Dangers of steelmanning / principle of charity

by gothgirl4206662 min read16th Jan 201494 comments

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Steelmanning
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As far as I can tell, most people around these parts consider the principle of charity and its super saiyan form, steelmanning, to be Very Good Rationalist Virtues. I basically agree and I in fact operate under these principles more or less automatically now. HOWEVER, no matter how good the rule is, there are always exceptions, which I have found myself increasingly concerned about.

This blog post that I found in the responses to Yvain's anti-reactionary FAQ argues that even though the ancient Romans had welfare, this policy was motivated not for concern for the poor or for a desire for equality like our modern welfare policies, but instead "the Roman dole was wrapped up in discourses about a) the might and wealth of Rome and b) goddess worship... The dole was there because it made the emperor more popular and demonstrated the wealth of Rome to the people. What’s more, the dole was personified as Annona, a goddess to be worshiped and thanked." 

So let's assume this guy is right, and imagine that an ancient Roman travels through time to the present day. He reads an article by some progressive arguing (using the rationale one would typically use) that Obama should increase unemployment benefits. "This makes no sense," the Roman thinks to himself. "Why would you give money to someone who doesn't work for it? Why would you reward lack of virtue? Also, what's this about equality? Isn't it right that an upper class exists to rule over a lower class?" Etc. 

But fortunately, between when he hopped out of the time machine and when he found this article, a rationalist found him and explained to him steelmanning and the principle of charity. "Ah, yes," he thinks. "Now I remember what the rationalist said. I was not being so charitable. I now realize that this position kind of makes sense, if you read between the lines. Giving more unemployment benefits would, now that I think about it, demonstrate the power of America to the people, and certainly Annona would approve. I don't know why whoever wrote this article didn't just come out and say that, though. Maybe they were confused". 

Hopefully you can see what I'm getting at. When you regularly use the principle of charity and steelmanning, you run the risk of:

1. Sticking rigidly to a certain worldview/paradigm/established belief set, even as you find yourself willing to consider more and more concrete propositions. The Roman would have done better to really read what the modern progressive's logic was, think about it, and try to see where he was coming from than to automatically filter it through his own worldview. If he consistently does this he will never find himself considering alternative ways of seeing the world that might be better.  

2. Falsely developing the sense that your worldview/paradigm/established belief set is more popular than it is. Pretty much no one today holds the same values that an ancient Roman does, but if the Roman goes around being charitable all the time then he will probably see his own beliefs reflected back at him a fair amount.

3. Taking arguments more seriously than you possibly should. I feel like I see all the time on rationalist communities people say stuff like "this argument by A sort of makes sense, you just need to frame it in objective, consequentialist terms like blah blah blah blah blah" and then follow with what looks to me like a completely original thought that I've never seen before. But why didn't A just frame her argument in objective, consequentialist terms? Do we assume that what she wrote was sort of a telephone-game approximation of what was originally a highly logical consequentialist argument? If so where can I find that argument? And if not, why are we assuming that A is a crypto-consequentialist when she probably isn't? And if we're sure that objective, consequentialist logic is The Way To Go, then shouldn't we be very skeptical of arguments that seem like their basis is in some other reasoning system entirely? 

4. Just having a poor model of people's beliefs in general, which could lead to problems.

Hopefully this made sense, and I'm sorry if this is something that's been pointed out before.

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To me, charitable reading and steelmanning are rather different, though related.

To read charitably is to skip over, rather than use for your own rhetorical advantage, things in your interlocutor's words like ambiguity, awkwardness, slips of tongue, inessential mistakes. On the freeway of discussion, charitable reading is the great smoother-over of cracks and bumps of "I didn't mean it like that" and "that's not what it says". It is always a way towards a meeting of the minds, towards understanding better What That Person Really Wanted To Say - but nothing beyond that. If you're not sure whether something is a charitable reading, ask yourself if the interlocutor would agree - or would have agreed when you're arguing with a text whose author is absent or dead - that this is what they really meant to say.

