Steelmanning as an especially insidious form of strawmanning

Edit: made some small changes to prevent certain gross mischaracterizations of the argument. The core argument remains completely unchanged.

Among intelligent people with at least some familiarity with argumentative norms, surface level disagreements tend to be ephemeral because, even if some given debate about the issue is terminated before conclusion, both parties to the disagreement will eventually encounter the full range of common arguments pertaining to the issue. Because of this, there are really only two cases where the disagreement will persist: 1. if the key arguments are sufficiently uncommon as to not be in general circulation, or 2. if mere familiarity with surface-level arguments is insufficient to bridge the inferential gap.

We will examine these cases separately.

The first case is rare, because convincing arguments, if they can be grasped with relatively low opportunity cost, have a tendency to spread and become part of general circulation. Exceptions can however be found when the arguments pertain to a niche, though only when people interested in that niche have sufficiently little contact not to form a distinct social network of their own. More commonly, the first case arises when there is a political or social pressure not to repeat the arguments in general company, because this creates an opportunity cost to transferring them.

Already here, the practice of steelmanning can give rise to major problems, though only if you are steelmanning a position rather than the argument offered in its support, and this only in cases where the position is more socially acceptable than the argument. Consider for example the case where someone is critiquing disparate impact case law from a standpoint of HBD. Whatever you may think of the argument[1] should not matter to demonstrate the dynamic.

The interlocutor has an instinctual aversion to HBD and flinches away from it, but notes that an argument for the position can be built on a much less offensive basis. For example, one might argue that equity can only realistically be achieved by addressing the underlying drivers of cognitive inequality (eg. early education, diet, etc.) and not merely by legislating your way to equal outcomes, which would merely place disadvantaged people in academic courses they can’t keep up with, or get them into jobs whose demands they cannot meet, leading to impostor syndrome, etc.

Alternatively, to stay closer to the original argument and thus “obscure the deed”, the interlocutor may point out that it is not necessary to demonstrate HBD in order to opposite disparate impact case law, and that we can instead just rely on agnosticism about the matter, since the contrary position to HBD, ie. human neurological uniformity, has never been proven.

Notice how, by sticking closer to the original argument, this latter example seems even less like a strawman than the former. But notice also how it actually leads to a much weaker conclusion, since it leaves open the possibility that disparate impact case law may work straightforwardly. The conclusion supported by the argument is in fact so weak that the interlocutor is likely to have largely forgotten about it a few weeks later. The former argument supports a somewhat stronger conclusion, but leaves open the possibility that addressing those underlying arguments will make disparate impact case law workable.

The problem here arises because the argument is more offensive than the conclusion, and so our interlocutor feels the “instinctive flinch” more keenly when it comes to the argument than the conclusion. This makes him more willing to consider the proposition than the argument offered in its support, and so he will come up with alternate arguments that wind up leading to only a weaker form of that proposition.

But of the two cases of non-ephemeral disagreements, this is the one where steelmanning is least objectionable. It is the other case where steelmanning is truly insidious.

Suppose you are trying to surmount a large inferential gap over the course of a very long conversation. It is a case of totally incompatible worldviews. To make the thought experiment more palatable to LessWrongers, let us choose a scenario that conforms to the prejudices currently in fashion. Therefore, let us suppose you are Scott Alexander who has just written the Anti-Reactionary FAQ, and your interlocutor is some garden variety neo-reactionary who is not impressed by your statistics.

The argument you are making is difficult, but not beyond the comprehension of your interlocutor. It is however likely that he will misunderstand it at several stages, call it stupid, and point out what he thinks are obvious errors. You have already resigned yourself to the somewhat tedious task of having to address those objections one by one, and thus correct your interlocutor’s misunderstandings. This also has the bonus of making your interlocutor feel a bit flustered about having called you stupid, and making him do a considerable upwards update on the possibility that you are smarter than him and have a much sounder overall worldview.

Unfortunately, your interlocutor has heard of the practice of steelmanning, and likes to think of himself as being someone who debates politely and in very good faith. Thus he will not call you stupid, and if it seems to him that you have made an obvious error, he will conclude that he must have misunderstood the argument, and try to steelman it. The result is that it will be nearly impossible to get him to consider your actual arguments, i.e. those he is presently convinced are dumb. Each time he proposes another flawed steelman, you can keep trying to redirect him back to your actual argument as you originally formulated it. Since it seems obviously weak to him, he might be reluctant to conclude that that really is the argument you’re making. If so, you might even go so far as to emphasise that yes, really, your argument is the one he finds dumb, and not the one that resulted from his attempt to improve it. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making him update downwards on the possibility that you are smarter than him and have a sounder worldview, since he is literally seeing you insist on an argument which to him appears much dumber than the alternative he is proposing to examine. Priding himself on his civility and politeness, he still doesn’t actually call you stupid, but this only further prevents him from being flustered when proven wrong, and so makes him still less likely to change his mind.

The problem here is that if he does not understand the line of thinking underlying your actual argument, then he cannot generate it on the spot, yet if the conversation has any considerable length (which may be assumed since we are talking about deep disagreements among people too smart to think the matter can be resolved in casual chat over coffee), then he will probably have considered pretty much all the major arguments he can generate on the spot. However, what this means is that the best argument he is capable of generating on the spot is one he was not convinced by. Therefore, the actual effect of steelmanning is simply to assume that the opposition is making an unconvincing argument that will leave you unmoved — which is pretty much the exact opposite of the principle of charity.

We see then that in such a case, the attempt to steelman, far from being the epitome of charitable discourse, is pretty much its nadir, but what is insidious about it is that it makes it extremely difficult for you to convince your interlocutor that, no, he really is not being the bastion of charity and good faith that he likes to imagine himself.

So if steelmanning is so terrible, why has it become so popular?

Well, for starters, in the case of ephemeral disagreements, it genuinely does tend to ingratiate people, maximize civility, and even save time — all these are quite considerable benefits that should not be underestimated.

Secondly, it is very effective when talking to people not habituated to argumentative norms. They are accustomed to an outright combative interlocutor, and will be taken aback by your willingness to go to great lengths to make their arguments for them. But such people are not exactly powerhouses of the intellect. By all means, keep using steelmen in such cases, but recognise that what you are engaged in is something more like polite condescension than charitable discourse.

Edit: fixed some typos

  1. ^

    incidentally, I do not have very high regard for the HBD crowd — they remind me too much of scientism, technocracy, and progressive-era eugenics.