We all know about ‘straw-manning’, everyone’s favorite debate tactic. Rather than argue against what someone actually said, we misrepresent their position, and then attack this weaker version of their beliefs. The old switcheroo. The straw man is, unfortunately, a very effective debate tactic. It’s an easy way to look like you’re scoring big points against an opponent. But it is not effective if your goal is to conduct a truth-seeking discussion. Enter: The steel man.
Steel-manning is the opposite of straw manning. Instead of changing an opponent’s arguments to make them weaker, you change them to make them stronger. You look for the strongest possible version of the enemy proposition. You bring all of your intellectual might to the task of imagining the best possible arguments in favor of the idea. Only then do you start evaluating the concept.
Why do this? Because we are truth seekers, and this is a great way to see if an idea actually has any merit at all. Rather than nitpicking an unpleasant idea at its weakest points and derailing the discussion in 1000 different ways, we face it in it’s most powerful form. If an idea has any value at all, we want to find it! And that takes work and creativity. The world is complex, and if you want to reject and idea, it’s easy to find an excuse to trash it. But that doesn’t indicate the idea was actually wrong or worthless. Steel-manning is about wanting to find the value of an opposing idea.
If done well, steel manning can help us step into alternate worldview that we might otherwise have trouble understanding. It often leads to new insights and new perspectives, or we may at least learn that parts of an idea are more plausible than we previously thought. There are some pitfalls, of course; you don’t want to overcompensate and convince yourself that every contrarian idea has a lot of truth to it. But if there is some truth to it, you want to find it. See also here for some other risks.