I prefer "charitable reading" and not "the principle of charity" because the latter might be applied very broadly. We might assume all kinds of things about the interlocutor's words acting out of what we perceive as charity. For example, "let's pretend you never said that" in response to a really stupid or vile statement might strike ... (read more)

Steelmanning is not a courtesy or a service to my interlocutor. It is a service to me. It is my attempt to build the strongest case I can against my position, so I can shatter it or see it survive the challenge. The interlocutor might not agree, if I were to ask them, that my steelmanned argument is really stronger than theirs; that's no matter. I'm not doing it for them, I'm doing it for myself.

Steelmanning is always done for your own sake. It always says something new that the original owner of the argument didn't think of or at least didn't say. When put back into the discussion, it should be introduced explicitly as your words.

Remember, the steelmanned argument is your creation and is meant for you, you owe it to yourself to test your beliefs with it, but not necessarily in the context of this conversation. Not because concealing it is an easier way to victory, but rather because what's steelmanned for you might not be steelmanned or even interesting to your interlocutor. Their argument said A, and you may have found a way to strengthen it further to say B, but they might not want to claim B, to defend B, to agree that B is stronger than A. That said, if you do think the steel

... (read more)
2AllAmericanBreakfast6moSometimes, our native curiosity is a poor guide to the questions we should really be asking. The Roman will have to see the lack of temples to Annona, read the histories of ancient Rome, experience a whole lot of people making fun of his toga and the police doing nothing to stop it, and marvel at the magic that the common citizens of this new land carry in their pocket. But even that might not work if the cherished belief is infectious enough. People will lead miserable lives, commit unspeakable acts, deny their own senses, and go to an early grave in order to maintain a false belief or avoid an uncomfortable thought. Steelmanning only helps in the fortunate case where curiosity and intuition are fairly trustworthy guides in our pursuit of a meaningful truth.
0ThisSpaceAvailable7yThe first quote implies a subjective standard for charitable reading; charitable reading is when one reads the argument in a way they believe the other person would agree with. The second, on the other hand, implies an objective standard: a reading is charitable if it is what the other person actually would agree with. Can you clarify this issue? If you end up being convinced by your own steelmanned argument, is that steelmanning? It's against your original position, but for your new position. Isn't there a temptation to come up with as strong as an argument as possible given the constraint that the steelmanned argument be just weak enough to not be convincing?

I'm reminded of Bret Victor's recent comment on reading Latour:

It’s tempting to judge what you read: "I agree with these statements, and I disagree with those." However, a great thinker who has spent decades on an unusual line of thought cannot induce their context into your head in a few pages. It’s almost certainly the case that you don’t fully understand their statements. Instead, you can say: "I have now learned that there exists a worldview in which all of these statements are consistent." And if it feels worthwhile, you can make a genuine effort to understand that entire worldview. You don't have to adopt it. Just make it available to yourself, so you can make connections to it when it's needed.

That, to me, is a principle of charity well applied. I wouldn't at all say that steelmanning is a stronger form of that -- a rationalist trying to steelman Latour would be like your Roman trying to steelman progressivism. Steelmanning is about constructing what you see as stronger versions of an argument, while the principle of charity is about trying to get into your interlocutor's head under the assumption that whatever they're saying or doing seems reasonable... (read more)

This is my favorite quote in several months :). You should add it to the Rationality Quotes thread.

4whales7yDone, thanks for the reminder.
6TheOtherDave7yAgreed completely. This formulation of the principle of charity also reminds me a lot of Miller's law [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller%27s_law#In_communication].
-1ChrisHallquist7yFalse. Seems pretty obvious that lots of people have inconsistent worldviews.
0Vaniver7yI must say, I find this statement rather amusing in context. Does the original quote describe all, or almost all people? It looks like it describes great thinkers- that is, people who should give you pause when they disagree with you. And if this is the first time you've met someone, you don't know whether or not they're a great thinker, and you may be overweighting a perceived inconsistency in your reading of their statement of their beliefs in your determination of whether or not they're a good enough thinker to puzzle through.
-1ChrisHallquist7yEr, good point. It didn't occur to me to think so-called "great thinkers" are that much less likely to be inconsistent than most people. But on reflection I stand by that. See e.g. Eric Schwitzgebel on Kant [http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2010/03/kant-on-killing-bastards-on.html].

