How Startup Founders Can Be Like Iraq Warhawks

And a happy 4th of July to you, too. 

A week ago, some of the original architects of the Iraq War, seeing violence flare anew, took the opportunity to voice their opinions, which to date have been so woefully overlooked (that’s sarcasm, of course). What was most remarkable about these comments was a common statement, here espoused by Jonah Goldberg:

“I still think the arguments in favor at the time were superior to the arguments against. Alas, the facts on the ground didn’t care about the arguments.”

Wait, what?

The arguments were good, but the facts didn’t support the arguments? It’s been years since I taught expository writing, but in common parlance, and in the language of logic, an argument that is not supported by the facts is called a bad argument. Or poor. Either is acceptable.

I seem to remember Dick Cheney saying just the same thing. At least, that’s a statement that sounds superior to the statement that he didn’t, so we’ll go with that.

As an exercise, I concocted arguments that seemed good, but were contradicted by later facts. It’s harder than it sounds. So… props to Goldberg, I guess?

“I should eat all my Hallowe’en candy now, because there’s no way I’ll be sick later.”
“Honey, you should ditch your career and become a sniper at a mall, because you always wanted to be famous and mall snipers get on TV.”

As you can imagine, this rapidly became not fun.

Then it hit me: Where have I seen this thinking before, and recently? Startups.

It may just be me, but the parallels are clear, and once you’ve seen them, you can’t stop seeing them. Or at least that’s my superior argument.

Certain people in a former U.S. administration were gunning for a war, savvy as to the language and triggers that got people riled up and pointed in their preferred direction; contradicting facts were explicitly dismissed as off-message, obstructionist, and counter to their preferred narrative.

This tendency towards confirmation bias was so pronounced, Matthew Yglesias dubbed it the “Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics” (apologies; the original-source link seems to be gone), where will and belief alone would be sufficient to create a reality in which these arguments, facts be damned, would actually hold. It could also be called the Tinkerbell or PaRappa theory: you gotta believe! The opposition even took up an administration official’s intended insult and called themselves “the reality-based community”.

Now, I’ve written before about seeing many startups plow forward without user research, comfy in their surety that they “know the market” or that dang it, they’ll work hard to make this one a hit. Any questions about their vision, or idea, even if it’s charging $27 for $20 worth of quarters for laundry — but with two-day delivery! — is met with the same dogged faith in their willpower; if you’re trying to shake that, by, perhaps, suggesting we find out whether anyone actually needs it — why, you’re working for failure. Their personal failure.

I hope to further investigate the social and financial structures that provide the moist, damp growth conditions for this fungal belief system, but again we see that the argument — here called “the pitch” — takes a privileged position over facts; confidence over questions.

In fact, the Y Combinator supplicants I’ve spoken to told me they were coached to appear confident above all, and that showing any research would be read as a lack of confidence. Just as facts on the ground in Iraq would be — indeed, were — treated as undermining America’s chosen mission.

Just think what the U.S. could have done if we’d privileged facts over arguments before going into Iraq, or made our arguments match the facts.

Similarly, think what startups could do if their pitches matched the facts, found through research.

I guess another way to say this? Don’t be a Dick.

(Note: Thanks to A. J. Kandy for a read and suggestions.)