The Strawman

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Thursday, June 3, 2021 2 comments

by Steve Risner

After a short hiatus, we’re back at it here. We were looking at the advice given in a post in a group on Facebook, which is dedicated to the creation/evolution debate. This particular unbeliever wanted to help creationists debate better, so he gave us a short list of things he thinks we should avoid doing. So far we have discussed preaching, circular reasoning, and the ad hominem attack. Today’s topic is the strawman. We’ve briefly discussed strawman arguments before. Let’s go over what that is and why it’s not a good thing. We’ll follow up with some examples and how to deal with them.

The strawman argument is defined as a form of argument and an informal fallacy of having the impression of refuting an argument, whereas the real subject of the argument was not addressed or refuted but instead replaced with a false one. In other words, a person misrepresents another person’s argument, so it is easier to refute. I guess it is fair to say that not all strawman arguments are intentional. You would like to think that none of them are intentional since it means the person doing so is being dishonest. But a lot of the time I think a person may honestly think how they are representing someone’s argument is valid. However, a great deal of the time this happens, it is because the person was lazy or didn’t really care enough about the other person’s argument to investigate it fully. Either way, a strawman is a bad thing.

We find people making caricatures of other people’s arguments all the time and then refuting this childish version of the person’s argument. Now, this person who has advised creationists to not do this is correct—we shouldn’t do this. I think creationists do this often. Some of us are ill-informed about the Big Bang or universal common descent. This is quite often true because most of us are laypeople. Some of us are not academically trained in these topics, so we may think things about them that technically aren’t true but are sometimes true in the grand scheme of things. But, a good debater will point out your error. If he or she is gracious or truly wants you to understand, he or she will lovingly correct your error by pointing out what the truth is and showing you why what you said is incorrect. Most of the time, in my experience, it’s rare for an unbeliever to want you to understand their position. They just want to make you look and feel stupid.

A common strawman argument that creationists put out there to topple goes something like this: “If humans evolved from chimpanzees, why are there still chimpanzees?” This is not what adherents to universal common descent believe. They believe that humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor that split about 5-7 million years ago (depending on who you read). Universal common descent is generally not linear (this evolved into this, which evolved into this, etc.) but very branching, generally going from simpler to more complex over time. Eventually, a population would have acquired traits that would allow them to survive in a particular niche wherever it is they are found.

There are many others that I commonly see when reading online. It’s disheartening to see some of them often, as some are very good at pointing out how little the person actually knows about the topic. However, unbelievers do this very often as well. It is very difficult to find a person who does not believe in creationism as described by the Bible who represents it accurately. In fact, I cannot think of anyone offhand who does. Sometimes a person may get a little piece of it correctly, but even that’s rare.

A short list of examples of the strawmen that unbelievers present to creationists is as follows:

“Creationists don’t believe a species can change. Since we can scientifically observe that a species can change, creationists reject science.”
A short response: Creationists understand that organisms can have variety. We understand that, due to population isolation, degenerative mutations, epigenetics, and other things, a population can demonstrate small changes in its phenotypical expression (how its genes interact with the environment, making the organism appear as it does). Creationists obviously believe in science since creationists invented the modern version of it.

“Creationists don’t believe a mutation can be beneficial. Since we know some mutations can be beneficial, creationists are willfully ignorant.”
A short response: Creationists do think a mutation can be beneficial or not beneficial. If it wasn’t, it likely wouldn’t stick around too long. We do not believe a mutation can add new information, creating a new anatomical or physiological structure. The Lenski experiment showed after many thousands of generations, colonies of E. coli are still E. coli, and that supports this idea. Some of the E. coli demonstrated a mutation that stopped a regulatory process, causing that process to be uninhibited. This made it easier for the E. coli to survive in the artificial environment they were placed in. However, under normal circumstances in their environment, this would actually cause them to be less able to compete and they would soon no longer express this mutation.

“The Bible teaches the earth has literal pillars and corners and other ancient ideas about the earth and cosmology.”
A short response: The language of the Bible is often literal but does contain figures of speech. We use similar figures of speech today. We say the sun rises when, in fact, it does not move; the earth is moving. We say “the four corners of the earth” when we know the earth is a sphere. There are many other examples. This doesn’t mean we’re unaware of reality. It means we use figures of speech or say things in a way that would be understood.

