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Post of the Day
June 1, 1999

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Subject: Re: Some restatements of the mission.
Author: hedden

Upon reading David Gardner's recent posting "A restatement of the mission", I find myself with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I concede that there does seem to have been a recent rash of posts harshly criticizing the methods (if not the aims) of the Fool web site (and in particular, the Rule Breaker Port columns), and I can understand the feeling that these criticisms deserve a response. On the other hand, I find myself shaking my head at the manner in which these responses have been carried out.

Here on the RB board, I've seen TMFJeff inviting critics to call him rather than posting reasoned and thoughtful responses (post #5544), responding with sarcasm (post #5034), being overly defensive (post #4272), and demeaning someone's character (post #4208 & 4272). And now I see David resorting to name-calling (miscreants, misanthropes, and "usually a red flag sign that this critique is coming from someone who is a trader, or doing (smile) "technical analysis," or short our stocks, or whatever"), and invitations to leave the site ("I suppose that there will always be the few unfortunate miscreants (and I really do pity them -- why do they waste so much of their own time if they think we're wasting theirs? -- you're free to leave any time to one of those other great sites, if you like -- really you are) who basically just come here to critique and carp."). All in the same breath that exhorts others to avoid personal attacks. Veiling a character bash in erudite multisyllabic nomenclature does not change the fact that it is a character bash. In my opinion, it would be better not to respond at all than to fall into petty exchanges and exhortations such as these. It must be tiresome to feel that your ideas are under constant attack and that you must defend your notions from an onslaught of uninformed or unthoughtful critics. But not every criticism warrants a response, as I know you realize.

Although David, TMFJeff, and others at Fool HQ have generally put forth very thoughtful, well-spoken, and well-reasoned responses to their critics, what I find more troubling than the few lapses of judgment is what I see as a pervasive and consistent attempt to undermine these critics. Not to engage them, not to placate them, not to convince them. Rather, to undermine their credibility and to silence them by impugning their character or by inviting them to depart. This isn't how an investment community should be structured. By example, the "official Fools" are inviting others who support their positions to denounce, flame, and frighten off skeptics and those with alternative opinions. I do agree that there are different shades of "unbelievers" out there, running the gamut from one-post flamers to name-callers to thoughtful critics, and I do believe that the Gardner brothers and others make such distinctions. But this last post of David's fails in my mind to make such distinctions.

While we're all thinking of investor psychology, perhaps we should consider an area that David's recent columns haven't touched on yet: groupthink. Groupthink is defined by Irving Janis in Victims of Groupthink as a "mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically approve alternative courses of action." The internet, message boards, and, in particular, The Motley Fool web site all provide an ideal medium for the occurrence of groupthink: an interactive community that is monitored primarily by consensus and group-defined standards, while having a few highly visible and highly respected leaders. As David Dreman states in Psychology and the Stock Market: "�there is an additional factor which may often lead to unanimity of opinion - the pressures of superiors and colleagues within the organization. Often the leader does not intentionally try to bring the group around to his viewpoint and may be very sincere in trying to foster open discussion and encourage honest dissenting opinions. Group members are not syncophants and usually do not fear to speak their minds. Still, restraints which the leader may unintentionally reinforce exist to prevent members from fully assessing the suggested course and from expressing doubts when the majority of the group appears to have reached agreement."

The only possibilities for avoiding the pitfalls of groupthink reside in the unfettered expression of ideas and in the erasure of derision and confrontational tactics in the face of dissenting opinion. It is precisely the expression of dissension that can help a community avoid unjustified reasoning and decisions. Without critics, a community descends into the depths of groupthink and the inability to properly and rationally evaluate ideas. And the insidious quality of it all is that it is very difficult for members of the group to detect groupthink even as it is happening. I think we can see some of this groupthink occurring in some of the previous responses to David's post, cheering his derision of the dissenters and uncritically praising the Fool's party line (e.g, post #5579).

Since I began visiting the Motley Fool web site I have progressed from reading the Fool's School materials, attending to the various columns and educational materials, and passively lurking on the message boards to becoming a more active contributor (mostly in boards other than the RB and RM, as I find too much of the cheerleadering and badgering, particularly in the RB folder to make it worthwhile as a regular read). As I did, I have always been mindful of the fact that I am involved in a community here, and that I have far more to learn than I do to contribute. With that in mind, I've always tried to be fair-minded, respectful, and considerate of others in the community. Regardless of how hot-headed or inflammatory someone else's posts may read to me, I try to find the nugget of truth, the underlying message, or at least the unstated agenda in their message. This is what learning from an on-line community requires and is all about, in my opinion. (See this post for more on my thoughts on the message boards: http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?id=1330599001297007 ) The Fool web site has become my primary source for investment discussion and education because I have found that the majority of others appear to carry the same respect and consideration for others. In my time here, I've found, more often than not, that it is the renegades, the dissenters, and the critics from whom I learn the most. Their posts are often both thoughtful and thought-provoking, interesting and invigorating. To dissuade dissenters or "miscreants" from contributing would lead to a huge loss of intellectual capital here at TMF.

