Avoiding strawmen

post by casebash · 2016-06-17T08:20:51.673Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 13 comments

George Bernard Shaw wrote that, "the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place". Much of strawmanning is unconscious. One person says that it is important to be positive, the other person interprets this as it being important to be positive in *all* circumstances, when they are merely making a general statement.

I would suggest that a technique to avoid accidentally strawmanning someone would be to begin by intentionally strawmanning them and then try to back off to something more moderate from there. 

Take for example:

"Just be yourself"

A strawman would be, "Even if you are a serial killer, you should focus on being yourself, than changing how you behave".

Since this is a rather extreme strawman, backing off to something more moderate from here would be too easy. We might very well just back off to another strawman. Instead, we should backoff to a more reasonable strawman first, then backoff to the moderate version of their view.

The more moderate strawman, "You should never change how you act in order to better fit in"

When we back off to something more moderate, we then get, "Changing how you act in order to better fit in is generally not worth it"

You can then respond to the more moderate view. If you had responded to the original, you might have pointed out a single case when the principle didn't hold, such as making a change that didn't affect one's individuality (i.e showering regularly) and used it to attack the more general principle. When you have the more moderate principle, you can see that such a single example only negates the strict reading, not the more moderate reading. You can then either accept the moderate reading or add arguments about why you also disagree with it. If you had skipped this process, you might have made a specific critique and not realised that it didn't completely negate the other person's argument.

13 comments

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comment by gjm · 2016-06-17T10:10:25.284Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

George Bernard Shaw wrote that, "the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place".

I have grave difficulty believing that GBS ever wrote anything containing the words "the single biggest problem in communication". Not his style. And, indeed, it doesn't look like he did.

comment by DefectiveAlgorithm · 2016-06-25T10:12:59.972Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

...Has someone been mass downvoting you?

comment by gjm · 2016-06-25T22:36:27.382Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Yup. For quite a long time and with ever-increasing frequency. (Lots of sockpuppets.)

comment by Good_Burning_Plastic · 2016-06-25T22:22:35.281Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, The Artist Formerly Known As Eugine_Nier is doing it.

comment by Elo · 2016-06-25T22:04:27.224Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. We are working on it.

comment by gjm · 2016-06-17T10:13:42.951Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This seems closely related to the practice of "steelmanning"; the main difference is that when steelmanning you don't begin with a deliberate strawman but start with what you think they actually said and then improve that. Since, as you say, "much of strawmanning is unconscious" this may be a smaller difference than it appears: when steelmanning, you are quite likely actually starting from a strawman even if you don't intend to.

comment by SquirrelInHell · 2016-06-17T08:35:24.719Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

George Bernard Shaw wrote that

As far as writing style goes, the quote seems awkward and more relevant to the illusion of transparency than strawmanning.

I would suggest that a technique to avoid accidentally strawmanning someone

Could work. The old "break it so much that you can no longer overlook how broken it is".

Note that even if it works 100%, it certainly doesn't solve the problem of strawmanning. My guess is that if you manage to notice that the situation calls for some correction or technique in the first place, you're 90% of the way there anyway.

Of course every bit of help matters, so probably worth keeping this trick around - thanks.

(I've tried it now on your post and it wasn't all that helpful... maybe I'll have more luck with it the next time :D)

comment by casebash · 2016-06-17T11:19:24.403Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The old "break it so much that you can no longer overlook how broken it is" - thanks, that describes this idea very well.

comment by Tem42 · 2016-06-17T15:40:40.237Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Assuming that you are engaged in conversation/argument/debate with a specific target, perhaps the best way to edit out spurious strawmen is to mentally append "except in this case...." to any objection.

Thus:

Them: "It's important to be yourself."

You: "Except in this case, because John is a psychopath."

(Or, You: "Except in this case, because John is a fine, upstanding young guy... oh... nevermind.")

Not only should this eliminate most straw men, it should help keep the discussion on track.

comment by ChristianKl · 2016-06-17T13:27:39.076Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When we back off to something more moderate, we then get, "Changing how you act in order to better fit in is generally not worth it"

While that's a moderate reading I don't think it's what most people I know who would say "Just be yourself" mean. If someone doesn't try to be themselves telling them to be themselves is a suggestion that they change their behavior.

In general it's not about finding a moderate reading but in about engaging which what the person you are talking to actually believes.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2016-06-18T09:34:28.389Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

One person says that it is important to be positive, the other person interprets this as it being important to be positive in all circumstances, when they are merely making a general statement.

The solution for both parties is to identify and verify the contexts in which the generalization is true, and the contexts in which it is not true.