Huzzah Better Arguing!

The atheist community has seen its share of controversy and Big Issues and Deep Rifts. Every week, it seems, some event, from the smallest comment on a facebook thread to a public address at a major conference, sparks an internet conflagration, spawning tweets, blog posts and facebooks statuses galore, and further entrenching the “sides” we keep seeing over and over again. As Cliff says (though about something else), “It’s bizarre and disturbing the way an issue becomes a Designated Controversy,” and I agree. It’s sad to me to see the same blowups and the same arguments, when I want so much for us to move forward and to engage more productively with each other.

But sometimes, things don’t go wrong. Sometimes, people react and respond reasonably and thoughtfully to each other. Sometimes, people argue and the internet doesn’t explode. And since the internet is a volatile substance and charitable argumentation can be incredibly difficult, I think we all ought to be honoring and praising the people involved when Things Go Well.

So, Richard Dawkins and Miri Mogilevsky: really, really well done.

It all started when Richard Dawkins went to twitter to discuss the British public shooting and in the ensuing conversation, got called an “insufferable smug white male making snide comments in loafers.”

The conversation then turned to what racism and sexism are, whether they can be said to happen to white people and men and how important definitions are. Obviously, this is a topic that incites a lot of anger and strong opinions, and all of these were easily findable in the twitter discussion that emerged. (Though I must say, from what I can tell, the tweets that flew back and forth where rather more restrained than they might have been, and all those responsible for that deserve praise.)

Miri observed this minor brouhaha, and as a blogger, decided to blog about it, resulting in the great post On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism. This post went over what had happened and then gave an analysis which, while richly and thoroughly critical of Dawkins, was compassionate and thoughtful. Here are some of the things I think she did well:

“Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light.”

  • She engaged with Dawkins’ understanding of the word racism and instead of dismissing it, explains why she thinks it’s not useful (and by the way, arguing that certain definitions are more useful than others rather than more right than others is infinitely more productive).

“It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people…But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power.”

“As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals…Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.”

These tactics and writing approaches are wonderful. They are thoughtful, productive and charitable, and yet they remove none of the critical bite that makes up the backbone of this piece. I think I can say that even someone who started out being fairly sympathetic to Dawkins could have read the piece and taken the criticism to heart, without immediately feeling defensive or attacked. In fact, I happen to know someone did. Who was this mysterious person sympathetic to Dawkins’ position?

Richard Dawkins himself.

That’s right. Richard Dawkins commented a blog disagreeing with the author and everything didn’t go wrong! (Those of you familiar with some atheist movement history will likely be quite surprised) In fact, he was pretty damn reasonable. You can see the full text of what he said here, but again, I’d like to point out some of the important aspects of his comment.

(6). Where annoyance spilled over into outright pain was the implication that, because I felt strongly about (1), (2), (3) etc, this must make ME a racist. That pissed me off royally and actually hurt. Indeed I find it all but unforgivable.

People tend to become angry when called racists, which I’ve talked about before. I don’t think it’s a very good strategy. Again, pretty understandable, and again, it gives us important information.

  • He explained why he was bothered by others refusing to engage with his definitions and usage of language, and clarified his position on dictionary definitions.

(3). Because, for brevity, I quoted a dictionary, simply to show that the sociological technical term was not universally agreed, I was annoyed that people gave vent to a sort of anti-dictionary prejudice, even calling dictionaries a tool of white, male oppression (reminiscent of a famous feminist who called Newton’s Principia a “rape manual”)! Actually my feeling is that whether or not we use the DICTIONARY definition of a word is less important than making sure we use the SAME definition as each other…But I was accused of a kind of naive dictionary worship, which was grossly unfair.

Now, no one has to agree with Dawkins here, or even be more sympathetic to his position. I think the comment after his gives very good rebuttals to most of his points. But I do think, no matter our opinions on the content, that we have to admit that Dawkins was being restrained and reasonable, and given how much he was being attacked (even rightfully!), it was extremely commendable of him to do so. As a result, there hasn’t been a blowup! I imagine Miri’s comment thread is a little ridiculous, but I haven’t heard anything about loafergate, or Mirigate, or elevatorgate II. And that is thanks to Dawkins being reasonable here.

But why was he able to be reasonable? I am pretty sure that he would not have been nearly so restrained (even given that he was likely doing damage control) if Miri’s post hadn’t been so wonderfully thoughtful.

