veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

catalogue of 
fallacies and illusions

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[Coincidence (The Dover Fallacy)] [Competition (The Best Man Wins)] [Composition] [Division] [Environment] [Escalation] [Generalization (The Availability Heuristic)] [Map/Territory Illusion (Maya)] [Misplaced Concreteness] [Multiplication] [Omniscience] [Rotten Apple] [Smoke/Fire]

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of Coincidence (The "Dover" fallacy)

veryard projects > fallacy > coincidence

The fallacy of coincidence is the belief that whenever something unlikely happens, it must have some deep significance.  My old tutor, J.R. Lucas, used to call this the Dover fallacy.
There was a young curate of Dover
Who bowled twenty-five wides in an over,
Which had never been done
By a clergyman’s son
On a Tuesday in August in Dover.

But according to Lucas, true coincidences are not just improbable events. "Coincidence is a dialectical concept. Its place is in the context of a dialogue or argument, to reject an explanation which the other person might reasonably posit. Like randomness, it depends on description and obtains its colour from the surrounding context of explanations otherwise to be expected, and the same event may be a remarkable coincidence under one description and quite unremarkable under another.”

source: J.R. Lucas, The Concept of Probability (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1970) pp 128-9

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of Competition (The Best Man Wins)

veryard projects > fallacy > competition

Ecclesiastes challenges the popular fallacy, that the best man win. I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here is George Orwell's version. Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must be taken into account.

Thus chance is a necessary component of competition. “It is necessary that even the best be uncertain of winning; it is necessary that even the feeblest be uncertain of losing. Both must take an equal risk and must entertain the same insane hope of winning, the same unspeakable terror of losing.”  [George Perec, W: Or the memory of childhood, translated by David Bellos]

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of Composition

veryard projects > fallacy > composition

There are various versions of this, including the belief that if something is possible once, it is possible always.

A project manager might look at a range of completed tasks, which took different lengths of time to complete. He might then argue that, because some of the tasks only took n days to complete, therefore he will only allow n days for each future task of that type. If we sometimes took longer in the past, it is only because we made mistakes, which however we now know not to repeat.

Of course, a project manager may merely pretend to believe this, in order to encourage the project team to work harder. The team members have to be convinced that he believes they can do it. If he has any sense, he will keep some slack in his schedule, but this must be cleverly concealed. His motivation strategy relies on the team not taking the existence of this slack for granted.

This is a fallacy that reeks of optimism, even naivety.  It often amounts to a denial of complexity, and of the possibility of things going wrong - or even different.

So many managers pretend not to be as intelligent as they really are, they pretend not to understand when their subordinates point out the fallacies in their schedules. Fortunately, there are no managers who are really as stupid as they pretend to be. Surely not.
more Examples of this fallacy can be found in the design of railway systems and education systems

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of Division

veryard projects > fallacy > division

“An indecisive jury most probably is not composed of indecisive jurors; rather the contrary.”
 source: Jon Elster, Logic and Society (Chichester, John Wiley, 1978) p 98

“The assumptions behind training as a strategy for inducing organizational change are based upon the psychological fallacy that since work organizations are made up of individuals, we can change the organization by changing its individual members. There is a plethora of evidence to refute this proposition; not only the generalized psychological research relating to the nature of resistance to change at the workplace... but also specific research into the evaluation of training programmes.”
source: N.J. Georgiades & L Phillimore, The Myth of the Hero-Innovator and alternative strategies for organizational change,
in C. Kiernan & P. Woodford (eds) Behaviour Modification with the severely retarded, (Amsterdam, Associated Science Press, 1975)

A divider suffers from the fallacy of division. Whereas the multiplier may assume incorrectly that the economies of scale are always favourable, the divider ignores the economies of scale altogether, and thinks that costs and timescales can always be scaled down in proportion.

The divider also assumes that what is possible everywhere is possible anywhere. All implies each. This makes him sanguine about change management and implementation.

For example, he might develop a very complex system, comprising a hundred separate modules. Each module will only work if all the other modules are in place already. Now the divider will suppose that if all the modules can be implemented (which is theoretically possible, since you could simultaneously implement all of them, but highly impractical) then each of the modules can be implemented separately. It will not occur to the divider (until it is too late) that the system cannot be implemented at all (without heavy modification to at least some of the modules).

