Listener Feedback: Dorothy and Her Straw Man

Skeptoid responds to some feedback emails notable for their dependence on straw man arguments.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #286
November 29, 2011
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Today we're going to dip once again into Skeptoid's Listener Feedback mailbag. One of the common themes among my disapproving pieces of feedback is the straw man argument. If you're not familiar with this term, a straw man is easy to knock down. If your opponent's argument is strong, attack a straw man instead: construct a ridiculous caricature of what your opponent said — an obviously absurd point that's trivial to attack — and make yourself seem brilliant by attacking it. It is with some pride that I note how prevalent straw men are in the negative feedback that I get; it shows that what I actually did say usually stands up pretty well to scrutiny.

Let's get started with a couple of good straw man arguments from Jules in Point Place, Nebraska. Jules heard the episode on organic food myths and offered the following feedback:

This has got to be some of the dumbest crap I have ever read. Yes, there are evil hordes of organic voodoo witch doctors outside of my home trying to destroy McDonalds.

Organic food is not "philosophically" different, it is different. You want to dispute the merits of Organic food, then fine, but at least come up with a thesis statement that doesn't read like a 4 year old baboon was writing propaganda for a teen magazine. Whatever. I hope someone terrorizes you by forcing you (gulp!) to drink a cup of Organic milk and a plate of Organic Nachos, followed by a cup of Organic coffee. I sure that will be the end of the world.

I don't recall asserting that there are "hordes of organic voodoo witch doctors trying to destroy McDonald's", though I do appreciate the colorful imagery. If I'd said anything like this, of course I'd make myself sound ridiculous. So he begins by attributing the statement to me. I knew more was coming, and it did. He suggests that force feeding me organic food would terrorize me as if it were the end of the world. This comment pretty nearly exactly misstates what I said, which is that there's nothing at all wrong with organic food, and that it's a fine product. It's nearly impossible these days to go to the supermarket and buy a cart full of staples without some of it bearing the magical marketing label "organic", so I can confidently state that I eat organic food all the time. Jules' straw man is not only evident from comparing it to my actual text, but also by its glaring absurdity. This is a straw man that's not even artful.

What I did say is that organic food is no better than the regular food it pretends to transcend, and I produced plenty of evidence to back that up. By completely dodging the actual content of my episode, all Jules accomplished in the end was to illustrate that valid arguments against what I said are hard to come by.

Jarek from Kettering, Ohio also made a straw man argument against my episode about Stalin's alleged human-ape hybrid soldiers, supposedly developed by the famous Russian biologist Il'ya Ivanov, known for his dramatic improvements to the techniques for artificially inseminating farm animals, at a tough economic time when Russia really needed such help. However, the closest Ivanov ever came to creating human-ape hybrids was a proposal (never put into action) where he hoped to artificially inseminate African women with ape sperm at a clinic without their knowledge. Jarek said:

I was shocked at your appraisal of Ivanov as a "giant in the field of biology" whose proper place "has been unfairly overshadowed by a made-up fiction," mainly because it sounded like you approve of what he did. Coming on the heels of talk about his attempting to inseminate human females with ape sperm without their consent, which is a horrendous goal - and, I think, even though the myth has overshadowed his real research, it is the concept of making human-ape hybrids itself that is repulsive to most people, and that is why they view him as insane, because he actually was trying to do that.

I went carefully back through the text of my episode and couldn't find anything that could possibly be considered an expression of support for Ivanov's atrocious ethics; nor would such a discussion have been relevant to the subject matter. Jarek didn't appear to disagree with my conclusion, that the creation of such hybrids probably never happened; it's almost as if he just was trying to make me sound bad. Not only was it a straw man argument, it was something of an ad-hominem attack: I'm wrong about my history of Ivanov because I have questionable ethics. Jarek, whatever I think of Ivanov's ethics is not germaine to the question of whether Stalin ever actually made human-ape hybrid soldiers.

