Man of Steel...manning

Strawman arguments are common, and painfully well-understood to anyone unfortunate enough to flip on a television during election season.  For those unfamiliar, the idea is simple–rather than attempting a cogent response to your opponent’s well-intentioned argument, you instead recast that argument in its weakest, most vulnerable form.  Next, you proceed to tear that argument to shreds, incinerate those remnants, and dance upon the smoldering embers before a live studio audience.

I feel like this guy spent a fair bit of time with Hans and Franz of SNL fame. Either that or steelmanning arguments is an effective muscle-building strategy.

For a moment, let’s ignore the fact that this just ain’t particularly polite.  The real world is not a colloquium of scholars, nor some august debating society, so genteel deference is hardly a prerequisite.  Let’s also ignore that there’s a chance that such a tactic, applied with gratuitous frequency, might backfire and elevate your opponent to fame and notoriety (*cough* Jordan Peterson vs. Cathy Newman *cough*).  Let’s focus upon the fact that at no point amidst the grandstanding, posturing, and sharp elbows, do we ever actually grapple with the real argument.  You know, the one that is not restated in its most absurd and offensive form to discredit its author.

(Please just assume that this was an image of the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, then insert the obligatory "if I only had a brain" joke. I am happy to confer with flowers, consult with rain, or unravel any riddle, but not to incur some copyright-related legal proceedings.)

What is the opposite of a strawman?  Is it a fire-retardant character that befriends crows?  No, it is the steelman, the most articulate, thoughtful, nuanced, and compassionate possible representation of your opponent’s argument.  It is that position, stated in a respectful, rather than resentful tone.  This accomplishes several goals:

  1. It verifies to one’s partner in argument (note, the word is no longer ‘opponent’) that their argument is well-understood.  We don’t flail wildly at arguments we do not yet fully grasp.
  2. It confirms to the audience that the speaker is neither a zealot, nor preoccupied only with their perspective.
  3. It builds credibility with the broader audience (You mean arguments are often consumed by other people who are less rabidly-aligned with one side or the other?  I know, weird, right?)
  4. It helps you refine and reconsider your positions.  Do you really think what you think you think?  Are there circumstances under which your position might be incorrect?  Outside of political punditry, strange as it seems, it is actually permissible to alter one’s views and change one’s mind.

Why does this matter in consulting, software development, and well, every other aspect of one’s professional and personal life?  Because on some level, everything is a hypothesis.  We might just be wrong.  As a species, we get things wrong all the time, and generally-speaking, history looks more favorably upon cases where steelman arguments are deployed rather than strawman versions.  Historically, the latter lead to unsavory results like an auto-da-fé1.  We would prefer a world where the heliocentrics’ arguments were steelmanned by the clergy (“gee, interesting how the maintenance of geocentrism requires some rather complex geometric machinations, but your view aligns nicely with observation!”) rather than one where the heretics are derided, dismissed, and dismembered.  

"And yet, it moves." If only Galileo had an independent blog.

One of AE’s core values is steelmanning.  Like any other skill, it is improved with repetition and practice.  Eventually, one naturally learns to articulate an opponent’s position so clearly that the opponent actually feels they could have not delivered the argument more compellingly themselves.  Then, and only then, do we begin to dissect and contradict an argument.  Every important decision, internally or with our clients must begin this way.  We move past our egos, leave motivated reasoning at the door, and have a lot more fun challenging each other to think better and arrive at better decisions together.


Auto-da-fé? What’s an Auto-da-fé?... It’s what you oughtn’t to do, but you do anyway!” - Mel Brooks, History of the World (Part I)

Thanks to Paul Graham for inspiring AE with his insights and enduring visual style, recreated here. If you enjoy irreverence, social commentary, and satire, check out our parody page. Thanks also to all the other amazing people changing the world with agency increasing technology. Apply to join us at AE.