Sunday, August 8, 2010

Using Social Consensus as Evidence

Last time we talked about the first of the three kinds of evidence – one’s credibility. I received lots of emails divided into two themes, so I’ll start by answering those for all of you that might have had similar questions.

Yes – credibility is technically a kind of evidence, although I agree that you would have had to take some technical communication courses in order to know that. The reason that it is counted as such is that the purpose of evidence is to support a claim, and an individual’s credibility can often do that. Many times in face to face communication, the speaker’s credibility ALONE is enough to support the claim. The engineer stands up in a meeting and describes why a particular technical approach is superior to another. If I feel his credibility is strong (based on the criteria that I wrote about last time), I may accept his solution without asking for anything else. If it is a matter of vital importance I may ask them how they arrived at their conclusion and, if their process and sources were credible to me, I may accept his conclusion with no other discussion. So credibility alone is used to support some claims and that is why it counts as evidence.

Also, while it is important to assess the credibility of others, it is also important to set the bar at the right height for the topic. The criticality of the outcome usually determines that. In a life or death situation, we need more assurance than if we were making a less serious decision, and so the level of credibility can be relaxed. Interestingly, if a group of listeners are disposed to particular point of view, and the speaker’s point of view supports them, the speaker’s credibility may go unquestioned and rated by the listeners to be very high even though it was never assessed. In other words, if he agrees with us, he must be right. Very dangerous variant on what is called “Confirmation Bias”.

This time I am going to talking about a second kind of evidence- Social Consensus. These are things that we all agree to and require no further support. They are where many conversations go bad, because there are precious few places you can go to find a list of things that we all agree to! So how do you know if a claim is acceptable by social consensus or not?

Well, the first thing we determine is if we have we agreed to it before. If the people in the discussion decided, for instance, that we would allow project managers to fulfill certain responsibilities and they have been doing it without objection then there is some social consensus that those responsibilities are theirs unless we want to question it. In other words, if someone claims that the engineers were doing something that the project managers are supposed to do and the question was “How do we know that the project managers are supposed to do that?”, our evidence could be that there has been a general consensus that it is their job.

Note that this doesn’t mean that we have to continue that way – we can come to a new agreement at any time. All we are saying is that the way we know that the task in question is to be performed by project managers is that there has been a consensus among us that we will handle things that way.

Beware of social consensus! Many things that we believe are universally accepted are NOT. Questioning these is vitally important. Some examples of claims that some may think are generally accepted and are not are:

1 – Democracy is better than non-democracy
2 – People are basically bad
3 – People are basically good
4 – The environment is more important than industry
5 – The current economy is the cause for low sales

You can make your own list by writing down those things that YOU think are generally accepted and asking your friends and coworkers if they agree or not. This is an interesting task because that is the "society" that you are likely trying to understand. If it is like my workplace, you will find that it is very diverse with people from many varying backgrounds. It brings to mind an old saying about "opinions" and their....ummmm... ubiquity.

You will find that most of the things you think are generally true in your business – the things you base your decisions on – are not always as generally accepted as you thought. Some of the most challenging and beneficial discussions are those that bring that to light.

Generally, what constitutes common knowledge are the most simple and non-controversial of facts:
24 hours in a day; seven days in a week; ‘A’ precedes ‘B’ in the alphabet; Los Angeles is in California, 2+2=4. These are all things we generally agree to and would likely never be challenged

Care needs to be taken, though, regarding accepting things that are NOT so “universally known” without some backing. The speaker’s credibility is one of those things; the other will be our topic next time – Objective Evidence

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