Straw man, steel man and grass man

Straw man

A straw man is a well-known logical fallacy whereby one person appears to be refuting their opponents’ argument in a debate, but they are actually refuting a modified version of their opponents’ argument which has been made easier to refute. This gives the impression that one has beaten their opponent in a debate, when in fact they have beaten a ‘straw man’ which they have set up on purpose. This is also known as ‘attacking a straw man’.

Steel MAN

‘A Steel man‘ is the use of an improved version of an opponents’ argument that is harder to defeat than their original argument. This can (and should) be used in a debate to convince yourself that your own argument is indeed correct, and to give fair representation to your opponent.

Grass MAN

I would like to propose a new phrase along these lines – a ‘grass man’ – which is like a straw man, but involves holding an easily refutable position on something you already disagree with on purpose so that your friend (who you pretend not to know, or at least not to agree with) who believes what you really believe can knock down your ‘grass man argument’ and get people across the fence. This might be used to convince people of an argument they strongly disagree with by sowing doubt. However, this is of course a questionable and dishonest act, and so I don’t necessarily advocate for it. But I do think it is an interesting and new concept. One example of a potential use for a grass man argument that may be warranted is as follows.

There is a room full of people who don’t believe in vaccination. Several prominent scientists have tried to convince the people that vaccination is not harmful, and is actually quite beneficial, to no avail. Two people, unknown to the anti-vaxxers, then enter the room with a prior agreement to engage in a grass man. The first person starts telling the other that vaccination is clearly harmful, and provides a list of very easily attackable reasons for why that is so. The anti-vaxxers then identify with this proponent of what they believe. The second person easily debunks the first’s argument in a way that it is clear it was wrong. This sows doubt in the anti-vaxxers as to whether their position is right after all.

If one has still has moral qualms about such a deceitful tactic, perhaps we can assume that twenty children are about to die if their parents are not convinced that vaccines are safe.

Of course, this example assumes that people are logical and rational. However, there is reason to believe that emotion may still dominate in these situations, and they still won’t change their mind despite the grass man.

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