becoming a steelman - blog post - Peter's Box


Last updated on June 2nd, 2023 at 07:25 am

In our everyday conversations, we don’t usually steelman. What is the common approach to arguing? You make your point, and I respond with mine. Then you respond to my point with another. This cycle is repeated until we both agree that we are not ready to change our opinions! That is, at least, how I contended for years. I was arguing not because I wanted to listen to my interlocutor’s points but to remain peaceful about my opinion by reinforcing my own points. Not losing an argument appears to be regarded as a necessary strength.

Have you ever considered that, instinctively, the person who shouts the loudest in an argument is perceived as the winner? This makes sense given our evolutionary history, where being more aggressive in combat gives you a boost over your opponent. Your aggressiveness compensated for your inferior strength.

Couple arguing and pointing fingers at each other

Steelman - New Way of Arguing

Today, I’d like to share a beneficial technique of debating with you, one that will leave you better informed and much more appreciated at the end of the debate. Steelman is the name given to this technique. The verb forms steel mans, steel manning, steel manned, etc. are likewise acceptable forms.

To begin, becoming a steelman requires you to learn to unlearn.

Steelman is a straightforward idea. Do you recall the blog post “Beware of the Beast,” which discussed logical fallacies? There was a logical fallacy known as the strawman.

strawman made of twigs

Steelman is the opposite of Strawman

The strawman fallacy occurs when a person’s real viewpoint or argument is replaced with a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of that stance or argument, and then you argue against that distorted version. Let’s take a look at two conversations.

Conversation #1

Kofi: Let’s go to the restaurant this Saturday.

Ama: I don’t like eating at restaurants. You can go with Abena.

Conversation #2 Two days later Kofi phones Abena.

Kofi: Hi Abena, I intended to take Ama out to dinner this Saturday but she said she does not like eating, especially on weekends. Are you available to meet me for dinner on Saturday?

Abena: Yes, I’m free.

black couple sitting at restaurant wiht glass of wine in their hand

Strawman - Kofi's mistake

Did you see what Kofi just did? He strawmanned Ama’s comment. Read over the two conversations again.

Ama didn’t say any of the following:

I don’t like eating. (She said she didn’t like eating at restaurants.)

I don’t like eating on weekends. (She didn’t make a comment about the suggested day.)

Kofi assumed that because Ama declined to go to the restaurant on Saturday, she disliked eating on weekends. He also left out the part about Ama not wanting to eat at restaurants. This is straw manning: manipulating someone else’s viewpoint, argument, or assertion.

In a typical argument, whether formal or informal, whenever someone says, “You are not listening to me” or “That’s not what I said,” it could be a strong sign that their opponent is using a strawman.

What is Steelmanning?

Consider what the diametric opposite of the strawman fallacy might be! Rather than substituting a person’s actual position or argument with a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of the actual argument and arguing against this distorted version, you seek clarity until you comprehend every element of the argument in its finest detail!

That is what it looks like to ‘steelmann’ your opponent. It entails putting oneself in your opponent’s shoes in order to comprehend their reasons and framing of their argument.

At this juncture, let’s attempt to define steelman in simple terms.

human figure made from metal scraps representing a steelman

Steelmanning is the process of deliberately constructing the best possible and most accurate version of your opponent’s argument in your mind. Really? To what end? The primary goal of steelmanning is to avoid misrepresenting your opponent’s point of view.

Why would you steelman? Here you go.

The advantages of steel manning an argument are as follows:

Understanding the position of your opponent

Steelmanning improves your listening skills. You are more likely to better understand your opponent’s stance. There is a good chance that you will not misrepresent your opponent’s argument, which will lend credibility to your stance. Whenever you are constantly distorting your opponents’ points, you are likely to lose respect as an interlocutor. Your listening skills must be excellent in order to avoid misrepresenting others.

Sharpening your own arguments

You’d be surprised how often you were wrong about your opponent’s position. Because of our own biases, we regularly distort opposing ideas. When you have a complete understanding of the motivations and context of a particular point of view, you can fine-tune your own arguments in light of the clarifications. You can point out weaknesses in your opponent’s arguments after you fully understand them.

Earning respect and saving time

Steelmanning your opponent’s argument promotes an atmosphere conducive for listening. This minimizes the typical shouting match between you and your opponent because you are really interested in understanding your opponent’s stance. You may even learn that certain preconceived counterarguments you have are strawman arguments that need to be eliminated once you have thoroughly understood your opponent’s perspective.

Two ladies having a conversation over a small round table

How to Steelman

Steelmanning is a pretty simple technique. You should first, however, be deliberate about applying the technique at every chance. Consider looking at the philosophy known as “street epistemology” to witness steelmanning in action. A well-executed street epistemology is built on steelmanning.

How does steelmanning work? What are the steps? Let’s get started!

How to Steelman:

1. State the argument

Restate what you just heard from your opponent. Often, repeating an argument allows your opponent to hear it from the outside. Hearing your argument through the mouth of another person might sometimes help you see it in a different perspective.

2. Ask if that was the argument

Ask directly whether the argument you repeated was presented by your opponent. This, gives your opponent the opportunity to correct himself or herself if some of the words used in the argument were unclear.

3. Pick keywords and ask about motivations

It’s a good idea to inquire about the meaning of words you don’t understand. Words with several definitions are common, and choosing one definition of a word over another may alter one’s comprehension of an argument. Request clarification from your opponent on the meaning of words used in an argument.

4. Paraphrase the argument

Now that you have a good understanding of the argument, paraphrase it. Restate the argument in your own words.

5. Ask if that was the argument

Inquire whether your paraphrased version of the argument is the argument your opponent is making.

6. Now, argue for your opponent

This is the final and possibly most difficult stage of steelmanning. This level asks you to back up your opponent’s claim. Support does not imply belief in the argument. It entails attempting to present the most plausible explanation for why someone may hold such a position. Consider all of the beneficial and practical reasons why someone may endorse such an argument.

Example of Steelman Argument

Is that it? Bolstering my opponent’s case? Yes, but steelmanning has inherent advantages. Remember the three aforementioned advantages? You are more likely to deliver an effective and efficient counterargument if you comprehend your opponent’s argument.
Let’s apply what you’ve learned about steelman to the conversation between Kofi and Ama. Let’s assign Kofi your name instead. Because this dialogue between Kofi and Ama is not about universal assertions, the final part of arguing for your opponent will be irrelevant. This is how the conversation with Ama will go if we deploy steelmanning.

steel beams

You: Let’s go to the restaurant this Saturday.

Ama: I don’t like eating at restaurants. You can go with Abena.

You: Do you mean you don’t like to eat on Saturdays?

Ama: No. I dislike eating out at restaurants. Every day, I eat. I don’t dislike eating.

You: If I understand correctly, you enjoy eating but dislike eating in restaurants?

Ama: That’s right!

You: Is there a particular reason you oppose eating out?

Ama: Yes. I am quite particular about the ingredients I use in meal preparation. I like to cook for myself because I am allergic to some products. I can eat at that restaurant if I am aware of the ingredients used in the meal and am not allergic to them.

Steelmanning is a skill that requires practice. You must be intentional in order to reap its rewards. In the video below, both interlocutors, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, purposefully utilized steelmanning. Take note of how they steelman each other.

town street with buildings, trees and empty pavement

Street Epistemology

It is also beneficial to be a student of logical reasoning to be efficient at steelmanning. Studying logical fallacies is a wonderful place to start. I’ve written a blog post titled “Beware of the Beast” about it.

You might also be interested in watching casual interviews with street epistemologists. The advantage of practicing street epistemology is that it helps you become a better listener.

These are some popular YouTube channels dedicated to street epistemology:

Reid of Cordial Curiosity, Anthony Magnabosco, and Peter Boghossian.

Take a look at this video talk between Reid and Tia. It reeks of steelmanning! 

Take note of how Anthony utilizes the responses from his interlocutor to elicit a better answer. You may listen to their dialogue by clicking here. Becoming a steelman entails unlearning all of the ineffective ways of debating and learning from your opponent’s argument.

What’s next in Peter’s Box? ¡Hasta luego amigos!  

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