Wrong Assumptions

“If one starts with a wrong assumption and is logical from that point on, he will never get back on the road to truth”

Cajetan, commenting on a text of St. Thomas Aquinas and quoted by Fulton J. Sheen in his autobiography, Treasures in Clay (Doubleday, New York, 1980), can be seen as a basis for the more contemporary Winston Churchill statement,

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”

The truth is hardly recognizable when you have grown your personal tree of knowledge from the seed of a weed.  And, human ego is more than willing to let you proudly believe that your weed is actually a mighty oak, to the point of error, failure, and violence to the Truth and those who hold it.

What is an “assumption” in this sense?  Google definitions include, “premise: a statement that is assumed to be true and from which a conclusion can be drawn” where external circumstances or events that must take place in order for something to occur may not or cannot be known at the time one is analyzing potential outcomes. 

The error that those who make, promulgate or accept Wrong Assumptions may cause is the subject of much of Nassem Nicholas Taleb’s critical discussion.  Several entries from his “Black Swan Glossary” ( http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/glossary.pdf ) serve as illustrations:

“Locke’s madman: someone who makes impeccable and rigorous reasoning from faulty premises…

Retrospective distortion: examining past events without adjusting for the forward passage of time. It leads to the illusion of posterior predictability.

Reverse-engineering problem: It is easier to predict how an ice cube would melt into a puddle than, looking at a puddle, to guess the shape of the ice cube that may have caused it. This “inverse problem” makes narrative disciplines and accounts (such as histories) suspicious.

Round-trip fallacy: the confusion of absence of evidence …for evidence of absence….

Confirmation error (or Platonic confirmation): You look for instances that confirm your beliefs, your construction (or model)—and find them.”

Avoiding “Wrong Assumptions”

Making the Wrong Assumption?  Photo (c)2008 Randy D. Bosch

Making the Wrong Assumption? Photo (c)2008 Randy D. Bosch

Obviously, if you fall victim to wrong assumptions, whether of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc variety or any other kind, they will “own” you, your actions and your relationships.  Sometimes, we fall victim to them because we trust the “reliable source” of the assumptions implicitly — even if they sound somewhere from “iffy” to outrageous, we bury our skepticism and go with the “Trust me” implicit in our sources’ presentation.  Sometimes, we generate our own wrong assumptions out of naivety, hubris, exhaustion, or simple lack of study and verification.

Sometimes, the Wrong Assumptions are innocently derived, sometimes promulgated with malice aforethought.  Some assuage fears, some start conflagrations of mistrust and destruction.  Often, an assumed basis for an action or conclusion is not explained to those receiving a full presentation of research, recommendations, action plans, services or products – and is lost.  An assumption may metamorphosizes into fact as events unfold, particularly when observers confuse “correlation” with “causality”.  The “assumer” whose assumption proves out may find later assumptions accepted as not risky or evidence of far more background research than the originator ever intended.  And, the robe of “prophet” is too often readily donned by those whose assumptions proved out, even when their intent in experimentally testing their hypothesis was to prove or rule out variables. 

How may we proceed in an attempt to avoid being a victim of (or victimizing others through) Wrong Assumptions?  One good step is learning to spot the various types of intellectual fallacies –  misconceptions due to incorrect reasoning – that underpin most Wrong Assumptions.

The University of North Carolina presented a good “field guide to fallacies” that is recommended as a great starting point to help identify misconceptions that lead to poor assumptions or are used to promote Wrong Assumptions, ( http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/fallacies.html ).  “The handout provides definitions, examples, and tips on avoiding these fallacies.  Included are hasty generalization, missing the point, post hoc or false cause,  slippery slope, weak analogy, appeal to authority, ad populum (everybody does it!), ad hominem and tu quoque, appeal to pity, appeal to ignorance, straw man, red herring, false dichotomy, begging the question, and the ever popular “equivocation”.   An understanding of fallacies not only helps ward off the plague of Wrong Assumptions but also helps one ward off seemingly erudite attacks from others upon one’s own work!  The handout provides a short program for testing your work to identify fallacies in it, often based upon Wrong Assumptions! 

Speaking to nuclear non-proliferation and force downsizing, Ronald Reagan is reported to have said, “Trust, but verify”.  For most of us, the maxim “Don’t Assume — Clarify!” is very useful to avoid Wrong Assumptions. Cindy King presented a great article Trust in Cross Cultural Communication on her blog on September 9, 2009 ( http://cindyking.biz/trust-in-cross-cultural-communication-%E2%80%93-tip-19/ ), including her Tip #19:

“Use extreme clarity to avoid wrong assumptions”

along with a summary of her 30 Tips and links to earlier explanatory articles.  These are recommended reading, as we all seem to be involved in cross-cultural communication – particularly when we are misunderstood or misunderstand others in any situation. 

More than enough on this subject for now, or I may be pilloried for an ad hominem attack on Assumptions!  Just remember,

“If one starts with a wrong assumption and is logical from that point on, he will never get back on the road to truth”



About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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