The Steel man Undisclosed

Steelmanning is a term that has been growing in popularity lately. I think I first heard it in this discussion between Dave Rubin and Eric Weinstein. I’ve also heard Sam Harris discuss it, I believe on one of his podcasts. You’ve likely heard of “strawmanning” or the “straw man fallacy” which can take a variety of forms. You could selectively present the weaker pieces of an argument, or only address one small aspect that is not the focal point. It’s basically just an attempt to invalidate a notion that was not actually the one expressed by an opponent. As you might have figured out, steelmanning is roughly the opposite. As I take it, steelmanning is the act of responding to your opponent’s argument as if it were the most coherent and compelling version of their insights that you can manage, even if they have not necessarily offered that. I think of it sort of like taking devil’s advocate against yourself. People have vastly different ways of expressing and interpreting positions, so checking if your criticism addresses the points that seem strongest to you can be a useful tool.

Unfortunately, steelmanning can be misused. I absolutely agree with the point made here about it being “arrogant to declare that you’re definitely doing it”. If you openly state that you’re steelmanning a position, you might as well say “I’m going to do a better job expressing your point than you did”. This is both obnoxious and ineffective. Steelmanning should remain undisclosed. I think Ozy’s post “Against Steelmanning” may in fact be strawmanning the concept of steelmanning. She brings up crucial problems with the application of the concept, but I don’t think it is intended to be used for condescension. I agree that it’s a very difficult skill, but keeping the concept in mind as you debate with someone is valuable. I don’t think it’s meant to be something explicitly mentioned during an argument. In fact, I think her first two propositions for “alternatives to steelmanning” are exactly what steelmanning is intended to be. Chana Messinger’s response to Ozy provides further discussion and I think both parties make some excellent points. If used effectively, I think steelmanning can help to make disagreements clear, improve arguments, and even cut down on polarization and partisanship.


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