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How to deal with a straw man argument

Men of Straw
Monday 3rd January 2011

What are "Straw Men" arguments? If we are to understand the debate about our future this is something we should all be able to grasp. Although we may not understand the complicated facts and figures we should, at least, be critical of sweeping statements. So what is a "Straw Man argument"?

I will say to you "forget everything you know about the Post Office. Just for a second." A Straw Man argument is one that is technically true yet misrepresents a case. Hence if I had an ideological hatred of the Post Office I may struggle to find anything wrong with this beloved institution. However, in our hypothetical world where none of us know anything about the Post Office, I could get away with saying "Don't go to the Post Office: you have to QUEUE to buy STAMPS! That is ridiculous."

Everything about this statement is technically true. Yes, there are queues. Yes, you can buy stamps at a Post Office. However most of us can see the elemental flaw in such an argument because most of us understand the reality. In reality there are queues everywhere: in Primark, in the Bank, in WHSmith. A queue is an equitable way of serving people and most of us tolerate this every day. The second obvious fact is that you can buy stamps at any old cornershop, newsagents, card shop or supermarket. Why bother going to the Post Office?

With this example we can simply see that straw men arguments fall apart when it involves something we all understand. However in the area of Climate Change or Renewable Energy most of us lack the expertise to make this judgment. You may recall a few weeks ago a letter writer in the Bucks Free Press making a statement about Photovoltaics (solar panels that make electricity) to the effect that they are useless because they are so inefficient. The numbers quoted were 10.7% to 22% efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. The letter writer need only put the word "only" in front of these figures to make it sound as if Photovoltaics are somehow inefficient.

Of course, in reality, such a statement is laughable. You simply have to ask this question: "inefficient relative to what?" and the whole argument crumbles. A tree can only convert sunlight into chemical energy at a 5% conversion rate. Is this an argument against trees? No. Old coal-fired power stations may well have only been 30 to 50% efficient. Your car may only be 1% efficient in converting petrol energy into human movement. In reality and average yield of 15% for a solar panel is a phenomenal success. That is wonderful. A machine with no moving part that you bolt to your roof that makes electricity from sunlight? That is a modern miracle and to doubt it is to look a gift horse in the mouth.

A similar argument is actually used against wind power. I laugh out loud every time I read somebody tell us that Windpower is somehow impractical because a wind farm only outputs 35% of its peak rated power over its lifetime. The unknowing present this as if it is some kind of FLAW! Do they seriously mean to tell us that all those engineers and scientists are somehow unaware of this simple fact? In truth the 35% yield factor is always already accounted for when wind power output is discussed in policy making. It isn't some hidden truth that only becomes clear after the wind turbines are erected.

In reality wind power is one of the most reliable and predictable sources of power. Think about it. Your regular coal or nuclear power station can suddenly go off-line for any reason. But the wind doesn't stop. It may not blow everywhere all of the time. But you factor that in and build a lot of wind turbines at different locations then join them together. Arguments that suggest wind power is "intermittent" completely fail to understand the engineering challenge. Nobody today suggest that the internet is somehow "intermittent". Nobody has the ability to switch it off. It is the same with wind.

So the next time somebody presents you with this sort of argument simply ask a few simple questions. You'll pretty soon find that you are being dealt a house of cards. Think about that the next time you queue for stamps.

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