Knocking Down a Steel Man: How to Argue Better

“The beginning of thought is in disagreement – not only with others but also with ourselves.” – Eric Hoffer 

You know when someone makes an argument, and you know you can get away with making it seem like they made a much worse one, so you attack that argument for points? That’s strawmanning. Lots of us have done it, even though we shouldn’t. But what if we went one step beyond just not doing that? What if we went one better? Then we would be steelmanning, the art of addressing the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented. Mackenzie McHale, from the Newsroom, puts it on her list of Very Important Things for journalists (#2), and it would serve us well, too.


Text: Newsnight 2.0 Rules: 1. Is this information we need in the voting booth 2. Is this the best possible form of the argument? 3. Is the story in historical context?

Why should we do this? Three reasons: It makes us better rationalists, better arguers, and better people.

1. Better rationalists: I, and all of you, I think, care a great deal about what is true. One of the ways we find out what is true is to smash our arguments against each other and see what comes out, abandoning the invalid arguments and unsound conclusions for better and brighter ideas as we march towards Truth. Perhaps the greatest limitation on this method is the finitude of the arguments we can possibly encounter. By chance, we may never be exposed to good arguments for other positions or against our own, in which case we may wrongly but reasonably discount other positions as unsupported and incorrect, and we would never know.

So we need to find better arguments. Where? Well, aside from sitting in rooms alone arguing with ourselves (guilty), we have the opportunity to construct these better arguments every time we are arguing with someone. We probably know best which arguments are most difficult for our position, because we know our belief’s real weak points and what kind of evidence we tend to find compelling. So I challenge you, when arguing with someone, to use that information to look for ways to make their arguments better, more difficult for you to counter. This is the highest form of disagreement.

If you know of a better counter to your own argument than the one they’re giving, say so. If you know of evidence that supports their side, bring it up. If their argument rests on an untrue piece of evidence, talk about the hypothetical case in which they were right. Take their arguments seriously, and make them as good as possible. Because if you can’t respond to that better version, you’ve got some thinking to do, even if you are more right than the person you’re arguing with. Think more deeply than you’re being asked to.

Do what fictional Justice Mulready does here (relevant part starts at 7:18 and ends at 7:47):

In this way, you both learn, and you’re having discussions of the highest level you’re capable of, really grappling with the ideas instead of bringing up rehearsed points and counterpoints. It is a difficult task, but it forces us to face those arguments that might actually pose problems for us, instead of just what we happen to see around us. This ensures that we have the right answer, not just a successful answer.

2. Better arguers: But Chana, you might say, I’m actually trying to get something done around here, not just cultivate my rationalist virtue or whatever nonsense you’re peddling. I want to convince people they’re wrong and get them to change their minds.

Well, you, too, have something to gain from steelmanning.

First, people like having their arguments approached with care and serious consideration. Steelmanning requires that we think deeply about what’s being presented to us and find ways to improve it. By addressing the improved version, we show respect and honest engagement to our interlocutor. People who like the way you approach their arguments are much more likely to care about what you have to say about those arguments. This, by the way, also makes arguments way more productive, since no one’s looking for easy rebuttals or cheap outs.

Second, people are more convinced by arguments which address the real reason they reject your ideas rather than those which address those aspects less important to their beliefs. If nothing else, steelmanning is a fence around accidental strawmanning, which may happen when you misunderstand their argument, or they don’t express it as well as they could have. Remember that you are arguing against someone’s ideas and beliefs, and the arguments they present are merely imperfect expressions of those ideas and beliefs and why they hold them. To attack the inner workings rather than only the outward manifestation, you must understand them, and address them properly.

3. Better people: I’m serious. I think steelmanning makes you a better person. It makes you more charitable, forcing you to assume, at least for a moment, that the people you’re arguing with, much as you ferociously disagree with them or even actively dislike them, are people who might have something to teach you. It makes you more compassionate, learning to treat those you argue with as true opponents, not merely obstacles. It broadens your mind, preventing us from making easy dismissals or declaring preemptive victory, pushing us to imagine all the things that could and might be true in this beautiful, strange world of ours. And it keeps us rational, reminding us that we’re arguing against ideas, not people, and that our goal is to take down these bad ideas, not to revel in the defeat of incorrect people.

