20 Rules

I found this in the drafts folder so decided to publish as-is. A list of 20 rules to live by for the fledgling rationalist.

Well, they’re more like guidelines

1) Question everything – but question what you agree with more. What you don’t agree with has evidently been questioned enough.

2) Don’t hero worship. In reality they’re no better than you, and they’ll disappoint you on at least one thing eventually.

3) Hold your allies to a higher standard than your opponents. They don’t deserve the echo chamber.

4) Revise all of your values and commitments at least every six months. If you’re not embarrassed by your past self, you haven’t evolved as a person.

5) Know that smart people are a myth. There are two kinds of people: idiots, and idiots who are aware of it and so take steps to mitigate the impact of their idiocy. Some in the second category even succeed.

6) E-Prime is (quasi-intentional irony) your troubleshooting friend, but not a way of life. It can help you see where you’ve masked your opinion as a fact.

7) Not believing in God doesn’t automatically make you bright. Some of the dumbest people in the world are the most strident atheists.  Some of the smartest still pray, for whatever reason the reason.

8) Be aware of logic and reason as things. Don’t mistake them for “logic” and “reason” the buzzwords. The latter only get used to find like-minded individuals and silence the unlike-minded.

9) Learn to be confidently tentative. You can’t be absolutely sure of anything, but you can aim to be absolutely sure of something to an absolutely sure measure of error.

10) Those that try to cross a road by using a laser speedometer, a calculator, and deducing the optimal time to cross from base principles will wait there for hours for the perfect time… and will still probably get run over by a bike that they didn’t see.

11) Don’t laugh at religious ritual – you do silly thinks like turn-it-off-and-on-again, shake dead batteries, press the remote control buttons harder when it doesn’t work, blow on NES cartridges, and press-and-hold the “ON” button on your computer… all while having no idea why those things work or even if they do.

12) It’s the 21st century. Just Fucking Google It.

13) Learn to read at least one form of basic logical notation, even if you’re doing it to show off it means you’ll know more actual logic than most people who use the word “logic”.

14) Citing the dog Latin name for a fallacy doesn’t make it fallacious. Tell us why, and be precise. You don’t need to know its name if you can say why its wrong; while the name doesn’t help you if you can’t.

15) Shun your “in” group when you need to think. Read the stuff written by your “out” group instead.

16) Don’t use identities as a substitute for a personality or belief system. People will fill in the connotations themselves and you’ll spend more time explaining why you’re not like that.

17) Don’t use your subjective tastes as objective judgement. You hating a band has everything to do with you, and nothing to do with the band.

18) Know that you can revise for an IQ test, and that the only thing IQ measures is your ability to take IQ tests. The fact that libertarians score statistically higher on these tests says all you need to know.

19) Pedantry is the last resort of the intellectually insecure. If you can correct someone’s spelling, punctuation and grammar, it means it did its job perfectly fine in the first place.

20) Always do sober what you promise to do drunk – that’ll teach you to shut your mouth. Try to do drunk what you think you do sober, that’ll teach you what your instincts really are. Except drive, obviously.

RationalWiki on its “issues”

Jebus, you people – whoever “you people” are – still insist on linking to this and commenting on it and whatnot… Here’s an update since this post is over two years old now:

  1. I no longer regularly edit RW. This is partially because I’ve now quit all forms of movement or group-based rationality/skepticism because it’s no longer much fun nor worthwhile for me, but mostly because I’ve expended what I could contribute to the wiki’s mainspace that I’d consider “good”. If time, motivation and the right subject all aligned, I would start writing for the mainspace again without hesitation. Until then, it’s quiet retirement for me doing things I find much more interesting.
  2. I still stand by the take-home point here. If you want to declare that “rationalism/skepticism should stay clear of social issues”, you’re declaring that a particular topic is out-of-bounds. And anyone with a working knowledge of skepticism and human rationality should be able to identify the main reasons why someone might declare a subject “out of bounds” – it’s never a good one. The environment and climate change is largely a social issue, religious persecution is largely a social issue, and political opinion is largely a social issue. If I’m not allowed to take a look at, for example, the statistical wage-gap and what it says about our treatment of men and women in society “because it’s a social issue”, then I’d like to know a much better reason than “fucking Tumblr-SJWs always getting offended over nothing”.
  3. Oh, while I’m at it… why Tumblr? I have never used that site. I resent its fairly useless interface, poor usability, and it’s – what can only be described as fundamentally insane – approach to nested comments. You cannot find me on that site, you probably will never find me even re-blogging from it. When you say something like “tumblr feminist” I have literally no idea what the fuck you mean outside of “something bad that’s bad because I said its bad just because”.