Quoth Yvain:

I no longer try to steelman BETA-MEALR [Ban Everything That Anyone Might Experience And Later Regret] arguments as utilitarian. When I do, I just end up yelling at my interlocutor, asking how she could possibly get her calculations so wrong, only for her to reasonably protest that she wasn’t make any calculations and what am I even talking about?

6Douglas_Knight7yThanks. I didn't believe the original post without examples.
-5Calvin7y

I consider steelmanning to be a safeguard against reversing stupidity, especially in political contexts. If my opponent says X, I am likely to say non-X for many bad reasons such as: my opponent defends X using arguments I disagree with.

But if you show me that X can also be defended using arguments I would agree with, then I will be less likely to automatically throw X away, and I will be more able to consider X on its own merits.

Steelmanning is good for understanding "X can also be defended by good arguments", and is dangerous because it provides a bad model of my opponent. (Unless my original model was so bad that the steelmanning didn't make it worse; which wouldn't be completely unexpected in a political debate.)

In your example, the time-travelling Roman would get a completely bad idea about why Obama wants to increase unemployment benefits. But he would get a useful insight about why he might want to support increasing unemployment benefits. It's bad for modelling Obama, it's good for thinking about possible consequences of the unemployment benefits. (If you were an Annona-worshipping Roman, you would want to realize she would be happy about the unemployment benefits... (read more)

