Scripture declares that human beings are made in the expressed image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) and therefore possess unique, profound rational capacities.
In light of this biblical truth, Christians are called to exemplify virtue in matters of the mind. God is honored when His people demonstrate such disciplines as study, reflection, discernment, and honesty (Acts 17:11; Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 14:29; Col. 2:8; 1 Thess. 5:21). By contrast, intellectual sloth, credulity, prejudice, and especially dishonesty bring dishonor to Christ in the eyes of skeptics.
A critical intellectual virtue and a core principle of sound reasoning is the ability to handle the arguments of others (especially one’s intellectual opponents) with fairness and integrity. This “intellectual golden rule” or “principle of charity” calls for treating others’ arguments with the same degree of care and detailed attention as one expects to be shown toward his/her own. Observance of three rules of intellectual interchange can help ensure such respectful dialogue.
Rule #1: Take the Time and Effort to Get an Opponent’s Argument Right
When a person intentionally (or unintentionally) distorts the argument of another and then proceeds to critique that misrepresented argument, he commits the informal logical fallacy known as the straw man. The logical error committed is a lack of relevance, for any criticism brought to bear on a misrepresented argument never really applies. The way people typically raise the straw man is either by making a position appear more extreme or by oversimplifying it. This fallacy is so named because just as it is easier to knock down a straw image of a man than it is a real man of bone and muscle, so it is easier to dispose of an exaggerated or simplistic argument than it is a well-balanced and substantive argument.
It is easy to commit the straw man fallacy in a face-to-face argument (especially a heated one) because a person is more likely to think about a response and less likely to listen carefully to an opponent. A good way to avoid misrepresentation and irrelevance is to restate an opponent’s argument back to him. This practice can produce positive results, including better listening, clearer understanding, and more successful communication. People appreciate being heard and thus may become more open to other perspectives and possible critique. Attitude and demeanor, not just argument, effect persuasion.
This virtue applies to written polemics as well. When critiquing the writings of another it is important to give the writer a fair reading, to strive to understand and represent his true position. Again, anyone would certainly want his or her own writings treated in a similar manner.
If an opponent does raise a straw man, then it is proper to call attention to the distortion. A careful summary of the main point and main premises (supporting facts, evidence, or reasons) for an argument may help bring that opponent back on track.
Rule #2: Stay On Topic When Offering a Legitimate Rebuttal
Closely associated with the straw man error is the red herring fallacy. (The herring fish was allegedly used in English fox hunts to try to draw hunting dogs off track.) This fallacy is committed when an arguer diverts attention from the real issue at hand by focusing on extraneous or secondary matters. A change in subject (even if subtle) again results in a loss of logical relevance, an unproductive side trail.
Diversionary tactics such as the red herring violate the “appropriate response” principle spoken of by logicians-a critic’s responsibility to focus any critique or rebuttals on the real question at hand. One can avoid being the victim of the red herring fallacy by consistently reminding an opponent of the authentic core of the debate.
Rule #3: Render an Honest and Fair Assessment of All Evidence for an Opponent’s Position
Compounding the two aforementioned mistakes in argumentation is the commonly committed fallacy of suppressed evidence. This fallacy enters when an arguer emphasizes only the evidence that supports his or her position while suppressing counter evidence that may point toward-or even require-a different conclusion. The rules of logic and Christian morality compel Christians to deal honestly and transparently with facts, evidence, and data. If the evidence is ambiguous or points away from one’s own position it is better-even obligatory-to candidly acknowledge it than to shade the truth or engage in intellectual dishonesty. A candid admission of tentativeness, for example, reflects a refreshing and attractive intellectual integrity. Unfortunately, the fallacy of suppressed evidence is easy to commit. The temptation to engage in (illegitimate) card-stacking is strong. Given this reality, when one thinks his opponent has ignored or diminished appropriate counter evidence, then he should by all means make the broader picture known.
Good argumentation presupposes such essential virtues as honesty, fair play, and charity. The passionate pursuit of truth demands nothing less than a commitment to sound reasoning and to God-honoring intellectual exchange.
For further study on these points of reasoning and argumentation, see the textbooks I use as a college instructor of logic: T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning, 4th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001) and Patrick Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, 8th ed. (Belmont, CA: 2003).