What we see here is a story of success. We see people who disagree about the values and facts of a case, who are criticizing and rebutting each other, who nonetheless made thoughtful, reasonable points, engaged in good faith and a result were able to turn what could have been a Big Fat Controversy into an everyday disagreement. That’s a testament to civility, and it’s also a testament to Miri and Professor Dawkins, who kept their cool and made the internet, and the atheist movement, a nicer place to be.


Bridging the Gap: Inferential Distance and Social Justice

Research2BeDone has put his finger on what I agree is the most fundamental problem facing those trying to discuss social justice issues with people who aren’t familiar with the concepts involved: large inferential distances. Inferential distances are those gaps between our knowledge and the knowledge of others that make it hard to convey ideas. The example given over at Less Wrong is:

Explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to a physicist would be easy; even if the physicist didn’t already know about evolution, they would understand the concepts of evidence, Occam’s razor, naturalistic explanations, and the general orderly nature of the universe. Explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to someone without a science background would be much harder. Before even mentioning the specific evidence for evolution, you would have to explain the concept of evidence, why some kinds of evidence are more valuable than others, what does and doesn’t count as evidence, and so on. This would be unlikely to work during a short conversation.

Similarly, one SJ-oriented friend might be able to convey to another SJ-oriented friend why complaining about the term “cisgender” on the basis that the term is stolen from chemistry is problematic with a single step. They don’t have to explain about the way labels can empower or how words can do harm or how derailing works or what cisprivilege is, let alone privilege in general. They can just allude to all of that shared knowledge and assume it’s understood and believed. For the mathematically minded, all the lemmas have already been shown, and from there the theorem is a one step proof.

But without being able to assume all of the information, ideas and analysis that go into the Social Justice™ system, it’s much, much harder to explain what’s going on. In fact, you can’t do it directly at all. To properly make the argument, some patient and charitable soul would have to start from the beginning, the core axioms, work through all the basic approaches and forms of analysis, arguing all the way that they are legitimate and worthwhile, then showing how they apply to the situation in question, and hoping desperately that they’re still paying attention by the end. And that’s in the best case scenario, where it doesn’t disintegrate into slurs, derailing or unproductive mud-slinging before the explanation is over. Just like in math.

It seems unfair, of course, that in order just to convince someone to stop believing harmful and incorrect things, that much work has to be done. The answer seems obvious, if you already have all of the knowledge, information and assumptions. But from the other side, it isn’t at all. In fact, it’s not rational to find it obvious. Without an explanation that starts with assumptions that are in fact shared, someone who doesn’t currently agree with our fictional Social Justice Warrior doesn’t have reason to believe what they’re being told. Just as so many creationists disbelieve science because it rests on the concept of the scientific method (which they do not accept), and mathematicians dismiss proofs that require unproven assumptions (except the unproven assumptions they like), this non-SJ-er must reject the notion that “cisgender” should be a required part of hir vocabulary. (Much like hir). Note that mathematics and creationism have somewhat different truth values. It doesn’t matter; this is still how it feels from the inside to believe some things and not others.

How do we change that belief? More specifically, “How does one go about helping everyone on either side of an inferential distance gap understand each other?”

By bridging the gap! Get rid of it entirely, by meeting the person you’re talking to where they are.
The following steps provide a guideline (much of which is laid out originally here):

  1. If you require a baseline of civility or respect for the conversation to continue, make it clear from the outset. In the spirit of “you don’t have to get it to respect it,” you can demand that arguments must be in good faith and that certain words that you feel are harmful and cruel not be used for the duration of the conversation.
  2. Find out how far back the disagreement goes by finding the most basic assumptions you agree on. Best way to do this is just to ask: “Do you agree with this? How about this?” until you figure it out.
  3. Start from there and make your case. Try not to use jargon or specialized language that the non-SJ-er doesn’t use without definition. Step by step, get them from their column to yours. If you find you can’t prove your point from that far back, it’s time to ask yourself again why you believe what you believe.


  1. Obviously, use all the techniques I’ve been talking about. Anticipate counterarguments as you walk them through your case. Argue the best version of their position. Be willing to change your own mind. Don’t insult them, even if they deserve it. Don’t assume their intentions are bad.
  2. Since you’re taking them through a long series of steps, be willing to accept compromise. Be happy if you took them through some of the steps, even if you had to stop there. It’s all a journey.
  3. Similarly, since going through this many steps is hard, see if there are any places to make it easier. Skip nonvital steps. Condense and simplify if you get the opportunity. This will both help your argument and teach you what parts of your argument are required for the rest to stand and what parts are not.
  4. If, in order to agree with you, one or more of their identities might be in jeopardy, be careful. Allow the entire thing to be a thought experiment. Try to fit it in with a more deeply-held identity. Try to help build up a belief structure that will replace the one they’re abandoning. Remember that it may not be “just an argument” to them either.
  5. Being able to construct your own argument from first principles is great. Being able to construct the other side’s is even better. It allows for so much insight into why they don’t agree with you in the first place, which makes you more charitable and more effective when you’re looking to win them over.

