• Against Steelmanning

    Strawmanning is one of the most common fallacies because it is among the simplest: attacking a deliberately weakened or falsified version of the other’s argument. “Steelmanning” is doing the opposite as a way to avoid committing a straw man. This sounds good on the surface, but I will argue that it is a bad idea when it comes to argument, debate, or criticism. It is impractical and unethical. First, a bit about what strawmanning is.

    According to philosophers Aikin and Casey (2016), strawmanning comes in three flavors.

    The straw man (distortion of the argument)

    Jane: I’m opposed to federal carbon offset schemes; they don’t work.
    Mary: Oh, so you’re opposed to government regulation, let the free market decide?

    The weak man (accurate representation of a small piece of the argument, but implying falsely that is the main or critical component)

    J: Smoking should be banned in public spaces to discourage use of tobacco products that cause many deaths a year. Second-hand smoke is also a threat to public health, even for the non-smokers.
    M: There is no strong evidence that second-hand smoke poses a significant threat to health; jeez, can’t get your facts straight, no wonder you don’t care about private property rights. 

    The hollow man (fabricated entirely)

    Folks, the liberals out there don’t care about religious freedom. They won’t be happy until prayer is banned in every school. 

    In all cases, the problem is deliberately misrepresenting the case made by one’s interlocutor to score an easy win. Because strawmanning is so common and because it abruptly ends constructive discussion, a good deal of effort has been put to finding a remedy. One such proposed remedy is called steelmanning, ironmanning, or aluminum-manning (OK I made that last one up. I appreciate aluminum for the high tensile strength). Steelmanning is presenting a deliberately strong version of your opponent’s argument instead of a weak one. This concept seems to have appeared in late 2012. The first mention I can find is in a Stanford graduate student, Jacob Steinhardt’s, October 31 statistics essay.

    Like strawmanning, steelmanning comes in several forms, and different people mean different things by the term. In fact, the steel forms may be directly analogous to the straw.

    Straw -> Steel

    Distortion to weaken -> Amendment to strengthen
    Deliberate misfocus -> Deliberate refocus
    Fabrication or use of weak version -> fabrication or use of a strong version

    To some, steelmanning is an approach to argument, debate, or criticism. Others [1] [2] take it to mean a sort of exercise which may not include another person at all in which one presents a best “Devil’s Advocate” case for some proposition they do not agree with.

    Many people equate steelmanning with the principle of charity. The principle of charity is applied in an argument by resolving any ambiguity in favor of the person you are arguing against. Give them the benefit of any doubt in terms of the rationality of their argument and motivations for making it. This is different from steelmanning because it refers only to when one is forced to choose among different plausible interpretations of what someone means or why they are proffering a claim. Steelmanning involves intentional editing, no matter the presence of any ambiguity.

    Now on to the problems.

    1| Steelmanning misunderstands the problem with the straw man

    A discussion, argument, or debate is an exchange of thoughts. I say a thing because I want you to hear the thing, and in some fashion respond to the thing that I said. Strawmanning is wrong because it is a dishonest misrepresentation not because the stated argument is a weak one. If someone fairly represented my argument and then destroyed it utterly because it was so bad, I am responsible, not them. What they did was fair and appropriate. Another reason we know that dishonest representation in the form of steelmanning is a bad idea, is that it can be just another form of straw man. Aiken and Casey described the “iron man” as a type of straw man fallacy wherein a position or argument one agrees with is presented in a much stronger or tenable form than the original. Aiken and Casey used as an example an exchange about the infamous Westboro Baptist Church known for protesting at soldier’s funerals with hateful signage:

    Sally: The Westboro Baptist Church picketed my local synagogue, carrying signs that say ‘‘God hates fags.’’ Their views are patently ridiculous; far from even the fringe of conservative Christianity. People should just ignore them.

    Priscilla: Yes, but aren’t they really suggesting that our fate as a nation is bound up with the moral fibre of the American people? As we lose our sense of commitment, steadfastness, and courage, we will not realize our plans.

    Priscilla is steelmanning the WBC’s rhetoric and claims, but this isn’t terribly honest or helpful.

    2| Steelmanning is disrespectful at best and condescending at worst

    Steelmanning requires one to presume to tell an interlocutor what the correct version of their argument or position is. This is especially egregious in the stronger form of steelmanning wherein one simply ignores whatever the person has said and produces an entirely different argument to respond to instead.