I’m putting this miniature rant in extended blogified form here because it’s one of those things I just need to link to on occasion. I’m pretty sure I say this every time the subject comes up, so this should stop me sounding like more of a broken record than I already am. If you’re one of the people who came here via the search terms that WordPress tells me directs traffic here, you can close the tab or press the back button, I very much doubt this is what you want to hear. 

The context is this:

RationalWiki should stay the hell away from social issues, politics, gender, and all that jazz, and focus on “skepticism” instead.

Statements to this effect pop up on a monthly basis like clockwork, and I take immense issue with it every single time. Here’s why.

Your basic “rationalism” and “skepticism” ideas, tropes and challenges are already-solved problems. To be good little skeptics we just need to toe the party line. Religion is brainwashing! Creationism is stupid! Homeopathy is bunk! Scientologists are lunatics!! We just need to quote the right peoples’ soundbites, and don’t need to think about what those soundbites mean. Or we can just memorise the dog-Latin names for logical fallacies so we can throw them out without realising that ad hominem doesn’t actually mean “crass insult”.

It requires next to no thought to deal with this stuff. It’s trivial and the work has been done already on it. Hell, conclusively proving that psychics and mediums are a load of shit dates back to Harry Houdini and hasn’t really developed since. The problem is solved, and countless projects other than RationalWiki exist to have such a narrow scope.

But social issues are ongoing, and they are still under debate, and still out there in a sense where they can be preached to a congregation. We don’t need to convince a fledgling skeptic that chiropractic medicine is a load of baloney, but we might need to convince them that the phrase “I don’t mind gay people so long as they don’t ram their sexuality down my throat” is an even bigger con. And one likely to cause just as much harm as cracking someone’s spine to cure cancer.

Look at the average teenage non-believer that’s just discovered Richard Dawkins, and you’ll see that they’re almost certainly white, straight, cis and male, and probably affluent enough for a college education. So, deary me they tick all the boxes. There is under-representation in the “movement” (for lack of a better term) and that is simply a fact. Now, you can disagree whether this is a “problem” and you can disagree on the “why” (hence why this isn’t in the simple “solved problems” bucket) but you have to concede that at least something is up with this, and that it’s worth noting. In fact, I’d go as far to say that you can’t even disagree that this situation is sad as fuck. It’s just a pattern that we see everywhere – e.g., how I recently moved from one job where I had 10 female colleagues out of 19 to one where I have 2 female colleagues out of 30. Why is that? And why does asking “why is that?” have to take a back seat to debunking astrology for the 27 billionth time?

Come on, if you’re editing something called RationalWiki, or more broadly engage with the “rationalist” and “skeptical” movements, it’s because you self declare yourself to be a “rationalist” or a “skeptic”. That can mean whatever the hell you want it to mean, but if it’s not going to be about making the world a better place then what is your fucking point of existing?

If you want to throw off the shackles of doctrine, dogma and religion, then why do so just so you can become more of an asshole?

So yes, I want to make the world a less toxic place for people who have been sidelined in the past. I’m not always successful, I’m not perfect, but that’s my aim, and I listen to the kind of people who might be able to guide me towards that intention. What the hell is wrong with that? These “gender issues” still impact on the world very much, and are areas where we – as the self-appointed intellectual superiors of the planet, it seems – can actually make a real difference.

