How to spot BS (and how to avoid handing out any yourself)

Whatever our political inclinations, I think we can all agree that a whole lot of BS has been slung around lately. Sometimes it’s obvious when folks are full of it. At other times, thoughtful people sense that an argument doesn’t hold water but in the moment they can’t put a finger on why.

What if it were possible to dissect an argument more quickly—to know who wants to help us and who’s playing us for a fool? Such a skill would be invaluable not just to evaluate political arguments but also to judge business situations. Will a consultant’s services deliver the required results? Should you trust the advice in that thought leadership article on digital strategy?

Thankfully, by becoming familiar with logical fallacies we can better avoid getting duped. These fallacies are common flaws in reasoning that reveal our would-be persuaders as either unintelligent (or perhaps just careless) or disingenuous. This site says it best: understanding logical fallacies is like “…intellectual kung-fu: the vital art of self-defense in a debate.”

Just as consumers of information should learn this self-defense, persuaders should avoid these fallacies at all costs. Those who do are much more likely to build compelling arguments that spur people to action—whether they’re crafting a simple email or sophisticated thought leadership.

Behold the logical fallacies

The study of logic and the origin of logical fallacies began in the 300s BC. Plato and his student Aristotle were the first to codify the rules of proper reasoning and lay out the types of logical mistakes, or fallacies. A logical fallacy isn’t concerned with facts (alternative or otherwise) but whether a set of facts logically supports a conclusion. There are dozens of these fallacies. Unfortunately, a few of them are most common in thought leadership and other business communications.

Strawman (a type of red herring argument)

This approach involves a misrepresentation—or in some cases, a complete fabrication—of someone else’s argument. A strawman is easy to knock down. Has anyone in the office ever taken a claim or idea of yours and exaggerated it, thereby discrediting you? Think of how often you see lists of “5 common myths” about, say, change management. Are those actually common myths or is someone setting up those pins solely to knock them down with their own solution?

Confusing correlation with causality

Correlation is simply the measure of a relationship between two variables. Causality refers to true cause and effect. Take this example: In the United States in the late 1930s, a polio epidemic swept the nation, and, particularly in densely populated areas of the Northeast such as New York City, the infection rate over the summer months was vastly higher. Kids also happen to eat more ice cream in the summer. In 1940, a medical doctor saw this correlation and published a paper theorizing that eating ice cream caused kids to contract polio. Laughable. But this kind of argument happens all the time and everywhere in the business world. Keep this fallacy in mind when you read survey results or see data sliced and diced to support a specific position.

Appeals to emotion

Here, in place of a logical argument, a persuader might attempt to frighten us—or evoke any number of emotions—to steer us into a certain course of action. Examples in the professional services realm include communications that appeal to fear (perhaps related to insurance or risk management) or pride (praise a manager for a good decision and then encourage her to make a subsequent “good” decision in one’s favor). On appeals to emotion, Aristotle’s thoughts are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago: “It is not right to pervert the judge by moving him to anger or envy or pity—one might as well warp a carpenter’s rule before using it.”

We need our rulers to be straight and true

Especially in times like these, it’s critical to know when others are attempting to “warp our rulers.” While there are plenty of well-intentioned people who are just bad at assembling solid arguments, others purposely try to warp our rulers toward their own benefit. It’s not clever or resourceful or “how it’s done.” It’s wrong. And it’s bad business.

So what does good business look like? Being familiar with logical fallacies that help you identify your own weak arguments and strengthen them. Particularly for those of us in the service industry, we must behave in a way that instills trust and ensures long-term, mutually beneficial relationships. Building sound logical arguments will provide credibility as well as ensure that our solutions truly meet our clients’ needs—a sure and logical recipe for success.

Alia Samhat

Alia is a partner at Leff. Her expertise is in creative strategy and content development. She spends her time working with writers, marketers, designers, video producers, analysts, and subject matter experts to produce meaningful work.


  • David Bixby says:

    Great post, Heather. I love the quote about “intellectual Kung-Fu”.

    Another logical fallacy that I frequently combat in my role in Operations Management is the “proximity bias”. When issues arise, there is a danger in drawing the conclusion that this event is more likely to occur than it really is (it was bad and it was right in front of me!). This can lead us to expend valuable resources to correct for what may in actuality be something that is highly unlikely to ever happen again. This can sometimes derail our teams from paying attention to an event that is far more likely (or costly).

    It’s important for firms and individuals to be dispassionate about the risks that we face, and make sure that we spend wisely to mitigate the risks that lie at the intersection of likelihood and cost first, no matter how proximate some other “bad thing” may be.

  • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Dave. Really astute of you to bring up proximity bias, which is considered a “cognitive bias.” Like logical fallacies, cognitive biases also cause flaws in reasoning. Anyone can identify and correct a logical fallacy. But a cognitive bias is much more insidious, since it’s a product of how our brains are hard-wired to process information. Once I had the privilege of working with Dr. Daniel Kahneman, the world’s foremost expert on cognitive bias. He says that there’s no avoiding such bias. All we can do is learn to recognize situations in which we’re likely to make errors, and be humble and open to feedback from others—as it’s much easier to recognize the errors of others than our own. This is why it’s near impossible to edit our own written work. More broadly, it’s also why reliance on the scientific method is so very important to the advancement of our intellectual pursuits and society. It accounts for and eliminates our biases and brings us closer to the truth.

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