Straw Man vs. Steel Man

How To Argue. Honestly.

by Niall Doherty Updated: December 3, 2018

“More often than not, two people arguing passionately about something are actually arguing about two different things.” – Paul Graham

A straw man argument is a commonly used debating trick.

Here’s a simple example:

Billy: Which do you prefer: cats or dogs?
John: I prefer dogs.
Billy: Ah, I see. So you hate cats.

With that last point, Billy has misrepresented John’s view.

John only said he prefers dogs to cats. That doesn’t mean he hates cats.

But Billy has essentially put those words – “I hate cats” – in John’s mouth.

Billy has built a straw man: an oversimplified, parodied, or distorted view of John’s position.

Now Billy can go ahead and attack that straw man by saying something like this…

Billy: You know who also hated cats? Hitler and Stalin. So clearly you’d have to be one cruel, heartless son-of-a-bitch to hate cats.

Sure, that’s a silly example.

But it’s useful for understanding the basic structure of a straw man argument:

  • First you build up a flimsy version of an opponent’s view.
  • Then you attack that view, and knock it down easily.

It’s like picking a fight with someone, but instead of physically confronting that person, you build a scarecrow that looks kinda like them, then go all kung-fu on that scarecrow, rip it to pieces, and go around afterwards telling folks that you beat up the actual person. 1

And somehow, many folks will actually believe you did 🙁

Anyway, how about we look at some real-world examples of straw man arguments?

Okay then…

Donald Trump Strawmans Hillary Clinton

At the third United States presidential debate in 2016, Donald Trump made the following claim about Hillary Clinton. 2

A couple of minutes after that statement, Clinton clarified her position on immigration:

”I have been for border security for years. I have voted for border security in the US senate and my comprehensive immigration reform plan of course includes border security. But I want to put our resources where they’re most needed: getting rid of any violent person, anybody who should be deported, we should deport them.”

If we take Clinton her at her word there – something I’m sure many readers will find hard to do – clearly she’s not advocating for “open borders,” as Trump claimed.

Nonetheless, Trump chose to misrepresent Clinton’s position again a few minutes later in the debate:

To which Clinton immediately responded:

”We will not have open borders. That is a rank mischaracterization. We will have secure borders, but we will also have reform.”

Trump persisted with the misrepresentation however, repeating the straw man argument a day later at a rally in Delaware: 3

To be fair to Trump, Clinton did make comments about “open borders” three years before the debate. PolitiFact looked into the matter and came to the following conclusion:

Trump said that Clinton “wants to have open borders.”

Although she wants to make it easier for some undocumented immigrants to stay here, she has repeatedly said she supports border security, so Trump is exaggerating when he says she wants open borders.

In a brief speech excerpt from 2013, she called for “a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable.” Clinton has said she was talking about clean energy, but we can’t fully evaluate her remarks to a bank because we don’t have the full speech.

We rate this statement Mostly False.

What made Trump’s claim that Clinton wanted open borders an obvious and intentional straw man argument was that he persisted with it in spite of Clinton’s repeated assertions to the contrary.

Their exchange essentially boiled down to this:

Trump: Which do you prefer: cats or dogs?
Clinton: I prefer dogs.
Trump: Ah, I see. So you hate cats.
Clinton: No, I didn’t say that. And, as a matter of fact, I quite like cats.
Trump: Yup, I knew it. You totally hate cats.

Barack Obama’s Subtle Strawmanning

Of course, it’s not just Republicans who use straw man arguments.

Barack Obama has been known to employ them frequently, though the straw men he constructs are usually more subtle. Instead of misrepresenting a specific person’s view, he says the kind of thing you’ll hear in this video…

The straw men Obama constructs there are simplified and generalized views that no opponent would be likely to endorse, and since he doesn’t attribute the described views to anyone in particular, it’s hard to refute them.

For example:

“Why is it that everybody’s so eager to use military force?”

Would any opponent concede that they’re eager to do that?

“I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves.”

Does anyone actually hold that view?

“I know some folks in Washington and on Wall Street are saying we should just focus on their problems.”

Who are these “some folks” anyway? And is that really what they’re saying?

“There are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: anything goes.”

Does anyone actually embrace that view?

Here’s what it boils down to:

Obama: I reject the view that we should kill all the cats in the world.
John: Wow, really? There are people who think we should kill all the cats in the world?
Obama: I know some folks in dog parks who are saying we should.

Cathy Newman Strawmans Jordan Peterson

The strawmanning in this one is so blatant and persistent that it’s hard to watch.

Behold an excruciating 17-minute excerpt from journalist Cathy Newman’s 2018 interview with clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson: 4

So you don’t have to watch all of that, here are some of the most glaring straw man arguments presented by Newman:

1:21 “But you’re saying basically it doesn’t matter if women aren’t getting to the top…”

2:45 “So you’re saying that by and large women are too agreeable to get the pay rises they deserve.”

5:19 “But you’re saying that makes [women] unhappy, by and large…

5:26 “You’re saying it makes [women] miserable.”

10:16 “So you don’t believe in equal pay [for men and women].”