5[anonymous]7yA nitpick: This doesn't follow. Many reactionaries are either intimately involved in LW culture or are sympathetic towards it, so an LW member trying to model a reactionary is probably doing a much better job than a Roman modeling Obama.
8gothgirl4206667yThis is interesting because I sort of see most Reactionary positions as already being steelmen - putting beliefs that most people think are based on superstitious, bigoted, backwards modes of reasoning into consequentialist, logical, LW-style rhetoric. (Is there a notable difference between the politics held by someone described as "Reactionary" and someone described as "far-right"? I can't figure this out. "Reactionary" seems to me like basically meaning "far-right, but smart".)
6Moss_Piglet7y"Far Right" implicitly invokes the Overton Window; most anything you can''t comfortably say in public anymore is Far Right, even if it is actually thought by the majority of people or was itself a leftist position a few decades ago. Saying something is Far Right or Far Left from an assumed neutral position can be useful to elucidate the boundaries of conventional thought, or to exploit anchoring in an unsophisticated audience, but provides little information on it's own. In general, Reactionaries want to reboot society[1] to before some big event which symbolizes the beginning of visible civilizational decline (Like May 1968, Reconstruction, the French Revolution, the English Civil War, the Protestant Reformation, the Edict of Milan, etc.), whereas Conservatives try to keep the status quo from deteriorating further with constant patches. That said, today's conservatism becomes tomorrow's reaction as the traditions they failed to conserve are destroyed fully in the next Great Leap Forward. I realize that's general to the point of vagueness but it's tough to hit a moving target in the first place even when you know what you're aiming at. Golden Dawn and the Tea Party are both "far right," and neither are particularly reactionary IMO, but they're also fairly dissimilar so comments about one don't apply much to the other. [1]One big stumbling-block to understanding this is the wrongheaded idea that technological advance and moral "progress" are inseparable, seeing the return of (for example) an ancien-regime style aristocracy as somehow necessitating turning off the internet or throwing away antibiotics. Culture and technology are certainly linked, so you should expect large shifts in one to affect the other, but human nature itself changes fairly slowly and it is very suspicious to see alterations to social organization racing ahead of the demographic changes which naturally guide them.
0Lumifer7yDo you think this is a good parallel (if we are borrowing terms from religious studies): conservatives == traditionalists reactionaries == fundamentalists ?
3Moss_Piglet7yThe comparison doesn't have a great connotation, given that "fundamentalist" is typically an epithet, but it's not too far off in terms of the denotation. Personally though, I would say it's more of an Exoteric / Esoteric split; conservatives seem to spend most of their effort preserving outward forms and rituals of their cultures in an effort to keep the fire going, where reactionaries see it as burnt out already and so look back for the essential (in both senses of the word) elements to spark a new one. A good example is comparing Chesterton's Catholic apology with Evola's promotion of Tradition [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditionalist_School], not to imply that you can't be a Catholic reactionary but just as an example of a differing mindset. Of course, esoterica being what it is, it's a bit tough to get a grip on and much easier to talk about than to understand fully.
0MugaSofer7yOf course, "reactionary" was also traditionally a derogatory term. So perhaps that isn't surprising.
0Lumifer7yIn the context of religious studies "fundamentalist" is not derogatory but descriptive.
2MugaSofer7yMost epithets start out as descriptive terms with some sort of negative connotation.
1Nornagest7yIANAR, but "fundamentalist" connotes strong deontological beliefs to me, and in particular a stance wherein anything violating some established creed X is definitionally considered evil. That tends to imply at least self-perceived reaction within religious contexts, since most religions' moral contents were developed relative to mores at the times and places of their founding; also because many religions include doctrine describing some sort of lost golden age. But the reverse doesn't seem to be true: we can imagine wanting to rewind parts of society to some prior state on strictly consequentialist grounds, without invoking any particular deontology. (Indeed, given the amount of variation over time it would be surprising if there weren't historical situations we'd prefer, unless we believe in some sort of ethical teleology or an Yvain-style deal where the ethical sophistication we can get away with supporting scales with technical capability, at least in agrarian/industrial societies. I find the latter somewhat convincing, myself.)
3Douglas_Knight7yThe words have been used inconsistently throughout the centuries, but the etymology is that a reactionary wants to roll back a change, while a far-right person might have the same politics, without the implication of having noticed where society is.
1MugaSofer7y... and then finding the steelman so persuasive you convert to the other side. Zing!
2Randy_M7yBut the point is, is steelmanning someone making a better model of them than just taking them at their own words? If the point is in fact to understand them, rather than to challenge your own position, and they are arguing competantly and honestly, it probably is. Edit: Meant "is not"!

The Wikipedia formulation is "write for your enemy", i.e. state their position sufficiently well that they would accept you have stated their position sufficiently well. This is useful in that they are generally present and will let you know in no uncertain terms if you've failed to achieve this. This is only a guideline, as unreasonable opponents do exist and the stretch is so that you can write a better neutral article.

2ThisSpaceAvailable7yI have found unreasonable opponents to be unreasonably common, and attempts at clarification are quite often ignored, or even elicit hostility, and often are simply exploited.
1David_Gerard7yThis is, of course, true. Nevertheless, "write for the enemy" is still a useful guideline.

But why didn't A just frame her argument in objective, consequentialist terms? Do we assume that what she wrote was sort of a telephone-game approximation of what was originally a highly logical consequentialist argument? If so where can I find that argument? And if not, why are we assuming that A is a crypto-consequentialist when she probably isn't?

I never thought that steelmanning implied necessarily assuming that A would agree with the steelmanned version. If A says something that seems to have a reasonable point behind it but is expressed badly, then yes, in that case the steelmanned version can be something that they'd agree with. But they might also say something that was obviously wrong and not worth engaging with - but which nonetheless sparked an idea about something that was more reasonable, and which might be interesting to discuss.

In either case, we've replaced a bad argument with a better one that seems worth considering and discussing. Whether or not A really intended the argument to be understood like that doesn't matter that much.

