Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ambiguous anecdotes

Here are your logical fallacies for today, a couple of business standards. There's nothing like ambiguity and jargon to help mask intent. The software business is full of both. That's not to say removing ambiguity is not difficult it is, the English language (or any language) is horribly ambiguous and to articulate an unambiguous requirement for something is notoriously difficult using language alone, there are usually too many possibilities to capture so everything ends up a compromise. The anecdotal fallacy is also the stock in trade of many business people, particularly sales people in my experience, who just love to tell stories. We all love a good story as religions and politicians realised long ago and have successfully exploited over the millennia; if you can make your sales pitch sound like an engaging story (obviously with a conclusion in your favour) then the chances of winning over your audience are often significantly enhanced regardless of the gap between your conclusion and reality, in a lot of situations people seem to value the journey over the destination.

AMBIGUITY - Using double meanings or ambiguities of language to mislead or misrepresent the truth.

Politicians are often guilty of using ambiguity to mislead and will later point to how they were technically not outright lying if they come under scrutiny. It’s a particularly tricky and premeditated fallacy to commit. When the judge asked the defendant why he hadn't paid his parking fines, he said that he shouldn't have to pay them because the sign said 'Fine for parking here' and so he naturally presumed that it would be fine to park there.

ANECDOTAL - Using personal experience or an isolated example instead of a valid argument, especially to dismiss statistics.

It’s often much easier for people to believe someone’s testimony as opposed to understanding variation across a continuum. Quantitative scientific measures are almost always more accurate than individual perceptions and experiences. Jason said that that was all cool and everything, but his grandfather smoked, like, 30 cigarettes a day and lived until 97 - so don’t believe everything you read about meta analyses of sound studies showing proven causal relationships.

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