11:00 “You’re going to put all those hurdles in [women’s] way, as has been in their way for centuries. And that’s fine, you’re saying that’s fine, the patriarchal system is just fine.“

14:42 “You’re saying that women aren’t intelligent enough to run these top companies.”

In each of those instances, Newman attempts to put words in Peterson’s mouth and claim that he holds certain (sexist) beliefs, and each time Peterson has to reject her claim and clarify his actual position.

Unfortunately, Newman seems determined not to hear or understand Peterson’s views. Instead, she opts to twist and misrepresent them into something ugly and controversial.

Here’s the cats and dogs version:

Peterson: I like dogs.
Newman: So you’re saying that we should kill all cats.
Peterson: No, I’m not saying that. I never said that.
Newman: But you believe it’d be better if all the cats were dead. 5

Wendy’s Strawmans The Competition

Back in 1984, fast food chain Wendy’s launched their “Where’s The Beef?” advertising campaign, which featured TV commercials like this one:

The ad caricatured the size of competitor’s hamburgers, showing a massive bun with a tiny patty in the middle, a clear misrepresentation of what Big Macs and Whoppers actually looked like.

This straw man campaign proved very effective for Wendy’s. As per the New York Times:

The “beef” campaign helped increase Wendy’s annual revenue by 31 percent

The cat version:

Wendy’s: My cat is better than your cat.
McDonald’s: How so?
Wendy’s: Well your cat has only one leg and a mailbox for a head.
McDonald’s: Uh, no it doesn’t. My cat looks pretty much like yours.
Wendy’s: Whyyyyyy the disbelief?

4 Problems With Strawmanning

In case they weren’t obvious from the examples above…

1. It’s dishonest

When you use a straw man argument, instead of addressing a point someone actually holds, you attack a weaker, caricatured version of their point. That’s simply dishonest.

2. It’s confusing

When you misrepresent someone else’s view, you muddy the waters and make it harder for anyone listening to understand what your opponent is actually saying, what beliefs they claim to hold, or which actions they advocate.

3. It’s harmful to others

When people are confused, they’re less likely to make good decisions. For themselves and for others.

4. It’s harmful to you

You also harm yourself when you employ straw man arguments, because you fail to consider (or at least take seriously) alternative points of view, which means you’re less likely to learn something new.

Meanwhile, your own position will be taken less seriously by those who can spot your straw-man tactics.

Accidental Strawmanning

Not everyone who makes a straw man argument is acting in bad faith.

As per Chana Messinger:

[Accidental straw-manning] may happen when you misunderstand [another person’s] argument, or they don’t express it as well as they could have.

If you’re acting in good faith however, and not intentionally trying to straw man another person’s position, you should be willing to listen to their clarifications and revise your argument.

Or, better yet, you should attempt to steel man their position (see below).

How To Handle Straw Man Arguments

So what’s the best way to handle an opponent who employs straw man arguments against you?

I’d suggest that your first move be to determine whether or not your opponent is arguing in good faith. In other words: figure out if their strawmanning is accidental or intentional.

If they misrepresent your view but it’s easy to correct them, it’s a safe bet that their straw man argument was accidental.

Accidental strawmanners are usually willing to listen and will say things like this when corrected:

Ah, okay. Now I understand what you’re saying.
Sorry, I was making too many assumptions there.
I was confused before, but it makes sense to me now.

You can also tell an accidental from an intentional strawmanner by asking them to summarize your position. If they’re unwilling to do that, it’s a big red flag.

You can usually go ahead and have a worthwhile discussion with an accidental strawmanner. But if someone is making intentional straw man arguments against you, often your best course of action is to walk away.

Ultimately there’s only one successful tool for arguing with someone who refuses to approach you in good faith: don’t. 6

There is a possible exception to this rule however: if you’re arguing in front of an audience.

Cathy Newman was clearly not arguing in good faith when she interviewed Jordan Peterson (see above), and if it had been a private conversation the whole thing would have been a gigantic waste of time, because Newman was simply unwilling to listen to what Peterson was actually saying.

However, because the interview was being broadcast to an audience, it was worthwhile for Peterson to engage. He handled Newman’s strawmanning beautifully and managed to get his points across while she appeared to most viewers to be the world’s worst listener.

This video does a nice job of breaking down how Peterson handled Newman’s straw man arguments:

Summarizing the tips from that video:

  • Do what you can to stay calm and relaxed (e.g. assume a relaxed posture, speak slowly and clearly).
  • Listen carefully to what the other person is saying and ask them to repeat themselves if necessary.
  • Pause and think before responding.
  • Identify and address each hidden presupposition (or assumption) your opponent makes.
  • Patiently clarify your own point(s) and belief(s).
  • Emphasize any points of agreement.
  • Try to find and address your opponent’s underlying emotional concern (if any).

Let’s move on now to the polar opposite of strawmanning…

Steelmanning

Steelmanning is perhaps best described by Daniel Dennett’s first rule of successful critical commentary: 7

Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

Writing several decades earlier, the psychologist Carl Rogers prescribed similar:

“Stop the discussion for a moment, and institute this rule: ‘Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.’”

