Bias through Emotion, Argument from Authority
or Influence with Facts
How much of your decision-making is informed by the headlines? Have you ever thought about how the media creates interest by using slanted terminology to capture your interest? Remember, the purpose of a newspaper or TV station is to sell advertising and make money thereby. Editorializing has become the norm, truthtelling a secondary pursuit.
I had been reading with interest about a local issue of environmental concern to some of the residents near where I live and in every news article I saw written on the subject the word “dumping” was used to describe what was proposed to occur at the location. When you see a word like that what comes immediately to mind? It’s not a pretty picture is it?
I looked into the publicly available information about the issue and found that instead of dumping and whatever that implies in your mind that was the one thing that was not happening in the whole sequence of events.
This gave me pause. The green movement started out using doomsday arguments warning us of impending planetary ecological breakdown if we did not change our approach to stewardship of the Earth. This was both necessary and effective at the time. However, it seems that any environmentally connected issue that arises now is argued using this approach to the point that we have become paralyzed from polarization. Anybody with an agenda or an ax to grind on an issue now simply uses hyperbole and dramatization and suddenly controversy arises and emotions decide issues rather than finding the right process which creates the greatest overall good.
I was addressing a group of students recently and knowing that it is not easy to get the attention of our youth I brought up this particular issue to deliberately create a response. I knew that many of them would be in agreement with the headlines on this particular issue so I compared and contrasted the headlines with the actual proposal by the company involved with this issue. Many of them were intrigued and puzzled by the way things were presented in the media vs. how they were actually being proposed to occur. We had good discussions and the students brought up some very good thoughts and questions.
I told them that I didn’t care which side of this issue they were on but that when they see the kind of hyperbole and one-sidedness shown in those headlines they need to look further and make sure they have facts instead of emotional opinion to guide them. As the future leaders of this world having to deal with the legacy issues my generation has left for them they need to understand how to make good decisions.
What I did not realize was that one of the student’s father is a politician who has led the side against this purported “dumping” and lo and behold, he showed up near the end of my talk. He introduced himself to me afterward and, in front of the remaining students, proceeded to tell me that I had the wrong viewpoint and had no business telling lies to them. I told him that my investigation of the engineering reports and the environmental permits said otherwise and that is the conclusion I drew based on the publicly available information.
Surprised that anyone would disagree with his viewpoint he then started a refutation of my credentials (which include a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Georgia Institute of Technology and an MBA from Pepperdine University in the U.S., two patents for a process used to manufacture a chemical used in nuclear waste processing and a stint running a biological wastewater treatment facility). Listening to his ad hominem arguments I realized that like many managers and persons of influence I have encountered, once invested in an issue or a process it becomes necessary to win at any cost. Anybody who has opposing views is suspect and must be discredited. The only end result allowable is a win.
I was shocked that a person intimately involved in the democratic process would suggest that there is no room for debate on an issue. I was further shocked that this individual was so smug in his assumption of rightness that everybody should take his viewpoint based on his word alone. Apparently looking into an issue and coming up with a differing opinion is wrongheaded and should not be heard. This was completely antithetical to the charge I had just made to that classroom of students: think for yourselves and don’t assume that what you are told is automatically true.
I’m no saint. In the past as a manager I admit to having resorted to similar tactics when needing to influence others without having the time or resources to do otherwise. The recipient is either emotionally manipulated or strong-armed into compliance. But when does the battle turn from finding the best solution to a problem into implementing MY solution no matter what? If I am so sure my side is just why withhold discussion of both sides of an argument for fear that people might believe the “wrong” side?
A business should be neither a democracy nor an autocracy. Democratic government thrives in the open and becomes repressive in the dark. Good decision-making requires the airing of all facts and relevant viewpoints.
For a compilation of common logical fallacies used in arguments see: An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossaway, https://bookofbadarguments.com/
Alchemy Business Consulting
May 19, 2015
My book, The Profit Machine, is now available in Audiobook format as well as Kindle and Paperback: