Straw Men

Lots of straw men live on the web.

Wikipedia: “A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To ‘attack a straw man is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar yet weaker proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.”

A familiar straw man misrepresents a post by reducing its argument to either/or and then slamming it by saying it’s often something in between. In the real world, things don’t come in black or white; everything is painted in shades of gray.

Most yes/no categorizations are extremist; I think of them as bipolar reasoning.

As Feed said in 2003, “As is sadly always the case in American intellectual discourse, complex social and historical issues get reduced as quickly as possible to simplistic binary oppositions which exclude by definition all the really interesting choices and developments (a good analogy here is our reduction of the categories used to analyze sexual behavior to either promiscuity or monogamy).”

The world is not binary, things exist (and persist) for a reason, and you can’t separate content from its context without losing something in the process.

In Informal Learning, I wrote that, “Formal learning and informal learning are both-and, not either-or. This book is focused on informal learning, but when you assess what will work for your organization, consider how informal learning might supplement what you are doing now rather than replace it.”

Nonetheless, I still hear from people who say it’s unreasonable for me to asset that informal learning is better than its formal cousin. I tire of being put down for something I never said.

Every business decision is a trade-off. (If there’s no trade-off, it’s a no-brainer.) I find it useful to list the pro’s of doing something and the con’s of not doing it or doing something else. Awareness of what you’re trading off when making a decision can keep the straw people out of the picture.

3 thoughts on “Straw Men

  1. Ryan Tracey

    Thanks Jay, I was really pleased to read this.

    I have recently posted an article to my own blog which I would concede is a bit “out there” (

    However, as you say, formal learning and informal learning are both-and, not either-or. That means that ideas that shake the tree don’t have to happen overnight, nor must they completely take over the current model of practice. Introducing new ideas slowly and carefully, whilst evaluating them, is probably the way to go.

    As far as people claiming that you assert that informal learning is better than informal learning, all I can suggest it that they have never read your book nor your blog!

  2. Wendy John

    OMG – how wonderfully fulfilling to read this post. I now have a name for what I’ve been trying to describe for years! Go the Straw Man!

    Thanks Jay for an intelligent yet accessible explanation. I’m delighted and am devouring much of your online work since your post on my blog this week.


  3. Paul Angileri

    I can’t say I could agree more with this. Some of the formal-informal bickering is strange. Any given training design could include elements of both in reality. I think some of what’s happening is that younger professionals have been steeped in a lot of informal learning, and those that have been in the field for some time now gravitate toward formal because that’s what they’ve known most.

    I think people default to the zero-sum competition format because it’s easy to be for something or against it. If everything is gray, many people then don’t know how to process it quickly when the perception of decision-making is presented, and so they pick one or the other. And nowhere is the zero-sum game played worse or more deviously than politics.

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