Dear Diary 

Steel men and aikido

No, not steely aikidokas...

Straw man is an informal fallacy wherein you take your opponent's argument, misrepresent it to make it weaker, and then attack that misrepresented version.

The opposite of a strawman is a steelman -- you take your opponent's arguments, fix their shortcomings, improve them, and THEN attack them, when they are in their best form.

Steelmanning is actually a very good practice. I do it on a regular basis. The problem with steelmanning is that a superficial examination often results the steelmen being confused for strawmen -- the other party simply sees that the argument has been changed, and being blind to their argument's flaws, they mistake the steelman for the strawman.

Why Aikido? Because in Aikido this happens all the time. The sensei shows you a move where a lot of niggling little details matter. For instance, shomenuchi yaku sankyo:

And then the questions come ('uke' is the one on whom the technique is being done, 'ukemi' is receiving the technique; 'nage' is the one doing the technique):

-- Don't straighten your arm, uke! (0:20)
-- Why?
-- When you keep your arm bent, if the nage tries to break your elbow, you can get away with a forward roll. If you straighten out your arm, nage will lock your elbow and break it on the spot, no point in even completing the technique.

-- Don't look away from nage, uke! (0:23)
-- Why?
-- If you do, you will expose your shoulder to locking. By looking at nage and keeping your arm in the plane of your torso, you maintain control of your shoulder joint.

-- Move on the balls of your feet, uke! (0:38)
-- Why?
-- A nage with your wrist in sankyo lock can rotate very fast. Staying on the balls of your feet while running backwards is the only way to keep up and avoid having your wrist joint shredded. (note: this uke is actually not doing it right, he puts the heels down).

-- Look away from the nage when pinned, uke! (0.58)
-- Why?
-- If you don't, you will just earn a knee to the face. At this point, you can't get away anyway, so at least protect your face.


But none of this is usually explained during the technique demonstration -- this is not the Aikido way, you must understand on your own why we do it THIS way and not THAT way. However, when beginning aikidokas see a technique for the first time, they immediately start wondering: Why do we do it like this? Why not try this? etc. My sensei indulges such questions, and demonstrates the dangers of deviating from the proper ukemi (or proper nagemi). Old-school japanese senseis generally didn't.

Aikido techniques are usually 'steel-manned' (with a few exceptions designed specifically to practice particular entries or transitions) -- all the alternative interactions are already considered, analyzed, and there are known counters and exploits to them. But this isn't obvious to a begining aikidoka. To a beginner, a thoroughly steelmanned aikido technique looks silly and contrived, there are much simpler and easier ways of doing this... except that those simple and easy ways all have known counters which the beginner doesn't see.

The same reasoning applies to arguments. Sometimes you run into steelman arguments, but you might not recognize that it is in fact a steelman, and then might follow and long and boring explanation of why no, THAT line of argument doesn't work; THAT datum doesn't help you; etc.

Steelman, and argue responsibly!

07:18:29 on 03/30/16 by danilche - Category: Philosophical


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