To take a more concrete example, in What Data Generated That Thought?, I wrote:

All outcomes are correlated with causes; most stateme

... (read more)
[-][anonymous]7y 14

There's another way it can go wrong:

"You claim X, which sounds pretty bizarre to me so I'll charitably assume you meant a weaker version X' that fits in my worldview, and I'll forget that you originally claimed an argument for X."

3gothgirl4206667yThat's pretty much the same thing as my point #1.
0bbleeker7yWouldn't that be strawmanning though, not steelmanning?
5[anonymous]7yI think it's not quite the same. Strawmanning is inventing a less defensible, normally more extreme, version of an argument. This is inventing a more defensible, less extreme version of an argument.
1ThisSpaceAvailable7yNo, this isn't creating a less extreme argument, it's creating a less extreme thesis.
0Eugine_Nier7yBeing more defensible and being more extreme are not the same thing, in fact frequently it is the more extreme versions of arguments that are easier to defend.

Excellent points. I've never been a huge fan of steelmanning. A couple more:

  1. People talk as if steelmanning is inherently a virtue, but in practice they're selective about what they steelman. You won't see many steelmannings of Young Earth Creationism around these parts--or even plain vanilla theism. If people are going to steelman, it would be nice for them to be more up-front about why they chose to steelman this particular argument (or when they're telling someone else "hey why aren't you steelmanning the person you're attacking," be upfront about what that particular argument deserves steelmanning.

  2. If you choose which arguments to steelman more or less at random, or for bad reasons, it seems like it's a violation of privileging the hypothesis.

2Prismattic7yWhat would steelmanning Young Earth Creationism even look like? Young Earth Creationism is already the playdoughman* version of Creationism. If you steelman it, it wouldn't be Young Earth anymore. *If I'm never remembered for anything else in the rationalosphere, I would like to be known as the creator of the term "playdoughmanning".
7Kawoomba7yPlease stop with the prismatticmanning of tortured neologisms. The ensuing syllabilistic explosion might pose a memetic hazard (Great Filter = Tower of Babble).
5Will_Sawin7yIt would be amusing if the single primary reason that the universe is not buzzing with life and civilization is that any sufficiently advanced society develops terminology and jargon too complex to be comprehensible, and inevitably collapses because of that.
0Kawoomba7y?Que?
0Will_Sawin7yThat's what the Great Filter is, no?
7ChrisHallquist7yI don't dispute this, except that this is also how I feel about some of the views some other people in the rationalist community think deserve to be steelmanned. Indeed, is there ever a case where it isn't at least plausible that the steelman version of view X wouldn't be view X anymore?
6[anonymous]7yhttp://squid314.livejournal.com/327646.html [http://squid314.livejournal.com/327646.html]
0MugaSofer7yAliens Did It? Seems to be used in that capacity sometimes. That's a real view so weak it resembles a strawman of a real belief, yes?
0MugaSofer7yYes, that would be tribal affiliations showing. I always assumed the cure for this was more steelmanning...
2ChrisHallquist7yWhich part? Is lack of interest in steel manning YEC just a sign of tribal affiliations?
2MugaSofer7yBoth points - the lack of consistency, and privileging the hypothesis. (In fairness, it's more than "tribal affliliations". There are probably all sorts of biases creating this particular danger in being half a rationalist.)

I endorse all of these problems as real. Too much steelmanning blinds to the reality of the rather incompetent civilization and malfunctioning species we live in.

Issue 1 above has nothing to do with losing sight of how incompetent our civilization and most of its individuals are. It's about almost the opposite problem: trying to be charitable to someone else by adjusting their position to be more like your own, at the risk of messing it up in the process.

[EDITED because I wrote "Issue 2" where I meant "Issue 1", and also to fix up a minor consistency arising from the fact that an earlier draft had had "Issues 1 and 2".]