Ally wrote in response to the Wacko of the Week in one of my email newsletters, Dr. Russell Blaylock. In addition to speaking out against the flu vaccine, Blaylock is a conspiracy theorist who has written about aspartame being part of a government plot to dumb down the population. Ally said:

I do get and enjoy your newsletter. I do believe that aspartame is not good for you. I believe studies have been done that show it increases appetite, for one thing. And amalgam is also not good; my dentist removed all the old filling from my teeth many years ago for because of its toxicity. I do not personally know much about Dr. Blaylock, but he may be right on with many of his views. By the same token, honestly, adequate studies have not been done on vaccination safety, for example. I do not take the vaccines any longer, and feel much better for it. Are you against him because he is affiliated with christian broadcasting? I suppose you think all christians are morons? Well, surprise! We are not.

I went back to the newsletter to see what Christian broadcasting had to do with anything. I said: "Although most of his media appearances have been confined to Christian broadcasting, he also has three books out warning of the dangers of science based medicine." Does that mean I think all Christians are morons? Clearly that's a non-sequitur, so her charge that I'm "against him" because he is "affiliated with Christian broadcasting" is a straw man. I said nothing of the kind. Nor would I, because that's got nothing to do with the bogus science he promotes. Ally, I'm not against Christians or Christian broadcasters. I oppose his dissemination of flagrantly untrue medical information that compels honest people like yourself to undergo costly, unnecessary (and potentially dangerous) medical procedures, like having your fillings removed; and to convince you that it's dangerous for children to be immunized against infectious disease. If you want to argue against those points, then you'll have to do a lot better than simply asserting your claims. Do as I did, and back it up with legitimate science.

Straw man arguments are sometimes made by accident, when you fail to adequately inform yourself on what your opponent has actually said or written. Greg from London made such a straw man attack on my episode about the Fatima miracle of the sun, where a large crowd of Catholics thought they saw the sun dance around extraordinarily, but nobody else in the vicinity outside of the crowd noticed anything. Greg wrote:

Wow, talk about dishonest. You completely fail to mention that the phenomena was reported the next day in a secular newspaper. A journalist who had gone to mock the event actually reported on what he saw and said it was inexplicable. Why would you fail to mention this in the above write up. Is this fact not important? It seems to me that you are not objective at all.

He's saying that I was deliberately dishonest in my analysis of the event in that I covered up the fact that newspapers reported it. Not true. My actual words were "Photographs and articles plastered the newspapers of the world" and "Newspaper accounts estimated between 30,000 and 100,000 worshipers gathered", and much of the episode was spent on analysis of some of the photographs published in the newspaper accounts. Greg either didn't listen very carefully, or more likely did like many do who are personally offended by my take on a given subject: They read just enough to discover that I'm not supporting their viewpoint, then they skip straight to the comment section and post their admonishment. If you don't want your position to be a straw man, you'd better be familiar with what you're arguing against.

Here's another straw man from Nelson, is response to a student questions episode:

Brian, you are my choice for Wacko of the year. In considering your answers to the question submitted by the person asking about HSI (Health Science Institutes) and Graviola. You commit the same offence that you level at your so called Wackos. I guess you don't have to actually look into the company or the substance to downgrade everything about it. So being an organization of a few hundred MD's counts them as a bunch of snake oil salesmen huh?

No, Nelson, I don't argue that they, or anyone else, are snake oil salesmen because of their membership in an organization consisting of MDs. If that was my argument, then I would indeed be pretty silly and easy to refute. Being a member of an organization is not what makes someone wrong; being wrong is what makes them wrong. The rest of Nelson's message was familiar anti-Pharma rhetoric; a few anecdotes about shady business practices of pharmaceutical companies, and an anecdote or two about alternative medicine accomplishing miraculous cures. Nelson continued:

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

I was a Medical Doctor undergrad and when I learned about how Aspirin worked to alleviate pain is was in a general sense not the EXACT pathways because it is still not known. I guess Aspirin should be considered in the same category as snake oil then.

Another straw man. If Nelson had stayed in medical school, he'd have learned there is much unknown to pharmaceutical science. We don't consider every drug to be snake oil when there is something about its mechanism we don't understand; that's the case with many drugs on the market. We consider them snake oil when they're proven not to work, yet quacks sell and promote them anyway — often using anecdotes very much like those in his post.