Try it. It might just be more challenging, rewarding and mind-expanding than you expect.

56 thoughts on “Knocking Down a Steel Man: How to Argue Better

  1. […] of my new best friends on Facebook, Chana Messinger has written a very good post about the reasons to “steelman” others’ arguments. I had never heard this word […]

  2. […] Chana writes about steelmanning. It’s a good idea, but I think my derision for most of my enemies may prevent me following the practice. […]

  3. […] is a really good post at The merely real on steelmanning. Messinger actually hasn’t left a lot for anyone else to […]

  4. Schneider says:

    Karl Popper advocated this idea

  5. […] alike. In the latter case, this is the reverse of the “straw man” fallacy, known as the steel man approach. Give your opponent a better argument than they are using and explain why it is better. […]

  6. […] Steelmanning by Chana Messinger […]

  7. […] month or so ago, I read Chana Messinger’s post about steelmanning other people’s arguments, which is a great article. And then I heard a phrase from a talk by […]

  8. […] those of you don’t know: steelmanning is coming up with better versions of your opponents’ arguments, and PIV-critical feminism is […]

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  11. Konkvistador says:

    I commend the sentiment, but suspect this is risky advice. What feels from the inside like steelmanning an argument can be straw manning something we haven’t understood properly.

  12. […] and one might argue that, in public messaging, it’s worth sacrificing the need to address or steelman these individuals if that allows for easier outreach to people who don’t have strong priors […]

  13. […] people call this “steelmanning”, and it can be a lot of fun once you get used to […]

  14. […] you argue against the best possible form of their argument. To my knowledge, the term was coined by Chana Messinger. In Gamergate’s case, of course, in order to steelman you have to dive straight into the […]

  15. […] Knocking Down a Steel Man: How to Argue Better | The … – Dec 07, 2012 · In this way, you both learn, and you’re having discussions of the highest level you’re capable of, really grappling with the ideas instead of bringing …… […]

  16. antonysammeroff says:

    hey thank for this! here is a related article by yours truly:

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  17. […] with the same restriction. This is a great way to teach key perspective-taking techniques like “steelmanning” or “passing the Ideological Turing […]

  18. […] here. Of special note is the last argumentative strategy mentioned there, also known as “steel-manning”, where one not only exercises empathy in putting oneself in the other’s shoes, but also […]

  19. […] Knocking Down a Steel Man: How to Argue Better […]

  20. […] you can only click one link from the guest post, make it “Steelmanning”, by Chana Messinger. It’s much more fun to argue with people when you pretend their arguments […]

  21. […] Tänk på det, och tänk på hur du skulle kunna göra för att bli mer effektivt altruistisk. (80,000 hours har skrivit en lång rad bloggposter om effektivt altruistiska karriärval vilkas konsekventa och analytiska tankesätt kan inspirera även den som inte gör något så radikalt som ett karriärbyte.)  Tänk på det på allvar. Om du kommer fram till att du gör allt rätt nu, så var misstänksam mot den slutsatsen. Den är ju nämligen väldigt bekväm för dig, och en rad psykologiska biases kan bidra till den slutsatsen. Ifrågasätt din egen magkänsla, och ge hypotesen att du borde ändra dig radikalt en ordentlig chans. […]

  22. […] why. This makes it difficult to understand what they think the problem is. I have tried hard to steelman the argument, but have failed so […]

  23. […] light. Why is it that SJWs brandish this idea of cultural appropriation? So I made an attempt to steelman the position that I had previously derided, and to come up with a model that explains why cultural […]

  24. […] not agree that all of these are an attempt to find the post-postmodern.  But try to give me the benefit of the doubt […]

  25. […] refers to arguing with the best possible version of someone’s argument, even if it’s not the one t…. Put like that, it sounds really good! After all, we all think it’s important not to […]

  26. […] 1 is analagous to steel-manning, aka the principle of charity. This is to avoid the act of […]

