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Are Your Clients Arguing from Ignorance or Authority?

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 13, 2016

By Warren Brand

For those of you who follow my blog, you’ll know I live with four women—three daughters (15, 19 and 21) and my wife, whose age will remain confidential as I prefer to remain married.

While it may be hard to believe, I have, on very rare occasions, had arguments with the various women in my life (all of whom, by the way, are considerably smarter than I).

Client disagrees with logic
© iStock.com / BakiBG

Clients often argue from positions of ignorance (i.e., lack of opposing evidence) or from authority; either way, these argument styles are meant to stop further discussion.

Our arguments are typically productive and civil, and often lead to a good outcome. However, there are two types of arguments that absolutely drive me nuts, whether from family members, friends or business colleagues.

Argumentum Ad Ignorantiam  (Argument from Ignorance)

This type of argument, also known as an appeal to ignorance (in which “ignorance” refers to a lack of opposing evidence), states that a situation is true because it has not yet been proven false or vice versa.

We’ve all heard this type of argument in many different parts of our busy lives. Here are some examples.

Case 1

Dad: Perhaps you should talk to your teacher and ask for some advice on how to better study for that final?

Daughter (with rolled eyes and arms crossed over chest): What’s he going to tell me that I don’t already know? I just need to study the notes.

Case 2

Dad: Maybe you should talk to your basketball coach about what kind of drills and techniques you can work on over winter break?

Daughter (with rolled eyes and arms crossed over chest): What’s she going to tell me that I don’t already know?

Case 3

On a more serious note, when talking to a friend who has had a serious cough for several weeks:

Me: Maybe you should go to the doctor and get it checked out.

Friend: I’m sure it’s just a cold. Why do I need to waste the money?

And in a business context, I hear it constantly. 

Our business is unique and provides vendor-neutral consulting—that is, we charge for services that many other companies provide for “free.” For example, we charge for identifying the optimal paint and coating systems to use (or not to use) depending on a wide variety of variables. We also charge for writing site-specific specifications, etc.

We constantly hear statements like the following:

Client: We’re already getting those services for free. What are you going to tell us that we don’t already know?

Client: It’s just painting. It’s not that complicated.

The problem, particularly in business, is you get what you pay for. Data clearly supports that these “free” services are costing asset managers and owners dearly for reasons far too complex for this blog. 

exterior photo
Photos courtesy of Warren Brand unless otherwise noted

The exterior of this concrete generator shaft shows linear efflorescence. It was clear that the existing coating on the shaft interior needed only spot repair in various areas. However, due to the authoritative opinion of a large engineering firm and coating company (see “Argumentum Ad Verecundiam” section), the owners were leaning toward complete removal and replacement of a perfectly good, properly functioning existing coating system which required only minor repair due to shifting and settling of the newly built structure.

This argument style, an argument out of ignorance, in philosophy is called a “fallacious argument,” as it makes no sense and is difficult to answer—not necessarily because the answers aren’t there, but moreso because the person posing them doesn’t really care to have an intelligent discussion. 

Rather, the argument is meant to stop any further conversation.

For example, I was talking to a Fortune 100 chemical company years ago which was, every three years, cutting open the side of a tank, entering it with a front loader, removing an existing coating and replacing it with the same exact coating system. This coating system required replacement every three years and had been specified 18 years earlier. This replacement cycle was costing the company about $325,000 every three years.

My conversation with the client went something like this:

Me (trying to keep my jaw from hitting the floor): You know, we could design a coating system and application protocols which would lead to a coating design life in excess of 20 years, and wouldn’t require you to cut the side of your tank open—ever.  It would also only cost about $140,000.

Client: No, I don’t think you understand the problem. We’re working with some of the top people around. No, we’ve been doing this forever, and it’s working fine for us.

The conversation was, simply, stunning. 

Imagine any great discovery ever having taken this train of thought:

Columbus: What could possibly be further west?

Galileo: Of course the sun revolves around the Earth. Why wouldn’t it?

