Why Steelmanning is Essential for Finding the Truth and Building Strong Arguments


Hatched by Glasp

Sep 23, 2023

6 min read


Why Steelmanning is Essential for Finding the Truth and Building Strong Arguments

In the realm of debate and discourse, it is all too common for individuals to engage in strawmanning, the act of misrepresenting an opponent's argument to make it easier to attack. However, this approach does little to foster understanding or find the truth. John Stuart Mill, in his work "On Liberty," reminds us of the importance of considering both sides of an argument. He states, "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that." This is where the concept of steelmanning comes into play.

Steelmanning is the art of crafting the best possible version of an opponent's argument, also known as the steel man argument. It is the antithesis of strawmanning, aiming to strengthen the opposing position rather than weaken it. By engaging in steelmanning, we not only gain a deeper understanding of our opponent's perspective, but we also sharpen our own arguments and position. In this article, we will explore the benefits of steelmanning and provide actionable advice on how to effectively implement it.

Crafting the Best Version of Your Counterpart's Argument

The first step in steelmanning is to set aside our own biases and preconceptions and truly listen to our counterpart's arguments. As Mill suggests, if we are unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, we have no grounds for preferring our own opinion. To truly understand and appreciate the opposing viewpoint, we must treat it as if we were getting to know a new person or discovering a new culture. By immersing ourselves in their arguments, we can gain a comprehensive understanding of their position.

Helping Your Counterpart Steelman Their Argument

In addition to crafting the best version of our counterpart's argument, it is also valuable to encourage them to steelman their own position. As Mill notes, it is not enough for them to hear the opinions of adversaries from their own teachers or presented as refutations. They must be able to hear them from individuals who genuinely believe in them. By promoting this practice, we foster a more robust and intellectually honest discourse.

Arguing On Your Counterpart's Behalf

Another crucial aspect of steelmanning is the ability to argue on your counterpart's behalf. This involves understanding the opposing reasons in their most persuasive and plausible form. By doing so, we can grasp the full force of the difficulties that the true view of the subject must encounter and overcome. To truly possess the portion of truth that counters these challenges, we must be willing to walk and talk a mile in our opponent's shoes. This exercise not only enhances our ability to find the truth, but it also sharpens our own arguments by subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny.

Understanding the Mental Models in User Experience

In a seemingly unrelated realm, the field of user experience (UX) also provides insights that align with the principles of steelmanning. In an article titled "Why do we pay to use a product? Understanding mental models in UX" by Oz Hashimoto, various mental models that influence our behavior and decision-making are explored. While these models are focused on UX design, they offer valuable insights that can be applied to the practice of steelmanning.

Recurring events, for example, create sustained interest, anticipation, and a sense of belonging. This concept can be applied to steelmanning by fostering an ongoing dialogue and engagement with opposing viewpoints. By continually revisiting and refining our understanding of the opposing arguments, we can deepen our knowledge and build stronger counterarguments.

The mental model of likening new ideas to familiar experiences also resonates with the process of steelmanning. It is easier to recognize things we have previously experienced than it is to recall them from memory. By finding common ground or similarities between our own beliefs and those of our opponents, we can bridge the gap and facilitate a more fruitful discussion.

Breaking down complex activities into smaller tasks, as suggested by another mental model, is also applicable to steelmanning. By deconstructing the opposing arguments into manageable components, we can address them individually and develop more nuanced responses. This approach allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the opposing viewpoint and enables us to build stronger counterarguments.

The mental model of reciprocity reminds us of the importance of giving back when we receive a gift. In the context of steelmanning, this principle can be applied by offering constructive feedback and acknowledging the strengths of the opposing arguments. By reciprocating in this manner, we foster a more respectful and productive discourse.

Following the patterns of similar others in unfamiliar situations is another mental model that aligns with the principles of steelmanning. When faced with a new or unfamiliar argument, we tend to look for guidance from others who have tackled similar challenges. By seeking out and studying successful steel man arguments, we can gain valuable insights and refine our own approach.

The preference for familiarity mental model is also relevant to steelmanning. We tend to develop a preference for things merely because we are familiar with them. By immersing ourselves in the opposing arguments and becoming familiar with them, we can overcome our biases and approach the discourse with a more open mind.

The mental model of seeing our actions modify subsequent results engages us in situations that capture our attention and encourage active participation. In the context of steelmanning, this can be applied by actively participating in the exploration and development of the opposing arguments. By actively engaging with the discourse, we enhance our understanding and contribute to the pursuit of truth.

Conclusion and Actionable Advice

In conclusion, steelmanning is a powerful tool for finding the truth and building strong arguments. By crafting the best version of our counterpart's argument, helping them steelman their position, and arguing on their behalf, we not only gain a deeper understanding of the opposing viewpoint but also sharpen our own arguments. Incorporating insights from the field of user experience, such as recurring events, mental models of familiarity and reciprocity, and breaking down complex activities, can enhance the practice of steelmanning.

To implement steelmanning effectively, here are three actionable pieces of advice:

  • 1. Approach the opposing arguments with genuine curiosity and a willingness to set aside your own biases. Treat the discourse as an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • 2. Encourage your counterpart to steelman their own position by promoting a respectful and intellectually honest dialogue. Foster an environment where opposing viewpoints are valued and explored.
  • 3. Actively engage in the exploration and development of the opposing arguments. This involvement will deepen your understanding and allow you to contribute meaningfully to the discourse.

In embracing the principles of steelmanning and integrating insights from other domains, we can foster a more informed and constructive discourse. By seeking the truth rather than simply defending our own beliefs, we create an environment where intellectual growth and understanding can thrive.

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