Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation, namely, our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance— Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’
This line jumped out at me when I recently re-read Kahneman’s 2013 book Thinking Fast And Slow, a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the tricks the human mind plays on us all the time. Many of these tricks served a purpose during the course of evolution, but most of them are well past their expiry date, and, in today’s world, they cause more harm than good.
Unconscious bias and logical fallacy are probably two relics of evolution that continue to take a toll on our everyday lives. Protagonists of diversity have unraveled the perils of unconscious bias and proved that unconscious biases that most of us carry lead us to taking sub-optimal, or even totally wrong, decisions. These unconscious biases are as harmful, if not more, than explicit sexism or discrimination. And the reason is simple: You can act on explicit sexism and discrimination because it is easy to spot, whereas most of us fail to spot unconscious bias.
Unfortunately, logical fallacy, which is as ubiquitous and as harmful as unconscious bias, hasn’t received sufficient attention and continues to affect the quality of discussion and decision making. A logical fallacy is defined as an invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning in the construction of an argument. It is quite easy to be taken in by fallacious logic unless you train your mind to sniff it out. Logical fallacies are deployed by people both unconsciously and intentionally in arguments; sometimes innocently and sometimes with malafide intention. Many of these logical fallacies have been deployed to kill a great idea or justify a poor one.
Politicians have used these logical fallacies to attack opponents. For instance, an opposition politician attacking the economic policies of the party in power by saying, ‘What would a finance minister without a formal degree understand about economics?’ is saying nothing about the economic policy of the government but is attacking the personality of the finance minister. This logical fallacy is commonly referred to as ad hominem. Of all the logical fallacies, this is possibly the most crass and petty.
There was a common belief during the Middle Ages in Europe that lice were good for health because they were rarely found on sick people. The truth is that lice are sensitive to temperature, and even a slight fever would induce them to leave a host. Lice deserted those who became sick, and so the belief that lice were essential for good health was not true. This is an example of the false causation fallacy also referred to as the correlation-causation fallacy.
Use of the false causation fallacy can fool even the smart folks. Some studies purport to show that companies run by women CEOs deliver lesser shareholder returns than those run by male CEOs, and some studies show that companies with gender diversity in their top management deliver better returns than those without gender diversity. Neither of these correlations indicate causality. The ‘false dilemma’ is another commonly prevalent logical fallacy where two options are presented as if they are the only two mutually exclusive choices—‘either grow market share or grow profitably’, for example—and force you to make a choice preferred by the one making the argument. Another logical fallacy is the anecdotal evidence fallacy. A statement like, ‘I have heard that women who are nominated to boards to meet diversity requirements are subpar’ smacks of this fallacy.
It is important to spot these fallacies and call them out because they are mostly employed to preserve an unfair status quo, and in the process kill the case for change, or drive a personal agenda. We are both victims and perpetrators of logical fallacies. Poor arguments using logical fallacies are very common, but if you are cognizant, they are reasonably easy to spot, and with awareness, and some mental training, you can avoid being fooled.
T.N. Hari is the co-founder of Artha School of Entrepreneurship, an advisor at Fundamentum Partnership, and an author, whose latest book is Winning Middle India.