The Firewood Fallacy

Whenever an expert makes a claim they cannot support with data, I’m reminded of the firewood fallacy.

Firewood fallacy is a term I coined earlier in my career after being frustrated by how many organizations suffer from group think. Decisions are often made based on institutional knowledge or hearsay, rather than independent research or data.

I borrowed the term from the following parable:

A group of settlers in a remote location needed to gather firewood to prepare for the upcoming winter. The group’s leader guessed it would be a relatively cold winter but was unsure how cold so wanted to check with experts. He journeyed into the next town where he was able to call the National Weather Service (NWS). The NWS confirmed his projection of a cold winter; as a result, the group’s leader instructed the settlers to gather more firewood.

A week later, the leader checked with NWS again but the forecast had changed: the prediction was now for a very cold winter. To be careful, the leader decided to collect more firewood. This cycle went on several more times, with increasingly dire forecasts from NWS followed by even more firewood.

Finally, the bewildered leader asked the NWS: “Why do you think the winter is going to be so ridiculously cold?” The NWS answered: “It’s because those settlers are gathering so much firewood.”

The firewood fallacy is a phenomenon that often happens in business. Decisions are made based on conjecture or poorly-researched facts. In extreme cases, the so-called experts merely repeat what they’ve heard from others.

What can be done to counteract the firewood fallacy?

In the extreme, follow the 1845 advice of Edgar Allan Poe:

Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.

It’s likely simpler and easier to follow the example of the settlers’ leader and ask why more often. Over time, learn to ask better questions. Finally, embrace critical thinking.

When making decisions, it can be instructive to consult an expert. Just make sure you understand the basis of their expertise. Avoid the firewood fallacy.

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