1MugaSofer7yCan you give an example of someone who had this problem? It seems like almost the opposite problem is more common (aspiring rationalists "steelmanning" popular but wrong concepts, and then adopting the steelmanned version, in a sort of high-level refusal to update.) (And, of course, it seems like the refusal to steelman at all, instead attacking a demonized strawman version of the Other Side,is a ore common issue still - but that should go without saying.)

Steelmanning is optimal * when looking for true beliefs about the world **, as long as you're aware that the source of the argument only provided a weaker form of the argument ***.

* In an environment without any resource constraints, which unfortunately never is the case. Still, if you got time on your hands and nothing else to do ...

** Arguments in their maximally persuasive form have more potential to shift your beliefs in the correct direction. Neglecting a potential strong form of an argument is tantamount to ignoring evidence.

*** So steelmanning the c... (read more)

2Eugine_Nier7yOf course, if you're finding that someone seems to repeatedly arrive at the right conclusion for "the wrong reasons" you should take this as evidence that said reasons are better than you thought.
8derefr7yIn such cases, it more-often-than-not seems to me that the arguer has arrived at their conclusion through intuition, and is now attempting to work back to defensible arguments without those arguments being ones that would convince them , if they didn't first have the intuition.
5[anonymous]7yNot necessarily. Survivorship bias [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivorship_bias].

Great article, I hadn't heard this argument before but I think it's a good point. I'll also mention that I think the Ideological Turing Test does a good job of combating some of your worries here, although of course has its own dangers.

"The dole was there because it made the emperor more popular" and that is the same reason it exists today. Charitable social policies exist primarily to buy votes. Take Head Start as one of many, many examples of failed programs: http://nypost.com/2010/01/28/head-start-a-tragic-waste-of-money/. $166 billion wasted on a program that is demonstrably no help. It seems to be a dismal failure, but continues to exist, because it sounds good and gets votes. The reason why there are so many seemingly failed government programs, is because those programs ... (read more)

Switch to Main?

I suspect there's a difference between steelmanning as in removing unnecessary assumptions or context, and steelmanning as in completely changing the logical foundation of the argument, just retaining the bottom line proposition, as our Roman seems to be doing. They are both valid, with the second one more vulnerable to the problems you mention, especially #1.

Also, either way, it would be a mistake to take the steelmanned argument and attribute it back to the source of the original argument. This seems to be the cause of your problems #2 and #4, maybe also... (read more)

I think it would be useful to identify subcategories of what people mean by steelmanning and then see if we can approve some of those.

2gedymin7y"Bad" steelmanning: a form of misunderstanding your opponent (as in the Roman example). "Good" steelmanning: marshalling the best form of the argument against your position and defeating it. Also known as charitable interpretation. I don't think steelmanning is particularly dangerous. It should be quite easy to recognize and avoid "bad" steelmanning, which is the whole source of the danger. If the Roman is truly a rationalist, he should be aware of his very limited knowledge of the modern society and the dangers of substituting an argument in his situation. Steelmanning in his situation is a clear example of irrational behavior.
7Luke_A_Somers7yI think it's also steelmanning if you don't end up defeating the improved argument.

Very good, although I have heard similar arguments (though less elaborated) in conversation. The principle of charity (or steelmanning - never heard that term before) certainly is important, but sometimes it just goes too far. At one seminar I used to attend the seminar leader used to "re-interpret" the most confused and illogical argument, saying - "did you mean so and so", to which the interpretee of course invariably gratefully responded yes (though of course he never in his life had come up with such an interesting argument). The wh... (read more)

Taking arguments more seriously than you possibly should. I feel like I see all the time on rationalist communities people say stuff like "this argument by A sort of makes sense, you just need to frame it in objective, consequentialist terms like blah blah blah blah blah" and then follow with what looks to me like a completely original thought that I've never seen before.

Rather than - or at least in addition to - being a bug, this strikes me as one of charity's features. Most arguments are, indeed, neither original nor very good. Inasmuch as you can substitute them for more original and/or coherent claims, then so much the better, I say.

