The Steel Person fallacy involves ignoring a person’s actual claim or argument and substituting a better one in its place. It has the following pattern:
Premise 1: Person A makes claim or argument X.
Premise 2: Person B presents Y (a better/stronger version of X).
Premise 3: Person B defends Y.
Conclusion: Therefore, X is true/correct/good.
This is fallacious because presenting and defending a better version of a claim or argument does not show that the actual version is good. A Steel Person can be effective because people often do not know the real claim or argument being defended.
The fallacy is especially effective when the Steel Person matches the audience’s positive biases or stereotypes. They will feel that the improved version is the real version and accept it. The difference between applying the principle of charity and committing a Steel Person fallacy lies mainly in the intention: the principle of charity is aimed at being fair, the Steel Person fallacy is aimed at making a person’s claim or argument appear much better than it is and so is an attempt at deceit.
As such, this fallacy should not be confused with correctly using the principle of charity. This principle requires interpreting claims in the best possible light and reconstructing arguments to make them as strong as possible. But this must be tempered by the principle of plausibility: claims must be interpreted, and arguments reconstructed in a way that matches what is known about the source and the context in which they were made. The principle of charity is aimed, in part, at avoiding the Straw Man. The principle of plausibility is aimed, in part, at avoiding the Steel Person.
A variant of this fallacy is the Just Kidding fallacy. This occurs when a person asserts, in bad faith, that the claim or argument they or someone else made was just a joke or that they were not serious. The target is supposed to believe this and thus accept that the person’s professed belief is better than what their claim or argument indicates. This is often used in response to being embarrassed or called out for (typically for bigotry or prejudice). This variant has the following form:
Premise 1: Person A makes claim or argument X.
Premise 2: X receives a negative response.
Premise 3: X is claimed to be “just kidding” or a joke.
Conclusion: Therefore, X does not represent Person’s A real view.
This is a type of Steel Man because turning the claim or argument into an alleged joke makes it appear better than the person’s claim or argument taking as being serious. While people do make jokes that do not accurately represent their real views, it does not follow that just because a person (or their defender) claims they were joking that they really were. This tactic is often used when a bigot is recruiting; if they get a positive response, then they can escalate. If they face criticism, they can claim, in bad faith, that they were joking and maintain their cover. This tactic is also commonly used in response to the embarrassment that can arise from making a claim in ignorance or presenting a bad argument.
Defense: While this fallacy is generally aimed at an audience, it can also be self-inflicted: a person can unwittingly make a Steel Person out of a claim or argument. This can be done entirely in error (perhaps due to ignorance) or due to the influence of positive biases. The defense against a Steel Man, self-inflicted or not, is to take care to get a person’s claim or argument right and to apply the principle of plausibility. As with any fallacy, it should not be inferred that the conclusion of a Steel Person argument must be false. In fact, when someone makes a Steel Man they will often present a plausible claim or good argument. While the substituted steel claim or argument does not prove anything about the original, the substituted claim or argument should be assessed on their own merits and not simply rejected because they are part of a fallacy. In the case of the Just Kidding variant, the defense is to be on guard against people attempting to dismiss claims or arguments as jokes. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to know when a person is committing this fallacy since doing so requires knowing that they were not, in fact, joking. However, it is possible to use what you do know about a person to assess such claims.
Reporter: “Was the President serious when he said that if ‘you want to keep someone away from your house, just fire the shotgun through the door’?”
Press Secretary: “First, the President was obviously joking when he made that remark. Second, what he meant by that remark is that a shotgun would be sufficient for home defense and therefore there is not a legitimate need for assault weapons, like the Assault Rifle-15.”
Reporter: “You mean ‘ArmaLite Rifle-15.”
Press Secretary: “Sure.”
Reporter: “Was the President serious when asked if disinfectants could be used in COVID cures?”
Press Secretary: “Obviously he was just joking. He was being sarcastic.”
Reporter: “What about when he asked about using light to treat COVID?”
Press Secretary: “Also joking. He is such a kidder.”
Ben: “Have you ever noticed how many Jews work in Hollywood? That explains a lot.”
Sheryl: “Like what?”
Ben: “Like how they are controlling the media. Ever notice how many Jews are bankers? International bankers?”
Sheryl: “That sounds antisemitic. I can see where this is probably going.”
Ben: “Hey, I am just kidding!”