Keep that feedback coming!

Brian Dunning

© 2011 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Clark, J., Clark, T. Humbug! The skeptic's field guide to spotting fallacies in thinking. Brisbane: Nifty Books, 2005.

Damer, T. Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments. Belmont CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company; 3rd edition, 1995. 224.

Kahane, Howard; Cavender, Nancy. Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life. Belmont: Thomson Higher Education, 2006. 155-156.

Porter, B. The Voice of Reason: Fundamentals of Critical Thinking. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Sagan, C. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, Inc., 1996.

Walton, D. Informal Logic: A Handbook for Critical Argumentation. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: Dorothy and Her Straw Man." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 29 Nov 2011. Web. 7 Oct 2015. <>


In your comments about Dr. Blaylock, you wrote.""Although most of his media appearances have been confined to Christian broadcasting," Which Ally took to be an attack on Christians in general. This was an overreaction. However, there is a kernel of truth in the allegation. Why would you even include that sentence. if you were not inferring that Christian Broadcasting is lesser than "normal" broadcasting. Did that sentence do anything to further your arguments
So while that has nothing to do with the fact Blaylock is a quack, And Ally did over-react. your article did contain a small amount of anti-christian bias.

Matt Sparks, Sacramento, CA
November 29, 2011 9:43am

"Although most of his media appearances have been confined to Christian broadcasting, he also has three books out warning of the dangers of science based medicine."

You should not quote part of a sentence without at least using the dots (ellipses?)

Please clarify how the sentence demonstrates a "bias" on the part of Brian Dunning? Seems to me that Denning simply makes a statement of fact that summarizes the previous work of the person in question. I would also argue that Christian broadcasting is very different from secular broadcasting in that it is absolutely biased in favor of religion. I don't see where Dunning was "inferring" anything, but rather that you, much like Ally seem hypersensitive about any mention of "quack" and "christian" in the same sentence and make unsupported assumptions about bias.

Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WIsconsin
November 29, 2011 10:09am


Will it be possible, with genetic engineering, to create a humanoid with a Cows digestive tract, so as to cut out all meat eating & that the humanoid can exist by eating grass?

Larry Silverstein, New York
November 29, 2011 10:33am

"If your opponent's argument is strong,"
Or you don't understand it, or if you just disagree with it,. 'Strong' is irrelevant.

"attack a straw man instead: construct a ridiculous caricature of what your opponent said — an obviously absurd point that's trivial to attack — "

It doesn't need to be ridiculous, or absurd. Hell it doesn't even need to be trivial.

Geekoid, Tualatin, Or
November 29, 2011 11:35am

I read the reference to Christian Broadcasting completely differently. Rather than see it as an implied bias, I saw it as a limited audience. You could have said, "Although he has only been seen in his own back yard, he does have some widely available books."

Deborah, Seattle, WA
November 29, 2011 1:25pm

@Janet, in a limited-text field format like a comments section I feel no need to include the entire quote when the original is half a page above.

I find it interesting that you immediately resort to an ad hominem attack against me. I ask you to read my previous post more carefully and you will see I beleive Blaylock is a quack and that Ally over-reacted. I dont believe my allegation was unsupported.

I'm sure Brian chooses his words carefully when he writes. There was simply no reason to include the sentence, unless he was either inferring Christian Brodcasting is inferior, or perhaps as Deborah stated, it is a noticeably smaller audience. Neither of these options have any impact at all on Blaylocks science (or lack of it) Therefore the only reason the sentence would be included would be to lessen Blaylocks credibility. It was certainly not to butress it. This specifically shows a minor anti-christian bias, or at the very least, a minor anti-Christian Broadcasting bias.

Matt Sparks, Sacramento, CA
November 29, 2011 7:29pm

I agree with Matt's assessment of the "Christian Broadcasting" comments. Substitute "Black," "Islamic," or "Women's" for "Christian", and it might make it clearer why Ally took offense. If Brian did not intend to make a point about the nature of Christian broadcasts, then it probably would have been more sensitive to just avoid mentioning it altogether.

