Sparing with steel men

There is an interesting term floating around the web at the moment, steelmanning. This is the opposite of strawmanning, which would involve misrepresenting your opponent’s argument so as to make it weaker. In steelmanning, the purpose is to make the opponent’s argument as strong as possible and then attempt to target/refute that argument.

There is a really good post at The merely real on steelmanning. Messinger actually hasn’t left a lot for anyone else to say on the subject, so give her link a look. I’ll just give a few notes on what she said.

She makes three very clear points about what steelmanning does for us:

  1. It makes us better rationalists
  2. It makes us better arguers, and
  3. it makes us better people

Point one seems unproblematic, considering the best possible moves in chess makes you a better chess player, even if your opponent doesn’t actually choose the best moves. Likewise, considering the best possible arguments against will improve your ability to reason about the subject, and perhaps lead to more areas of thinking. The only thing is, many people may be willing to argue with themselves (she does, and so do I), but may not be willing to actually gift those arguments over to the opposition, which leads me to her second point.

This may seem odd, how could handing better arguments over to your opponents actually make you better at arguing? Surely it’s easier to “beat” them if you don’t. Messinger addresses this:

“[P]eople like having their arguments approached with care and serious consideration. Steelmanning requires that we think deeply about what’s being presented to us and find ways to improve it. By addressing the improved version, we show respect and honest engagement to our interlocutor. People who like the way you approach their arguments are much more likely to care about what you have to say about those arguments.

And

“[P]eople are more convinced by arguments which address the real reason they reject your ideas rather than those which address those aspects less important to their beliefs.”

So it actually can make you a better arguer, since it improves your ethos, which immediately makes people listen more to the actual content of what you are saying.

Her third point is just as important as, if not more than, the other two. Being a good person is really important. I’m just not sure that steelmanning can make you a better person. Sure, you may be more aware of other peoples beliefs and of the fact that they may know stuff you don’t, and might be able to teach you something. But, it is possible that you’ve read point 2 and realise the effectiveness of steelmanning someone’s ideas only to bring them down. In this case, are you really trying to be a better person, or have you just found a better way to argue, and you’ll use it even if you, as a personality, don’t change at all?

I’m not going to elaborate much on that, but will continue on the better person vein. I’ve often seen, particularly with atheists in South Africa who haven’t read many of the New Atheist literature, and have rather ill formed arguments against religion. I find myself thinking, “you’re an idiot, you’re an atheist but haven’t got any arguments that should compel you to be one, you’re like most Christians, who’ve never really thought about the Bible (or even read it) who believe it to be inerrant.” I ask myself, should I improve their arguments, the answer often comes back a resounding “no!” Why? You may ask, it’s simple, I may be a better person, but I don’t feel they would extend the same courtesy. They’ll take my arguments to the next Christian and use them, without giving a second thought to the counter-arguments I have given against the steelmanned version of their argument. Maybe I’m wrong, but when their arguments are largely insincere, I don’t expect them to suddenly change because I was nice. Secondly, I’m not sure that they actually care enough about truth for me to make the effort, or they would make the effort. Let me just point out that if I was an atheist arguing with Kent Hovind or William Lane Craig, I probably wouldn’t steelman their arguments either, because you wouldn’t expect them to extend the same courtesy while using your improved version of their arguments. Maybe this shows I’m not the better person, but it also shows the need for sincere; safe and trustworthy discussion forums.

What are your thoughts?

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2 thoughts on “Sparing with steel men”

  1. Hey, great post, and thanks for responding to mine! I don’t think I’ve ever been called Messinger in quite this way before 🙂

    I want to tell you that I hugely sympathize with your last paragraph. The line, “you’re an idiot, you’re an atheist but haven’t got any arguments that should compel you to be one, you’re like most Christians, who’ve never really thought about the Bible (or even read it) who believe it to be inerrant” definitely expresses sentiments I’ve had and continue to have occasionally in the atheist community. People to whom I’m responding that way tend to be nonrationalists; they don’t take rigorous argument seriously. Sometimes that’s because they aren’t in communities where others care about such things, sometimes it’s because cognitive bias has just taken over, sometimes it’s because they really just want to *win* and sometimes its something different.

    In cases like that, where my first point (makes us better rationalists) isn’t something I can take for granted that people care about, I think there’s definitely room to not pull out all the stops in rigor. Just one step up, elevating the conversation a single notch, is a good way to a. steelman as best you can and b. slowly make the person more rational. Showing (and explicitly saying that) *you* care about making sure your arguments are good and thoughtful can make rationality spread.

    A sample script: “That’s true that that’s an argument against god’s existence. But I know that some Christians tend to respond with this, and I think that’s a pretty solid response. What would you say if they brought that up?” And then hash it out together. And if they don’t give you that courtesy back (which is definitely common), I think it’s good and right to call it out. Little by little, asking for the courtesy back, might make a difference.

    By the way, I think based on this conversation that you’ll like my next post 🙂

    And as a final note (sorry this is so long) I think debates are different. That’s a context in which it’s reasonable to just want to win for the greater good (within limits). I wrote about that here: http://themerelyreal.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/nuance-its-whats-for-dinner/. But your real life experiences which are problematic for my idealized strawmanning are well taken.

    1. Thanks for replying to this, I thought about Chana, but it seemed a bit familiar, so went with the more professional sounding one. You’ll probably have to get used to it anyway.

      I like your advice about lifting it only one notch, then expecting the same in return, I’ll definitely try that. As an atheist (I presume you are, I found you via Daniel Fincke’s post), it must be even more frustrating, since you expect atheists to be rationalists. As a Christian, I almost expect people to ignore reason, but I do get upset when they start of trying to be rational, and when I point out a problem with their reasoning they start questioning my commitment to my beliefs. Steelmanning is definitely going to become a concept I bring up in discussions, we’ll see how far I can push the “do unto others…” idea. I’ll be following your discussion on this issue, as I intend to redo my comment policy and you’re offering good advice to commentors.

      I checked the link and enjoyed it, there is a bit I want to focus on in future.

      Thanks for the reply.

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