And we, that is, RationalWiki, are making a difference. People take note of what the wiki says on the subject. People complain about what the wiki says on the subject, and if you’re not pissing people off you’re doing something wrong. So that’s fine by me, it’s going in the right direction.

But guess the fuck what? We actually suck at the subject. We’re not dominated by it, we don’t cover it very well, and the discussion side of the site is still pretty anti-social. If you take an objective look at recent changes to the wiki, we’re not actually gender obsessed, nowhere near. We get a lot of talk pages from “controversial” articles that continue to attract attention, and dear gods in the seven heavens the Thunderf00t talk page just keeps on giving…

But why those?

Why not homeopathy?

Because homeopathy is one of those solved problems. All rationalists already think it’s bollocks, and those who are pro-homeopathic know better than to try and edit war with RationalWiki about it. It’s foreign territory and outside the echo chamber. But when we have pages on privilege, or the “Amazing” Atheist telling women we should give their rapists a medal, it’s very different. They come, and they challenge and they complain. It shows that people exist within the self-declared “skeptic” and “rationalist” and “atheist” communities who haven’t yet woken up to these gender or race, or sexuality issues. And I’m not even sorry to say it, but they are just fundamentally wrong on those issues.

In short, it’s an area we can preach in, and should preach in, but actually we don’t. It’s just that even a smidge of that sort of thing is enough to make people feel uncomfortable (“Rape Culture? But ”I’M” not a rapist!!!!”) and go on the defensive.

You know what, never mind. Laughing at Conservapedia because “ZOMG!! Teh Assfly is teh dumbs!!!!” is so much easier.

Top Five Dumb Things Creationists Say

Inspired by a search term that apparently drove traffic to this blog (let’s, erm… not do many others), here are my personal Top Five dumb things creationists say. This is effectively “part 1” – “part 2” is here, and covers the Top Five of the dumbest things creationists have ever said. It involves nostrils and bukakke.

5. “That’s just an example of microevolution, it’s not macroevolution.”

The thing about “macro” and “micro” evolution is that these are terms creationists have effectively made up. They have definitions within evolutionary biology; microevolution being a reference to allele frequencies at a local level and macroevolution being evolution over separated gene pools, kind of like evolution at a species level versus evolution at a genus or family level.

But this usage bears little, if any, resemblance to how creationists use it. They use it as if they’re two different things; and that one can happen, and the other cannot. Yet the only reason that could ever be the case is if certain mutations and allele exchanges within the genetic code were allowed while others weren’t. We know of no such mechanism, and creationists don’t suggest one either.

The reason this is genuinely stupid is that the distinction is arbitrary. It’s malleable. It’s basically an excuse for creationists to shoehorn any glaringly obvious evidence into “microevolution” and still say that their fabled “macroevolution” doesn’t happen. Even clear cases of speciation, where we can demonstrate groups diverging so that they can no longer interbreed, is a case of “micro” evolution. Eventually, what creationists accept as microevolution will merge to be an exact replica of modern evolutionary synthesis.

4. “There are no transitional forms.”

This is literally just a creationist mantra. Repeat it often enough, and they’ll assume it’ll come true.

crockoduckAs with the previous example, this is dumb because it’s yet another example of creationists just making up a brand-new concept because they don’t understand how it’s implementation works in reality. Philosophically speaking, in an evolutionary framework every creature is a transition; a transition between its own parents and its own offspring. In a narrower sense, a transitional fossil exhibits some higher-level feature in partial development or alteration. To a creationist, however, the term means “half-duck-half-crocodile”. So, at least by their own bizarre and ineffective definition they’re right, but trivially so.

What makes it really, really stupid, though, is the fact that there are a metric fuckton of examples in the fossil record. They just pretend those don’t exist.

3. “Flooddidit.”

