Steel Man (opposite of Straw Man) Rationality

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source:  Information Processing

I often tell people on my team who are arguing for a particular position to also be ready and able to summarize the best argument against their position.

This might be something to keep in mind while thinking about the election and the debate last night.

Steel man: Sometimes the term “steel man” is used to refer to a position’s or argument’s improved form. A straw man is a misrepresentation of someone’s position or argument that is easy to defeat: a “steel man” is an improvement of someone’s position or argument that is harder to defeat than their originally stated position or argument.

John Stuart Mill: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…”

While the questions below may have right and wrong answers, I doubt the analysis leading to those answers is in any way simple and I doubt that most people with strong opinions on them could give the strongest arguments either for or against their own position.

Has global trade helped the average American over the last 30 years? Link.

When elites and the larger population disagree on a policy issue, which group generally gets their way? Link.

Can a nation with a $20 trillion national debt and large trade deficit maintain an aggressive military and foreign policy stance? Link.

At what threshold of economic productivity does a net “taker” become a “maker”? What is the threshold relative to the current minimum wage? Link.

Should the US accept more low-skill immigrants? What are the long term consequences? Link.

Is the total economic return to university education, either to the individual or to the nation, positive regardless of the ability level of the individual? Link.

Is the US winning or losing the cyberwar? Are China and Russia also listening to Merkel’s cell phone conversations? Are PCs in Chinese and Russian government ministries actually secure and better maintained than ours? Link.

Is it possible that much of economic growth in future decades depends on technical innovations in areas such as quantum physics, machine learning, AI, genomics, advanced materials, robotics that only the top few percent of the population are cognitively equipped to understand? Has this already been true for some time? Link.



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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.