NASA: Oh, what could we possibly learn from going to Mars? Why bother?

Thomas Edison: What could be better than an oil lamp? Are you kidding?

Someone: Toilet paper?!? Who needs toilet paper? These leaves do the job just dandy!

But wait, there’s more. And it gets worse.

Argumentum Ad Verecundiam (Argument from Authority)

Every aspect of corrosion mitigation procurement, particularly pertaining to paints and coatings, is highly complex. Just take a look at a product data sheet or well-written specification. And, the more complex a system, the more likely people are to defer judgment to those in authority—or to those who appear to be an authority.

This brings us to Argumentum Ad Verecundiam, or argument based on authority. This type of argument, also known as an appeal to authority, states that a situation is true because a well-regarded person says it is so.

Much like the argument from ignorance, argument by authority is tricky because, more often than not, it’s perfectly appropriate, reasonable and often necessary to defer to those more knowledgeable than oneself. 

efflorescence

At the same client location as illustrated above, the interior of the shaft exhibited a dirty, yet well-adhered floor coating system and wall system, with damaged and peeling caulk or coving. Here, too, a simple repair here would have solved the issues.

As a lowly parent, I run into this constantly with my girls, all of whom are exceptionally athletic. The arguments go something like this.

Daughter #2 (who at the time in high school probably weighed 130 pounds and is currently a D-1 soccer player): My coach has us squatting with 200 pound weights, just like the football players! 

Dad: That is way too much weight for you to be squatting. You’re going to hurt yourself. There are better ways to train without risking damage to your back or knees.

Daughter #2 (eyes rolling, arms crossed): I think my coach knows better than you do.

In order to convince her, I had to contact her club soccer coach and a friend who is a professional trainer to convince her to stop. I also had to threaten to call the school. I’m all about working out hard—really, really hard—but there was no benefit, and only danger, to working out with so much weight. She could accomplish the same results (which she did) by working on one-legged squats, high reps of two-legged squats, and with much lighter weights and box jumping.

In business, we run into it the two fallacious arguments in the same conversation.

Client: Yeah, we’re working with (insert name of paint company, engineering firm, architectural firm, etc.), so we’re fine.

Me: But I understand you’ve had several serious failures in only the past few years.

Client: Yes, but (insert authority figure here) is working on it.

Me: Would you like us to conduct a peer review of your specifications, coating selection or protocols?

Client: What are you going to tell us that (insert authority figure here) isn’t already on top of?

I would guess I run into these fallacious arguments in one form or another more than half the time. 

In one case we were talking to the owner of a very large, prestigious commercial facility in downtown Chicago. An internationally well-known engineering firm brought another internationally well-known coating company to inspect the interior of a 12-story airshaft for an emergency generator— it’s like a commercial stairwell, but with no stairs.

The existing coating was in excellent condition and only required very, very minor touchups—roughly costing $15,000, mostly due to scaffolding costs. 

The owner, however, was going with the recommendation of the two large firms, who recommended completely removing the existing coating and applying—you guessed it—this one manufacturer’s coating. Last I heard, the client was leaning toward spending upwards of $150,000 to remove a perfectly good coating system, not include the substantial fees of the engineering firm.

cracking along CMUs

Again, at the same client site, this saw-tooth cracking, which follows the lines of the CMUs, is a clear indication of settling in a newly built high-rise. The existing coating system, while elastomeric in nature, did not have enough elasticity to accommodate this much movement. Repair of the cracks or “tears” in the coating would have been the technically appropriate course of action. In fact, running a simple bead of caulk onto the interior cracks and joints would have likely been sufficient.

That’s argument by authority in action. My kids have another name for it: “You can’t fix stupid.”

Seeking Technical Truth

My deep frustration with these two arguments led me to create an independent, Midwest technical conference on corrosion: Engineered Corrosion Solutions (ECS). I created ECS for one purpose, and one purpose only: to bring technical truth to asset owners and managers. 

