Technical Controversy and the Unknown

In Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health, L. Ron Hubbard says:

It is not untrue that where one finds the greatest controversy, there he will also find the least comprehension. And where the facts are least precise, there one can also find the greatest arguments.

There are some areas of computing that are very difficult to comprehend. There are also areas where the facts are very imprecise, or where no real facts are known (there are just guesses or theories, instead).

In these areas, programmers can get into endless technical debates that seem to get nowhere.

The subject of “security” is often like this. Developers can get into extremely long technical debates about how to implement security features in their programs, how to fix security issues, and so on. But, um, security from what? Security that allows the user to do what? How important is security? What level of security is important? What is the basic, fundamental point of computer security? What do we even mean when we say “computer security”? If I say my program is “secure”, what does that mean?

Can you see that there might be some things there that are hard to comprehend, or that there might be some imprecise facts in that field?

The subject of user interface design is also like this. Developers can get into some knock-down, drag-out fights about user interfaces, probably because they don’t understand them, and because the field is full of imprecise facts. I personally leave most UI work to the UI engineers, and stay out of it. πŸ™‚ I let the people who do comprehend these things do their job, and I don’t encourage debates in areas that are poorly understood.

When I don’t understand something, or when the facts aren’t precise enough, I think there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t understand this!” or “We need more data!” And that’s the end of the conversation. There really shouldn’t be any more debate after that, because it’s going to get nowhere!

Whenever a technical debate goes on and on without resolution, I say, “Okay, obviously something is unknown here. What more could we find out about this?”

There’s nothing wrong with debating the pros and cons of technical issues. But when it becomes really controversial or people become strongly argumentative, that’s when I start applying the quote above from Dianetics.

As an exercise, you can see for yourself if this applies. Look at an area in computing where there’s a lot of controversy (such as operating systems, programming languages, security, etc.), and check: Are there some imprecise facts, or is there some missing comprehension in that field?

-Max

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5 Comments on “Technical Controversy and the Unknown”

  1. Eric R says:

    Fantastic Max!

  2. Grahame says:

    You make a very good point.

    I also find that when the individual doesn’t fully understand an area then he or she get into “controversy,” arguments and endless discussion. It’s like the arguments people have about coding standards: “The opening curly brace must go on the next line” versus “No way, it should go on the same line.” They don’t understand that consistency is the important thing, they’ve never had to maintain code that was written by several programmers all following different coding, naming and formatting standards – nightmare!

    Understanding tends to blow away the arguments, fixed opinions and “controversy”.

  3. Valon Cross says:

    I very much agree that consistency is very important (after workability). As a programmer (for 27 years) the most important technical actions I did were Student Hat, M1 Word Clearing, and the Elementary Data Series Evaluator’s Course.

    When I finished M1, computer manuals “glowed” and I could read and duplicate.

    When I finished the Data Series course, my thinking dramatically improved. I could normally spot the Why much faster.

    Both less MUs and the right Whys cut through much discussion and avoided controversy. This lead to personal certainty and helped me as a technical lead.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Wow, that’s amazing about the M1. πŸ™‚ And yeah, I’ve heard many, many good things about the Data Series, particularly in relation to programming.

      And yeah, I totally understand what you mean about MUs and the right Whys. πŸ™‚

      -Max


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