T. West, Waterloo, Ontario
November 29, 2011 8:06pm

epic post. i don't think i could do what you do. ur blog is like a magnet for "whakos", but always super informative. please keep up the amazing work.

Patrick O'Hare, Salem, New Jersey
November 30, 2011 10:46am

Actually, I am beginning to wonder what Brian's fundamental message is. Is it "think critically?" Or is it "it is fun to make fun of mentally ill individuals?"

What is the point? Skeptoid has become more like an exercise in condescending to fools.

Jimmy the Schnaze, Tokyo
November 30, 2011 3:14pm

Hi mud. Thanks for the comments.

Ah..Brian has been extremely nice to me personally. I like the guy. However I do think he was a bit cruel to a mentally ill woman in a previous episode. I hope he avoids the dark side.

No, I have no positions to take. My role is more like "acerbic wit." You know, glib but lacking in content.

I like being self-involved. I really don't feel the need to debate things like "did Brian say something nasty about Christian Broadcasting?"

Jimmy the Schnaze, Tokyo
November 30, 2011 10:48pm

And... once again Dunning creates a bit of a straw man himself by cherry picking the most easily dismissed arguments about what he's said rather than addressing more solid disagreements about his "research."

By only discussing the weakest of the weak, he, in a fashion, fabricates his own easily knocked down straw man.

"If your opponent's argument is strong, attack a straw man instead." Indeed.

Steve, Los Angeles
December 1, 2011 1:25am

Go ahead Steve, what were the meaty arguments?

Bill, Victoria, Oz
December 1, 2011 3:29am

@Jimmy - You're absolutely right. Episode 251 was the worst of a direction in which Skeptoid should never have gone. There have not been any more listener feedback episodes like that, and will not be in the future.

Brian Dunning, Laguna Niguel, CA
December 1, 2011 6:59am

Two comments:
1. There are double blind studies showing persons rate the taste, etc, of organic food as better, even when both the control and experimental groups are eating organic. It's referred to as the "halo" effect in some research-labelling leads to false beliefs.
2. I recently heard on the news that one reason people so easily give up vaccinating children is because they have no real knowledge of the diseases the vaccines prevent. Vaccinating has been so successful that younger people especially have no idea that whooping cough can kill infants (recent outbreaks in California killed 10). Same for measles. Having never seen polio, diptheria, etc, there is no familiarity with the severity of the diseases. Thus, the possible bad effects of the vaccine are all the person sees.

Sheri Kimbrough, Wyoming
December 1, 2011 9:33am

Brian -- Thank you! Your response means a lot to me!

What you said strikes me a very mature. I am glad to hear it.

Thank you again. Good for you.

Jimmy the Schnaze, Tokyo
December 1, 2011 4:12pm

Thanks, thats great to hear. I hope u are not being sarcastic. I gave up posting and even listening for months after that one. Im all for making fun of some of the crazy feedback you get, but just not in a forum like that. It worked best the old fashioned way, in yr own home in the early morning hours, and in a more understated way.
Thanks again for many more good episodes.

Jon, Auckland, NZ
December 2, 2011 3:10am

I hope the Ally who wrote in wasn't my niece... If so, I'm gonna have to fly back to the states and reteach her all the critical thinking skills that she likely forgot in the face of my dads Minority Evangelical affiliation...

Dan, Japan
December 2, 2011 3:54am


Your second point is very true. People of my generation and the one before us grew up knowing people with withered limbs from polio, or that had tuberculosis, or personally lived through catching everything that was going around. For us, every time a new vaccination came out there was no question of using it. The so called common childhood diseases can cause significant damage or even death and if they can be avoided should be.

bil, toronto
December 2, 2011 7:52am

Mentioning Christian Broadcasting makes perfect sense in establishing the scope of the media Baylock was on.

"Although her albums are available largely in Christian book stores, singer Crystal Lewis has had several hits on mainstream radio stations"

"Despite originally airing on the gay-themed cable station LOGO, the program 'Noah's Ark' has been widely available on DVD and video on-demand services.'

