Guardians of the Fallacy


Why is there such a proliferation of fact checking websites? Things seem bad, but the idea that we are now in a post truth era is daft.  It is estimated that even 25% of Barak Obama’s claims were questionable (Trump 65%), and at any one time, from Nero to Trump there have been attempts to spin the truth.

Go back to the recent history of corporate governance to see the same problems. With the series of crises including Enron, where truth was hostage, to the great credit crisis, to The Mid Staffs Trust case. These events we characterised variously as unreal, madness, alternative reality, delusional thinking – the truth was lost. So, how do we spot the spin in the board and challenge the spinners?

First, we need to be clear what truth is about. These are some of the key theories of truth:

  • Correspondence. Statement corresponds to an objective reality. Not straightforward- need empirical confirmation.
  • Coherence. Does statement make sense, including is it rational
  • Constructivist. We construct the truth together. So what are out criteria?
  • Consensus all agreed….at least to some degree
  • Pragmatic enquiry into truth is self-corrective over time ifopenly submitted for testing by a community of inquirers in order to clarify, justify, refine and/or refute proposed truths.

All are important elements of truth and are important for checking truth.  But truth also depends upon our worldview and related values. These determine what we believe is significant in the world, morally, socially, professionally and so on, and thus determine how we view our social context (including what we exclude).

Alan Greenspan, chair of the Fed until 2006, for instance, failed to see the significance of over 100 financial crises before the big melt down. He thought this because he literally believed in the power of the market to adjust, whatever the crisis. He also was convinced by Ayn Rand’s view of aggressive freedom, focused on heroic individualism. Inevitably this means he did not see the world as interconnected and inter-dependent.  So we all need to challenge what people believe, what causes them to see the world in the way they do. Belief radically affects our view of truth and both perception of and practice in society.

Spotting beliefs demands that leader be held to account, even for their worldviews. Another thing to hold leaders to account over is their logical coherence. Leaders and politicians are often the guardians of the fallacy, moral and logical. A fun book to explore this is Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. Here are some of the most popular fallacies which leaders sigh up to:

  • Appeal to authority – Endorsements from powerful people are used to convince us.  But just because someone important believes something doesn’t mean we should support it too.
  •  Appeal to the crowd – Politicians like to look for support by showing how many people want their policies are in favour of it. This is the adult variation of the teenager’s, ‘but everyone is doing it!’. Just because the poll tells us a majority wants a wall does not mean that a wall is a good thing.
  • Straw man – Here an opponent’s views are misrepresented and ten easily destroyed. One of the most common errors is to misrepresent an opponent’s views. The classic case of this was the argument that Obamacare was developing ‘death panels’.
  • Ad hominem – ‘Playing the man not the ball’- attacking the person as a means of destroying the argument. All leaders love this one. But the fact that she is a Union leader does not make her argument about justice wrong, nor does being a Tory have anything to with arguments about the market.  This is a fallacy that good be used to awful ends in the work place, not least when a leader wants to marginalise a colleague.
  • Slippery slope – ‘If we allow same sex marriage then within a generation the family as an institution will be destroyed’. But there is no basis of this conclusion, and more often than not such arguments appeal to emotion not least fear- losing the family- or to prejudice.

Such fallacies do not provide effective support to any argument. So why do leaders in business and politics make such frequent use of them?

I suspect the answer is that we let them get away with it. Because we want to keep in with the boss we accept his argument. Because we share the same prejudices we assume there is merit in the arguments. Because we find the boss intimidating we keep quiet. Because we don’t hold ourselves to account for our logic, we don’t hold others to account.

We need to step up to the truth.

Prof. Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility



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