A divider may also fail to take human sensitivities into account. He knows that a dispute is settled by both sides making some compromise, and cannot understand why neither side will yield first. Or he tries to change the job description of each employee separately, and is surprised when noone wants to be changed first.

But the cure for this fallacy is not to adopt an ‘all-or-nothing’ stance, because this may deny the possibility of change.

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of the Environment

veryard projects > fallacy > environment

A person who suffers from what Churchman calls the environmental fallacy, the fallacy of ignoring the environment. One form of the fallacy consists in trying to control one variable x, whose increase or decrease is thought to justify some effort.

Why is this fallacious? "Because in the broader perspective of the systems approach no problem can be solved simply on its own basis. Every problem has an ‘environment’, to which it is inextricably linked. If you stop x from growing (or declining, you will also make other things grow (or decline), and these changes you have created may very well be as serious, and as disastrous, as the growth of x."

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of Escalation

veryard projects > fallacy > escalation

Escalation converts a small and simple problem into a large and possibly unsolvable problem. The escalator regards himself as the true defender of the systems approach, and accuses his opponents of the environmental fallacy while he tries to drag in more and more of the environment.

The design of a doorknob provides a classic example of problem escalation. In Eberhard’s story, the designer makes a series of attempts to extend the design task.

  1. To design a doorknob for the office door
  2. To design the best method for opening an office door
  3. To design the best method of gaining access to an office
  4. To design the best method of enclosing personal working space
  5. To design the best socio-economic arrangement for office work
Thus, from an apparently simple design task, the designer has extended the problem into a full critique of modern industrial capitalism.

Some people adopt the tactic of escalation to deliberately kill a change. By making it large and complex, they hope to make it impossible. Others adopt the same tactic in innocent enthusiasm, so excited by the potential of an idea, that they do not realise that they are overloading it.

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of Generalization (The Availability Heuristic)

veryard projects > fallacy > generalization

Availability heuristic: the tendency to believe that the world at large is similar to the part of the world one knows.
source: Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge, 1985) p 466
quotes D. Kahneman, P. Slovic & A. Tversky (eds), Judgement under uncertainty (Cambridge, 1982)

People have difficulty imagining all the ways events could unfold. Psychologists call this the availability bias: out of sight equals out of mind. Therefore, we tend to assume that everything will go normally. (Question: if ten independent CSFs each have a confidence level of 90%, what is the probability of at least one of them failing? Answer: 65%)
more Estimation: Overconfidence

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Map/Territory Illusion (Maya)

veryard projects > fallacy > map/territory

Maya is an ancient Indian word (Sanskrit). It refers to the mistaken belief that a symbol is the same as the reality it represents, and that one's measurements are the thing that they measure.

Alfred Korzybski (founder of general semantics) called this “the illusion of mistaking the map for the territory”.

Maya can also be defined as the creation of form. It relates not only to the endless play of forms and the void from which it springs, but to the dangerous attachments people tend to develop in relation to their conceptual maps of the world.

Howard Rheingold, They have a word for it (Los Angeles, Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc, 1988)
(extract printed in Whole Earth Review No 57, Winter 1987)

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

veryard projects > fallacy > misplaced conceteness

Bateson attributes the identification of this fallacy to Whitehead.  Bateson's suggests that Marxist historians fall into this fallacy when they maintain that economic "phenomena" are "primary".
Bateson, "Culture Contact and Schismogenesis", in Steps to an Ecology of Mind
more Abstraction

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of Multiplication

veryard projects > fallacy > multiplication

"What seems more logical than to assume that a solution, once found and successfully applied over and over again, must also lend itself to larger and larger problems?" [Watzlawick]

If we can build a small prototype in n days, we can obviously build a system with 100 times as many components in 100.n days. Costs and timescales can always be scaled up.

This is the opposite of the fallacy of division.

The mythical man-month (identified in a book of the same name by Fred Brookes) is an example of this fallacy. If a project can be completed by four people in six months, then can it be completed by eight people in three months? (If you think it can, then ask yourself: can it be completed by a hundred people in a week?)

