When I was at McKinsey, fact-based, well-reasoned logic was prized.
It didn’t matter if you were in your 15th year at McKinsey or your first 15 days, the person with the logical conclusion ruled the day.
I remember being repeatedly told that if I had the logical conclusion demonstrating that the Partner’s thinking was wrong, there was an obligation to dissent.
This approach seemed infinitely reasonable to me. It was only after I started spending time in the corporate culture of my clients that I realized this thinking was not universal.
In many organizations, the idea of the most powerful person is that which is prized.
I fear that in our public discourse, especially the United States, the value of logic continues to decline much further than I ever though possible.
Within society, the idea proposed by the social, religious, or political group that I identify with most wins the day — even if those same groups reached the exact opposite position on the same topic a few years ago.
The level of critical reasoning in everyday life continues to degrade.
From a personal standpoint, I’m quite disappointed.
From a professional standpoint, this continued degradation creates an opportunity for those who can reason well AND communicate their logical thinking to others.
In the field of engineering, there’s a concept known as the “signal to noise ratio.”
For example, if you connect an audio device to a pair of analog speakers and play some music, you will hear two things on the speaker as you turn the volume on full blast.
First, you will hear the music. This is the “signal.”
Second, during the lulls in the music where there is no signal, you hear hissing and background “noise.”
A good engineering design is one in which the strength of the signal significantly exceeds the noise. This provides clear sound, information, or data.
In today’s society, especially in social media, viral content, and the like, the level of “noise” is extremely high.
It is increasingly more difficult to find sources of content with logical, thoughtful, and well-reasoned “signal” on the hot issues of the day.
The most common examples of poor logic (which I urge you to avoid) are:
1) The Righteous “Argument"
In the righteousness argument, the focus is on moral or righteous superiority.
In this scenario, I’m good. You’re bad.
Anything I say must be correct... because I’m “good."
Anything you say must be incorrect... because you’re “bad.”
When you fall into this line of so-called reasoning, you completely overlook the merits of the argument itself.
When you’re in a leadership position, you also risk overlooking the potential value of a useful message, solely because of your perceptions of the messenger.
2) The Hypothesis as Fact Argument
In both industry and popular society, you’ll often see a hypothesis described as fact.
"Our best customers are upset by this price change.”
Is that a hypothesis or a fact?
If you’re on the receiving end of the statement, you would ask, "Which customers are upset?" and "How do we know they are upset?"
You would take that statement as a hypothesis and see if the hypothesis is actually supported in fact.
In the vast majority of cases, hypotheses are passed off as fact.
In these cases, the more charming, charismatic, or likable a speaker, the more the speaker can get away with this kind of false reasoning.
3) Flawed Link Between Evidence and Conclusion
In other cases, evidence does actually exist.
However, some speakers will distort a conclusion based on what they would like to be supported by evidence versus that which is logically supported by evidence.
I’ve seen research scientists complain a lot about how journalists cover their research papers.
They complain the journalists overstated or misstated the researcher's conclusions.
One example is research that shows a correlation between one lifestyle factor and a particular disease, but not causality.
The journalist might write an article with a headline such as “Garlic Cures Cancer.”
This drives the academics nuts because that’s not what their research concludes at all.
4) The Ad Hominem Argument
Finally, there’s the ad hominem attack. In this scenario, rather than responding to the weakness in another person’s argument, the other person's character is attacked instead.
Your proposal isn’t wrong because "there are flaws in it." Your proposal is wrong because "you’re a miserable excuse for a human being."
Besides not being kind or respectful, such an attack inflames a situation and often stimulates a similar response in kind.
"You think I’m a miserable excuse for a human being? Well, at least I actually AM a human being, unlike you.”
Of course such dialogue very quickly devolves into trading insults.
The actual issue at hand gets glossed over and never examined critically and logically.
In a world where civil discourse is rare and inflammatory exchanges become the norm, there’s increasingly more room for a person who can rise above the fray.
When so many people have seemingly lost (or perhaps never developed) their critical reasoning abilities, the logical and articulate person can shine.
I remember the words of a McKinsey partner who was reflecting back on the start of her McKinsey career.
In an environment where your clients have three decades more industry and work experiences, it’s often hard for them to take you seriously.
The only... and I mean only... thing I had going for me were facts and logic.
When the CEO has a vested interest in getting the right answer, and I not only have it... but I can prove it logically, that’s when they listen and ultimately come to respect you.
This was true when I first heard it years ago. I think it’s even more true today.
Here’s a simple way to develop your critical reasoning skills further: PRACTICE.
Don’t accept any comment or argument from anyone at face value.
Take an extra few moments and ask yourself: Is their statement a fact? A hypothesis disguised as fact?
Is there evidence? Is it credible? Does the evidence logically map to the stated conclusion?
If a doctor wants to perform surgery on you, why? What’s the rationale? Does the rationale make sense?
If a politician you dislike makes an argument you instinctively dislike, is it because you dislike the politician or is it because the argument is flawed? (Don’t get the two confused.)
As you practice noticing logically weak arguments, start to practice verbalizing the logical weaknesses you notice.
You can do it in a respectful way.
If you’re not 100% sure that your observations are correct, you can express that point of view and invite others to point out flaws in your thinking.
This is a valuable skill to develop and one that becomes increasingly useful in your career the more your job becomes about making good decisions rather than just doing technical work.