Does steelmanning improve debating? An experience with childhood spanking

4 minute read

Recently, a friend of mine found out that one of their friends believes in spanking as a form of discipline and practiced it with their children. While the two of them debated on the common debating grounds of ethics, psychology, and one-sided evidence, I entered the scene and offered to do a steelman.

It was a mixed bag.

I think steelmanning succeeded in the sense that it seemed to me that the person that felt the most attacked, initially, felt more empathized with after the steelman. This was one of the original goals of steelmanning:

We hope that steelmanning improves relations between people and helps achieve the best possible world for everyone.

However, this success seemed hollow in the end because the empathy didn’t seem to be reciprocated, and I think this is the main reason the debate failed. I spent over one hundred hours creating the steelmen for and against childhood spanking but the person responded with comparatively minimal effort, and ultimately ended the debate prematurely.

I don’t regret the time I invested. I learned a lot about the evidence for and against different parenting philosophies, statistical nuances in correlational research, and the limits of scientific research on certain questions.

However, I was disappointed that steelmanning didn’t accomplish more.

Despite the failure, I also discovered a key improvement in steelmanning which is the concept of the burden of proof that should be in every steelman.

The idea of the burden of proof is to try to describe what one side would need to see in order to re-consider their point of view. Although the burden of proof may have controversial, non-scientific premises (e.g. ethics, etc.), it hopefully outlines how an argument can be resolved, even if that’s ending the argument with a clear understanding of the other person (Walton, 1988):

One of the most trenchant and fundamental criticisms of reasoned dialogue as a method of arriving at a conclusion is that argument on a controversial issue can go on and on, back and forth, without a decisive conclusion ever being determined by the argument. The only defence against this criticism lies in the use of the concept of the burden of proof within reasoned dialogue. Once a burden of proof is set externally, then it can be determined, after a finite number of moves in the dialogue, whether the burden has been met or not. Only by this device can we forestall an argument from going on indefinitely, and thereby arrive at a definite conclusion for or against the thesis at issue.

It may be no coincidence that the other person ended the debate when I was exploring their burden of proof.

Other lessons learned:

  1. Ultimately, if another person has little motivation to debate something seriously, it seems the style or content of the argument doesn’t really matter. In that sense, steelmanning was a success because it helped clarify the other person’s level of motivation.
  2. After presenting an initial steelman, if the other side doesn’t immediately explore the specifics of it nor reciprocate the steelmanning, then it’s easy to fall back into unproductive debates. Ideally, one would steelman every new topic that’s brought up, but this is incredibly difficult. One solution might be to observe that the debate is veering into other topics and propose that either:
    1. If they think the other topic is critical, both sides can go off and do steelmen of that other topic. It’s important that both sides do it so that both sides feel empathized with.
    2. Or, if they think the other topic is not critical, go back to the original steelman, starting with a focus on the burden of proof.
  3. It’s possible that a fully empathetic style of argumentation such as steelmanning may plant a seed. The other person hopefully won’t have a distasteful memory of the argument and this positive memory might help them reconsider things in the future.

Finally, another personal lesson is that I will be careful in what I decide to steelman in the future because it is such a large investment of time. That always includes my other priorities at that time, but it may now include the importance of the topic to me, the closeness of my friendship with the other person, and gauging how motivated the other person is.

As far as the topic of childhood spanking itself, some might be surprised to find that it seems that the scientific evidence is ambiguous. As summarized in the meta-comments section of the steelmen by Bauman & Friedman (1998), my review of the evidence in the 25 years since their paper suggests the same conclusion (of the scientific evidence):

The inevitable conclusion from a critical, objective review of the scientific research on corporal punishment is that the data are inadequate to permit a conclusion on either its effectiveness or its negative consequences.

Burden of proof by Nick Youngson; CC BY-SA 3.0;


2 references
  1. (Bauman & Friedman, 1998):

    Bauman, L. J., & Friedman, S. B. (1998). Corporal punishment. Pediatric clinics of North America, 45(2), 403-414. DOI: 10.1016/S0031-3955(05)70015-8.

  2. (Walton, 1988):

    Walton, D. N. (1988). Burden of proof. Argumentation, 2(2), 233-254. DOI: 10.1007/BF00178024.