Steven Pinker on Straw Men

In his book The Stuff of Thought, (p. 89), Steven Pinker writes (bullets added):

The beauty of the straw man is that he can be used in so many ways.

  • The most hackneyed is the straw man boxing match, in which one replaces a formidable opponent with a defeatable simpleton. 
  • But there’s also the straw-man two-step: first set up the effigy, then acknowledge that he is not so fatuous after all, but frame his reasonableness as a capitulation to one’s devastating criticisms.
  • And then there is the sacrificial straw man, useful when one worries about being on the fringe of respectable opinion: set up a fanatical version of one’s theory, then distance oneself from it as proof of one’s moderation.