What’s the most powerful tool you can arm yourself with as you try to find your way through the jungle of conflicting nutrition and fitness ‘information’ we are deluged with? Is it a record-breaking collection of diet books? Is it a specialized degree in Scientific Jargon'? Is it a pair of nerdy glasses that make you look super-scientificy?
Actually you don’t need any of those things. The most powerful tool…nay, weapon…you can possess in the minefield that is popular diet culture is the ability to think critically about what you are reading or hearing or seeing. Critical thought is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence. A critical thinker evaluates the logic and evidence supporting an argument, and bases their conclusions on the soundness of that logic and evidence.
Critical thinking is a skill that anyone can develop and improve. One of the most important facets of critical thinking is the ability to recognize logical fallacies. Diet culture is rife with logical fallacy and many of us even fall into fallacious thinking inadvertently. I know I have in the past! Recognizing when you’re being misled by one of these fallacies is a major step toward independent thinking. Today I’m going to talk about a specific fallacy I see all the time, the Straw Man.
The term ‘Straw Man‘ is used to describe a debate tactic in which a person misrepresents their opponent’s argument in order to make it easier to attack. You see this all the time, likely without realizing it. It’s difficult to get through a political speech without being subjected to Straw Man logic: “Candidate X supports policy A, and we all know how silly A is, so support Candidate Y and policy B instead!” (when in fact, Candidate X does not support A at all, this entire line of thinking is a misrepresentation of X’s position).
There are several ways a person can construct a Straw Man. I’ll list them and provide some of the more blatant Straw Men I’ve run across (some general, some directed at me) to illustrate each type:
Highlighting the most extreme position of the other side:
Straw Man: “Paleos just want to eat lots of meat. They are supporting factory farming, cruelty to animals, and environmental destruction!”
Actually, many paleos are well aware of the ethical and environmental costs of factory farming, and make an effort to support sustainable and ethical farms.
Straw Man: “Vegans eat lots of soy and processed foods, they don’t care about the environmental impact of industrial monoculture!”
Actually, many vegans are well aware of the environmental costs of industrial monoculture, and make an effort to to support sustainable foods producers. Many vegans also do not eat soy.
Straw Man: “The USDA Dietary Recommendations encourage the consumption of soda and refined grains!”
Actually, the USDA Dietary Recommendations discourage the consumption of soda and refined grains, and encourage whole grains and water instead.
Straw Man: “People who believe in Calories In vs Calories Out claim a calorie is a calorie, and it doesn’t matter what kind of calories you eat!”
Actually, I ‘hang around’ with lots of people who acknowledge the importance of calorie balance, and not a single one of them believes all calories are the same. I’ve also yet to read a diet plan that places a limit on calories that doesn’t ALSO suggest ways to improve the quality of calories consumed to ensure adequate nutrient intake.
Straw Man: “People who eat [carbs/meat/sugar/gluten/etc] don’t care about their health!”
I hear this one a lot, the contention that if a person makes a different food choice than the speaker, they are ignorant or simply don’t care about their health. I’m sure you can easily recognize the ridiculousness of this argument.
Straw Man: “Go Kaleo tells people to eat nothing but junk!”
Uh, yeah. Right. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you…
Highlighting the actions of a minority:
Straw Man: “I’m so tired of vegans shoving their dogma down my throat.”
Some vegans are zealous in the evangelism, but most mind their own business.
Straw Man: “If you don’t have visible abs, paleos will just ridicule you and tell you you’re doing it wrong.”
Assholes do this. Some paleos are assholes, but it isn’t paleo that makes them assholes. All dietary dogmas have their share of assholes. Dogma (dietary, political, religious, etc) seems to attract assholes. There are plenty of non-asshole paleos who are kind and supportive, though.
Straw Man: “I had to leave the Eating the Food facebook group because people were just using it as an excuse to eat junk food! How can they expect to lose weight eating crap?”
Couple things wrong here. One, it’s a rumor that has no factual basis, and two, ETF isn’t a weight loss group.
Straw Man: “Public health scientists claim exercise helps you lose weight by creating a calorie deficit. Exercise doesn’t help you lose weight, because it makes you hungry and you eat more, negating the calorie deficit exercise produces!”
Actually, public health scientists promote exercise for weight management for many reasons besides creating a calorie deficit. It improves insulin sensitivity and blood glucose regulation (both of which can improve metabolic function and help you lose weight), it mitigates the pain of arthritis so you stay more active, it improves cardiovascular function (again so you can stay more active), and it also reduces risk of cancer, heart disease and depression. And this Straw Man ignores free will: a person can still maintain a calorie deficit through diet manipulation even if they exercise.
Straw Man: “Go Kaleo claims as long as you exercise, diet doesn’t matter!”
Actually, I claim that if you exercise, you can get away with some dietary indiscretion, because exercise keeps your metabolic function healthy so your body can take sub-optimal food choices in stride. That’s a far cry from ‘diet doesn’t matter’.
Just plain lying:
Straw Man: “Doctors don’t think diet contributes to health outcomes!”
Diet is actually standard, first line medical treatment for a whole host of diseases and conditions. The claim that doctors and public health scientist think diet is irrelevant is a bold faced lie.
Straw Man: “Doctors still think dietary fat and cholesterol are unhealthy!”
No they don’t. Public health science and medicine have long since changed their stance on dietary fat and cholesterol.
Straw Man: “Gluten is dangerous and unhealthy, and science completely ignores it’s contribution to health outcomes!”
Wrong. A gluten-free diet has been standard medical treatment for Celiac Disease since the 1940’s, when it was discovered and recognized as the cause of Celiac symptoms.
Many of these examples can fit into several of these categories, and also qualify as other types of logical fallacies. Of course, I’ve used obvious examples, in reality Straw Men can be much more subtle and compelling. They tend to play on people’s prejudices as well, which makes it even harder to recognize when you are being manipulated by a Straw Man argument.
When you hear an argument that relies in whole or in part on characterizing another person or argument as antagonistic, take a few minutes to check to make sure that that characterization is accurate. If a person needs to rely on a Straw Man to bolster their own position, there’s a good chance that their position isn’t grounded firmly in facts and peer reviewed evidence.
We’ve all been misled by these kinds of fallacious arguments, and most of us have used them ourselves (I’m no exception!). As our knowledge increases and our communication skills improves we need to rely less and less on fallacious thinking.
For more on Straw Man arguments, how to recognize them and how to defeat them, check out Armi’s podcast here. Want to improve your critical thinking skills? There are lots of books out there, I suggest books geared towards kids purely because they’re engaging and easy to read. I like this one.
Good luck in your research and travels!