"Although his early television appearances were mainly on public broadcasting, Carl Sagan published several successful books and became a cultural icon."

Those all strike me as inoffensive and make their point clearly. I doubt gays or scientists would get defensive about them.

Morgan Z., Tracy, CA
December 2, 2011 11:45am

If anyone must, just simply must, make fun of someone, make fun of me!

I am relatively healthy, psychologically. So I am fair game. And I am an intellectual light-weight, so I am an easy target! Because, I am not interested in crafting dense arguments about obscure topics. I would rather have a drink and a laugh.

If anything, I am more interested in the *feelings* behind the closely-held irrational beliefs, and the also the feelings motivating the desire to think critically. Belief in miracles or bigfoot? Perhaps a feeling of a lonely universe.

Well, there are other ways to address loneliness than believing in miracles.

ANd that is why I am here. Now pardon me, my hot toddy is just about ready. After I am appropriately smashed, I will be back with even more warm feelings.

Jimmy the Schnaze, Tokyo
December 2, 2011 6:50pm

Jimmy, strangely I have already met a few Jimmy's before.

Lonely hearts blog is covered in grab a granny chat and "recovering liver" in sock puppet central.

You'd wonder how I knew about these sites?

maybe you have just come of age!

Mud, Sin City, Oz
December 2, 2011 11:05pm

Although Tracy's previous comments have been confined to women's only podcasts, today she shared one with us....

Nope, I'd call that demeaning...

Apologies if I made an inaccurate asumption of you gender.

Matt Sparks, Sacramento
December 3, 2011 10:38am

I suppose I would have to go back to the Fatima episode to see if you indeed covered the *kind* of newspaper evidence Greg explicitly mentioned: a reporter actually going and seeing the phenomenon in question.

Journalistic witnesses are not scientific measurements, of course. But as a secularist once asked rhetorically about religious apologists appealing to double-blind 'proofs' of healing, "Is God a giant lab-rat?"

danR, Vancouver/Canada
December 3, 2011 7:07pm

completely agree

Dear Brian Dunning,
I think it's wonderful that you read all the listener feedback, and post on your own blog. and i think it's extremely mature of you to say:

"You're absolutely right. Episode 251 was the worst of a direction in which Skeptoid should never have gone. There have not been any more listener feedback episodes like that, and will not be in the future."

Livin' for the minute,

Anya, Mt. Airy
December 5, 2011 4:09pm

I don't think it matters much but there is no "Point Place, NE"

Rick, Omaha, NE
December 12, 2011 12:45pm

Dear Rick,
You're probably right; "Point Place" most likely isn't real. I do believe, however, that Brian Dunning might have been using the location that the reader, Jules, entered. I know that there are multiple Mount Airys, so I chose not to place the state so as to avoid labels.

"I think I can do more for you with this here fork and knife..."


Anya, Mt. Airy
December 16, 2011 4:22pm

I am convinced that after all these decades arguing with any sort of believer will only draw their philosophy and obviously never any related facts.

Try it on a'll just get red herrings and straw men.

In my case I just say point blank, "Look, your are a nice guy/lady, I really don't care what your religion is, just don't bring it up "

Mud, Sin City, NSW, Oz
January 10, 2012 2:16am

"it was something of an ad-hominem attack"

I don't see the ad hominem in the paragraph you quoted, and the fact that you call it an "attack" makes me wonder whether you're even using the term properly. An ad hominem is NOT a personal insult, it's a logical fallacy: "You're wrong, because you're a moron." An ad hominem uses the personal insult as logical justification for the point being made.

I could very well have misunderstood, and if that's the case, I apologize, but a lot of people abuse the term "ad hominem" and I just don't see how it applies here.

Adam, Maryland
May 4, 2012 12:30am

If its any issue at all Adam..I dont see much in categorising diversional tactics at all.

They are just all diversional tactics that give us breathing space when arguing..

Mind you, they lead to off topic immediately..

Mud, sin city, Oz
August 2, 2013 1:38am

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