Everyone knows the response “Goddidit”. It’s a glorious handwave that lets sheer madness happen because you have a supernatural deity fucking about with the laws of logic on a daily basis. “Flooddidit” is the slightly more naturalistically bound cousin of the famous “Goddidit”. For a creationist, there is nothing we can see that can’t be explained by there being some whopping great-big flood four thousand years ago. Even completely contradictory things. The Grand Canyon in Arizona? Flood. The lack of a Grand Canyon in not-Arizona? Flood.

…under cataclysmic Flood conditions, explosive blooms of tiny organisms like coccolithophores could produce the chalk beds in a short space of time.

There is no real logic or explanation behind this stuff. Just… flooddidit.

2. “Evolution is a religion.”

chick_religionThis is a painfully common retort, and can spew from Ken Ham’s mouth almost like it was some automatic Tourette-like reflex that he suffers from constantly. I even imagine him shouting it when waking, in a cold sweat, from a dream where he’s being chased by PZ Myers riding a triceratops.

Now, I’m sure I could go on and on about the linguistic ramifications of treating evolution as a religion, or how if you simply “define” evolution as a religion you can make it perfectly true, but only in a trivial and inconsequential way… but in reality even then it’s still stupid. If you’re going to conflate a branch of scientific study and well-explored theory with mass cultural identity, worship and faith, based around non-falsifiable assertions about the nature of reality, then you’ve broadened your use of “religion” so far as to make it completely useless as a word.

Then again, it makes sense to creationists. They think evolution is a religion because it is an unfalisifiable worldview. And of course it’s an unfalsifiable worldview because evolution is a religion! We know this because evolution is an unfalsifiable worldview…

1. [Insert rant about “religious freedom” here]

Once you’ve totally exhausted all reasonable pathways to proving a point, the last resort is to declare your freedom to believe it anyway.  It’s confusing to the reality-based community that this is some kind of virtue, but hey, it’s still technically allowed – even if it is a tacit admission that you really have no fucking evidence at all that it’s factually true. And that’s the problem; when someone is making a statement about reality, something that can be seen, tested, looked at, examined, and should constrain what we expect to see with our own senses, then it’s not up for debate. It’s up for looking at and testing, and seeing if the world conforms to that, but it’s not really questionable.

Yet, this insidious little non sequitur gets creationists so many free passes. They can get their organisations to be tax-exempt via religious ministry, they can pass on their terrible thinking skills to their children based on religious freedom, and they can brainwash and guilt-trip thousands of well-meaning people into into believing absolute crockoduck, and then paying good money for the DVDs.

Creationism shouldn’t be given a free pass on religious freedom grounds. It’s a scam designed to line the pockets of preachers and evangelists. It promotes climate change denial, and encourages parents to trust in magic over medicine, and is forever intertwined with the same misogyny, homophobia and racism prevalent in the Religious Right. It’s certainly not harmless.

Argumentum abusi fallacia

This is an import from a RationalWiki essay originally started last year following some argument or something about something, I forget. The links are all still to the RW inter-linked articles, as copy-pasting HTML-formatted text is remarkably efficient! There are a few stylistic/rhetorical changes for this version.

Argumentum abusi fallacia (Latin for “argument of the abused fallacy”) is the incorrect use of a formal or informal logical fallacy. As there is an absolute myriad of fallacies to choose from, it’s quite easy to not be entirely familiar with all of them.

False accusations that someone is making a fallacious argument, even when they’re not, become common. Someone might be making a bad or incorrect argument, but there are ways to be wrong without really being fallacious about it and there are ways to be right while still being fallacious.

One example might be the assertion that “women deserve equal treatment because they’ve been second-class citizens for years” – a morally sound conclusion but, technically, a non sequitur when you think about it (see the “is-ought” problem).

There are also ways to counter an argument without providing a list of fallacies – in the business we call these things “counter” arguments. Science does this all the time; we correct things by presenting superior evidence, rather than declaring previous theories to be somehow fallacious (and if you think “being incorrect because of evidence you didn’t have access to at the time” is a fallacy, you’ve largely missed the point).

