Your brain doesn’t always think rationally. Sometimes, it makes mistakes called logical fallacies, aka, thinking errors. One of the most common logical fallacies in the health industry is the straw man.
You’ve almost certainly encountered the straw man argument before. You may have made it yourself. The straw man argument is a common diversion people use to discredit your ideas, especially when they’re defending a position that lacks evidence.
In this podcast, you’ll learn how to identify and defeat a straw man argument. Most importantly, you’ll learn how to avoid making one yourself.
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**Armi Legge:** Have you ever wondered if there is a correct way to think? Well, there is! In today’s show, you’re going to learn how to avoid one of the most common logical fallacies, or thinking errors. James Krieger, the editor of a website called weightology.net, and I are going to show you how the strawman fallacy is used in the context of health research. Let’s start with an example.
**James Krieger:** Most research indicates that excessive fructose consumption is not a major contributor to obesity.
**Armi Legge:** Well, James, I suppose you think it’s okay for people to guzzle several liters of soda without any negative consequences.
**James Krieger:** Armi, that’s a straw man fallacy. That’s not what I’m saying.
**Armi Legge:** You’re listening to episode six of Impruvism Radio, the podcast that uses science to help you become more awesome. I’m your host, Armi Legge. In today’s show, James Krieger and I are going to teach you one of the most common ways people misuse their brains – the dreaded straw man fallacy.
If you like what you hear on the show and you want more information like this, there are two things you should do. One, go to James’ site, weightology.net, and subscribe to Weightology Weekly, a series of articles on everything you need to know about fat loss and body weight regulation. Number two, go to impruvism.com, enter your email address in the box on the right side of the page and click “submit.” After you do, you’ll get free updates whenever we publish a new article or podcast.
This podcast episode is largely inspired by a short series of articles James wrote awhile ago called “Thinking Better,” where he described some of the most common logical fallacies, or thinking errors, and provided some tips on how to avoid them. We’ll be doing more episodes like this in the future on other ways people don’t think correctly and how to avoid them. Now let’s talk about one of the most common logical fallacies – the straw man.
James, how did I commit a straw man fallacy regarding fructose and obesity?
**James Krieger:** What you did is you deliberately or accidentally misrepresented my argument to make it easier to attack. It also makes your statement sound more reasonable. I didn’t say that drinking lots of soda was healthy but that’s how you twisted my words. This made my statement seem ridiculous when in fact it is backed up by good data.
**Armi Legge:** James, why is it called a straw man argument?
**James Krieger:** Instead of attacking the hard target, the fact that fructose is not a major contributor to obesity, you created an easier target, a straw man, the idea that drinking lots of soda is probably bad for you. It’s kind of a diversion that makes it easier to attack my position without having any evidence.
Studies have shown when you feed people tons of fructose, it tends to make them fatter and tends to do not so nice things to their liver function and blood lipids. However, the people were fed 25% of their total calories from pure fructose. Giving people 30% of their calories from fructose can make people eat more the next day, which is the equivalent of 6 to 7 sodas. It’s not shocking that’s bad for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s relevant from most obese and overweight Americans, who consume about 8% of their calories from fructose.
**Armi Legge:** James, that’s one form of a straw man argument that I made at the beginning. Are there multiple forms of this kind of straw man argument?
**James Krieger:** Yes. Misinterpretation, the fructose argument. Exaggeration. One example would be with “weight training being good for you.” “Everyone should lift weights because that’s the only way to be healthy.”
Fabrication. “Clean up your mess.” “Why are punishing me? I didn’t do anything wrong.” It comes in a number of different forms.
**Armi Legge:** How can people make sure they don’t commit or fall victim to a straw man argument? Let’s say they’re trying to support either a valid point or maybe an invalid point and they make this mistake. What can they do to try to avoid that?
**James Krieger:** There are a number of things you can do. I’d say the first thing is to identify exactly what the person said and debate their point in clear terms. Make sure you know exactly what they say and don’t start assuming that they mean something else. If you need to get clarification form the person, go ahead and do that first before you start debating them.
The second thing would be to define points at the beginning of the argument so that you’re both on the same page.
I think the third thing would be to call the person on their mistake and let them know you’re not going to be fooled or misinterpreted. Don’t let someone twist your argument around. If someone basically throws a straw man out at you, catch them right away and make it very clear that’s not what you’re saying.
**Armi Legge:** James, when it comes to diet and health, are there any other common examples where straw man arguments are used?
**James Krieger:** Yeah. There are actually a number of examples here. Let me give you one example. One person says, “The Atkins diet will decrease your cholesterol and help you lose weight” and then another person says, “A diet of nothing but cheeseburgers, porkchops, butter, and bacon will be nothing but clog your arteries. I don’t think lard is part of a healthy diet.” That’s a straw man because it mischaracterizes what the Atkins diet is.
Another one is often heard with low-fat diets. Person A says, “Low-fat diets will decrease your cholesterol and help you lose weight.” Person B says, “A diet of nothing but breads, cereals, and crackers will make you hungry and you’ll end up gaining weight.” But a low-fat diet is not necessarily a diet of nothing but breads, cereals, and crackers. So those are ways that people will mischaracterize something to make it sound like it’s a lot worse than it really is.
**Armi Legge:** It does seem like it’s an easy mistake to make from the point of the person hearing the arguments. Often, we try to make these connections. “If you’re saying this, you must also believe X, Y, and Z,” when, in fact, that is not the case. We have to be very careful about addressing exactly what the person said rather than we think they might have said or implied. Is that correct?
**James Krieger:** Yes.
**Armi Legge:** If people have further questions about the straw man argument or other logical fallacies or anything else they heard today, would it be okay if they left a comment on your site, weightology.net, and would you be able to answer some of their questions maybe?
**James Krieger:** Yes, definitely. I even actually have an older blog post on the straw man argument from time ago that people can leave comments on. If you just did a search of my website for “straw man,” you would be able to find a post.
**Armi Legge:** We’ll link to that on the show notes for this episode on impruvism.com, and we’re both happy to hear you and answer your questions. James, thanks for helping us out today with the straw man argument.
**James Krieger:** You’re welcome.
**Armi Legge:** Thank you for listening to this episode of Impruvism Radio. Please join us again next week, where you will learn how to use critical thinking to become a better version of yourself. In the meantime, please leave a ranking on iTunes if you would like to support the podcast.
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6. Fulgoni V3. High-fructose corn syrup: everything you wanted to know, but were afraid to ask. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;88(6):1715S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2008.25825A. Abstract: http://pmid.us/19064535 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/R1lYj
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