Archive for the ‘Assumptions’ Category

John Stuart Mill, in his classic On Liberty, said

three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it.

In this spirit, the second lesson of our free email course, Argument Mapping: Make Your Case Clear and Compelling covers the importance of anticipating and responding to objections to your position, and shows how you can use argument mapping to organise these arguments.

A participant, Chantal, asked: “My question would be about how to produce objections. You are saying we can train for that. Sometimes I try and no interesting idea will arise :( What type of question should I be asking myself to create this other point of view?”

This is an excellent question.  How might one actually go about identifying the strongest objections to one’s own position?

Here are some things you can try.  Of course not all of these may be feasible in your situation.

1. Ask Opponents, or Bystanders

Perhaps the most obvious strategy is just to ask one or more people who strongly disagree with your position.  Such people are likely to be quite happy to help, and are likely to know the best objections.

If you can’t ask somebody who strongly disagrees, you can try asking somebody who is neutral on the topic.  Having no emotional involvement in the matter, they may find it easier than you do to see the problems with your position.

2. Research the Topic

If your position is on an issue that many people may have considered, a little digital sleuthing will often quickly uncover the main arguments on the other side.  For public issues, it should be easy to find op-eds or magazine articles, government reports, and so on.  For more technical or academic issues, scholar.google.com is a great resource.

3. Adapt Objections to Similar Positions

The best arguments against your position might just be adaptations of the best arguments against similar positions.  For example, if you are proposing that there should be a new freeway to the airport, you could look at proposals for freeways elsewhere to quickly get an idea of the kind of objections you are likely to encounter.

4. Use Standard Form Objections

This is a closely related suggestion.  There are many standard types of objections to positions of various kinds.  For example, any position which involves restricting people’s behavior – e.g., a proposal to ban vaping in public places – will encounter objections from based on individual rights and liberties.  (See the rest of Mill’s On Liberty).  If your position is that your group or team should pursue a certain course of action, there will be objections based on risk, particularly worst-case possible outcomes.  And so on.

5. Construct Objections from Interests

Consider what interests are threatened by your position.  Objections might be direct or indirect expressions of those interests.  For example, if your position is that our future energy needs should be met by large nuclear fusion plants, your position will threaten anyone with an interest (commercial, ideological, or any other type) in standard renewable energy industries such as wind or solar.  Those interests will lead to objections such as the impact on jobs in regional areas.

6. Identify and Challenge Assumptions

Any position will depend on a range of assumptions.  You can identify objections by ferreting out all or most of your assumptions and challenging those yourself.  One way to do that is covered in the email course, Lessons 4 and 5.  This is using principles of logic to expose the hidden assumptions in your own arguments supporting your position.


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Two recent articles in the business press underscore the importance of unearthing and challenging the assumptions which are shoring up your inferences.  They also provide fascinating insights more generally into organisational decision, a topic which always becomes more interesting when things go badly wrong.

The first, Potash: The deal that didn’t have to die appeared in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail in the aftermath of the failed attempt by mining behemoth BHP Billiton to acquire Potash Corp.   Potash Corp makes a lot of money digging up – you guessed it – potash in Sasketchewan and selling it around the world.  Potash Corp is part of a cartel, the existence of which helps keep the Saskatchewan state coffers replenished.

As authors McNish, Bouw and Reguly state, in the lead-up to the bid,

[BHPB CEO] Mr. Kloppers had every reason to believe that the takeover odds were on his side. Potash prices were still climbing out of the cyclical basement, and few other companies in the world could match BHP’s financial heft to top the bid. A government-backed company from China probably could, but no Chinese entity has ever tried to make such a large acquisition in a developed, democratic country. Even better, the widely held Saskatchewan company had no blocking shareholders. The Canadian government had never rejected a foreign takeover of a major resource company, and just three years ago allowed Rio Tinto PLC to take over Alcan Inc. of Montreal in a deal of similar size.

Focusing on one aspect of this, it appears that BHPB were reasoning that if the Canadian government had never rejected a foreign takeover of a major resource company, then they’d be unlikely to disapprove the takeover by BHPB of Potash Corp.   Which seems a perfectly reasonable argument.

Of course there is an unstated premise in this argument, viz., that Potash Corp is a major resource company.  This seems so obvious that it is hardly worth mentioning – and ipso facto hardly worth challenging.  But often the critical weakness in a case can be disguised as a truism even after we take away the cloak of invisibility.   Sometimes the highest level of critical scrutiny is not challenging the dubious but daring to question the obvious.

The real force of the assumption “Potash Corp is a major resource company” was the idea that Potash Corp was just another major resource company, just like all the previous ones that had been taken over.  That, in other words, there was nothing special about Potash Corp, in Canada in 2010, that would prevent it being taken over just like others before it.

But that assumption was wrong.  Potash Corp was in fact, at the time, quite special due to the close connection with Saskatchewan state funding, and the special connection of Saskatchewan politicians to the Canadian federal government.

As Andrew Mackenzie, a key BHPB executive, conceded after the failure of the takeover bid: “We didn’t grasp how significant potash is to Saskatchewan.”

If the authors are correct, this “failure to grasp” – a kind of unchallenged assumption – was the critical error leading to a failed bid.  Some of the consequences: immediate waste of some $350 million dollars, loss of potential billions in future profits from selling Canadian potash, embarrassment for BHPB, and a major headache: what now should it do with the mountains of money it is making due the resource boom?

The second article appeared in today’s edition of the Melbourne paper The Age.  In AXA deal could bring $2.6bn headache David Symons recounts how some financial sharks spotted a design weakness in superannuation giant AXA’s offerings and tricked AXA into granting them the right to exploit that weakness mercifully for decades to come – hence the $2.6 billion dollar lawsuit.  The details are of course somewhat complex but on Symons’ account AXA management – apparently lurching from one feat of incompetence to another – repeatedly made assumptions which turned out false.  For example:

“anxious to resurrect a faltering product, AXA ignored the embedded option risk. AXA management had referred the special terms to the legal department and the board product committee, but not to the chief actuary. The three-day option was considered a tweak that didn’t require costing. Nothing could have been further from the truth. AXA had effectively written a multibillion dollar series of puts over the equity index.”

Quite a different domain, but the same basic point: sometimes an unquestioned assumption comes back to bite you in a very costly way.

Of course in both these cases we have the wonderful benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  It is relatively easy to spot a false assumption after its falsity has caused a calamity.  It is much harder to expose all the assumptions one is making at the time of decision, and to know which of those many assumptions need to given especially rigorous scrutiny.

One of the great benefits of argument mapping, rigorously applied, is its utility in the former challenge, i.e. exposing hidden assumptions.

Before closing it is worth noting another kind of assumption in play in the AXA case.  The aforementioned sharks clearly devoted much of their exquisite intellectual power to figuring out how to exploit the financial system so as to attract to themselves vast amounts of money of unearned and undeserved money.  Rather than doing anything productive, anything that might generate tangible value for society, these knaves are prepared to follow their greed to the point where they might even ruin an enormous institution (cf Equitable Life), with presumably masses of shareholders and policy holders and perhaps even taxpayers to take the hurt.   They are assuming that this is reasonable, legitimate conduct.   That assumption may not come back to bite them in this particular case.  But when large parts of society unconsciously and unconscionably adopt that assumption, it can be disastrous for almost everyone – as Ireland’s current problems illustrate.

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