A strawman is a simplistic, unfair caricature of an opposing argument, which is typically developed solely for the purpose of being easily refuted. Presenting a strawman argument is itself not fallacious, nor indeed is refuting one. It only becomes a fallacy when the strawman is presented as if it represents the true views of one’s opponents. Misrepresenting the actual arguments raised by one’s opponents is not only intellectually lazy and dishonest, but it also does nothing to undermine their actual arguments, since one has responded only to a strawman version of their views instead of the actual views they hold.
Strawman arguments are extremely common. Very frequently when arguing about controversial and emotive topics, neither side will take the time and consideration to properly understand what their opponents are saying, and instead respond to a simplistic strawman version of thier arguments. This can lead to an unfortunate situation where both sides to a dispute are strawmanning each other, and no actual interaction occurs between genuine viewpoints at all.
Identifying strawman arguments is complicated by the fact that whether an argument is a strawman or not depends upon which ‘genuine’, non-strawman argument it is compared to. Almost all arguments can be formulated with varying degrees of sophistication, and it is likely that even for the most absurd strawman one could find someone who actually made that argument in earnest. Conversely, unless one only ever responds specifically to the very strongest, best constructed version of an argument, one could potentially be accused of strawmanning in comparison to that strongest argument. Given these complexities, identifying an argument as a strawman is something that requires caution and practise.
Ideally rebuttals should be made in response to a specific argument advocated by a specific person, a practise which enables easy comparison of the response with the original argument. More commonly, people present general arguments to which they proceed to offer generic objections. Whether or not the argument so refuted constitutes a strawman will depend upon the context, and how fair or accurate was the initial presentation of the argument before it was refuted. One way to avoid strawmanning is to quote specifically from what one’s opponent has said, and identify exactly in those words where you believe they have made an error. Another method is to first summarise the argument one wishes to respond to in one’s own words, and then present it to someone with whom you disagree about that issue, and see whether they would endorse your summary as a fair representation of their views.
Straw man: introduction from the Nikor Project
Straw man fallacy: introduction from Logical Fallacies
Strawman fallacy: overview from Logically Fallacious
Straw man fallacy: introduction from The Logical Place