The use of argumentum abusi fallacia is something of an argument by assertion, in which an attempt is made to refute an argument simply by citing the name of a fallacy. Almost certainly without any further explanation of why.

This is often a result of falling into skeptical jargon, or just discovering that there are terms not just to describe that someone is wrong but why they’re wrong. So, thanks to convenience and in an effort to show off this new-found knowledge – and, hey, some of it’s in Latin! – someone might be very keen to drop the name of a formal or informal fallacy into conversation. However, just because you can reduce why someone is wrong to a single, fancy name, doesn’t mean the names of fallacies can be thrown around at will and automatically be correct. Arguments need to be demonstrated as being fallacious, and usually this is possible without using any Latin at all. Although this list is a little pedantic, the important thing remains to understand why something is incorrect or fallacious, rather than get the name right.

Unless you’re attempting to answer a Gish gallop in real time, in which case you might not have much choice but to just go for the shorthand. So long as you use the shorthand correctly, of course.

Formal and informal

In short, a formal logical fallacy is a fallacy in the structure of an argument. If you distil the argument down into symbolic logic, which is the quasi-mathematical way of representing arguments and implications, a formal fallacy is one where the pieces simply don’t fit together. Because this is all represented symbolically, what those letters actually mean doesn’t count. In a formal statement like “PQ, P, therefore Q” it doesn’t matter what P and Q stand for.

The formal fallacies are rarely misused; though mostly because it’s far easier to take issues with content and style than to break an argument down to a logical form and track down the errors – and if one was to do that, then the fallacies become evident and difficult to misinterpret or produce a false positive. For instance, accusations of a non sequitur argument are usually valid, since that disconnect is easy to spot and demonstrate.

Informal logical fallacies are issues with the content of an argument. I.e., what the P and Q actually stand for. Unlike the formal logical fallacies, the informal fallacies are rife with pitfalls where they are misused, creating a ton of distracting false positives. At worst, their misuse comes from an inability for someone to create a new argument of their own or to address an opponent’s points; they simply accuse them of making a fallacy and have done with it.

The examples below chart the most common offenders.

Example: Special pleading

The cosmological argument as made famous by St. Thomas Aquinas and others reads roughly as follows:

Everything that exists requires a cause. There cannot be any infinite regression of causes. Therefore, the universe must have a first cause: God.

The trouble with this argument is that it exhibits special pleading. God is arbitrarily, without any supporting reason, exempted from the requirement that “all things require a cause”. Often the response to this argument is “why can’t the universe be acausal if God can be?” and thus the special pleading begins. Either God is made an exemption “by definition” (a very strong case of special pleading) or other wild assertions are made that make God “not count”. This is a legitimate fallacy: God needs a real reason to be exempted from the premises of the arguments.

So, in response to this, the argument has been modified slightly. This is the Kalām cosmological argument, touted ad nauseam by William Lane Craig, which usually uses this slight alteration over the version above:

Everything that begins to exist requires a cause. There cannot be any infinite regression of causes. Therefore, the universe must have a first cause: God.

One of the reasons behind this modification is that it appeals to our experience of naturalistic reality; everything we see come into existence does, in fact, have a cause. So, if somebody were to dismiss this modified version of the argument with “that’s special pleading!” it would be an incorrect use of the fallacy. This is is because the modification explicitly exempts an “eternal” God from the need for a cause, so does not contain any special pleading. The underlying logic is on better and less fallacious grounds as “special pleading” is a formal logical fallacy – a problem with the structure, not content. Special pleading is stating AB, and giving ad hoc exceptions. There are a multitude of other issues with the Kalām argument, but since the exceptions are, in fact, built into the logical conditions then there is nothing “special” about the pleading, ergo, no fallacy.

Example: Ad hominem

An ad hominem argument, from the Latin for “to the man”, is something that doesn’t attack the questions and points at hand, but the messenger and the person delivering it. This is one of the most common misuses of an assertion of fallacy because people can all too easily confuse ad hominem with “crass insult”.

