We’ve probably all heard of the strawman fallacy. And many of us have also heard of the perceived opposite of strawmanning, namely steelmanning. In this article I want to introduce another informal fallacy. To my knowledge, I am the first to articulate the concept and coin the term supermanning. Check out the analysis and avoid the fallacy!
Let’s begin with the topic of strawmanning. This term refers to an informal fallacy which is familiar to most people, not least because most of us engage in it from time to time. Strawmanning involves an uncharitable engagement with the views of others in which one targets and critiques a weak version of an opposing argument and treats that refutation as effectively refuting all forms of the argument. It’s equivalent to choosing the weakest wrestler from the other school’s wrestling team, beating him in a match, and then telling people you beat the entire team. It isn’t hard to figure out that if you were a wrestler at the other school, you would not appreciate someone engaging in that kind of behavior.
I see strawmanning all the time. For example, I see it in the angry atheist who left Christianity after becoming alienated by an emotionally abusive and anti-intellectual congregation that left them thinking they needed to choose between science, ethics, and history or the Bible as interpreted by the firebrand of a pastor. Needless to say, when that angry atheist then says that they reject Christianity because it rejects science, ethics, and history, they are engaging in strawmanning.
Strawmanning is often framed as a vice that is contrasted with the virtue of steelmanning. To steelman means you seek to present the views of others in the strongest possible form. I often say that the best way to steelman is to commit to doing a devil’s advocate debate on a topic, one in which each participant commits to defending claims that are the opposite of what they actually believe. I have participated in a few formal devil’s advocate debates and I have always found it to be a wonderful experience. Some people may worry that they are “lying” or “dishonoring God” but to my mind this captures the very spirit of the Golden Rule.
I once defined apologetics as the rigorous pursuit of truth in conversation with others. If you engage in a devil’s advocate debate you are doing apologetics through the conversation even if you are, within the confines of the debate, arguing the exact opposite of what you believe. I also like to add that when you learn something important from someone with whom you disagree sharply about other matters, you should make it a special point to let them know. It’s good for your own humility not to mention the cultivation of trust and goodwill across deep partisan lines.
Here’s the thing about virtues: they tend to come with two contrasting vices. For example, cowardice is a vice matched to virtue but it is not the only one: the other vice is foolhardiness, a reckless disregard for danger. Thus, the virtue is courage is matched both to the lack of courage (that is, cowardice) and also the excess of courage (that is, foolhardiness).
This pairing of dual vices to single virtues is true in other cases as well. For example, the virtue of generosity is matched not only to the lack of generosity (that is, stinginess) but also the surfeit of generosity (that is, extravagance). Thus, the person that refuses to spend any money on his friends lacks the virtue of generosity but the person who bequeaths his entire estate to the first friend he sees also lacks the virtue of generosity because of his extravagance.
I believe that this same dynamic applies to the case of steelmanning. On the one hand, we can measure the lack of aptness to steelman as strawmanning and that is undoubtedly a vice because it fails to recognize the viability of the argument one is making. On the other hand, we can also measure the excess of aptness to steelman as a vice. If strawmanning is the vice that fails to recognize the strength of the interlocutor’s argument, supermanning reflects the tendency to imbue greater credibility or strength to the interlocutor’s argument than is warranted by the evidence.
In other words, just as one can be unduly dismissive of the argument of another person, so one can imbue that argument with more strength than the evidence warrants.
A Donald Trump Example
Let me give you a real-world example of what I’m talking about. When Donald Trump was president he famously (or infamously, depending on one’s perspective) spoke extemporaneously at a press conference about possible new treatments for COVID19:
“So supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just a very powerful light — and I think you said that hasn’t been checked but you’re going to test it? And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that, too?”
“And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? Cause you see, it gets in the lungs, it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”
Immediately, Trump’s critics lampooned his comments. They mocked Trump’s speculation about placing ultraviolet light in the body. But the most ire was reserved for the claim that Trump allegedly suggested the possibility of “injecting” a “disinfectant” to bring about “a cleaning”. Trump’s critics pounced and succinctly summarized his musing as equivalent to proposing that people ingest bleach. And they weren’t the only people to take that interpretation. In the wake of his comments, poison control reported a rise of cases of people ingesting bleach and both Clorox and Lysol felt compelled to issue a disclaimer reminding their customers not to ingest their products. Thus, the data suggests that at least some of Trump’s followers seem to have interpreted his words in that way.
That said, Trump’s followers were quick to point out Trump never, in fact, suggested ingesting bleach.  They insisted that this account was, in fact, a strawman of his views as were the dismissive comments about projecting light within the body.
Supporters of Trump suggested that if one steelmanned his comments then one would interpret him as musing on a presentation that he had just heard that afternoon from William Bryan, Undersecretary for Science and Technology at the Department of Homeland Security. Others went further, suggesting that with his reference to light in the body, Trump was probably alluding to a new application of UV technology that was at the stage of scientific tested.
This brings us to an interesting standoff. Trump’s supporters insisted that his critics were strawmanning his comments. But his critics insisted that it was his supporters who were engaged in bad faith reasoning. But what was their error? It is what I call supermanning, the process by which one imbues greater strength and nuance to an argument or truth claim than is warranted given the evidence. Trump’s critics believed he was a huckster and a blowhard with no serious thoughts of his own and they certainly didn’t think he was offering any intellectually serious or responsible commentary when he mused about disinfectants and light being placed within the body.
So, who was right about Trump? Were the critics guilty of strawmanning intellectually serious and perfectly reasonable reflections on a scientific presentation and novel research on light? Or were the supporters guilty of supermanning the absurd, irresponsible, and borderline nonsensical claptrap of a narcissist?
I am happy to leave that question to one side for our discussion. But I think that every responsible person needs to be willing to ask themselves that question in an ongoing basis because we all have a tendency to strawman our foes and superman our friends. Instead, what we should strive to do is seek the virtuous golden mean by steelmanning all parties by providing the most favorable interpretation of their statements that is consistent with the evidence.
 See The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails ().
 Robert Glatter, “Calls to Poison Centers Spike After the President’s Comments About Using Disinfectants to Treat Coronavirus,” Forbes (April 25, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2020/04/25/calls-to-poison-centers-spike–after-the-presidents-comments-about-using-disinfectants-to-treat-coronavirus/?sh=3763c95e1157
 Diana Bradley, “Lysol and Clorox respond to Trump comment about injecting disinfectant,” PR Week,
 Jessica Calefti, “On COVID-19, Donald Trump said that ‘maybe if you drank bleach you may be okay,” Politifact (July 11, 2020),
 Brett Samuels, “Trump suggests using light, heat as coronavirus treatment,” The Hill (April 23, 2020),
 Ian Richardson, “Fact check: COVID-19 UV light treatment is being studied—not yet in use—in Los Angeles,” USA Today (May 4, 2020), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/05/02/fact-check-covid-19-uv-light-treatment-research-underway-los-angeles/3053177001/