Steel Man vs. Straw Man

Here’s a chap named Eric Ravenscraft outlining why you should bother your arse steelmanning:

the steel man requires a debater to find the best form of her opponent’s argument and then argue with this. Explain what you think your opponent means to them, ask them if they agree this is what they mean, and then argue with that. This is a tougher debate tactic because it allows for fewer shady arguments, but the result is a stance that holds up to scrutiny.

In other words, steel manning is the polar opposite of straw manning.

  • While the straw man is dishonest and misrepresentative, the steel man makes a sincere attempt to understand and summarize an opposing view.
  • While the straw man aims to confuse the issue, the steel man aims to clarify it.
  • And while the straw man acts in bad faith and is likely to cause harm, the steel man acts in good faith and is likely to reduce harm.

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson Steel-Man Each Other’s Arguments

Here’s a beautiful example of steel manning in action, where the aforementioned Jordan Peterson and neuroscientist Sam Harris take turns summarising each other’s arguments.

(Note that the audio quality isn’t great in the video; you may want to crank up the volume.)

Notes and quotes from the video:

1:08 Harris: “Here’s what I think Jordan thinks I’m getting wrong.”

4:34 Peterson in response to Harris’s summary of his argument: “I think it was accurate, concise, fair.”

4:44 Peterson on the value of steel manning: “If you ever want to think about something, that’s exactly what you have to do. You want to take arguments that are against your perspective and you want to make them as strong as you possibly can so that you can fortify your arguments against them. You don’t want to make them weak, because that just makes you weak.”

What you see happening in that exchange is an honest attempt by both Harris and Peterson to accurately represent and summarize a view that opposes their own.

And they both even make a good-faith attempt to summarize any criticism of their own position.

If they were talking cats and dogs, they’d be saying something like this:

Peterson: I have a fondness for domesticated canines.
Harris: If I understand you correctly, you’re saying you like dogs. Is that accurate?
Peterson: Yes, that’s a better way of putting it.
Harris: Okay, understood. And how do you feel about cats?
Peterson: I quite like them, too, but not as much as dogs.
Harris: So is it fair to say that you like both cats and dogs?
Peterson: Correct.
Harris: But dogs would be your favorite of the two?
Peterson: Exactly.

The Danger Of Steel Manning

The Harris-Peterson example hints at a danger of steel manning, and perhaps reveals why we see it so rarely in public discourse: because it would be easy for some troll to take your attempt to steel man an opponent’s argument and make you look like a fool.

For example:

Hitler: I think we should kill all the Jews.
John: Wow, really? Why on earth would you think that?
Hitler: Because they’re a filthy race and the cause of everything that ails us.
John: Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. You believe Jews are impure, responsible for all society’s ills, and should all be killed. Is that an accurate representation of your position?
Hitler: Yup. You got it.
John: Dude, that’s messed up.
Hitler: Hey, it’s just my opinion, man.

You might imagine the following “report” appearing on a shady website soon after:

Evil John: “Jews are impure, responsible for all society’s ills, and should all be killed”

In a meeting earlier today with Adolf Hitler, John Jo McCarthy savagely attacked the Jewish population, referring to Jews as “impure” and “responsible for all society’s ills.”

The 29-year-old Wexford man even went so far as to say that Jews “should all be killed.”

Poor John.

He’ll probably never steel man again.

With that in mind, you may want to be careful when steelmanning opposing arguments publicly. Because it’s not just a bad-faith opponent you need to watch out for, but also a bad-faith member of the audience.

Key Phrases For Steelmanning

Start with something like:

  • Let me see if I understand what you’re saying…
  • If I heard you correctly, what you’re saying is…
  • I’m going to try summarize your point of view, and please tell me if I get anything wrong.

Once you’re done summarizing, be sure to check with the other person to see if they agree with your summary. You can do so by asking a question like this:

  • Is that a fair summary of your views?
  • Do I understand you correctly?
  • Have I gotten anything wrong there?
  • Would you add anything to that?

Be Forewarned: Steelmanning Is HARD!

Strawmanning is easy. You don’t have to do the work of listening carefully to your opponent’s view, and even a simple straw man argument may score some quick, cheap points against them.

But, to paraphrase Jordan Peterson, straw man arguments are weak, and they make you weak.

Steel man arguments, meanwhile, require you to actually listen and understand another person correctly, and then argue against the best version of their view.

“Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But if you try it you will discover it is one of the most difficult things you have ever tried to do. If you really understand a person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or personality. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us can face.” – Carl Rogers

So why risk it?

Because the alternative – strawmanning – is so clearly weak, dishonest, confusing and harmful.

Sure, you might win a few fights with straw man arguments, but all you’d be doing is beating up scarecrows. Where’s the honor in that?

Forget straw.

Make steel your weapon of choice.

Footnotes

  1. This analogy also explains where the term “straw man” comes from.
  2. You can watch the full exchange in this 8-minute video on YouTube.
  3. Clip of Trump’s comments early in this YouTube video.
  4. For the full 30-minute interview, see here.
  5. From Dennett’s book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking

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