If someone calls someone else a ‘total douchebag cunt-faced prick-stain’ out of the blue in a discussion, it might be mean, it might be unproductive, hell it might even be fair and correct, but it is not necessarily fallacious. It doesn’t have any particularly flawed logic to it, it’s just an insult. Ad hominem attacks dismiss an argument because of a completely unrelated property of the person delivering the argument.

Consider the following:

The war in Iraq is illegal because George W. Bush is an incompetent buffoon.

This sort of thing is an ad hominem attack (and is a specific logical fallacy)  because, buffoon or not, Bush’s intellect has little bearing on the validity of a war; the validity of the war is what impacts the validity of the war. However, we can rephrase this slightly.

George W. Bush is an incompetent buffoon because the war in Iraq is illegal.

This is on slightly firmer ground. In short, while it might still be irrelevant, Bush’s lack of brain isn’t being used to justify a legal status. But his actions and comprehension of a legal status can be used to infer his state of mind. It’s easily arguable and conceivable that someone engaging their country in an illegal war could be described by the words “incompetent” and “buffoon” amongst several others. Yet, if faced with no alternative rebuttal, this might well be accused of being an ad hominem attack, just because it makes an egregious personal insult.

(Note: the two above are forms the same ideas with the implication reversed: AB and BA. For a treatment of why these aren’t the same statement, see affirming the consequent and its statistical cousin confusion of the inverse. The logic is non-commutative in these cases.)

A few others

Here is a brief run-down of a few other pieces of skeptical jargon that occasionally get misused:

