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Steelmanning: How to Find the Truth by Helping Your Opponent

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them…

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Steelmanning is like pouring Soju, a traditional Korean drink. In Korea, you’re not supposed to pour your own. Drinking etiquette demands that you pour it for your companion. In return, your companion will pour it for you. It’s a reciprocal social ritual. Why not do something similar for people with whom we passionately disagree by employing the steel man argument?

A great starting point is John Stuart Mill’s famous quote from his 1859 essay On Liberty, which is also on my Reading List in case you’re interested. Let’s follow the English philosopher’s train of thought to guide us through the steelmanning challenge, a three-step method to discover the truth.

What Is Steelmanning?

Steelmanning is all about helping your counterpart by crafting the best possible version of their argument. An iron-clad one to stay in the picture. The steel man argument is the opposite of strawmanning, the (wilful) misrepresentation of a position to make it easier to attack. As such, steelmanning is a seemingly selfless act. The whole point of it is to polish up the very position you do not hold. Or at least think you don’t.

We can also compare the steel man argument to devil’s advocacy and its institutionalised cinematic spin-off the Tenth Man Rule. A devil’s advocate identifies a prevalent position or orthodoxy and argues against it for the sake of exposing its potential weaknesses. Devil’s advocacy tends to be a conjuring up of a dissenting viewpoint so to speak.

Steelmanning, on the other hand, takes an existing counter position with the intent to make it as strong as possible. While devil’s advocacy can be a fun contrarian exercise, the steel man requires a bit more – shall we say – willpower. Here’s what an extreme version of steelmanning can look like.

The Steelmanning Challenge

For the ultimate steelmanning challenge I propose the following three steps.

1. Create the Best Version of Your Counterpart’s Argument

The first step of the challenge is to put our own views on the back burner and focus on our counterpart’s arguments. As Mill points out, any one-sided understanding of a matter is inferior to knowing both sides. No matter how well-crafted our own argument may be. He goes on to write:

But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…

Naturally, the more passionate you are about your own opinion, the more entrenched you are in your viewpoint, the harder it is to be open to the other side. Even though this is precisely the time when it’s most important. So what we need is an override. Here’s a little mind hack that has worked for my students and me: Treat a contentious subject as if you were getting to know a new person or discovering a new culture. One you’re trying to understand better.

It’s an exercise in curiosity and empathy. Here are some questions to break down the opposing side’s case. It’s guided by the State Explain Illustrate (SExI) method of building an argument:

Steelmanning
  1. What is the other side’s central point?
  2. What line of arguments do they bring forth to make their case? How would you rank-order them from best to worst?
  3. What are the main claims? What explanations, supporting evidence and examples do they cite?
  4. What are the emotional drivers, attitudes and beliefs, and motivations behind the viewpoint?
  5. What are the vulnerabilities and weaknesses in any of the above? How can we fix them?

To be honest, I can’t think of a better way to process all the information than to write an essay about it. Granted, it’ll probably be a painful exercise. After all, it means we have to build an ideal of something we disagree with, perhaps even despise. We engage with a position that might be the antithesis of our own opinions, attitudes and beliefs. However, the more we feel disagreement with what we discover, the more our views are challenged, the more we‘re getting closer to the full picture.

Putting it in writing also helps structure our thoughts and discover any holes in our argumentation. What it doesn’t mean, though, is that we agree with the point of view we’re writing about. At this point, it only means we will understand it much better. We’re one step closer to being 100% sure that our own views were absolutely correct to begin with.

2. Help Your Counterpart Steelman Their Argument

On to the second step. This one is about taking our newfound knowledge on the subject and sharing it with whomever we disagree. Why? Here’s John Stuart Mill again:

Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them

I think what Mill is alluding to here is the emotional aspect of any disagreement. We’ll never be as passionate about a viewpoint as the person actually holding it. But if the best way to be exposed to a contradicting view is to hear it from the horse’s mouth, we better make sure we’re hearing the best possible version of it. Teaming up and steelmanning our counterpart’s position could look like this:

  1. Listen to the line of argument of your counterpart. Ask questions for clarification. Identify the points they’re most passionate about. Take notes. Since our own views are still parked outside, we don’t fall into the trap of just waiting until we can express our own views. We can actually pay attention.
  2. Restate and reiterate your counterpart’s arguments. Do this until they agree with your representation of their position. Summarise their views and lay them out in such great detail that they discover aspects of their opinions they didn’t even notice themselves.
  3. Compare what was being said with your own findings from the first step of the challenge. Use this information to help your counterpart make new connections, uncover flaws in their thinking, find better examples, and discover new arguments that work in their favour.

As we can see, this adds a collaborative aspect to the challenge. Not only do we now have some use for our findings from step one. We can be sure that we have a very refined understanding of a contrarian position to our own views.

Note that we still don’t have to agree with anything the other person says. We’re just helping them to make the best possible case for whatever they believe. At the same time, we’ve seen the world through their eyes, which gets us another step closer to the truth.

3. Argue On Your Counterpart’s Behalf

Step three takes our steelmanning exercise to the logical conclusion. Here’s a final Mill quote:

He must know [the reasons on the opposite side] in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty.

Perfect! We’ve already listened to the full force of the opposing viewpoint. But there’s one way left we can feel the difficulty of the argument. By walking and talking a mile in our opponent’s shoes. The challenge is to act out our newly acquired wisdom so we understand what it means to hold and defend it. Here’s what we do:

  1. Re-write that essay from the beginning, adding what we’ve learned so far.
  2. Find someone from our own camp to debate on the issue, arguing against our original position.
  3. See if we can win the argument by convincing our opponent or an audience to side with our contrarian point of view.

I know. Even though we’ve acclimatised to the other side’s perspective, this might still be a bit painful. Step three of the challenge can work as a mind hack against motivated reasoning, though. Motivated reasoning describes our tendency to justify the position that suits our emotional desire – even when it goes against the evidence. In debating on behalf of our opponent, we have skin in the game. If our own success suddenly depends on winning a debate arguing against our original position, we might just be more motivated to do a good job.

Congratulations, our steelmanning challenge has come full circle. Not only do we have the deepest understanding of our opposition possible. We were also subjected to our original arguments again. Now we may switch sides one last time to try and take the steel man of our own creation down with everything we have. If we can’t, perhaps it’s time to change our opinion after all.

The Practicality of Steelmanning

I get it. Who has the time? The whole challenge is not very practical in an everyday situation. I think it’s best suited for emotional high-stakes topics. When you’re in the business of getting it right. As an educator, I used to teach competitive debating. Students debated so-called motions and were usually assigned proposition and opposition on a topic. That happened randomly, so a student who happened to be in favour of freedom of speech could easily end up arguing against it and vice versa.

That’s a tough spot to be in. “What’s the point of arguing against my own opinions and believes?” was one of the most common questions I got from students. Well, it really comes down to the question of how we form our opinions in the first place. How sure are we that we’re 100% correct? It’s certainly easier to defeat a straw man. Easier on the ego, less effort and time-saving. But it doesn’t get us closer to the truth. According to Mill’s Trident, quite the opposite is true.

Closing Thoughts

Defeating your own, proper steel man argument is a challenge. But there’s a pleasure and meaning in sharpening our own position by having it questioned in the best way possible. We can be a bit more confident that we possess the fullest portion of the truth possible. And that’s a much better long-term strategy.

Speaking of revising our own opinions. Debating is probably not quite like drinking Soju. If your companion doesn’t pour you a glass in return, you’re left high and dry. If your opponent won’t steelman your argument, on the other hand, it’s only to your advantage.

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