The tips might look intimidating, but the important part has only three steps. It’s really that simple. It’s hard to be perfectly persuasive all throughout the argument, it’s hard to make an argument that extensive, and it’s frustrating to do it over and over again. But it is simple. For those willing to do it, arguing with people who have entirely different assumptions is just the task of laying out a path, slowly but surely, from one set of beliefs to another.

I do not deny for a second that it can seem like a waste of time, that it can be painful, and that rather more often than we might hope, the people we’re arguing with are not arguing in good faith. That is why we leave it to individuals to decide whether it is worth their time and effort. But those not willing to do this kind of work should not stand in its way. They should not base their arguments on assumptions others do not share and be surprised when they are not understood. They should not make it more difficult for others to do the challenging work by interrupting ongoing conversations with jeering and mockery. And most of all, while there are perfectly good reasons to stop being able to have a conversation or to not enter one in the first place, no one should engage in arguments with people who might be persuaded if they have no intention of taking the process seriously. Ideas rise and fall every day in the public sphere, and there’s no reason to lose arguments or adherents because some don’t think the work of public reason is worth doing properly.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

Arguing Well Isn’t Charity, It’s Due Diligence

I think I’ve done a bad job so far of explaining what I actually mean by being charitable in argument. Several people have pointed out to me that charitability, as I’ve described it, seems to have some pretty severe limitations. What if someone’s being an asshole? What if you’re being personally attacked, or it feels incredibly personal, and you don’t have the energy or distance to be perfectly detached and rational about everything?

raisevoiceI think this can be explained if I dump, at least for the moment, the term “charity.” Charity is what you do if you’re feeling extra virtuous that day. Charity is what you do it’s convenient and you have some extra money in your wallet. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m asking all of us to work on doing when we argue with people is practicing due diligence.

It is our due diligence as people who argue to think about the most productive and effective way to get our ideas across.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to make sure to address the arguments that someone is actually making.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to focus more on the core of someone’s argument than on peripherals that aren’t as relevant.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to try to understand where people are coming from, so we can understand what lies behind their arguments.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to not strawman.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to ask ourselves what we think we know about the topic and the person we’re arguing with and how we think we know it.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to acknowledge counterarguments to our position, and any other weaknesses besides.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to consider the possibility that we are wrong
It is our due diligence as people who argue to be clear about what we’re arguing
It is our due diligence as people who argue to explain and justify our reasoning.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to only make claims about the world or other people that are justified with the evidence
It is our due diligence as people who argue to not automatically assume the worst of people
It is our due diligence as people who argue to realize that people are going to disagree with us and be wrong who aren’t bad people.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to realize that our words and actions can have effects far beyond this particular argument, especially if the argument is public.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to treat our opponents like human beings.

This due diligence is what gets us productive arguments that help us learn. They’re also the kind of arguments that I think are most likely to persuade someone, if that’s what you’re interested in. All else equal, practicing due diligence is an intellectual and a moral duty to others.

But there’s a lot due diligence doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean, for instance, that you always have to be “nice” to people. Sometimes arguments are more heated. Sometimes you really don’t like someone. Sometimes you’re going to really bring it to demolish someone else’s argument, marshalling all of your available evidence and refuting them point by point. Nothing in due diligence prevents that.
Example: This wonderful takedown of a misleading National Organization for Marriage ad against Prop 8 back in 2008.

Similarly, due diligence doesn’t mean you can’t get angry. Anger can fuel and inspire us. It can push us to do our absolute best to make the world a better place. None of that is wrong. As long as the arguments are thoughtful, well-supported and true, it’s fine to get angry sometimes. There are costs of course, and times when it’s less productive to seem angry. But nothing about due diligence abolishes it altogether.
Example: Greta’s classic piece on why atheists are so angry, which is also a talk and a book, is angry but accurate, incensed while remaining judicious.

