Recognize and avoid Argumentation Fallacies

In the previous blog post we stated how many of our customers face difficulties stating reasons for their decisions and introduced four modes of reasoning that create the basis for solid arguments and drawing conclusions from a set of premises. This time, we introduce some classical argumentation fallacies where a conclusion does not neatly follow from premises even if it might so appear. Fallacies are bad practice and it is useful for everybody to recognize them, to strengthen one’s own arguments by avoiding them and noticing when others are using them on you.

Fallacies are difficult to categorize because of their variety and structure but the most common one is to classify them to formal and informal fallacies. The first one relates to how you are stating your argument; your premises and conclusion may both be true but your logic is flawed. The latter denotes an error in the content of your argument, even if your logic may be solid. Below you will find a list of but a few of the potential argumentation errors one can make; and I promise, I will not list those boring old ad hominem or straw man arguments!

Base rate fallacy

Base rate fallacy is a prime example on how poorly human mind intuitively understands statistics and probabilities. Say 1/1000 of population is carrying a deadly zombie virus and we have a test is 99 % accurate in identifying it so only 1 % of tests return positive when the person tested does not have the virus. In such a situation, a person testing positive for the deadly zombie virus immediately freaks out and starts writing his/her will; the test is wrong only 1 percent of the time!

However, what is not taken into account that the disease itself is very rare and testing 1000 people, 10 perfectly healthy individuals will test positive by pure chance alone while only one person is truly infected. The odds of your positive test indicating you are infected drop from the assumed 99 % to below 10 %! The individual tends only to assess the probability implied by the positive test and forget that the test result conditional on the overall rate of infections.

The base rate fallacy is a very common error in judgement. People have an intrinsic bias to ignoring conditionals in assessing probabilities. A business leader has to assess risks and probabilities on a regular basis when making decisions. There tends to be a lot more Nigerian princes needing offering money than is probable based on their natural occurrence rate! (Nigeria is a republic but there are traditional dynasties from an era before colonization)

Appeal to probability

When appealing to probability, one invokes a form of the Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. It means that a conclusion is treated a certain merely on the basis that it is probable. It is taking an inductive argument and treating it as deductive. All business leaders should remain ever vigilant of the risks and uncertainties circling around them. Just because something is likely to happen does not mean it will happen.

Argument to moderation

Anyone who has ever been involved in a situation of social decision making (basically that is all of us) recognizes the situation. There are two extreme positions tabled and the eventual result is a compromise not properly satisfying either camp. The fallacy is based on the mistaken idea that the truth lies somewhere in the middle ground. If a leader has the option to spend 100 000 € on marketing on either social media or television, the ”correct” or most lucrative answer might not be splitting the pot and putting a half-hearted effort to two channels.

Appeal to authority

In an era of fake news and rapidly spreading misinformation, recognizing that support from an authority (no matter how respectable) does not in itself provide evidence for the conclusion. This is especially true when the authority is an expert of another area; the media has a tendency to use media-savvy academics in their news stories, even when the subject matter is not their core in the field of their core expertise. Not much needs to be said of the more questionable sources such as Breitbart or President Trump’s Twitter account.

In organizational decision-making setting appeal to authority might lead to people not being willing to question the decision’s of their higher-ups, even when they feel they are evidently wrong. Social decision making is a natural antidote to this fallacy.

Survivorship bias

Survivorship bias happens when one only concentrates on the cases that are observed after some pre-selection criteria and ignoring the ones that did not make the cut. A classic example would be promoting dropping out of college to start a business as a route to success along the lines of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and ignoring the thousands whose start-ups failed to prosper. Whenever a decision is made, it inadvertently creates a scenario of survivorship bias as information from the ”failed proposal” will never materialise. Realising the absence of contrafactuals should be taken into account when evaluation the results of decisions made. The actions you take based on decisions are the ones that survived the selection process; they may not have been the optimal ones to take.

This was just a minuscule sample of the array of fallacies one may commit when making or evaluating a decision. Every decision maker should have a cursory knowledge of the most dangerous fallacies to guard against decisions made on faulty grounds.

In the final part of the series, we will look into the data provided by Fingertip and see whether modern natural language processing techniques might provide some signals and clues of the validity of the reasoning process or, more likely, lack of it’s existence.

This is the third part of our trilogy for Reasoning in Business contexts. You can read the previous instance here: 
Do You State Reasons For Your Decisions?

Lasse Winter is the leading Data Scientist at Fingertip with a background in social sciences and a specific interest in text analytics. He is passionate about gaining exciting insights from data. During his free time Lasse loves sports and reading, with a specific passion for football.

Read Lasse’s scientific blog series:

Wait – Who did we employ again?
Can one rate a decision?
Five things business leaders can learn from football
Is 9-to-5 a thing of the past? When are we most productive.
What’s in a word? Indicators of task completion
Why good decisions get implemented
Too many cooks spoils the decision?
No man is an island and no organization a cohesive body

Fingertip is an online decision-focused business management solution designed to substantially improve efficiency, effectiveness, and empowerment in large complex organizations in the digital age.

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