The Steelman Argument


Hey friends,

Happy Wednesday from the mountains of Boulder, Colorado. I’ve been off the grid for the past week or so, hence sending this on a day other than the usual Sunday 😃

Anyway, have you ever been in a debate with someone and realised that you’re not actually trying to solve the issue at hand?

Instead, you’re both more concerned with ‘winning’ the argument, as if it were some sort of competition.

It’s super frustrating.

One of the surefire signs that a conversation has descended into this kind of futile exercise is when someone deploys a straw man argument. That is, someone simplifies another’s point into its weakest form and then proceed to tear that down (instead of their real point).

This might feel like a win, but it’s actually just a hollow victory as they haven’t even engaged with the issue. They’ve sidestepped it.

For example, you might be having a chat with a friend about the environment and say ‘look, we really need to be proactive about climate change, and seriously start cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions’.

Then they may fire back with something like ‘Ah, so what you’re telling me is we should just close down all the factories, chuck technology out the window, and live like cavemen? Great plan, that’ll definitely save the world while simultaneously tanking the economy’.

This is a pristine straw man argument.

You never mentioned shutting down all factories or reverting to a Stone Age lifestyle. You were simply advocating for not letting the planet turn into an uninhabitable wasteland. But, by twisting the argument, they’ve effectively dodged the crux of the issue, making it a whole lot easier to knock down.

Luckily, I recently came across the antidote for this situation – it’s called the steelman argument.

Instead of going on the attack, we help our opponent to build the strongest possible version of their argument, and then engage with that.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Paraphrase their point (and check to see that the agree) – So, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying _____. Is that right?
  2. Strengthen their point (and ask if they agree) – Interesting. You could even take it a bit further and say _____.
  3. Only then, engage with the argument – That’s a compelling perspective. But, I find myself disagreeing with _____. What do you think?

The beauty of the steelman approach is that it transforms the dialogue into a win-win-win situation:

  1. Either we come out still holding our original view, but now it’s been battle-tested and maybe we’ve even convinced the other person of our argument too.
  2. OR we find out that the other person was actually right and that our idea was flawed. This means we’ve learnt something knew and shown that we’re open to changing our mind.
  3. OR we uncover a subtle nuance in our own position that can help us to refine and improve our argument.

At the end of the day, disagreement doesn’t have to be synonymous with discord.

You see, most of us, regardless of where we stand on a topic, share a common goal: the pursuit of truth. And the steelman argument is a useful approach to help us do this.

By steelmanning our opponent’s argument, we’re not just pretending to listen while silently rehearsing our next killer point. No, we’re genuinely engaging, absorbing their views, and even helping them sharpen their own arguments. It’s almost like collaborative problem-solving, just dressed up in the guise of a debate.

There’s also a beautiful irony here. By strengthening your opponent’s argument, you might actually end up improving your own.

You see, when you finally present your counter-argument, it’s going to be against their best possible points. If your argument still stands after that trial by fire, then you can reasonably confident that your argument is pretty solid.

In a nutshell, steelmanning cultivates a landscape where ideas can flourish and truth isn’t buried under a pile of misrepresentations and half-truths. So the next time you’re debating something with a friend try acting as the steel man instead of the straw man. And let me know how you find it.

Have a great week!

Ali xx

🎬 My New Videos

🎬 How I Make My YouTube Videos – I’m experimenting with the vlog again on my second channel, so I’m keen for you guys to watch it and let me know what you like/dislike about it. In this episode of the vlog, I was filming a bunch of videos for my channel and doing some podcasts as well.

✍️ Quote of the Week

“Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.”

From Make it Stick by Peter C. Brown. Resurfaced using Readwise.

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