It also doesn’t mean you have to like people. There are a lot of people I really don’t like. There are people I think are mean, hurtful, irrational, stubborn, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, closed-minded, hateful. Sometimes I argue with those people. It doesn’t mean I have to forget that they are these things. It doesn’t mean I have to pretend that they’re actually fantastic people. It doesn’t even mean I can’t point it out, if I think it’s appropriate. But it does mean I have to be judicious in my arguing and have some respect for them while I’m arguing with them.
Example: Nate Phelps’ talk at Reason Rally about his family, pretty much the worst people ever, was thoughtful, sincere and totally damning.

Due diligence doesn’t mean you have to make excuses for someone saying something wrong or awful. By all means, call people out. Tell them what they’re saying isn’t true, that they aren’t facing the evidence. Tell them they’re wrong. Tell them they’ve said something that causes harm. Tell them they’re perpetuating stereotypes, making lives harder, hurting a movement. Just be clear about what you’re actually saying, and then be diligent about the argument you’re making. Don’t always assume they meant to cause harm (both because it isn’t always true and because it will make you less persuasive). Don’t immediately label them the enemy.
Example: Laci Green, a fantastic sex vlogger, thought what Jenna Marbles said in one of her videos was slut shaming, but she didn’t make Jenna the problem, she just called out the general issue, clearly and forcefully.

Due diligence also doesn’t mean you can’t argue that a public figure or institution shouldn’t have our respect or shouldn’t be taken seriously. If someone has a strong history of harmful conduct or unacceptable speech, please give a highly critical rundown of all the bad things they’ve done and what that should mean for us so that we don’t honor bad people or groups. Just stick to the facts, make sure you’re never making claims that the evidence doesn’t support and keep in mind that you may not know their true motivations.
Examples: This open letter to the Richard Dawkins Foundation about what they do (or don’t do) with their money and this piece by Andrew Tripp about Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her bad politics.

Finally, and this one’s important, due diligence doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to due diligence. I fully admit that there are cases, some I’ve thought of and some I haven’t, where this style of argumentation isn’t ideal. If you’re in a debate, for example, it might be more important to win than to be all proper. If someone is hurting you or someone you care about, it might be more important to get them to stop then to convince them that one or more of their ideologies is wrong. If someone’s trolling (i.e. arguing in bad faith and they’re unreachable by argument) then it might be reasonable to ignore them, delete their comment (if this is taking place online), Snark Attack them or troll them right back. The best course of action is always going to depend on what your goals are.
Example: Eliezer Yudkowsky at probably any dinner party. In particular,

“I was once at a dinner party, trying to explain to a man what I did for a living, when he said: “I don’t believe Artificial Intelligence is possible because only God can make a soul.”

At this point I must have been divinely inspired, because I instantly responded: “You mean if I can make an Artificial Intelligence, it proves your religion is false?””

Full article, in which there is a great discussion in the comments about this very topic.

Due diligence in argumentation is hard. Doing anything properly is hard. There are going to be all kinds of times when you can’t argue at your highest level, just as at many times we fail to be our best selves in other ways. I certainly don’t argue perfectly charitably or thoughtfully all the time, especially when the person I’m arguing with is being stubborn or thoughtless or ignorant. And as I said above, there are exceptions to this practice, times when it doesn’t apply, which I hope to talk about in the future.

But none of that means that we shouldn’t do our level best to have the kinds of arguments that we should be having, the ones that force us to see things in a new light, or get someone thinking about something we said. I want us all to have the kinds of arguments that make us realize that the truth resists simplicity, even as they help us discard falsehood and error. I want our arguments to teach, to challenge, inform, convince and win. I want us to get more right (or, if you will, less wrong), by arguing right, and I want us to do it together.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing/Charity/Diligence

  • Steelmanning
  • Being Charitable
  • Acknowledging Counterarguments
  • About Nuance (not part of this series, but still relevant)
  • And watch out for future posts that will expand the notion of due diligence and what it entails. Potential examples: When smart people disagree with you, reevaluate; Justify *all* claims, not just the obvious ones; Be clear about how you arrived at your position; and more!

Just Because They’re Wrong Doesn’t Mean They’re Obviously Wrong

In a previous post in this series on Better Arguing, I argued that it was important to be charitable when arguing with others, and in particular, to take the arguments against one’s position seriously. But sometimes, people don’t even seem to acknowledge that there are any counterarguments in the first place, and that’s a problem all on its own. I see this all the time in my running of the University of Chicago Secular Alliance. People throw things like the Problem of Evil and Euthyphro’s Dilemma at theists and expect them to repent on the spot. Yes, those are interesting and important. No, they are not the death-knell to all theistic arguments. Jews, Christians and others have had thousands of years to come up with counterarguments, and any debater should know at least some of them.

