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The Steelman Argument

Have you ever been in a debate where you are no longer engaging with the original problem, you’re just debating the person?

In those cases, it’s all too common to prioritise winning over meaningful discussion. Competitiveness takes over and the debate turns to confrontation, fuelling defensiveness rather than genuine debate, pushing us to “come out on top”. On this battlefield, nobody is curious or seeking truth anymore, which leads to logical fallacies.

The Straw-man argument

You will know rationality has fled the debate when one side turns the other’s point into a straw man argument: a caricature of the other side’s argument. They undermine the opposition by attacking the weakest part of the argument. Here is a pristine example which I’ve experienced (many times over) when discussing the environment. When I point out the importance of proactive measures to tackle climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, my opponent might exaggerate by saying, “You’re right, let’s shut down all factories, abandon technology, and live like cavemen. We’ll save the world by destroying the economy.”

I’ve never mentioned that reverting to a Stone Age lifestyle is the only way to avoid climate change. I'm only interested in the limits that avoid turning the planet into an inhabitable wasteland. But this weak, oversimplistic framing of the issue makes it a lot easier to destroy.

The overall experience can be a distressing and isolating one, where both sides’ most creative and inquisitive thought processes are completely shut down. As animosity rises and the quality of the debate toils down, neither party ends up liking their fellow debater nor who they have become much.

When we’re so overwhelmed that we resort to destroying our opponent, usually, nobody can truly win.

But What If We Want More Than Just Winning?

If our goal is not just to win, but to genuinely convince others, there is a better way. Instead of adopting an adversarial approach, we can embrace the role of “argumentation superhero” and assist our opponents in constructing the most powerful versions of their arguments.

The Benefits of the Steelman Argument

Aiming to understand (rather than defeat), we engage in a collaborative process that:

  • Offers cognitive benefits to both parties

  • Helps us overcome the neural pathways associated with stress and resistance to change

  • Systematically strengths both sides

  • Creates rapport rather than animosity

  • Unlocks our most creative skills

Here is how it works

  1. Paraphrase their point (and check for agreement) — “So, if I understand correctly, you’re suggesting ______. Is my understanding accurate?”

  2. Amplify their point (and check for agreement) — “Fascinating! You could even take it a step further and propose ______.”

  3. Only then, commence the debate — “That’s a compelling perspective. However, I find myself disagreeing with ______. What are your thoughts on this?”

The result

The beauty of the steelman approach lies in its ability to transform what used to be a battle battleground into a mutually beneficial experience:

  1. We may emerge victorious, retaining our original viewpoint while subjecting it to rigorous examination, and perhaps even persuading our opponent of its merits.

  2. Alternatively, we may discover that our opponent was correct, leading us to recognise the flaws in our own ideas. This demonstrates our willingness to learn and adapt our perspectives.

  3. We may also uncover subtle nuances within our own position that enable us to refine and strengthen our arguments.

Ultimately, disagreement need not be synonymous with discord.

Regardless of our respective positions, most of us share a common aspiration: the pursuit of truth. The Steelman argument helps us overcome our tendency to oppose and defend rather than exchange and co-develop.

By genuinely engaging with our opponent’s argument, actively absorbing their viewpoints, and assisting them in honing their own arguments, we participate in a form of collaborative problem-solving disguised as a debate.

There is a beautiful irony in this process. By fortifying our opponent’s argument, we may inadvertently enhance the strength of our own position.

When we finally present our counter-argument, it will confront the very best points of our opponent. If our argument remains standing after this intense trial, we can confidently assert that it is robust and well-founded.

In essence, steelmanning fosters an environment where ideas can flourish, and the truth is not obscured by misrepresentations and half-truths.


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