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The Nominal Fallacy at Work

by

Using logical fallacies at work — intentionally or otherwise — costs real money. The nominal fallacy is probably responsible for much delay in addressing our real problems.
A view of the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, at noon on July 4, 1994

A view of the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, at noon on July 4, 1994, when the fire covered only three acres. Lightning had ignited the fire on July 2. The fire would eventually claim 2117 acres. Tragically, on July 6, 1994, it claimed the lives of 14 wildland firefighters, as detailed in the Report of the South Canyon Fire Accident Investigation Team. Controversy about this incident, and others involving death and injury of wildland firefighters, persists. Among the factors cited is the framework known as the "10 Standard Firefighting Orders," eight of which were cited in the report as having been compromised.

Ted Putnam, a retired firefighter and firefighting leadership trainer, argues that these deaths, and other deaths and injuries, can be traced to the Standard Orders, and other practices of wildland firefighters. He asserts that the Standard Orders cannot actually be followed, and that they are designed to protect firefighting management, perhaps more than the firefighters themselves. He writes, "Notice that by identifying something, management is now off the hook." If Mr. Putnam is correct, he has identified a use of the Nominal Fallacy.

The Nominal Fallacy is usually an honest mistake. Except when it isn't. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Willdland Fire Leadership Development Program.

We're committing the logical error called the nominal fallacy when we believe that because we've given something a name, we've explained it. An example: "He doesn't get along with his teammates because he's difficult." Labeling him "difficult" doesn't explain the troubled relationships in the team. It leaves many questions unanswered. Why is he difficult? How is difficult defined? Is he the only team member who's difficult? Are all people who don't get along with their teammates difficult? Can there be other reasons for troubled relationships in this team?

We can extend the nominal fallacy concept slightly to an Attributes Fallacy, which is the logical error of believing that we've explained an entity — or elaborated an existing explanation — when we merely list some of the entity's attributes. If an entity's name is one of its attributes, then the Nominal Fallacy is a special case of the Attributes Fallacy.

For example, when we categorize defects in a software product as change-request, performance-severe, unclassified, and so on, we aren't resolving the defects. We're classifying them. Each defect had a name, and now we've given it a classification. Name and classification are two of its attributes.

Naming and classifying can be satisfying. They might even be steps necessary for achieving our goals. But in most cases in the workplace, naming or classifying isn't the goal. When we enjoy naming and classifying so much that our enjoyment interferes with actual goal achievement, we're in trouble.

This trouble can appear anywhere. When we design project plans, we name tasks. I've done it myself. It's fun. But naming tasks doesn't bring the project home. It's a necessary step toward the goal, but it's just a step.

Consider When we enjoy naming and
classifying so much that
our enjoyment interferes
with actual goal achievement,
we're in trouble
the annual budget for your organization. Somebody decides how much to spend on each major organizational element. When they do, they're assigning a value to each organizational element's "budget" attribute. But that isn't the end of the budget process. Budgets must be monitored. When they prove to be too low, or too high, interventions are required. That's hard work. Setting the budget is just the beginning. The same can be said for schedules and strategies.

What's so seductive about naming things, or setting the values of their attributes, or even merely understanding the naming work someone else has done, is that when we do it, we do experience a disproportionate sense of getting something done, however illusory that sense might be. My hope is that your having read this little essay will help you recognize that sense of satisfaction as the joy that comes — in part — from the Nominal Fallacy.

Now, you might ask, how does all this help me? Why does the Nominal Fallacy work the way it does? Haven't I merely named it? Is the Nominal Fallacy an example of itself? Hmmm. Go to top  Top  Next issue: When Somebody Throws a Nutty  Next Issue
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More about logical fallacies


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See also Rhetorical Fallacies and Critical Thinking for more related articles.

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