This year, the ECS one-day event will be held May 5. The event is a clearinghouse of some of the top technologies and minds in the industry. The speakers and topics are vetted for technical veracity and intrinsic value to asset owners and managers from all industries plagued by corrosion and required to conduct paint or coating activities. There is still time to register online.

With that in mind, and since I’ve brought Latin to this post, let me close with a phrase we’re all likely to be familiar with caveat emptor: buyer beware.

But how? How can overworked, overwhelmed asset owners and managers do a better job with fewer resources? There are only two broad solutions.

  1. Become educated. Take classes, read articles and data sheets, talk to industry professionals and leaders, and learn how to vet solutions on your own. 
  1. Rely on the right, vendor-neutral, high-integrity, highly technically qualified professional firms. If they’re not vendor-neutral, or your advocates, tread very carefully.

Our industry is at a crossroads. Technically, we have some of the best corrosion mitigation technologies in terms of materials, application techniques and testing procedures the world has ever seen. However, due to the two arguments highlighted here, only a very small fraction of asset managers are being led to them. 

By analogy, the technology is on par with the iPhone, but many asset owners, due to a lack of time and resources, are still getting two cans and a string.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Warren Brand

Warren Brand’s coatings career has ranged from entry-level field painting to the presidency of two successful companies. Over nearly three decades, he has project-managed thousands of coating installations and developed specs for thousands of paint and coating applications. NACE Level 3 and SSPC PCS 2 certified, Brand, an MBA and martial-arts instructor, now heads Chicago Corrosion Group, a leading coatings consultancy. Contact Warren.

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Tagged categories: Building owners; Coatings; Consultants

Comment from trevor neale, (4/14/2016, 9:19 AM)

Well said Warren.


Comment from peter gibson, (4/14/2016, 11:27 AM)

Difficult for asset managers to know what is a good coating system,when all the manufactures claim they have the best. How would a lay person wade through all that, Lots of false claims out there.


Comment from Harry Heise, (4/15/2016, 8:50 AM)

I, like you, seem to be on the same mission, 'seeking truth'. I loved your blog post, really well said. I am sorry that I cannot make your ECS conference this year. On a personal note, I have 2 daughters. Once while defining my male opinion with my wife and daughters, I was reminded by my youngest, "oh, BTW Dad, Keiko (dog) is a girl, and she thinks you're wrong too."


Comment from Oscar Duyvestyn, (4/18/2016, 1:02 AM)

Good blog Warren, I like it. Very recognisable. Fortunately, encountering the behaviour that you described doesn't frustrate me anymore. They'll all find out in time that the free option is the most expensive one. Besides, the fee charged for a failure investigation is many times that of providing good and independent advice. It only takes patience. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.


Comment from Warren Brand, (4/18/2016, 9:35 AM)

Hi Harry, thanks for taking the time to write. And too funny about the dog comment from you daughter. Oscar, Trevor and Peter, thank you all as well. Oscar, (et. al.) I still run into clients making the same, exact mistakes repeatedly, with no apparent interest in doing things differently or better. It's the classic definition of insanity; doing the same, exact thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome. This is particularly troubling and endemic with public entities. I have met with dozens of different public entities (some of the largest in the U.S.) and the conversation typically ends like this: "Yes, we see that your way is a better way to do things and will save us time and money, but we simply can't figure out a way to hire you through our procurement and contract system." And then the recommendation from the client is always the same. "Maybe contact our engineering firm or architectural firm, and maybe they'll hire you to help us out." I have never found an engineering firm or architectural firm interested in doing better for their client when it comes to corrosion mitigation solutions. Their world is based on "suitable" corrosion solutions ( two cans and a string), while mine/ours is based on "optimal." The problem is so severe, that we rarely market to public entities anymore. It's simply a waste of time, which is a shame because they're waisting our tax dollars and are in most need of vendor-neutral, technical assistance and guidance towards optimal, long-term, durable solutions.


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