CU Water Cooler

Be Your Own Journalist

Sarah Snell CookeComment

In elementary school, everyone learns the five biggies when it comes to asking and answering questions: who, what when, where and why. As a journalist, they're reinforced again and again. To reiterate it's important to get all of the facts by asking who, what, when, where, and why. Who, what, when where, and why help one arrive at the nub of an issue, so it's important to ask and answer them all. To reinforce my get it. 

My favorite, and the most useful, is why. Critical thinking and listening is crucial to every living being, and asking ‘why’ until you sound like a four-year old is paramount to getting at the nub of an issue. Why do some of us grow out of this great habit? 

The second piece to the puzzle is actually listening to the answer you receive so that you can follow up with another intelligent, but why? Ever notice that when your toddler child or niece asks this question repeatedly you end up trying to very simply explain important ethereal matters that get at the heart of our very existence. Every human being needs to get back to that simplicity and level of curiosity in all aspects of life, whether work or personal.

I recommend the book, Asking the Right Questions. It's somewhat of a slow start because it's very elementary but that portion serves as a key refresher course to evolving into a highly critical thinker by the end. The real mission is to never let it end. 

To really delve critically into an issue it must first be accurately identified, the authors recommend. Sometimes it's not as cut and dry as we think because it can be masked in unsubstantiated opinion and irrelevant information. However if the issue is not identified correctly there's no way of telling whether it was answered or not.

Next consider the reasoning behind the conclusion that was arrived at. What data and research inform the conclusion? Does it answer the question at hand? What was the methodology used in collecting it? Is the information from a reliable source? What possible bias exists? Good journalists will go to a variety of sources to get varying perspectives just so the reader can draw their own conclusions and to avoid bias. We identify the person or company the information came from so readers can decide the weight they want to give it.

Identify ambiguous terminology. If a company trying to sell you their product claims it will make you 75% more efficient, one has to ask why's second cousin—how. They must define efficient and disclose how they arrived at that figure. The company has a vested interest in making you believe something but you have an interest in determining the true value it would contribute toward what you want to accomplish. 

The company would also be making what Asking calls a value assumption. What values can compete with efficiency? Member service for starters. Pushing all members to a self-service kiosk may be efficient in an HR sense but if your credit union and members desire face-to-face interactions, then the product is of little value.

But say your credit union runs on an efficiency philosophy. This same company may also tell you that their technology delivers proven efficiency so you can't afford to pass it up. The efficiency claim may be true, but ask yourself whether the conclusion is accurate. Can your afford to pass it up? The company rep makes a descriptive assumption that you have to have it. Are there other methods that might be more appropriate for your situation to achieve similar efficiencies?

The next step in Asking is to look for any fallacies in the reasoning. For example, when Candidate Barack Obama was running for president, a group known as the ‘birthers’ was a vocal minority that said he shouldn't be president because he couldn't prove he was born in the U.S. While I acknowledge that is a requirement (and it was documented), my point here is that this group did not provide any rational reasons regarding his policies or actions to encourage people to rise up and vote against him. They merely made a personal attack rather than addressing the issues, which the critical thinker cannot tolerate.

Asking lists several other fallacies in logic. One of my least favorites is the straw man, or building up a weak argument just to tear it down. 

Another is the perfect solution. This particular one prevents people and companies from taking risks that could ultimately pay off. For example, some executives have said that since a few credit unions have made terrible mistakes in business lending, no credit unions should be involved. It's so perturbing because it makes the exception the rule. Yet some of these same executives are arguing that credit unions should be exempt from the CFPB because most credit unions did nothing wrong. These executives are making value assumptions that lead them to different sides of the same argument: Do we regulate to the few bad apples, or do we let those few slide because most did nothing wrong?

In sum it comes down to the quality of the evidence and your ability to analyze it. And the way one arrives at conclusions is by asking who, what, when, where and why. Who, what, when, where and why is so elementary, we often overlook it but it is the best way to arrive at the heart of an issue. By asking who, what, when, where and get the point.


Sarah Snell Cooke is the publisher/editor-in-chief of Credit Union Times.