Logical Fallacies for Testers IV: The Straw Man Fallacy

This month I’m continuing my look at logical fallacies with the Straw Man Fallacy. The Straw Man Fallacy occurs when someone takes another person’s position and exaggerates it in an extreme way, or makes a counter-assertion that is not relevant to the first person’s position.

This is easier to explain with examples, so let’s take a look at a common one: a teenage girl asks her parents if she can go to a party at her friend’s house when the friend’s parents won’t be home. The girl’s parents say no, and the girl counters with: “Why do you hate me so much?!” Of course the girl’s parents don’t hate her. They are making a decision based on their desire to keep her safe and out of trouble. But the girl’s “logic” is: this party is really important to me; I won’t be popular if I don’t go; my parents don’t want me to be popular; therefore they must hate me.

The Straw Man Fallacy often happens in politics. For example, let’s take a look at some town residents who are trying to decide on their school budget. Some citizens might want a million-dollar budget, while other residents might want a $500,000 budget. The first group might accuse the second group of “not caring about children”, while the second group might accuse the first group of “wanting to evict seniors who can’t pay their tax bill”. Neither argument is true, of course. Nearly everyone cares about children and seniors. This is the Straw Man Fallacy at work.

So what does the Straw Man Fallacy look like for testers? Here’s one example. Let’s say that the developers on your team haven’t been writing unit tests. You could take that information to mean “The developers don’t care about quality!” That is probably not true. Developers don’t want to write bad code. They don’t want the company’s product to fail, because that would be bad for the company and they might lose their job as a result. So what else could it mean when the developers aren’t writing unit tests? It could mean:
• Management isn’t giving them enough time to finish their stories, so they are always rushing and don’t have time to write the tests
• They don’t know how to write unit tests
• They know how to write the tests, but the company’s infrastructure doesn’t support running them in any meaningful way

The next time you find someone at work opposing one of your ideas, or not implementing a process that you think is important, rather than thinking that they don’t care about testing or quality, or that they are out to get you, ask this question instead:
What else could this mean?

Be creative in answering this question. You will probably be able to come up with a lot of alternative explanations. Asking the other person or group of people why they are thinking or acting as they are can also yield great insights. And once you and others understand what the issues really are, you can avoid the Straw Man and move forward with brainstorming new solutions.

7 thoughts on “Logical Fallacies for Testers IV: The Straw Man Fallacy

  1. Tim Western

    Interesting read, but I’m going to call out one of your bullet points as perhaps being a strawman themselves:

    “They know how to write the tests, but the company’s infrastructure doesn’t support running them in any meaningful way”

    Everyone thinks of CI/CD build and deploy on a remote server, but the most value of unit tests comes to developers as they are coding on local workstations. They require practically zero real infrastructure to run locally. If I might propose a differnet way to spin what I think you are getting at, is a lack of Institutional support not just for writing them, but being able to use them as an input into making Release decisions. Teams often conclude that their best value is to push as much feature code as they can eacy iteration cycle, so conclude that anything that isn’t that may appear as waste. It also shows an immaturity on the team about the problem unit tests actually address, and why it may be valuable.

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  3. Sebastian Solidwork

    Well written!
    The basic point is to me that people assume an motivation they have not evidence for.
    The teenager example is showing that they often think it’s somehow directed to them personally. They perceive it as harming/intrusive therefore someone “must” intend the harm.

    Life is complex and we have different needs, experiences and levels of power.
    Most things which are going against you wish need fulfillment do not intend this in the first place. It’s a side effects of a more complex situation.

    1. kristinjackvony Post author

      Great points, Sebastian! In addition to people assuming negative intent on the part of others, the Straw Man Fallacy can also be used to try to manipulate others to get a specific outcome. In a the same scenario with a different family, the teenager might know that her parents love her, but by saying “Why do you hate me so much?” she hopes that by putting them on the defensive, they’ll eventually give in because they don’t want to be seen as people who hate their daughter. This kind of fallacy is frequently used to manipulate others in society today.

      1. Sebastian Solidwork

        Also true! 🙌
        Trying inject feelings, especial shame, is also variant.
        Finally it’s all about somehow negative, forceful, manipulation of others.
        Instead of honesty, transparency and balancing out your needs with someone else’s.
        There are reasons why this people lack empathy and the power to include someone else in a positive way.
        Well done!

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