Steelmanning The Devil

Summary: Two participants have a semi-formal debate from the perspective they disagree with, while the audience giving penalties for using fallacies or examples of bias.

Tags: Medium, Repeatable

Purpose: This simultaneously works on the debater’s ability to take a perspective different from their own, their ability to argue for a point without making use of fallacies, and the audience’s ability to recognize rhetorical missteps.

Materials: You need writing supplies like pens and sticky notes, and you also need a set of cards with biases and fallacies written on them along with short reminders of what that fallacy is. The set I have is here, and if you want to print them at home the download is available on (You do have to give them an email.) If you write your own (also a viable option) I’d suggest a sharpie, some index cards, and Wikipedia’s List Of Fallacies.

Announcement Text: “Steelmannning is the opposite of straw manning. It’s where you address the best possible version of an opponent’s argument. To be the Devil’s Advocate is to take a position you do not necessarily agree with in order to point out flaws in a proposed course of action or stance.

For this meetup, we’re going to do some debates where we have to argue for the position we disagree with, and we’re going to do it right. By doing it right, I mean that we’ll lose points whenever we commit some kind of logical fallacy or exhibit some kind of bias in our attempts to convince the audience of the rightness of the position we’re the advocate of.

Now everyone: I want a good, clean debate!”

Description: To start, you need something to debate.

  1. Pass around writing materials. Ask each person to take one sticky note, and write down positions they disagree with or opinions you hate. Maybe you hate having cats as pets, or disagree that Land Value Tax would solve anything. Maybe you hate the Red/​Blue position on the second amendment, or disagree with telling children about the myth of Santa Claus.

  2. Pass those notes around, remembering the ones you actually hold. That is, if Bob wrote that they disagree Land Value Tax would solve anything, and Carla thinks it would solve everything, Carla should see Bob’s note and wants to remember that.

  3. Ask each person to find a partner who is on the opposite side from you: they love what you hate, or agree with what you disagree with.

  4. While the partnerships are forming, lay out your cards with fallacies and biases on them. Once you have at least one partner pair, explain how the debate will work.

  5. Two people who disagree are going to debate each other. The debate has the following rules:

    1. You are arguing for the other side. That is, if you think Land Value Tax would solve everything, then you need to argue that it does not solve things.

    2. You have two minutes for your turn, timed by the judge with an actual timepiece. Then the other person gets to speak for two minutes. Then back to you. Each of you shall have three turns total.

    3. Everyone else is spectating. At any time, a spectator can take a fallacy or bias card and make a note of what was said that committed it. Don’t stop the debate for this, just do it while they’re talking.

    4. At the end, the spectators will decide who made the most convincing argument. (Majority vote, with the Judge having the tiebreaker vote.) That person gets 6 points.

    5. The spectators will point out their fallacies and biases. If the other spectators agree that those were committed (Majority vote, with the Judge having the tiebreaker vote) then that speaker loses 2 points for a bias and 4 points for a logical fallacy.

  6. Thank your debaters.

  7. Set up the cards again, and repeat steps 5 and 6 as desired.

Variations: You can of course mess with steps 1, 2, and 3 to select the topics differently. Options include “Hold up 5 fingers if you strongly agree, 1 finger if you strongly disagree, 3 fingers if you’re neutral or want to abstain from this one,” as well as Sam’s Double Crux Pairer, Jenn’s Double Crux Coordination and Maia’s Double Crux Helper.

You can also vary the point values. Making victory worth more makes stepping on one or two fallacies in the process of winning more worth it and makes the intentional fouls a little more tempting. Making fallacies cost more can turn even a winning argument into a pyrrhic victory.

Varying the times can be tempting. As this stands, it locks up your group to focus on two people for about twenty minutes. (Yeah, the rounds themselves take 12 minutes but you’re going to have setup, who starts first conversations (coinflip it) and some back and forth discussion over whether a particular fallacy was actually used or not.) With a decent sized group it’s quite plausible not everyone will get to debate. Letting people abstain seems fine though. People with more formal debate experience than I may have stronger feelings or evidence on the proper length; I know I’m going to keep the Lightning Round version in my back pocket where there are two rounds each and one turn is one minute, fouls must be explained in fifteen seconds.

For comedy and/​or rhetorical exercise, consider adding cards which are not fallacious or bias related. Merge with Taboo and debate artificial intelligence regulations without being allowed to use “intelligence” or “computer.” Alternately, require your debaters to argue without access to the letter V.

For good practice purposes, but very unfair, I suggest trying this where one side gets penalized points for fallacies and the other does not, with which side is which announced in advance. This is irritating, but dealing with the irritation of the other person giving flagrantly fallacious arguments then valiantly winning the argument anyway is a valuable skill.

Lastly (and I talk about this more in the Notes) consider restricting the topics in ways which are less likely to get people seriously mad at each other, especially with newcomers.

Notes: Personally, I hate putting politics in a rationality meetup. I think politics is hard mode and most people aren’t as advanced as they think they are. In this case, you are specifically looking for scissor statements and hoping you don’t create any feuds. Maybe be careful here? Argue about something more bloodless or less heated first, to get some comfort and practice in?

If you do want to put politics in, I think randomly assigning which side people are on is better. Give people an ounce of plausible deniability over whether they think something so horrid and beyond the pale as that Land Value Tax could have even the slightest thing wrong with it. I joke, but the obvious way this goes badly is someone puts down something about like, Israel vs Palestine or abortion or something, it turns out one of your attendees has an undisclosed personal reason for having very strong feelings about this, and this turns into an actual fight where half your meetup storms out. I’m not saying there aren’t useful skills here, but I am saying I suggest you to start with something easier and with fewer emotional landmines. Land Value Tax never killed anyone’s parents.

There’s an interesting tactical effect where, since a fallacy or bias can only be called against you at most once, a debater might decide it’s worth it to take the point cost and get good use out of that underhanded tactic as a sort of intentional foul. This seems fine, though obviously tread wisely as many fallacies are interrelated. Still, the obvious patch is to allow the same foul to be called on someone multiple times.

Credits: This was run at the LessWrong Community Weekend in 2023 by a fellow named Greg, which is where I got it from. The Description section was straightforwardly written from my notes of their meetup, though there may have been some transcription errors as I was trying to take notes and participate at the same time. Greg, if you see this, feel free to get in touch: I’d love to attribute you properly but the only thing I have to go on is your first name and an extremely brief sketch!

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