A bureaucrat suffers from a particularly virulent strain of the multiplication fallacy. Each step of formalization can be individually justified, therefore all formalization can be justified. If it is good to measure this or that aspect of performance, then he ends up measuring all aspects of performance, because he cannot bear to forego any one.

The so-called economies of scale usually collide with the multiplication fallacy. An accountant works out that the fuel consumption of one large delivery lorry is less than that of two small lorries. What this calculation ignores is the impossibility of scheduling the large lorry efficiently.

The U.S. Space Agency is responsible for creating one of the most entertaining real-life examples of the multiplication fallacy. In order to protect the space rockets from wind, rain and electric storms, it was decided to design a gigantic hangar, the largest building in the world, by multiplying the dimensions of normal-sized aircraft hangars. Unfortunately, the condensation and static electricity inside such a large building created unforeseen weather effects similar to those from which the rockets were to be protected!

[source: Gall, Systemantics]
The multiplication fallacy is related to the fallacy of composition.

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of Omniscience

veryard projects > fallacy > omniscience

Believing oneself or someone/something else to have complete and comprehensive knowledge.  Associated with Google.

The panopticon gives the illusion of transparency and completeness – so the watcher comes to believe three fallacies

more Googling at Google

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of Rotten Apples

veryard projects > fallacy> rotten apples

The belief that if there is a large and diverse class of something, then it is to be expected (and perhaps even tolerated) that some of them may have a selected (bad) property.

For example, the belief that if there are a few corrupt or racist individuals in a certain public organization, or a few greedy executives in the boardroom, or a few unprofessional individuals in a professional organization, or a few lazy and miserable employees, that doesn't imply that there is anything wrong with the organization or its culture.

This belief is justified by the slogan: "There's always one Rotten Apple in every Barrel."

But this slogan is of course rubbish.  One bad apple spoils the barrel.  A corrupt or lazy individual (if unchecked) may infect his colleagues. Weak individuals are quickly corrupted, while some strong and morally upright ones may be forced out.

That isn't to say that corruption is immediate and universal, or that such organizations are necessarily beyond repair and redemption. But the presence (and survival) of even one single corrupt individual within an organization must raise some concerns about the organization which cannot and should not be superficially dismissed.

In a blame culture, the preferred solution is to discipline or expel a few individuals where the bad property is most evident, and to hope that the problem goes away. This only works on the assumption that those individuals who do not openly manifest the property do not currently have it, have not been infected by it, and will not develop it. It doesn't deal with the root cause.
more Corruption - Bribery or Seduction
Failure and Blame (Scapegoat)
One Bad Apple (Lori Howard) ... And the Bushel Goes Bad (Caterina Fake)

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Fallacy of Smoke and Fire

veryard projects > fallacy > smoke/fire

The belief that if there is a large and diverse class of something, then at least one of them must have a selected property.

For example, the belief that if there are lots of rumours going around about a certain celebrity, at least some of them must be true - although we may have no way of determining which ones are true and which ones libellous. "There's No Smoke Without Fire".

An attempted justification of this fallacy may be based on the idea that the prevalence of such rumours demands an explanation, and the most likely explanation is that some of them are true. But often this is not the only explanation, and not even the most likely one.

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change


veryard projects > fallacy > sources

F.P. Brooks, jr, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (Addison-Wesley, 1975)
C.West Churchman, The Systems Approach and its Enemies (New York, Basic Books, 1979)
J.P. Eberhard, We ought to know the difference. In G.T. Moore (ed) Emerging Methods in Environmental Design and Planning (MIT Press, 1970)
Jon Elster, Logic and Society (Wiley, 1978); Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge, 1985).
Howard Rheingold, They have a word for it (Los Angeles, Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc, 1988) (extract printed in Whole Earth Review No 57, Winter 1987)
John Gall, Systemantics (New York, Quadrangle, 1977)
J.R. Lucas, The Concept of Probability (Clarendon Press, 1970)
J.E. Russo & P.J.H. Schoemaker, "Managing Overconfidence" Sloan Management Review Winter 1992, Vol 33 No 2, pp 7-19
Paul Watzlawick, Ultra-Solutions: How to Fail most successfully (New York, W.W. Norton, 1988) p 26

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change veryard projects > change management > fallacy
This page last updated on July 26th, 2004
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