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Attacking DEI: Examples of Cognitive Bias and Rhetorical Fallacy

Recently some high-profile people have more publicly expressed the notion that addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is inherently racist. Could they be correct? Probably, if one allows a cognitive bias to engage. Possibly, if one wants to employ a rhetorical fallacy.  The folks who attack DEI efforts illustrate not just the Dunning-Kruger Effect but also the 'strawman' argument. This combination of cognitive bias and rhetorical fallacy underlines a significant misunderstanding and misrepresentation of DEI goals and strategies.

Understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect: The Dunning-Kruger Effect, explains a cognitive bias where individuals with limited knowledge in a domain overestimate their expertise. Simply, it’s the novice who believes they know more than the expert. In the case of some, expertise in business does not necessarily equate to a deep understanding of DEI. Essentially they are novices when it comes to DEI. Yet these "novices" rationalize their competence with DEI because they are successful in other areas. They display what can be termed, “expertise extrapolation.” Expertise in one domain does not guarantee expertise in another domain, though some believe it does. As an example, it would be like believing one’s expertise in a domains like social-psychology and human behavioral science also extends to expertise in electric automobiles or hedge funds. High-confidence is not necessarily a good indicator of high-competence.

The Strawman Argument: The assertion that DEI efforts are racist made by some anti-DEI classically illustrates a rhetorical fallacy known as a strawman argument. By claiming that DEI efforts are racist, one can set up a simplified, yet easily refutable version (strawman) of what DEI actually represents. In reality, DEI initiatives aim to foster environments where opportunity and inclusion are not systematically and unduly influenced by factors like race, gender, or what school one may have attended. Initiatives that address belonging, psychological safety, and fairness in opportunity are a far cry from racist. To attack such efforts, one must create a “strawman” to target, one that has nothing to do with the actual goals of DEI. As an example, it would be like attacking dress shoes, saying they are awful because they cause sprained ankles when playing basketball. 

The Irony of Expertise and Misinterpretation: The attacks on DEI efforts made by those with shallow knowledge of the complexities of DEI create an interesting mix of overestimated self-competence (Dunning-Kruger Effect) and misrepresentation (strawman argument). People attacking DEI, especially successful individuals with expertise in certain areas, likely have an unwarranted confidence (and perceived competence) in discussing DEI. This overconfidence, paired with a fundamental misunderstanding of DEI, can result in a strawman: an argument easy to construct and easy to knock down, but one that does not represent the true nature of DEI initiatives.

A Call for Humility and Accurate Understanding: All this underscores the importance of humility and a willingness to genuinely engage with complex topics outside one’s expertise. It's a call to avoid oversimplification and to participate in informed discussions and even debate. Addressing DEI issues (like most complex issues) requires a humble, empathetic, reflective and open-minded approach, which can only come from a genuine pursuit of understanding and willingness to learn from those with expertise in this area.

Beyond Misunderstandings in DEI Discussions: Unsubstantiated anti-DEI attacks, influenced by cognitive biases and rhetorical and logical fallacies, highlight the need for informed discourse on DEI. Recognizing the limits of our own knowledge and being open to learning from experts in the field are crucial steps towards meaningful progress. Only through such informed and respectful discourse can we hope to build more equitable and inclusive environments where human differences can be optimally leveraged.

Final Thoughts: Let's say the primary goal of DEI initiatives is cultivating environments where people, from many different backgrounds, are engaged and able to perform at their best. If that's the case, one can attack the strategy DEI efforts employ, but it would be ridiculous to attack the goal. And if that's the case, it would be wise for organizational leaders to spend energy and allocate resources to formulate and execute a strategy to achieve the primary goal, NOT make false claims to confirm an ill-informed opinion, and thereby relieving them of their responsibility to be the great leaders they perceive themselves to be.



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