May 2018
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Be more critical and critique what people say

To a large extent in the academic and business world things move forward by a thorough critique of the existing body of knowledge or by taking apart the position people take on a particular issue (usually in hindsight). Often very strong positions are held based on very shaky ground and expertise claimed based on little supporting evidence. I think it is always interesting when you look at a newspaper report or an article in the trade press one can always determine the authors own position vis a vis the issue being discussed as well as the position they take in the field of knowledge they are advancing.

What we need to do when we look at a report being presented to us at work, or even on the nightly television bulletin, is to learn how to evaluate what people say and weigh the truth and merit of the argument they are proposing.

When we listen to these arguments try to assess:

  • What are the assumptions being mobilised by the author from her own perspective to support the case and what approach is being taken in the construction of the argument as far as evidence is concerned.
  • What is the purpose of the review or report – what is it for and for whom is it written?
  • What is being included or excluded from the author under scrutiny in terms of the body of knowledge and alternative views?
  • How are countervailing views dealt with and what form of words is being used to describe them – dismissive, pejorative or supportive?
  • How gaps in our understanding of the issue are explained – or are they glossed over and simplified in order to trivialise opposition?
  • What is the actual or implied call to action – what is it the writer wishes you to buy or accept that forms the core of the message?

I personally also ask – so what have you brought to the party, what contribution have you added to my understanding of this topic?

The way to read a newspaper follows the same approach – it means we engage with the author and as a consequence perhaps we will learn something. Remember we should not accept any assertions, claims, or recourses to expertise from any authors of these papers or articles unless they demonstrate their expertise with erudite argument. We need to look at all of them with a skeptical eye and try to get behind the purpose of the message and how it is aimed to persuade and orient opinion in a certain way and in business to ensure the ‘right’ decision is made.


The Ten Commandments in Risk Reduction

Risk reduction in decision making comes down to two main considerations:

Increasing our knowledge of the problem by such techniques as soft systems engineering, SODA or any of the many tools that enable us to gain a foothold on the nature of the issue and dealing with the uncertainly of the risk. Here is a simple approach that puts some rigour in our thinking when it comes to breaking down a complex problem and deciding what to do next.

There are Ten Commandments in risk reduction (Morgan & Henrion 1990)

  • Do your homework
  • Problem drives the analysis
  • Make analysis simple (but not too simple)
  • Identify all relevant assumptions (and write them down)
  • Be explicit in your decision making criteria (and write them down)
  • Be explicit in the uncertainties (and the unknown unknowns thanks to rumsfelt)
  • Do sensitivity and uncertainty analysis
  • Iteratively refine the problem statement and the analysis
  • Document clearly and completely…
    … And expose your work to peer review

If analysis can be understood it becomes more acceptable and people will buy in and have more faith in the outcome – but be careful and do not make the work over complex and avoid over simplifications as well. Both stop people making an informed decision based on what evidence you have. Also as seen above document what you do during the process that way when it goes wrong (as it often does) we can learn and move forward and get it right next time – it is particularly important to set down assumptions and what you think are ‘givens’ – these are the points that we most often get wrong.