form of generalizing from one aspect to a larger, broader position, but not in a representative way.”
Oversimplifying an argument makes it easier to attack by removing any important nuance. An example is the “peanut butter argument,” which states life cannot have evolved through natural selection because we do not see the spontaneous appearance of new life forms inside sealed peanut butter jars. The argument claims evolutionary theory asserts life emerged through a simple combination of matter and heat, both of which are present in a jar of peanut butter. It is a straw man because it uses an incorrect statement about evolution as being representative of the whole theory. The defender of evolution gets trapped into explaining a position they didn’t even have: why life doesn’t spontaneously develop inside a jar of peanut butter.
Another tactic is to over-exaggerate a line of reasoning to the point of absurdity, thus making it easier to refute. An example would be someone claiming a politician who is not opposed to immigration is thus in favor of open borders with no restrictions on who can enter a country. Seeing as that would be a weak view that few people hold, the politician then feels obligated to defend border controls and risks losing control of the debate and being charged as a hypocrite.
— Adam Gopnik
“The light obtained by setting straw men on fire is not what we mean by illumination.”
— Adam Gopnik
Straw man arguments that respond to irrelevant points could involve ad hominem points, which are sort of relevant but don’t refute the argument—for example, responding to the point that wind turbines are a more environmentally friendly means of generating energy than fossil fuels by saying, “But wind turbines are ugly.” This point has a loose connection, yet the way wind turbines look doesn’t discredit their benefits for power generation. A person who made an ad hominem point like that would likely be doing so because they knew they had no rebuttal for the actual assertion.
Quoting an argument out of context is another tactic of straw man arguments. “Quote mining” is the practice of removing any part of a source that proves contradictory, often using ellipses to fill in the gaps. For instance, film posters and book blurbs will sometimes take quotes from bad reviews out of context to make them seem positive. So, “It’s amazing how bad this film is” becomes “Amazing,” and “The perfect book for people who wish to be bored to tears” becomes “The perfect book.” Reviewers face an uphill battle in trying not to write anything that could be taken out of control in this manner.
Hollow man arguments
A hollow man argument is similar to a straw man one. The difference is that it is a weak case attributed to a non-existent group. Someone will fabricate a viewpoint that is easy to refute, then claim it was made by a group they disagree with. Arguing against an opponent which doesn’t exist is a pretty easy way to win any debate. People who use hollow man arguments will often favor vague, non-specific language without explicitly giving any sources or stating who their opponent is.
Hollow man arguments slip into debate because they’re a lazy way of making a strong point without risking anyone refuting you or needing to be accountable for the actual strength of a line of reasoning. In Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse write that “speakers commit the hollow man when they respond critically to arguments that nobody on the opposing side has ever made. The act of erecting a hollow man is an argumentative failure because it distracts attention away from the actual reasons and argument given by one’s opposition. . . . It is a full-bore fabrication of the opposition.”
An example of a hollow man argument would be the claim that animal rights activists want humans and non-human animals to have a perfectly equal legal standing, meaning that dogs would have to start wearing clothes to avoid being arrested for public indecency. This is a hollow man because no one has said that all laws applying to humans should also apply to dogs.
— Noam Chomsky
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
— Noam Chomsky
Iron man argument
An iron man argument is one constructed in such a way that it is resistant to attacks by a challenger. Iron man arguments are difficult to avoid because they have a lot of overlap with legitimate debate techniques. The distinction is whether the person using them is doing so to prevent opposition altogether or if they are open to changing their minds and listening to an opposer. Being proven wrong is painful, which is why we often unthinkingly resort to shielding ourselves from it using iron man arguments.
Someone using an iron man argument often makes their own stance so vague that nothing anyone says about it can weaken it. They’ll make liberal use of caveats, jargon, and imprecise terms. This means they can claim anyone who disagrees didn’t understand them, or they’ll rephrase their contention repeatedly. You could compare this to the language used in the average horoscope or in a fortune cookie. It’s so vague that it’s hard to disagree with or label it as incorrect because it can’t be incorrect. It’s like boxing with a wisp of steam.
An example would be a politician who answers a difficult question about their policies by saying, “I think it’s important that we take the best possible actions to benefit the people of this country. Our priority in this situation is to implement policies that have a positive impact on everyone in society.” They’ve answered the question, just without saying anything that anyone could disagree with.
Why bad arguments are harmful
What is the purpose of debate? Most of us, if asked, would say it’s about helping someone with an incorrect, harmful idea see the light. It’s an act of kindness. It’s about getting to the truth.
But the way we tend to engage in debate contradicts our supposed intentions.
Much of the time, we’re really debating because we want to prove we’re right and our opponent is wrong. Our interest is not in getting to the truth. We don’t even consider the possibility that our opponent might be correct or that we could learn something from them.
As decades of psychological research indicate, our brains are always out to save energy, and part of that is that we prefer not to change our minds about anything. It’s much easier to cling to our existing beliefs through whatever means possible and ignore anything that challenges them. Bad arguments enable us to engage in what looks like a debate but doesn’t pose any risk of forcing us to question what we stand for.
We debate for other reasons, too. Sometimes we’re out to entertain ourselves. Or we want to prove we’re smarter than someone else. Or we’re secretly addicted to the shot of adrenaline we get from picking a fight. And that’s what we’re doing—fighting, not arguing. In these cases, it’s no surprise that shoddy tactics like using straw man or hollow man arguments emerge.
