Friday, July 15, 2011

Preaching to the Choir: the bane of IT

Sometimes I get asked why I bother debating with people who clearly have a different opinion with me and are unlikely to change their mind. The reason is that sometimes, rarely I'll admit, that sometimes I will change my mind and occasionally I will change theirs.

The other reason is what is the point of debating with someone who agrees with you? Unfortunately in a lot of IT we have two types of discussion

  1. Religious discussions based around IT fundamentalism
  2. Preaching to the Choir to re-enforce the message
These two are very closely related.  Effectively a group of people talk to each other about how great something is and how fantastically brilliant that approach is and how the whole world should bow down before their joint vision of the future.  These folks then head out to 'spread the word' and are just plain shocked when people fail to accept what they say as the gospel truth and normally either result to insults, making up facts or just plain ignore any comments or questions.  Quite typically this later bit includes doing farcical comparisons like

Q: Where are your references?
A: Same as yours, personal experience
Q: Err but mine are published on the web, here are a bunch of links...

This is a conversation I've had many times.  The reason for this post however is that on Google+ someone replied to a post by Jean-Jaques Dubray (which referred to this post) and after a short discussion where the individual started with a personal insult and moved on to ignoring questions and instead posting their own PoV finished with the brilliant line
Wrong audience and tone

Which of course just means that the person feels that they want to go and speak with people who agree with them unquestioningly.  This mentality is a massive problem in IT and, I feel, more prevalent in IT than almost any other discipline.  Whether its the 'leadership' of the Java group ignoring huge amounts of external input that disagrees with them or the various little pieces of fundamentalism around its a significant issue that folks tend to switch from one fanaticism to another without often pausing between them.  The number of times I've bumped into someone a couple of years down the road who is now a fanatic for another approach is just stunning.

I remember once saying at JavaOne that UIs are best created with tools and was told in no uncertain terms that you couldn't build a single complex UI with tools, it had to be hand coded.  I pointed out that I'd built an Air Traffic Control system where everyone was using visual tools for the UI side building, this was a system that was already in production, the reply was 'good luck with that, it won't work'.  Much back-slapping from his friends for 'putting me in my place' while I wandered away sadly wondering if people really could be in IT and want to learn so little from previous experience and instead just create a small clique that backs them up.

I've come to realise that this is sadly exactly what lots of folks in IT prefer to do, they prefer to create an 'us v them' mentality and form small groups of 'evangelists' who preach to each other on the brilliance of their ideas and the stupidity of others for not understanding them.

Its this fractured nature that leads to groups denying any benefits from 'competiting' approaches or even from historical ways that have been proven to work.  Often things come from first principles and sometimes (and this is the one I find most scary) is tied to a single published work which becomes 'the good book' of that clique.  The choir preaches to themselves and sees success when none exists or defines success purely based on their own internal definitions.  The debate that is engaged in works on a very poor level as no challenge is allowed to the basic assumption that they have found the 'holy grail' of IT which will work for every sort of approach.

Preaching to the Choir is at the heart of this issue.  Talking and debating only with those who agree with you is a bad way to test ideas.  The Oxford Union is what debate is about, two sides trying to convince the other and the audience deciding who won.  Argumental has built a programme around people being made to debate on a topic they might not even agree with (although in the linked video Rufus Hound doesn't make a very good job of that).

If all you hear is 'that is great, brilliant, anyone who disagrees is an idiot' then I'm afraid that you are an idiot as you are in danger of wearing the Emperors new Clothes and are clearly taking the easy way out. If you can't convince other people of the power of your argument this is most likely to be because there are flaws in your argument that you don't understand or know, not that the person you are debating with is an idiot (sometimes this will be true of course).

The basic rules should be

  1. Facts count - if you can reduce things to quantative assessments then you are doing better
  2. Ladder of Inference - you need to build from the first point of the debate, not start at the end
  3. Answer questions - if someone asks a question, answer it
  4. Think about where the other person is coming from
  5. Read opposing views, learn from them
  6. Accept when you don't agree - sometimes people will differ and that is okay, accept it

I find it quite depressing when people say 'I'm not talking to X as he can't be taught about Y' when I know that the reality is that X has a very good point of view that the person saying this really should listen to as they'd learn something even if it challenges their current IT religion.

So please can we stop preaching to the choir and start having actual debates, it doesn't matter if the tone is a bit disrespectful or sarcastic as long as you are challenging and responding to challenge.  It should be a fierce debate on occasions and that is fine, but what it shouldn't be is just preaching to the choir and denouncing all those who disagree as heretics.

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Bob Rhubart said...

Great post, Steve. Could it be that the lack of civility in political discourse has tainted debate on any topic? Regardless of the topic - IT, politics, or anything else - there is enormous value in giving due consideration to all perspectives. Problems are solved by ideas, not ideology.

Steve Jones said...

I don't worry so much about the civility, more about the idiocy. I do think the US political debate appears to be of a similar kind with people stating facts that aren't true because 'they believe it' and even when the error is pointed out they claim to still be right.

Civility isn't required for debate, but respect is.