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. 🙂 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