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A common problem in everyday conversation is our tendency to misrepresent, misunderstand or infer too much about the position of our interlocutor. When this happens, trust breaks down, frustration ensues and the result can be conflict, wasted time and counterproductive.

Sometimes, this is simply a function of an honest misunderstanding and a failure of one or more parties to communicate well and convey their arguments clearly in an unambiguous fashion. We all have a responsibility to improve our reasoning, language and social skills to better defend and articulate our ideas to others.

Other misrepresentations and false inferences, however, can be effectively dishonest or even malicious, whether done consciously or not. This fallacious method of arguing is often referred to as a straw man.

The straw man approach is effective and satisfying simply because it allows you to not make the incremental effort to truly grasp the meaning and purpose of the argument being projected.

Straw Man

Once the straw man has been constructed, the conversation reduces to a single individual speaking to a fictitious straw man; an imagined opponent with an exaggerated or completely different view.

To illustrate this imagery, one might compare it to some sort of quixotic character flailing his arms around in an effort to slay a windmill. As the character has himself created his opponent in his mind, you can imagine that more often than not, the protagonist permits himself to jump up and down on his slain imaginary character and claim victory.


Do you really want to have a conversation with yourself?

You don’t need to engage with other people for that. How do people usually respond when they come across a character in an open field in combat with invisible dragons? They tend to laugh and point or find it quaint like child’s play.

Don’t be Don Quixote! Try not to mount straw men. Let’s talk to each other and try to figure things out.

If our intent is to converse in a good faith fashion, in the spirit of a dialectic approach as opposed to a debate format, we should be more concerned about trying to find agreement and working together to better understand each other. That might fail by the way and that’s okay. Keep getting back on the horse and try again. We have yet to discover a perfect method of ensuring mutual cooperation or always getting along with others. This is our challenge.

In the language of game theory, an easy way to understand dialectic is to think in win-win terms as opposed to a zero sum calculus in debate. Is it important for you to win and feel morally and intellectually righteous? Or are you more interested in both parties coming out better informed and attempting to find a consensus?

Maybe we should be more committed to building small bridges, learning and trying to create a generally more productive and positive environment? If the latter is true, we might wish to employ a different approach.

Maybe, instead of playing on our own with straw men, we should make more of an effort together to create steel men!

Steel men are improved versions of our arguments. When two people converse, we both select, construct and defend particular arguments that we think are the most appropriate for a given topic. But few of us are so eloquent, sufficiently educated and precise as to construct the perfect argument. More often that not our arguments will go wanting. They will be imperfect. We should all admit that that is not only possible but rather probable.

So if we must throw our toys out on the ground and try to play together peacefully and try to get along, let us work together to both help each other build impressive steel men.

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.

Once we have erected these elegant and compelling statues of reason, let us then investigate them together, honestly and in good faith.  Do they now correctly explain and represent the phenomena discussed or do our steel men require revision and further sculpting?



About The Author

Science, Critical Thinking and Skepticism educator