Very often when trying to refute either by counterexample or by reductio, peo- ple move too quickly. The general rule is this: Before trying to refute someone’s claim, it is important to make sure that you understand his or her position. If you misunderstand what your opponent is claiming, but you go ahead and at- tack a specific claim anyway, then the claim you attack will not be the claim that your opponent made. You might even fail to refute any position that any- one ever really held. This is called the fallacy of attacking a straw man.
Sometimes people attack a straw man intentionally. They mischaracterize their opponents’ position on purpose in order to make their opponents look silly by associating their opponents with a position that really is silly. One ex- ample comes from the 2004 presidential election, when John Kerry suggested that the United States should have conferred more with its allies, including the French, before attacking Iraq. In response, at the Republican National Conven- tion Senator Zell Miller said that Kerry would “let Paris decide when America needs defending.” Surely Miller knew that this mischaracterization of Kerry’s position was unfair, but it achieved the desired reaction from the crowd.
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