EVALUATION IN THE PLANNING DISCOURSE — THE DIMINISHING PLAUSIBILITY PARADOX

Thorbjørn Mann,  February 2020

THE DIMINISHING PLAUSIBILITY PARADOX

Does thorough deliberation increase or decrease confidence in the decision?

There is a curious effect of careful evaluation and deliberation that may appear paradoxical to people involved in planning decision-making, who expect such efforts to lead to greater certainty and confidence in the validity of their decisions. There are even consulting approaches that derive measures of such confidence from the ‘breadth’ and ‘depth’ achieved in the discourse.

The effect is the observation that with well-intentioned, honest effort to give due consideration and even systematic evaluation  to all concerns — as expressed e.g. by the pros and cons of proposed plans perceived by affected and experienced people, –, the degree of certainty or plausibility for a proposed plan actually seems to decrease, or move towards a central ‘don’t know’ point on a +1 to -1 plausibility scale. Specifically: The more carefully breadth (meaning coverage the entire range of all aspects or concerns) and depth (understood as the thorough examination of the support — evidence and supporting arguments — of the premises of each ‘pro’ and ‘con’ argument) are evaluated, the more the degree of confidence felt by evaluators moves from initial high support (or opposition) towards the central point ‘zero’  on the scale, meaning ‘don’t know; can’t decide’.

This is of course, the opposite of what the advice to ‘carefully evaluate the pros and cons’ seem to promise, and what approaches striving for breadth and depth actually appear to achieve. This creates a suspicion that either the method for measuring the plausibility of all the pros and cons must be faulty, or that the approaches relying on the degree of breadth and depth directly as equivalent to greater support are making mistakes. So it seems necessary to take a closer a look at this apparently counterintuitive phenomenon.

The effect has first been observed in the course of the review for a journal publication of an article on the structure and evaluation of planning arguments [1] — several reviewers pointed out what they thought must be a flawed method of calculation.

Explanation of the effect

The crucial steps of the method (also explained in the section on planning argument assessment) are the following:

– All pro and con arguments are converted from their often incomplete, missing- premises state to the complete pattern explicitly stating all premises, (e.g. “Yes, adopt plan A because 1) A will lead to effect B given conditions C, and 2) B ought to be aimed for, and 3) conditions C will be present”).

– Each participant will assign plausibility judgments to each premise, on the +1 /-1 scale where the +1 stands for complete certainty or plausibility, the -1 for complete certainty that the claim is not true, or totally implausible (in the judgment of the individual participant), and the center point of zero expressing inability to judge”don’t know; can’t decide’. Since in the planning argument, all premises are estimates or expectations of future states — effects of the plan, applicability of the causal rule that connects future effects or ‘consequences’ with actions of the plan, and the desirability or undesirability of those consequences, complete certainty assessments (pl = +1, or -1) for the premises must be considered unreasonable; so all the plausibility values will be somewhere between those extremes.

– Deriving a plausibility value for the entire argument from these plausibility judgments can be done in different ways: The extreme being to assign the lowest premise plausibility judgment prempl to the entire argument, expressing an attitude like ‘the strength of a chain is equal to the strength of its weakest link’. Or the plausibility values can be multiplied:  The Argument plausibility: for argument i 

            Argpl(i) =  (prempl(i,j))  for all premises j of argument i

Either way, the resulting argument plausibility cannot be higher than the premise plausibilities.

– SInce arguments do not carry the same ‘weight’ in determining the overall plausibility judgment, it is necessary to assign some weight factor to each argument plausibility judgment. That weight will depend on the relative importance of the ‘deontic’ (ought) premises; and approximately expressed by assigning each of the deontic claims in all the arguments a weight between zero and +1, such that all the weights add up to +1. So the weight of argument i will be the plausibility of argument i times the weight of its deontic premises: Argw(i) = Argpl(i) x w(i)

– A plausibility value for the entire plan, will have to be calculated from all the argument weights. Again, there are different ways to do that (discussed in the section of aggregation) but an aggregation function such as adding all the argument weights (as derived by the preceding steps) will yield a plan plausibility value on the same scale as the initial premise and argument plausibility judgments. It will also be the result of considering all the arguments, both pro and con; and since the argument weights of arguments considered ‘con’ arguments in the view of individual participants will be subtracted from the summed-up weight of ‘pro’ arguments, it will be nowhere near the complete certainty value of +1 or -1, unless of course the process revealed that there were no arguments carrying any weight at all on the pro or con side. Which is unlikely since e.g. all plans have been conceived from some expectation of generating some benefit, and will carry some cost or effort, etc.

This approach as described thus far can be considered a ‘breadth-only’ assessment, justly so if there is no effort to examine the degree of support of premises. But of course the same reasoning can be applied to any of the premises — to any degree of ‘depth’ as demanded by participants from each other. The effect of overall plan plausibility tending toward the center point of zero (‘don’t know’ or ‘undecided’), compared with initial offhand convincing ‘yes: apply the plan!) or ‘no- reject!’ reactions will be the same — unless there are completely ‘principle’-based or ‘logical or physical ‘impossibility’ considerations, in plans that arguably should not even have reached the stage of collective decision-making.

