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The straw-man fallacy is when a person misrepresents his opponent’s position and then proceeds to refute that misrepresentation rather than what his opponent actually claims.
It’s a fallacy that just shouldn’t happen—but it does all the time. The straw-man fallacy is when a person misrepresents his opponent’s position and then proceeds to refute that misrepresentation (i.e., the “straw man”) rather than what his opponent actually claims.1 Here’s an example:
“Creationists do not believe that animals change. But clearly, animals do change. So, creationists are mistaken.”
Since creationists do indeed believe that animals change (just not from one basic created kind to another), the argument is a straw-man fallacy. The argument does not refute what creationists actually claim.
Such a misrepresentation could be unintentional; it could be that a particular evolutionist simply misunderstands what a creationist is teaching. Or the fallacy could be quite deliberate. That, of course, is a dishonest approach, yet it is quite common in origins debates.
Even in cases where the misrepresentation is unintentional, there is still a degree of liability. After all, the arguer should have done sufficient research and studied what it is the opponent actually teaches. We would certainly be willing to overlook minor misunderstandings, particularly where a position is complex or nuanced (though the critic should still be corrected on the issue). However, there are a number of cases where the creationist position is so clear that misrepresentations by evolutionists are simply inexcusable. The following are a few examples.
If an evolutionist were to claim, “Creationists don’t believe in science,” this would be a straw-man fallacy.2 Creationists do believe in science. There are several full-time Ph.D. scientists on the Answers in Genesis staff. I’ve argued on this website, as in my book (The Ultimate Proof of Creation) that biblical creation is what makes science possible.
Someone may claim, “Creationists believe in the fixity of species.” However, this is certainly not the mainstream biblical creationist position. There may be a few individuals that hold to such a concept, but it is not the position advocated by most creationists. Thus, the generalization “creationists believe . . .” is false.
Likewise, the claim, “Creationists say there are no good mutations” is not representative of what biblical creationists teach. Generally, we say that mutations do not add brand-new, creative information to the genome and are thus in the “wrong direction” to make evolution happen. But we do believe that mutations can result in traits that increase survival value under certain conditions.
“Answers in Genesis is pushing to get creation to be taught in public schools alongside evolution.”
This is definitely false. Answers in Genesis as a ministry is not about political or legal change. Rather, we are about defending the Bible from the very first verse and teaching other Christians to do the same. Although this may eventually result in a changed political and legal situation, we do not (as a ministry) attempt to change laws or get involved in politics.
“The Bible teaches that the earth has literal pillars and corners and cannot be moved. It is clearly wrong.”
This is a misrepresentation of Scripture and therefore constitutes a straw-man fallacy. The Bible uses figures of speech (just as we do when we say, “Tim is a pillar of the community”) and poetic language at times. Referring to the cardinal directions as “corners”3 or the stability of the earth as not able to “be moved”4 is not an error. It is entirely inappropriate for a critic to take the poetic sections of the Bible as literal—or the literal historical sections as poetic. Many objections against Scripture turn out to be straw-man fallacies.
Ignorance of biblical creation among those who oppose it is a serious problem.
The claims that creationists believe in a flat earth, that we deny laws of nature, or that we take every verse of the Bible in a wooden literal sense are all baseless assertions. Nonetheless, claiming that creationists believe in such things makes the creation position easier to discredit—but it is not a rationally cogent way to debate. Granted, not all evolutionists do this; some do accurately represent their opponents. But ignorance of biblical creation among those who oppose it is a serious problem: one that Christian apologists must be prepared to face.
We must gently encourage our opponents to find out what it is that creationists actually teach. This is not a difficult task. Our positions on the most-asked questions are well-summarized in the New Answers Book series and to a great extent on this very website.
Creationists must also stay educated on both sides of the issue so that we do not commit the very same fallacy.5 Watch for misrepresentations of creation or other Christian teachings and be ready to point out that such straw-man arguments are fallacious; yet always do so with gentleness and respect.