    This is such awful behavior, I am astonished anyone would suggest it as a remedy to a bad-faith actor problem. If you are going to choose the argument to respond to, why have the other person there at all? Once the topic or resolution is known, Ms. or Mr. Steelman can do everything all by theirself. I am far from the first to point this one out.

    This idea, and indeed the discourse about steelmanning, seems predicated on the assumption that the prospective steelmanner is arguing with an inferior opponent while being in possession of, or readily able to determine as a fact, the hierarchy of arguments for a position from best to worst. The other person is wrong and misguided and is in need of help by the steelmanner. No. One of the reasons we have disputatious discourse is that none of us knows everything. We haven’t necessarily considered every position, we do not have the same perspective, experience, or knowledge that another has. Their argument might seem “weak” until we try to puncture it only to discover our skewer is incompetent to the task. The point is, you do not know until after the exchange is over.

    Efforts have been made to respond to some of these problems by making operational steelmanning impractical and byzantine. In Chana Messinger’s labored effort to “save the steelman” she wrote halfway through that there’s a “flowchart waiting to be made.” And that’s just to decide about goals and context. This should be a sign that perhaps something has gone wrong. Speaking of which…

    3| Impracticality bordering on the impossible

    Several times I have implored others to apply the principle of charity in their discussion. This is a much simpler, if similar-in-kind technique. But it almost never works. Even the self-appointed discourse mavens who write long articles about steelmanning nonetheless find themselves strawmanning on occasion. In the moment, applying charity and attempting to empathize is hard. It is cognitively difficult because we’re often grappling with complicated topics. It is emotionally difficult because we often have deep feelings about the topics we discuss. Steelmanning multiplies the burden to both. Now you might be a stable genius or some sort of forensic zen master who can remain centered enough to engage in empathy while waging an argument over a topic that makes you very angry. You may be so amazingly intelligent that you can see each topic so clearly that the strong forms of your side and the opposite side are clear and manageable to juggle. But then again, if you are those things, you probably don’t need bloggers telling you how to engage. For the rest of us… this just isn’t a realistic approach. I can recommend a better one that is.

    Train

    First, jettison the steel man concept entirely as it is unethical and impractical. Instead, focus on the principle of charity that accomplishes the same goal much better. Understand that this is a skill that must be learned and an attitude that must be developed. In the early stages, this should be done in a training setting because live engagement is often too intense and demanding to allow proper learning and training.

    Training and learning are often necessarily accomplished in a special training setting. A pilot-to-be may have to spend many hours in a simulator before getting near the controls of a real plane. A child learning to read may be given many exercises, none of which resemble what prose in books looks like, so they can grasp the elements one at a time. Training camps for many sports include activities that resemble elements of the game (hitting tackle dummies in football, for example) but are not actually playing the game because that would be massively less efficient.

    Like anything else, after proper training, when “game time” comes, you have the skills at the ready and command them comfortably. At some point “game time” itself becomes advanced practice and training, but you can’t start there.

    How do you train the use of charity?

    1| Steelmanning in the sense of creating a “Devil’s Advocate” case or trying to pass the “ideological Turing test” while just writing and not engaging with a particular opponent is a fine idea.

    2| Get involved in organized forensics if you can. One is expected to be able to argue the pro or con of any topic or issue, regardless of your personal position. Doing this on a regular basis can grant you the ability to better separate ego from the strength and merit of an argument. This, in turn, makes it much easier to fairly consider perspectives very different from your own.

    3| Engage in structured disagreement with willing parties.  You each agree to follow rules and restrictions based on principles of charity as a means of training. The topic of the debate can be a real bone of contention, but it should be considered secondary to the value of developing skills and an empathetic attitude. I recommend, and have employed, the recommendations of the great magician and psychologist Ray Hyman’s short guide to Proper Criticism.

    There are many other possibilities. The important part is that you allow yourself to acquire better skills and attitudes in settings conducive to such growth. You don’t show up to the marathon to practice.

    Category: Critical ThinkingGrey knightskepticism

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.
    • Nathan Ponzar

      I would argue that this is not the definition anybody is working with when they apply the technique of steel manning. Anytime that I have seen this technique used deliberately, it is always followed (when debating in real-time) by asking the opponent if that accurately represents their stance. The idea is to argue against a position that the opponent themselves would be happy with.

      • That isn’t steelmanning and isn’t a “technique”. That’s standard practice of high quality debate and discourse that’s been codified and expressed various ways many decades before anyone had come up with “steelmanning” e.g. principle of charity, etc..,