So when people say things like:

“My problem with this idea is that I can’t think of any arguments for believing in God that have any credibility at all.” (In the comments section)

I get a little concerned. As my friend Doni, who wants it to be known that he is a theist, says, “smart people have done a lot of stupid things, and they all thought they had good reasons for doing them.” For the vast majority of arguments, smart people can and have disagreed, which means there are at least fairly good arguments on both sides. It’s pretty unlikely that you won’t be able to find or think of any compelling objection to your own position. The UNC Writing Center delightfully points out that,

“It may seem to you that no one could possibly disagree with the position you are arguing, but someone probably has. For example, some people argue that the American Civil War never ended. If you are making an argument concerning, for example, the outcomes of the Civil War, you might wish to see what some of these people have to say.” (Bolding mine)

When you ignore counterarguments, it makes your argument much weaker, since it’s assumed, especially if these counterarguments are common, that you don’t have any response to them. It also shows that you haven’t done your research, which also makes you a less compelling debater. Finally, since people likely do in fact disagree with you, it’s uncharitable and off-putting to presume in your discussion that their arguments are obviously wrong.

But let me be charitable and assume that the commenter (and all the people they stand for) has in fact done their research. It’s possible that they’ve really done the work to make sure there’s not a single compelling scrap in any of the arguments for god. If you find yourself in this position, the next step is to steelman. By Voltaire and Bayes’ Theorem, there is a nonzero probability that you are wrong. So what would the world look like if you were wrong? What evidence would you use to prove your new position? How would you argue for the other position, if you had to?

Now let’s say that you’ve done all that, and every argument you’ve considered has been found totally lacking. It’s still important that even if you don’t buy any of the arguments, you understand why your opponent does. How can you convince someone if you have no idea why they believe what they believe? And even more to the point, how can you convince someone if you make it clear you think they’re ridiculous or stupid for believing what is “obviously” wrong? (P.S. If this happens to you a lot, it might be worth reexamining what you mean by “obvious”). The most compelling arguments are empathetic. They involve seeking to understand why the people you’re arguing with find a position intuitive or believable or compelling and working within that belief system to arrive step by step at your own.

If I was arguing about why Ron isn’t good enough for Hermione, for instance, and I somehow, shockingly, couldn’t count on my audience to agree with me, I might write something like the following:

“I think it’s true that Ron shows a lot of care and love for Hermione that you don’t see him show elsewhere. He also matures immensely throughout the books, culminating in his support for the saving of the house elves, something obviously quite dear to Hermione’s heart. He’s a rock for her, in some sense, a familiar and much loved presence through so much turmoil in both their lives. There’s a lot of room to say that Ron develops as a character throughout the series and presumably beyond so that his relationship with Hermione becomes less childish and more mutually fulfilling, which is why they end up together. While all of that is admirable, though, Hermione, being brilliant, generous and all around awesome really deserves someone who is as badass as she is (the chess game and destroying the locket horcrux are great, even crucial, but they don’t hold a candle to Hermione’s list of accomplishments) and more importantly, who cares about school and learning and nerdiness as she does. Nerd girls deserve partners who can keep up with them, challenge them, and take joy in their intelligence, not demean it (she says without a shred of bias). So clearly Hermione should have ended up with a *spoiler* non-dead Cedric Diggory or something.”

And I would say that even if what I really wanted to say was

“Are you freaking serious Ron is so mopey and annoying to her for so much of the books even though she is pure awesome, basically fixes everything that goes wrong and is the predominant force allowing Ron and Harry to stay alive and relevant for seven years.”

There’s probably room for both, in different contexts, at different times. Certainly there are cases in which one must limit the number and degree of counterarguments one tackles. But it’s clear to me that when arguing, we should all be looking to develop the habit of assuming that people will disagree with us, acknowledging that they might just have some halfway decent reason for doing so, and addressing those objections thoughtfully. It makes us more credible, empathetic and well-informed, and hopefully more persuasive. To good arguing!

On a more serious note, Natalie Reed does what I’m talking about here excellently in her post Sophistry and Semantics about language and terminology around trans issues, especially in the second paragraph. There are several other good examples sprinkled throughout the links in this post.

Previous Posts about Better Arguing:

Basic but also hilarious resources on counterarguments:

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.