Argument from adverse consequences
This is the fallacy that states that because X is unfavourable, or would cause problems, X isn’t true. It is fallacious because the effects of a hypothesis have no bearing on its truth value – objective reality cares little about whether it screws us over. However, there are cases where there is no “truth value” to be found. For instance, social policy. Here, consequences of a decision are all we have to determine a correct course of action – in terms of setting a policy or making a decision, the consequences are a stand in for the “evidence” you would expect to see from a testable hypothesis.
Appeal to authority
As noted in the relevant RW article, appeal to authority is perfectly valid when it’s an appeal to a relevant and experienced authority. Talking to Brian Cox or Stephen Hawking about physics, and Richard Dawkins about evolutionary biology, for example is fine because they have studied and contributed to these subjects. While it is true that even in these cases their arguments need to be judged on their own merits and aren’t correct because they are authorities, this fallacy is often mistaken as a carte blanche to ignore anything said by an authority, or to ignore anything externally referenced to a person.
Begging the question
People often use this to mean “raises the question”… but that’s something else entirely. Circular logic can often be easily confused with just normal logic as any individual logical step should be so undeniably sound that it might seem, to the untrained eye, just to state the obvious. Consider PQ, P, therefore Q, for example – this is formal logic working at its finest, but “P, therefore Q” might very easily appear circular.
Confirmation bias
Remember, just because you’ve found evidence that still supports your hypothesis, doesn’t mean you are necessarily guilty of confirmation bias. The standard model of particle physics has withstood a lot of testing, but those testing it aren’t guilty of confirmation bias; because this fallacy is a description of how you go about searching for that evidence by building experiments and tests that can only prove your point and may never fail. Specifically, whether you bother to look for something that will disprove your point. The Wason card problem illustrates the point of a confirmation bias nicely: if you first seek out evidence to disconfirm the hypothesis of the problem, you can solve the problem in fewer card turns and the falsifying test always needs to be performed, while the confirming test is irrelevant to the hypothesis given.
Correlation does not equal causation
Often, this can be cited in a way that almost completely denies the correlation too. If two events (P and Q) correlate significantly, then the probability of you getting P when you have Q is still higher than when you don’t have it. A lack of causality between the two still won’t stop this if the correlation is experimentally verified. For instance, in the textbook example of shoe size correlating with reading ability, the main cause is that both correlate quite nicely with age – but unless you control for age, experience and education, the correlation between reading ability and shoe size will still exist. Indeed, more precisely determining causality from data is done this way; by controlling for confounding variables to see what relationships remain.
Equivocation is effectively an illusion of language only – the fact that words can have multiple meanings and definitions in different contexts and so might get confused. It’s a simple mistake, really. For example, conflating biological evolution (Darwinian natural selection) with stellar evolution that tracks the lives of stars. Sometimes people will call “equivocation” when someone is using an analogy – but providing the person making the argument by analogy knows what they’re saying and where the analogy works and where it fails, there is certainly no equivocation involved.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
This quip has often been used to describe how believing in ghosts requires a substantial degree of evidence because such a concept would go against what we already know – it would rattle the whole of science far more than merely not finding the Higgs boson would. But sometimes it can produce a straw man that’s used to dismiss any and all evidence for something because it simply isn’t miraculous enough. Homeopathy would just need a statistically significant improvement over a meta-study to prove it works for a particular illness, it wouldn’t need to magically cure every cancer it’s tried on to prove itself (the fact it does neither is beside the point, it’s about correctly judging what evidence is required).
Slippery slope
“If you allow X, then Y and Z are certain to follow – therefore X is bad.” This is only an invalid argument under certain conditions. Specifically, how realistic is the slope involved here? Raising house prices on one property is likely to cause a race to increase the prices of the surrounding houses, this slope is fairly realistic. Gay marriage leading to the legalisation of bestiality is significantly less realistic on account of the principle of informed consent. This is tied up with argument from adverse consequences.
Straw man
A straw man argument is one where a person deliberately (and perhaps knowingly) sets up a false version of what they’re arguing against in order to defeat it. Straw men are often seen in protracted arguments where a particular “party line” exists; for instance, the crocoduck as a supposed “example” of evolution – straw man versions of creationist beliefs appear equally often, particular amongst parodists. However, true straw man arguments tend to exist mostly when speakers or writers have had time to process what the other has said, and the straw man is really identified as such when they continue to use those arguments despite repeated corrections. The misuse of the straw man idea appears in a few different ways.
  1. What tends to happen in quick-fire debates is that someone will accuse the other of forming a straw man argument, when really all that has occurred is a misunderstanding – and 90% of the time, the responsibility for the misunderstanding is the person doing the talking, not the listening. Accusing an opponent of forming a straw man argument forms a tactic to deflect people from noticing that the point may not have been laid out very well to start with (in short, people are stupid and don’t explain themselves well; but doing this intentionally is something else entirely and may even count as obfuscation).
  2. A “straw disclaimer” can exist in which someone is saying that they’re arguing for x but specifically say they’re not arguing for a slight modification of x. If a counter-argument suggests that there is no practical difference between the two, it’s very easy to counter it completely by shouting “straw man”. This often crops up when defending mentioning slavery in the Bible; as the Biblical rules refer to how to treat fellow Hebrews and don’t refer to “chattel slavery” – even though, for most practical and moral purposes, there’s not a tremendous amount of difference.
  3. As a response to using a reductio ad absurdum where someone is shown to endorse a position they didn’t explicitly endorse initially. While a reductio ad absurdum argument can produce a straw man, this isn’t always the case and the correct response is to demonstrate the fallaciousness of the reductio argument, not to dismiss its conclusions outright.


Okay, so that’s long, and slightly rambling. I’m not even going to say all of the above is even “true”, because I’m not a prescriptive authority on what “is” and “is not” logical. All I can say is how I see it. But I can end with this piece of advice; don’t even bother learning the “correct” use of fallacies. Just say what you mean, say what is wrong with what someone says. Is someone making a “straw man” of your argument? Don’t say a straw man, just say “that’s not what I mean, and I would like to know how you came to the conclusion that I said it”. Is someone insulting you? Don’t say ad hominem, just move on and focus on what substance you can actually find amongst the dreck. It’s not that hard, surely…