It’s never fun to admit we’re wrong about anything or to have to change our minds. But it is essential if we want to get smarter and see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. Any time we engage in debate, we need to be honest about our intentions. What are we trying to achieve? Are we open to changing our minds? Are we listening to our opponent? Only when we’re out to have a balanced discussion with the possibility of changing our minds can a debate be productive, avoiding the use of logical fallacies.
Bad arguments are harmful to everyone involved in a debate. They don’t get us anywhere because we’re not tackling an opponent’s actual viewpoint. This means we have no hope of convincing them. Worse, this sort of underhand tactic is likely to make an opponent feel frustrated and annoyed by the deliberate misrepresentation of their beliefs. They’re forced to listen to a refutation of something they don’t even believe in the first place, which insults their intelligence. Feeling attacked like this only makes them hold on tighter to their actual belief. It may even make them less willing to engage in any sort of debate in the future.
And if you’re a chronic constructor of bad arguments, as many of us are, it leads people to avoid challenging you or starting discussions. Which means you don’t get to learn from them or have your views questioned. In formal situations, using bad arguments makes it look like you don’t really have a strong point in the first place.
How to avoid using bad arguments
If you want to have useful, productive debates, it’s vital to avoid using bad arguments.
The first thing we need to do to avoid constructing bad arguments is to accept it’s something we’re all susceptible to. It’s easy to look at a logical fallacy and think of all the people we know who use it. It’s much harder to recognize it in ourselves. We don’t always realize when the point we’re making isn’t that strong.
Bad arguments are almost unavoidable if we haven’t taken the time to research both sides of the debate. Sometimes the map is not the territory—that is, our perception of an opinion is not that opinion. The most useful thing we can do is attempt to see the territory. That brings us to steelman arguments and the ideological Turing test.
Steel man arguments
The most powerful way to avoid using bad arguments and to discourage their use by others is to follow the principle of charity and to argue against the strongest and most persuasive version of their grounds. In this case, we suspend disbelief and ignore our own opinions for long enough to understand where they’re coming from. We recognize the good sides of their case and play to its strengths. Ask questions to clarify anything you don’t understand. Be curious about the other person’s perspective. You might not change their mind, but you will at least learn something and hopefully reduce any conflict in the process.
— Joseph Joubert
“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”
— Joseph Joubert
In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, the philosopher Daniel Dennett offers some general guidelines for using the principle of charity, formulated by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport:
- 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.
An argument that is the strongest version of an opponent’s viewpoint is known as a steel man. It’s purposefully constructed to be as difficult as possible to attack. The idea is that we can only say we’ve won a debate when we’ve fought with a steel man, not a straw one. Seeing as we’re biased towards tackling weaker versions of an argument, often without realizing it, this lets us err on the side of caution.
As challenging as this might be, it serves a bigger picture purpose. Steel man arguments help us understand a new perspective, however ludicrous it might be in our eyes, so we’re better positioned to succeed and connect better in the future. It shows a challenger we are empathetic and willing to listen, regardless of personal opinion. The point is to see the strengths, not the weaknesses. If we’re open-minded, not combative, we can learn a lot.
— John Stuart Mill
“He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that.”
— John Stuart Mill
An exercise in steel manning, the ideological Turing test, proposes that we cannot say we understand an opponent’s position unless we would be able to argue in favor of it so well that an observer would not be able to tell which opinion we actually hold. In other words, we shouldn’t hold opinions we can’t argue against. The ideological Turing test is a great thought experiment to establish whether you understand where an opponent is coming from.
Although we don’t have the option to do this for every single thing we disagree with, when a debate is extremely important to us, the ideological Turing test can be a helpful tool for ensuring we’re fully prepared. Even if we can’t use it all the time, it can serve us well in high-stakes situations.
How to handle other people using bad arguments
— L.M. Montgomery
“You could not fence with an antagonist who met rapier thrust with blow of battle axe.”
— L.M. Montgomery
Let’s say you’re in the middle of a debate with someone with a different opinion than yours. You’re responding to the steel man version of their explanation, staying calm and measured. But what do you do if your opponent starts using bad arguments against you? What if they’re not listening to you?
The first thing you can do when someone uses a bad argument against you is the simplest: point it out. Explain what they’re doing and why it isn’t helpful. There’s not much point in just telling them they’re using a straw man argument or any other type of logical fallacy. If they’re not familiar with the concept, it may just seem like alienating jargon. There’s also not much point in using it as a “gotcha!” point which will likewise foster more tensions. It’s best to define the concept, then reiterate your actual beliefs and how they differ from the bad argument they’re arguing against.
- Edward Damer writes in Attacking Faulty Reasoning, “It is not always possible to know whether an opponent has deliberately distorted your argument or has simply failed to understand or interpret it in the way that you intended. For this reason, it might be helpful to recapitulate the basic outline . . . or [ask] your opponent to summarize it for you.”
If this doesn’t work, you can continue to repeat your original point and make no attempt to defend the bad argument. Should your opponent prove unwilling to recognize their use of a bad argument (and you’re 100% certain that’s what they’re doing), it’s worth considering if there is any point in continuing the debate. The reality is that most of the debates we have are not rationally thought out; they’re emotionally driven. This is even more pertinent when we’re arguing with people we have a complex relationship with. Sometimes, it’s better to walk away.
The bad arguments discussed here are incredibly common logical fallacies in debates. We often use them without realizing it or experience them without recognizing it. But these types of debates are unproductive and unlikely to help anyone learn. If we want our arguments to create buy-in and not animosity, we need to avoid making bad ones.