Description: Substituting a person’s actual position or argument with a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of the position of the argument.
Person 1 makes claim Y.
Person 2 restates person 1’s claim (in a distorted way).
Person 2 attacks the distorted version of the claim.
Therefore, claim Y is false.
Ted: Biological evolution is both a theory and a fact.
Edwin: That is ridiculous! How can you possibly be absolutely certain that we evolved from pond scum!
Ted: Actually, that is a gross misrepresentation of my assertion. I never claimed we evolved from pond scum. Unlike math and logic, science is based on empirical evidence and, therefore, a scientific fact is something that is confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent. The empirical evidence for the fact that biological evolution does occur falls into this category.
Explanation: Edwin has ignorantly mischaracterized the argument by a) assuming we evolved from pond scum (whatever that is exactly), and b) assuming “fact” means “certainty”.
Zebedee: What is your view on the Christian God?
Mike: I don’t believe in any gods, including the Christian one.
Zebedee: So you think that we are here by accident, and all this design in nature is pure chance, and the universe just created itself?
Mike: You got all that from me stating that I just don’t believe in any gods?
Explanation: Mike made one claim: that he does not believe in any gods. From that, we can deduce a few things, like he is not a theist, he is not a practicing Christian, Catholic, Jew, or a member of any other religion that requires the belief in a god, but we cannot deduce that he believes we are all here by accident, nature is chance, and the universe created itself. Mike might have no beliefs about these things whatsoever. Perhaps he distinguishes between “accident” and natural selection, perhaps he thinks the concept of design is something we model after the universe, perhaps he has some detailed explanation based on known physics as to how the universe might have first appeared, or perhaps he believes in some other supernatural explanation. Regardless, this was a gross mischaracterization of Mike’s argument.
Exception: At times, an opponent might not want to expand on the implications of his or her position, so making assumptions might be the only way to get the opponent to point out that your interpretation is not accurate, then they will be forced to clarify.
What Now: Get in the habit of steelmanning the argument. The opposite of the strawman is referred to as the steelman, which is a productive technique in argumentation where the one evaluating the argument makes the strongest case for the argument, assuming the best intentions of the interlocutor. This technique prevents pointless, time-wasting bickering and demonstrates respect for both the interlocutor and the process of critical argumentation. Consider the following dialog:
Johan: The progressive left is making it more difficult for me to vote blue this coming election.
Sebastian: Why is that?
Johan: It primarily has to do with the endorsement of the riots.
Sebastian: So if I understand you correctly, you are saying that the democratic establishment appears to be supporting riots rather than condemning them?
Johan: Yes, that is exactly it.
At this point, Sebastian can present a case for why Johan’s argument fails—his actual argument. Sebastian will also likely be taken more seriously by Johan since he demonstrated goodwill in his attempt to accurately portray Johan’s argument.
Hurley, P. J. (2011). A Concise Introduction to Logic. Cengage Learning.