A good assignment, proposal or critique will demonstrate a degree of logical rigour. Logical analysis is concerned with testing or establishing linkages between ideas or propositions, excluding ambiguity and contradictions and exposing false conclusions. It is sometimes difficult, however, to spot underlying logical errors. What do you notice in the following sample arguments?
All managers are reasonably intelligent. Geoff is reasonably intelligent. Therefore, Geoff must be a manager. Is that a logical conclusion? If not, why not?
In a recent study, 20% of accounting errors in one firm were found to be made by managers of type A. The remaining 80% were made by managers of type B. This research demonstrates that type B managers are four times more likely to make accounting errors than type A. The firm should, therefore, actively recruit and retain type A managers and encourage type B managers to leave. Is that a logical conclusion? If not, why not?
A good starter question to bring to any argument or proposition is, “Does it necessarily follow that…?” These notes (below) have been drafted to reveal and avoid some of the most common errors in, for instance, textbooks, media presentations and student assignments. Don’t worry about the use of Latin phrases – we only included them because that’s how they are sometimes referred to in literature.
A case is valid if the conclusion necessarily follows from its premises. So, for example, the following argument is logically valid:
Premise 1 All managers are bullies
Premise 2 John is a manager
Conclusion (Therefore) John is a bully
The argument isn’t sound, however, unless the premises are also true. In this case, the first premise is untrue and this impacts on the conclusion. A sound alternative might be:
Premise 1 Some managers are bullies
Premise 2 John is a manager
Conclusion (Therefore) John may or may not be a bully
When analysing or evaluating a situation, try to identify and question your own assumptions or those of the presenter. If you are not sure whether they are necessarily true, it’s better to hypothesise or draw tentative conclusions than to make rash judgements.
This form of logical error entails arguing a case that has nothing logically to do with the case that you are trying to substantiate. For instance, it does not often follow that disproving someone else’s case necessarily proves your own. Example:
I have revealed significant weaknesses in X’s theory of motivation and, therefore, my own theory must be true.
It cautions us to avoid assuming that providing an alternative explanation for something necessarily substantiates the alternative explanation. For example:
Sue’s GP says she is suffering from stress but I’ve noticed that she has been missing deadlines at work recently, so that must be the real reason for her absence.
It also cautions us to avoid assuming that, if we have argued a convincing case, our case is necessarily reflective of reality. For example:
I have demonstrated on the basis of my research that formal strategic planning has no impact on organisational effectiveness, therefore it doesn’t.
Argumentum ad ignorantiam
This form of logical error entails arguing a case that is based on ignorance of a case you are trying to refute. This is a particular risk for students drawing conclusions about a writer’s beliefs of theories on the basis of limited reading or superseded texts.
Having glanced at one page of X’s writing on conflict management written in 1972, I can confidently claim that she is absolutely wrong.
In light of this, it is important to approach and critique writers’ work with openness and humility. As a rule of thumb, if you are reading a text that is more than 5 years old, check (e.g. via Amazon.co.uk) whether a more recent, revised edition has been published. If you are not sure whether you have fully understood the writer’s position, qualify your critique accordingly.
This form of logical error, more commonly known as a circular argument or begging the question, entails proving a conclusion that you have already drawn from the start; i.e. the conclusion is the first premise of your argument, and its conclusion. For example:
Premise 1 Since only senior managers can make decisions
Conclusion 1 I can only make decisions if I’m a senior manager
Premise 2 Since I can only make decisions if I’m a senior manager
Conclusion 2 Only senior managers can make decisions
One way to avoid this error is to question whether assumptions you are bringing to a situation are necessarily true or whether alternative explanations or ways of looking at things are possible. If you find it difficult to do this in isolation, try running your starting point past a colleague and ask them to pose challenging questions to you.
This form of logical error entails making statements that are logically self-contradictory. For example:
There are no absolutes
We can’t know anything with certainty
There is no truth
Everything is meaningless
To avoid falling into this error, pause and reflect on any assertions or proposals you make to see whether they contain inherent contradictions, e.g. bearing in mind underlying cultural values. For example:
If staff refuse to engage in participative decision-making processes voluntarily, managers should force them to do so using a combination of carrot and stick tactics.
This form of logical error entails creating a generalisation out of a particular case without sufficient justification, for example assuming that reality must conform to one’s own personal experience. Just because a person has not experienced something does not mean that no-one else has experienced it, that it is not valuable or that it does not exist. For example:
In my own experience, I have found intuition to be an unreliable basis for decision-making and, therefore, it has no role to play in good management practice.
Similarly, it is possible to make sweeping generalisations on the basis of limited experience. Interestingly, it may be that the generalisation is true even if the basis on which it is created is insufficient as an explanation or justification. On the other hand, there may be distinctive or underling factors that the generalisation does not take adequately into account. For example:
I’ve been in this type of situation before and X always happens.
In order to avoid this error, pause and reflect on beliefs of viewpoints that appear obvious or self-evident to you. Check whether you are jumping to conclusions that would benefit from further scrutiny.
This form of logical error entails drawing conclusions from one area of theory or experience and applying them directly to a different area of theory or experience without testing whether underlying assumptions or principles still apply. This may be a particular difficulty for people transferring between cultures or organisations or managing new situations after significant change. For example:
This is what we’ve always done at church and so I’m sure it will work here too.
One way to avoid this error is (a) to consider what it was about previous situations or experiences that made them work in the way that they did and (b) to check whether the same combination of factors genuinely apply in the new situation.
This form of logical error entails denying the validity of an argument on the basis of discrediting some aspect of the person proposing it, e.g. personal bias. For example:
She works in X team so that’s what she would say, wouldn’t she?
To avoid this error, separate the argument from the person and ask whether it would still hold true irrespective of who proposed it.
It goes without saying, obviously, that you should avoid using phrases like this. It’s a waste of words and can, without question, sound patronising. It assumes you have demonstrated a case (in which case, such phrases are unnecessary) or that the case is self-evident to all (which may or may not be true). Naturally, I’m sure you will agree it’s best to avoid such assumptions. Clearly, everyone knows that. :-)
Lannon, J. (2003) ‘The Writing Process’, Addison Wesley.
 What if, for instance, type A managers are those who consume excessive alcohol at lunchtime whereas type B are consistently sober?
 This is a logical error demonstrated by, for instance, those critics who claim to have disproved biblical miracles as supernatural phenomena by offering alternative scientific explanations for them.
 This is a logical error demonstrated by, for instance, those critics who claim that Christians must be deluded when they claim to experience God personally because they (the critics) haven’t known this experience or interpreted their own experience in this way.