Inspector Clouseau: Does your dog bite?
Hotel Clerk: No.
Inspector Clouseau: [bowing down to pet the dog] Nice doggie.
[Dog barks and bites Clouseau in the hand]
Inspector Clouseau: I thought you said your dog did not bite!
Hotel Clerk: That is not my dog.
As kids, we all learned the old adage, “when you assume you make an ass out of u and me.” Did any of us listen? Apparently not.
I don’t care if you’re a CEO, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, or the president of a sovereign nation, I guarantee you’ve made terrible decisions – some of them life-changing or even disastrous – based on misinformation, flawed assumptions, and faulty logic.
And I’d be willing to bet that’s the reason behind more financial bubbles, corporate disasters, personal tragedies, and dumb legislation than any other factor. It’s certainly behind all manner of dysfunctional leadership behavior, the dot-com bubble, and maybe even a war or two.
Not only that but the Web and social media have made the problem a thousand times worse. Now, information propagates all over the planet at Internet speed. From some unshaven moron at home in his pajamas to a billion people in milliseconds. And folks make all sorts of business and personal decisions based on it.
The only problem is that probably 99% of it is complete BS. It’s what we in the business like to call “content.”
Truth be told, this isn’t all about the Web. Flawed assumptions and faulty logic have always been the Achilles Heel of even the brightest human minds. Here are three quick examples I’m sure you’ll recognize:
The physicist. Albert Einstein, who famously said, “God doesn’t play dice with the world.” Oh yes he does, Albert. Even he admitted he was wrong, albeit after decades of denial and debate in the scientific community over quantum mechanics, which is now accepted by every physicist on Earth.
The president. George W. Bush took America to war with Iraq over Weapons of Mass Destruction that, to my knowledge, were never found. I’m not taking a position on whether that was right or wrong. I’m just saying it was a pretty big decision based on an assumption from limited data that apparently turned out to be erroneous.
The CEO. WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers, now serving 25 years in federal prison, promoted a best-case assumption for the continuous growth of the Internet as gospel. The so-called “big lie” was adopted by the telecom industry and Wall Street, fueling the dot-com bubble and costing investors trillions when it burst.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Here are some more recent examples of how the Internet and social media have compounded the problem and turned us all into propagators of flawed assumptions, misinformation, and faulty logic that affects each and every one of us:
Remember when Toyota recalled millions of vehicles and nearly suffered a brand meltdown over allegations that “sudden acceleration” caused dozens of accidents? None of that turned out to be true.
A U.S. Department of Transportation investigation showed that drivers were mistakenly flooring the accelerator instead of jamming on the brakes. But media hype and grandstanding politicians – always ready to capitalize on a crisis – propagated the erroneous assumption that the crashes were caused by automotive malfunction.
The Obama administration and congressional Democrats teamed up to sell the American public on the idea that ObamaCare would reduce skyrocketing healthcare costs. That little bit of misinformation, propagated all over the airwaves and Internet, was apparently based on some ridiculous assumptions that had no chance of being true. And yet, it worked. The bill passed. And now, we’re all stuck with it.
Perhaps the most devastating affect of the Internet Age is that it routinely propagates bad science. In case you didn’t know, the scientific method is how civilization has advanced the state of science and technology for centuries by making assumptions and either disproving or upholding them over numerous experimental trials.
Without the scientific method and its rigid adherence to logic and deductive reasoning, we would all still be living in the Dark Ages. Well, guess what? That’s the direction we’re now heading in. Every day I come across supposedly factual articles in reputable publications that propagate bad science.
I was just reading an about research suggesting that effective leaders had similar activity in certain regions of the brain. It goes on to suggest that neurofeedback could be used to train people to be better leaders. Funny thing is, it’s just as likely that the cause and effect are reversed: that the brain activity is the result, not the cause, of leadership activities. In which case the conclusions are bogus.
A couple of years ago, Time Warner’s Health.com published an article listing 10 careers that are “more depression-prone than others.” The article, which quoted all sorts of mental health professionals discussing how jobs contribute to depression, went viral and was picked up by many major news outlets.
But here’s the thing. The article was based on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a questionnaire that, in addition to dozens of questions about drug and alcohol use, asked people if they’d had instances of depression in the past year and what they did for a living. There’s simply no scientific or causal link between the two. And it’s probably more likely that depressed people self-medicated and ended up in crappy jobs than that the jobs caused depression.
The coupe de grace in this category is of course global warming, manmade climate change, or whatever Al Gore is calling it these days. In this case, all the civilized nations of the world got together and legislated how billions of people will live from now on based entirely on an unproven assumption.
I get emails like this one all the time: “So you think that 97% of climate scientists who believe that climate change is real and that we are the reason are wrong?”
Funny thing is, science isn’t about “belief” -- at least it didn’t used to be. If it were, we’d all be living like the Flintstones. And that 97, 98, or 99 percent number you see quoted all over the Internet is simply false. According to my research, scientists seem to be split about 50-50 on the question.
And yet, we’re all supposed to buy electric cars that we have to plug in.
Look, if the leaders of the world think everyone should change their lives based on an assumption, then they’re just trying to make an ass out of u and me. And if scientists no longer use the scientific method, then Dark Ages, here we come. And that conclusion is based on good, solid logic. Yaba-daba-doo.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.