  27. […] *Though I first came across the steel man argument or “steel-manning” on Less Wrong, a more concise overview of the idea is described here. […]

  28. […] of that argument is willing to directly address counter-arguments, ideally in their “steelman” form. Steel-manning is basically the opposite of straw-manning, and so instead of […]

  29. […] it’s not the one they presented.” Here’s Chana Messinger extolling it in one of those great old-school blog posts that I am honored just to […]

  30. […] refers to arguing with the best possible version of someone’s argument, even if it’s not the one they pres…. Complexity theorists have a similar tool in their arsenal. Simulated annealing is a computational […]

  31. […] it’s not the one they presented.” Here’s Chana Messinger extolling it in one of those great old-school blog posts that I am honored just to […]

  32. […] Down a Steel Man: How to Argue Better” [The Merely Real]. “You know when someone makes an argument, and you know you can get away with making it seem […]

  33. […] Down a Steel Man: How to Argue Better” [The Merely Real]. “You know when someone makes an argument, and you know you can get away with making it seem […]

  34. […] of the straw man argument — that scourge — we have the steel man: “the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they […]

  35. […] My purpose for this blog is to start a healthy discussion about Canadian politics through news analysis. My initial focus will be on the 2018 Ontario Provincial election, but I hope this may grow beyond that in the future. I encourage commentary and topic submissions from any theoretical reader. I understand views often clash over political topics. Therefore I ask that in engaging these topics, we all follow a principle for constructive debate on this site. My source is another blogger, Chana Messinger, who outlined a philosophy of discourse opposite to the ‘straw man’ argument – Knocking Down a Steel Man: How to Argue Better. […]

  36. […] dum grupo ideológico adversário, é mais produtivo adotar a estratégia retórica contrária: ressaltar da maneira mais correta possível o argumento que se pretende desmontar. Em inglês, se usa o termo “homem de aço” (steel man) para se contrapor a […]

  37. […] via Knocking Down a Steel Man: How to Argue Better […]

  38. […] excellent video, by Alex J. O’Connor.  He makes a good argument and I want to see if I can steel-man […]

  39. […] to pick the most extremist ideas or opinions of the other side to fight against. Not only is it easier to burn a strawman than a steelman, this confirmation bias creates an implicit link between out-group opinions and utter […]

  40. […] As per Chana Messinger: […]

  41. […] Conor Friedersdorf on taking on the best form of an argument you disagree with, and quoting Chana Messinger: […]

  42. lianaly says:

    Hello and welcome to my blog . I’m Liana Lynn.
    I have always dreamed of being a book writer but never dreamed I’d make a career of it. In college, though, I assisted a fellow student who needed help. She could not stop complimenting me . Word got around and someone asked me for to help them just a week later. This time they would compensate me for my work.
    During the summer, I started doing academic writing for students at the local college. It helped me have fun that summer and even funded some of my college tuition. Today, I still offer my writing services to students.

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  43. […] on what objections you expect they’ll have with your perspective.  If you haven’t learned steelmanning, read why it’s important to use not just in speeches but to strengthen and adapt our core […]

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  45. […] can I handle opposing viewpoints?  Steelmanning?  Rapoport’s […]

  46. janawood says:

    Hi everyone , I’m Jana.
    Welcome to my homepage . I started writing in my early school years after a creative writing assignment for my English teacher. I did creative writing for a while before I thought about doing something else.
    I had always loved doing non-fiction writing because I’m passionate about learning. When you combine writing ability with a love of learning, academic writing only makes sense as a job.
    I’m passionate about aiding the students of the future in their school career. When they don’t have time for their paper , I am there to help.

    Jana Woods – Writing Expert – Csnbiologyclub Confederation

  47. […] in pubblico (come fanno spesso i politici), una tecnica migliore per una comunicazione buona è steel-manning . Questa è la pratica di riassumere l’argomento dell’altra persona più favorevole possibile […]

  48. ianis says:

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    Writing has been my passion since early childhood and now I cannot imagine my life without it.
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