Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 41;   October 14, 2009: Logically Illogical

Logically Illogical

by

Discussions in meetings and in written media can get long and complex. When a chain of reasoning gets long enough, we sometimes make fundamental errors of logic, especially when we're under time pressure. Here are just a few.
Well-wishers greet physicist Stephen Hawking (in wheelchair) at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility

Well-wishers greet physicist Stephen Hawking (in wheelchair) at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility after a zero gravity flight in 2007. On July 31, 2009, Investor's Business Daily ran an editorial warning that adoption of a particular proposal for healthcare reform in the United States would lead to chaos. It read, in part, "People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless." This argument is fallacious on multiple grounds, but many debunkers focused on the fact that Professor Hawking has received almost all of his medical care from the UK National Health Service. As Hawking told the Guardian, "I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS."

If participants in the current debate about US healthcare reform were to use this incident as evidence in favor of their proposals, they might be committing the error here called the sand castle fallacy, because they would be rejecting the conclusion, put forth by Investor's Business Daily, that the proposals are unsound, on the basis that the IBD editorial included a false premise. The reform proposals might be sound or unsound, but one cannot determine which on the basis of this unsound editorial. However, the incident might indeed serve as part of a case that the editorial opinions of Investor's Business Daily ought to be taken with more than a grain of salt. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

Faulty logic is one reason why groups make defective decisions. In long discussions, spanning many meetings, email messages and other postings, a chain of logic emerges. Usually, the chain is valid and coherent, but when the conversation becomes complex, when the stakes are high, or when time is short, a group can make logical errors. Here's a small collection.

The fallacy fallacy
If the argument used to reach our conclusions is later found to be flawed, we sometimes believe that the conclusion produced by that argument must also be false.
Not so. That we reached a particular conclusion by faulty logic doesn't mean that the conclusion itself is false. The conclusion might be true, or it might be false.
Sand castle fallacy
If the argument is founded on premises that later prove to be false, or partly false, we sometimes believe that the conclusion produced by that argument must also be false.
Not so. That we reached a particular conclusion based on faulty premises doesn't mean that the conclusion is false. We might have built a castle on sand, but it might still be a castle. If we can find a better foundation for that castle, it might yet prove durable.
Affirming a disjunct
If we know that A or B is true, and it turns out that A is true, we sometimes conclude that B must be false.
The fallacy here arises in instances when A and B are both true. In informal conversation, we often use "or" in the exclusive sense: either A or B, but not both. But in many situations, "or" actually is valid in the inclusive sense: A or B or possibly both A and B.
Affirming the consequent
When a conversation becomes
complex, when the stakes
are high, or when time
is short, a group can
make logical errors
In this error, sometimes called the converse error, we conclude incorrectly that a premise must be true if the conclusion is true. That is, when we know that P implies Q, and we know that Q holds, we wrongly conclude that P must also be true.
The problem here is that the converse of a true statement isn't necessarily true. The contrapositive is true, though: if not Q then not P.
Denying the antecedent
This formal fallacy, sometimes also called the inverse error, is committed when we know that if P, then Q. If we later find that P is false, we then sometimes conclude erroneously that Q is false.
All we can say for sure is that Q might be false when P is false; Q might also be true.

Keeping these errors and their names straight can be difficult, but learning to recognize and avoid them is certainly easier. There is a trap, though. Once you notice that a group has committed one of these errors, remember that it's often possible that their conclusion is correct. To forget that possibility is to commit the fallacy fallacy. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Attributes of Political Opportunity: The Basics  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendzlZdUqUJQJoJafwner@ChacAZnxhQSZbrKrZFkeoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A rock climber in Joshua Tree National Park, United StatesLet Me Finish, Please
We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
Agreeing to a dealObstacles to Compromise
Compromise is the art of devising an approach acceptable to all parties. A talent for compromise is rare. What makes finding compromises so difficult?
An air traffic controller using a display system at an Air Route Traffic Control CenterRemote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: Part I
Whoever facilitates your distributed meetings — whether a dedicated facilitator or the meeting chair — will discover quickly that remote facilitation presents special problems. Here's a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
Mohandas GhandiNo Tangles
When we must say "no" to people who have superior organizational power, the message sometimes fails to get across. The trouble can be in the form of the message, the style of delivery, or elsewhere. How does this happen?
Navy vs. Marine Corps tug of war in Vera Cruz, Mexico ca. 1910-1915Holding Back: Part I
When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Conflict Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A vizsla in a pose called the play bowComing April 26: Why Dogs Make the Best Teammates
Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good teammates. Available here and by RSS on April 26.
A business meetingAnd on May 3: Start the Meeting with a Check-In
Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed. Available here and by RSS on May 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenwWJIkTebOEFCwaTaner@ChacNCEzzwEsyZIghjfWoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.