Context, Hedgehogs, and Critical Thinking – Insights by Guy Higgins

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I recently read an article online. I’m not going to provide specifics because the specifics aren’t important to my point and I don’t want anyone suing me. That said, the article stated (and I paraphrase to protect the innocent – mainly me), “Experts say X (“X” being something really, really bad) will happen. It’s not a matter of if, but when.” The source of the article was a cable news feed.lightbulb on blackboard

Okay, let’s put that into context:

  1. The source (the cable news feed) is in the business of selling advertising minutes, not providing value to the viewer (any value to the viewer is a side effect). Therefore, it is important to use words and terms that 1) attract the viewers’ attention and 2) sound both really important and urgent.
  2. The article doesn’t name the experts or even provide some way of estimating whether we’re talking about two guys in Lower Elbonia or two thirds of the legitimate cognoscenti in the area under discussion. It just “experts.”
  3. Now, my favorite part. “…not if but when.” Well, that’s absolutely true – for almost anything.

Let’s take a look at those three points:

Source – The source of any information is important if it’s to be the basis for improving situational awareness and eventually making decisions – or even just being well informed (remember, everyone gets to choose their own opinions – just not their own facts). In this case, the immediate source is a business that is based on selling advertising, so there is little reason, at the top level to believe the article. One strike against this being a useful article.

Cited source – Again, in this case, there is very little information provided to permit the evaluation of the actual (possibly expert source). In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath assert that, if you want people to value and remember your message, you need to provide credibility – as in citing a source to which people can refer and judge (note that I provide a link to the Doctors Heath) whether the source might be trustworthy. This is kind of the infamous “they” reference we’ve all become suspicious of. That’s two strikes.

Likelihood – the article cites their “experts” as saying that this terrible event absolutely will happen. However, it is critically important that we understand the timing if the information is to be useful. For example, Earth will be destroyed – that is an absolute certainty. It could be destroyed within a few years by the impact of a gigantic asteroid or it could be destroyed in several billion years when our sun begins to end its life by ballooning into a red giant and incinerating the planet. It’s not a question of if, but when. Well, the probability of Earth being struck by a planet-shattering asteroid is extremely small (this is not the same as a large meteor such as the one that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, but one that is actually large enough to shatter the planet). So small, that it’s not worth worrying about – there are many things that are nearly as bad and are much more likely. Similarly, there is no sense in worrying about our sun becoming a red giant because that won’t happen for several billion years. So the timing of the when and its likelihood are really important. If the experts can’t provide some estimate of the timing, then they’re just Isaiah Berlin’s Hedgehogs. Hedgehogs (as a reminder for the Noble Reader) are those people who tend to make extravagant predictions because they’re looking at the entirety of the universe through a very narrow lens. They are rarely right (the Reverend Malthus and his prediction that population would outstrip food supply and his numerous [and consistently wrong] disciples are a good example). Strike Three!

I see statements all the time that fail to provide useful context in the same way that the article that inspired this post failed. They run from the side effects of a medicine (“side effects may include death” without any information on the likelihood of such a “side effect.”) to your cable provider’s assertion that the bandwidth they provide is “up to XX Gigabits per second (note that if they promise up to a terabit per second and deliver anything less than that [say 1200 bits per second which is one billionth of what they seem to have “promised”], then they’re covered. They provide the promised “up to.” They didn’t exceed the upper limit.

The bottom line is that we, as leaders, need to not just absorb what we read, but understand what the words used actually mean and not just what the author or speaker intended for us to “get.” We also need to make sure our people also understand the importance of understanding what’s actually said rather than what a casual scan might seem to mean. This is what critical thinking is all about. We certainly should not make business decisions based on something we failed to completely understand.


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