Rather than turning terms like "trader" or "technical analysis" into a dirty word to be used for derision and taunting, perhaps we should see whether it is possible to learn something from proponents of methods counter to one's own. Rather than saying "you're free to leave" perhaps we should instead say "you're free to listen" - encouraging exchange rather than exhortation. I personally am skeptical of the ability to succeed as a trader or the use of TA (see the following for my current attempt to investigate this topic: http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?id=1330599001565000 ), but I'm not willing to simply dismiss such methods out of hand.

As for the oft-quoted evil of commenting on a portfolio's daily performance, I have to disagree with David that it is analogous to supporting one's favorite sports team. In watching sports fans, I've found that emotion is the primary motivating factor in their touting and cheering. Take out the emotional involvement and most sports are largely uninteresting. Investing, on the other hand, requires cold reason, goal-setting, and adherence to a disciplined approach. Once emotion enters the picture, it clouds judgment, obscures reason, and erodes discipline. TMF has even published a book titled The Unemotional Investor, and the Foolish Four and Workshop Screens approaches argue for mechanical discipline over emotional involvement. It's fine to enjoy the euphoria of a rising stock, but it can be disastrous to allow that euphoria to overcome a disciplined approach to the performance of a company and the value of its stock. I understand that it must be difficult to find something to discuss in a column everyday and that it may be difficult to ignore the euphoria of increasing returns, but perhaps it would suffice to let the numbers speak for themselves. Those interested can always scroll to the bottom of the page to find the day's returns. The column space might be better spent discussing investor psychology, new issues, developments in the portfolio's stocks, companies currently in consideration for the port, the evolution of the RB approach, differences between the RB approach and the previous Fool port approach, changes in returns since changing the approach, or ideas currently under discussion on the message boards. You could always use the column space to answer posts on the message boards - the column and the boards are integrated. There is news in many of the RB stocks everyday - why not divert some of that energy spent cheering on the stocks to investigating these new developments? Ultimately, it is your column and your space and you can use it as you wish, these are just a few suggestions, most of which you've heard before. Many of the columns are commendable and thoughtful, but it would be nice to see a concerted effort to make them all this way.

As for pounding your ideas, I find that the best ideas need no pounding - they find an audience, seemingly on their own. When I encounter the constant harping of an idea, I usually find that I've encountered someone harping their own agenda for their own benefit. The Motley Fool certainly has some lofty and noble goals, which I see being met here in the community everyday. Perhaps we should place more faith in the community's ability to educate itself and less in the need for banging away at the same drums all the time. Eventually, the rhythm is gonna get ya, but if repeated enough, it either grows tiresome, or the listener finds ways to improve it and creates variations. I don't think we need to chase away those with variations or even those who dance to an entirely different drummer.

Finally, I take issue with the suggestion that arguments and criticisms put forth by employee's of TMF are valued and constructive, while the criticisms of others outside the "inner circle" are not. ( That means that any criticism our employees offer as we go about the daily job of doing business is a constructive form of criticism, even (if you will) a "loving criticism" in that it is intended to help the subject of the criticism.) This sentence reads to me as if TMF is handing down from on high the wisdom (or Foolishness, if you prefer) for the benefit of the unwashed masses. I think those at TMF generally know that they can learn a lot from all the grime of the masses. If you know this, then speak as if you know it - don't make implications you don't agree with. The community you are trying to create relies on individual thinking, self-education, thoughtful exchange, and reasoned opinion. Nurturing this requires the tolerance of dissension, divergent ideas, and agreeing to disagree. Don't mistake differences of opinion for personal attacks, and don't fan the flames of animosity. I've come to admire the community here at TMF and truly do hope that it continues to develop into a free and friendly forum for expression and the exchange of ideas.

Perhaps we can collectively decide to stop the distasteful tactics and return to the purpose of this board - to discuss Rule-Breaking Companies (and if that means opening a Criticize the Fool (or The Anti-Fool) board and a Fool's Cheering Squad board, or efficiently joining these into a Clash of the Fools board, then so be it - perhaps providing a proper forum will move at least some of the off-topic clutter from this board). Maybe then I'll find this board to be worth more time.

I'll leave you with a slogan your mother probably taught you when you were young:
"If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

I've already said too much, but thanks for listening.

-TH