3asr7yYes. But it's not doing any favors to anybody if you pretend that a new coherent argument is the same as an old incoherent argument. In my experience, the authors of the previous argument are often hesitant to agree with the new rephrasing -- it's not written in the terms they use to understand the world.
5Calvin7yIt is also likely not written in the way they understand the world. I mean If charity is assuming that the other person is saying something interesting and worth consideration, such approach strikes me as an exact opposite: I mean, if you are better at arguing for the other side than your opposition, why do you even speak with them?

I thought this was in Main when I promoted it. Any reason not to move it to Main?

1gothgirl4206667yUh, I don't really know how it works that well, this is only the second post I've written. I can't think of a reason not to.

As someone who steelmans and interprets other people charitably a lot, I hadn't thought of the problems this could cause. I've managed to change my mind about a lot of things in the past few years; I wonder how much of this is because I didn't have any beliefs I held very strongly before, and don't hold many of my current beliefs all that strongly either.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

Original thoughts arriving in the form of difficult-to-express intuitions is a common phenomenon. Early analytic philosophers were struggling with the right way to express the intuition that "greater(7, 5) = true" and "lesser(5, 7) = true" represent the same fact. Now we know that the correct answer is to derive both as consequences of the same abstract model of the relevant entities (such as natural numbers) whose existence is to an extent independent of the language used to describe it. The function of the model is to take the way a l... (read more)

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It seems to me there are too separate issues.

1) Do you act like other people actually SAID the better argument (or interpretation of that argument) that you can put in his mouth?

2) Do you suggest the better alternative in debates and discussions of the idea before arguing against it.


2 is certainly a good idea while all the problems come from item 1. Indeed, I would suggest that both parties do best when everyone ACTS LIKE OTHER PEOPLE SAID WHATEVER YOU JUDGE TO BE MOST LIKELY THEY ACTUALLY INTENDED TO SAY. So you don't don't then on misspeaking nor do ... (read more)

Indeed, I think a huge reason for the lack of useful progress in philosophy is too much charity.

People charitably assume that if they don't fully understand something (and aren't themselves an expert in the area) the person advancing the notion is likely contributing something of value that you just don't understand yet.

This is much of the reason for the continued existence of continental philosophy drivel like claims that set theory entails morality or the deeply confused erudite crap in Being and Time. Anyone who isn't actually an expert in this kind of... (read more)

wrong thread

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Not sure if I properly understood the original post - apologies if I'm just restating points already made, but I see it like this.

Whatever it consists of, it's pretty much the definition of rationality that it increases expected utility. Assuming that the intermediate objective of a rationalist technique like steelmanning is to bring us closer to the truth, then there are 2 trivial cases where steelmanning is not rational:

(1) When the truth has low utility. (If a lion starts chasing me, I will temporarily abandon my attempt to find periodicity in the digit... (read more)

2blacktrance7yI think the point is that while steelmanning can get you closer to the truth about the conclusion of an argument, it can unintentionally get you further from the truth about what argument a person is making. If I say "X is true because of Y" and you steelman it into "X is true because of Z", it's important to remember that I believe "X is true because of Y" and not "X is true because of Z".
0tom_cr7yThanks, I was half getting the point, but is this really important, as you say? If my goal is to gain value by assessing whether or not your proposition is true, why would this matter? If the goal is to learn something about the person you are arguing with (maybe not as uncommon as I'm inclined to think?), then certainly, care must be taken. I suppose the procedure should be to form a hypothesis of the type "Y was stated in an inefficient attempt to express Z," where Z constitutes possible evidence for X, and to examine the plausibility of that hypothesis.

This is a very nice post that highlights an important issue that I hadn't previously been fully conscious of.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

Thank you for writing that.

To me steelmanning sometimes feels like rationalizing, only instead of rationalizing your position, you rationalize your opponent's. It might be still useful, though.

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