“Creationists think the Flood was real and that water covered Mt. Everest. There’s not enough water to do that. Where did all the water go?”
A short response: Creationists do not believe Mt. Everest existed before the Flood, so we obviously would not believe it was covered by water. There is more than enough water on and in the earth to cover the surface to a great depth.

“Creationists think Noah took 2 of every species onto the Ark. There are almost 9 million different species and even more that are extinct. There is no way a ship the dimensions of the Ark could hold 18,000,000+ animals and no one could feed them for that long.”
A short response: We do not believe “species” were taken onto the Ark. We believe “kinds” were taken on to the Ark. Several species may have differentiated from one created kind. Worst case estimates, based on the best research thus far, shows us there may have been as many as 7,000 animals on the Ark. That’s a lot, but not too much for 8 people to care for, especially since most of the animals were very small, and some wouldn’t require a great deal of work like many reptiles.

There are so many more examples. These were just off the top of my head. I hope that, to any reader who knows anything about what Biblical creationists believe, we can all see how these arguments are strawman arguments. I also hope we might be able to identify such arguments in the future and respond appropriately.

The strawman argument is to be avoided by everyone all the time in any argument. As with the other bits of advice from this unbeliever, it’s no more applicable to creationists than anyone else. I find that a very large portion of strawman attacks are directed towards creationism. Creationists commit this logical fallacy as well. I think we would all do ourselves some favors and really save a great deal of time if we’d take the time to understand our opponent’s position before mounting a rebuttal towards it. In the case of an intentional strawman attack, I have no idea why anyone would lie to attack a position. It means you know you’re incorrect, so it becomes a matter of willfully believing something you know is false. It’s very weird.

Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2, “Be ready to spread the word whether or not the time is right. Point out errors, warn people, and encourage them. Be very patient when you teach.” This gives us some insight into how to approach the strawman argument. The first idea is to always be ready to give an answer. We are instructed in 1 Peter 3:15 to always be ready. But here Paul explains that pointing out an error is a responsibility. How you do this makes all the difference in the world. It’s easy to get caught up and want to attack someone for setting up a strawman. But we are to respond in love. This is the challenge. Responding in love can be hard especially if you know the person you’re having a conversation with is intentionally making your position look foolish and mispresenting it. Paul goes on to say we are to be patient—again, this is tough sometimes but very important. In many cases, regardless of how you approach the error, the person will behave in immature and unproductive ways, but it’s our responsibility to do what we do in love. I am actively working on this with myself.

You can also play with the idea a little. You can accept the strawman and explain why you agree it’s wrong, and then go further to explain why what your position actually states is correct. This might be a little tougher to do, but you can make it go a long way towards showing the person you’re talking with that you know your stuff and they don’t.

What’s exciting for me is that next time I’ll go over some of the strawman arguments this person believes creationists use. He gives a list of 5 and they’re pretty good. Until next time, praise Him and be blessed.

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Stephen Meiner said...

Thanks again, Steve ...and I look forward to your next half of this subject. Yes,as you say, we are to stand ready to give an answer ...though it doesn't have to be a scientific answer. If they feel they have the edge on me with science, which most everyone does, then providing that sort of answer seems to draw me right into where they'd want me to be, I don't go there. I don't believe science can prove what so many are trying to say, but science cannot prove God either.

I feel that once someone is bold enough to go against the 14 billion year beginning, someone will probably come up with a theory that everything took trillions of years. Yes, that would be exciting to so many and mathematically more digestible, but just like I enjoy fiction would be untrue to my beliefs.

Again, thanks Steve.

Steve Risner said...

Thanks, Stephen, for your comments. You are exactly right! There are many things that science cannot answer for us. Science cannot tell us about our origins, our purpose, our identity, or our destiny. These are, frankly, the most important questions life has to offer and the answers to such questions are only found in the Word of God.
If you bring it back to the Word, you'll always know that, if nothing else, you presented something eternally important and truthful.

Stay the course!