Explanation of the opposite effect in ‘breadth/depth’ based approaches

So what distinguishes this method from approaches that claim to use degrees of ‘breadth and depth’ deliberation as measures justifying the resulting plan decisions? And in the process, increases the team’s confidence in the ‘rightness’ of their decision?

One obvious difference — that must be considered a definite flaw,– is that the degree of deliberation, measured by the mere number of comments, arguments, of ‘breadth’ or ‘depth’, does not include assessment of the plausibility (positive or negative) of the claims involved, nor of their weights of relative importance. Just having talked about the number of considerations, without that distinction, cannot already be a valid basis for decisions, even if Popper’s advice about the degree of confidence in scientific hypotheses we are entitled to hold is not considered applicable to design and planning. (“We are entitled to tentatively accept a hypothesis to the extent we have given our best effort to test, to refute it, and it has withstood all those tests”…)

Sure, we don’t have ‘tests’ that definitively refute a hypothesis (or ‘null hypothesis’) that we have to apply as best we can, and planning decisions don’t rest or fall on the strength of single arguments or hypotheses. All we have are arguments explaining our expectations, speculations about the future resulting from our planning actions — but we can adapt Popper’s advice to planning: “We can accept a plan as tentatively justified to the extent we have tried our best to expose it to counterarguments (con’s) and have seen that those arguments are either flawed (not sufficiently plausible) or outweighed by the arguments in its favor.”

And if we do this, honestly admitting that we really can’t be very certain about all the claims that go into the arguments, pro or con, and look at how all those uncertainties come together in totaling up the overall plausibility of the plan, the tendency of that plausibility to go towards the center point of the scale looks more reasonable.

Could these consideration be the key to understand why approaches relying on mere breadth and depth measurements may result in increased confidence of the participants in such projects? There are two kinds of extreme situations in which it is likely that even extensive breadth and depth discussions can ignore or marginalize one side or the other of necessary ‘pro’ or ‘con’ arguments.

One is the typical ‘problem-solving’ team assembled for the purpose of developing a ‘solution’ or recommendation. The enthusiasm of the collective creative effort itself (but possibly also the often invoked ‘positive’ thinking, defer judgment so as to not disrupt the creative momentum, as well a the expectation of a ‘consensus’ decision?) may focus the thinking of team members on ‘pro’ arguments, justifying the emerging plan — but neglecting or diverting attention from counterarguments. Finding sufficient good reasons for the plan being enough to make a decision?

An opposite type of situation is the ‘protest’ demonstration, or events arranged for the express purpose of opposing a plan. Disgruntled citizens outraged by how a big project will change their neighborhood: counting up all the damaging effects: Must we not assume that there will be a strong focus on highlighting the plan’s negative effects or potential consequences: assembling a strong enough ‘case’ to reject it? In both cases, there may be considerable and even reasonable deliberation in breadth and depth involved — but also possible bias due to neglect of the other side’s arguments.

Implications of the possibility of decreasing plan plausibility?

So pending some more research into this phenomenon, — if found to be common enough to worry about, — it may be useful to look at what it means: what adjustments to common practice it would suggest, what ‘side-stepping’ stratagems may have evolved due to the mere sentiment that more deliberation might shake any undue, undeserved expectations in a plan. Otherwise, cynical observers might recommend throwing up our arms and leaving the decision to the wisdom of ‘leaders’ of one kind or another, in the extreme to oracle-like devices — artificial intelligence from algorithms whose rationales remain as unintelligible to the lay person as the medieval ‘divine judgment’ validated by mysterious rituals (but otherwise amounting to tossing coins?).

Besides the above-mentioned research into the question, examining common approaches on the consulting market for potential vulnerability to provisions to overplay the tendency would be one first step. For example, adding plausibility assessment to the approaches using depth and breadth criteria would be necessary to make them more meaningful.

The introduction of more citizen participation into the public planning process is an increasingly common move that has been urged — among other undeniable advantages such as getting better information about how problems and the plans proposed to solve them actually affect people — to also make plans more acceptable to the public because the plans then are felt to be more ‘their own’. As such, could this make the process vulnerable to the above first fallacy of overlooking negative features? If so, the same remedy of actually including more systematic evaluation into the process might be considered.

A common temptation by promoters of ‘big’ plans can’t be overlooked: to resort to ‘big’ arguments that are so difficult to evaluate that made-up ‘supporting’ evidence can’t be distinguished from predictions based on better data and analysis (following Machiavelli’s quip about ‘the bigger the lie, the more likely people will buy it’…). Many people already are suggesting that we should return to smaller (local) governance entities that can’t offer big lies.

Again: this issue calls for more research.

[1]   “The Structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments”  Thorbjoern Mann, INFORMAL LOGIC  Dec. 2010.

— o —

0 Responses to “EVALUATION IN THE PLANNING DISCOURSE — THE DIMINISHING PLAUSIBILITY PARADOX”



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.





%d bloggers like this: