Schedule and Events

March 26-29, 2012, Software Test Professionals Conference, New Orleans
July, 14-15, 2012 - Test Coach Camp, San Jose, California
July, 16-18, 2012 - Conference for the Association for Software Testing (CAST 2012), San Jose, California
August 2012+ - At Liberty; available. Contact me by email:

Friday, June 19, 2009

Er, Um ... What?

//Meta: Unlike most of my blog posts, which I try hard to have concrete, detailed, and well explored before posting, this idea is not fully-formed. I wanted to throw it out to the web for feedback early. I hope you find it at least a good use of your time.

In addition for working for a distributed software company, I also write a column from home for a company is, well ... everywhere. The STPCollaborative is also distributed.

As such, I spend a considerable amount of time on written communication - articles, wikis, e-mail, blogs, and such. Plus, because I teach at night, my ability to attend conferences is limited, so I've increased my involvement in discussion lists, forums, and other on-line conferring.

And I've noticed a trend.

Some people on these boards are familiar with logical fallacies - interesting rhetorical devices that may make a strong-sounding argument that do not actually hang together.

The classic example of a logical fallacy "call out" is where person A makes a point that does not hang together, and person B, catching it, responds with some fancy latin, such as "Ad Hominem" or "Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc" - you've likely seen that before. At least the guy is caught.

Yet there are a number of other techniques that I find unacceptable - or, you could say, techniques someone can stoop to in order to win the argument that I find distasteful. Here are a few:

1) Appeal to Goodness, thinly disguised
The other party uses a vague word to say "that's not good"

"That's not Agile!"
"A high-maturity organization wouldn't have such a problem"
"I don't see how that's you could deliver a high-quality system with that approach"

Counter: "So what?" or "Why not?"

2) Retreating to big words or hand-waving
In this case, the author uses more words that are not well-defined or agreed upon in order to mollify the questioner.

"How do I define a high-maturity organization? Why, one that has a quantitatively managed process and a very low degree of process variation, of course."

This one is very hard to counter, because the author is substituting one vague, big word for a half-dozen. Chasing down those half dozen is going to be hard.

Counter: Ask for details and examples. "Could you give me an example of a low degree of process variation, and how you measure it? It occurs to me that process is multi-dimensional - how many different aspects of the process do you measure the variance of, and what are some of them?"

3) Insistence that you "just don't get it"

Those most obvious form of this is simply stating "you just don't get it" as a reply to a reasoned and logical question. More subtly, it can be used by insisting that there is a rich and deep body of knowledge which the reader has to absorb before being capable of engaging you with meaningful questions. (This is a fine line, because it's reasonable expect our colleagues to read some background material before entering a discussion.)

Contributor: "Uh, I know Joe is an architect, and all, but I really don't see what value that role adds to the project."
Manager: "You just don't get it, do you?"

More subtle example:
Q1:"have to admit, I'm interested and getting less skeptical over time. At my current shop, we use a scrum-like process managed by a wiki, but I admit it's generally "push" instead of "pull." It seems to me that moving to pull is more about attitude than process, and I am interested in seeing more details of implementations."

A1: "Welcome Matt!

I think implementing pull is a lot harder than perhaps you think. While attitudes have to change, pull is not simply an attitude adjustment, it highlights real problems quickly and it's this focus on exposing problems early that requires an attitude adjustment from everyone on the team. I often refer to this as 'Kanban makes you take the pain early and often, rather than deferring it until later.'"

(Read A1 Again, really carefully. Did you catch the hand-waving?)

Q2: "Thanks for correcting me, now could you also educate me?"

A2: "In fairness, you didn't ask a question or solicit any "education." The description for the group provides references to two specific papers describing kanban case studies and also a link to a recommended reading list. Did you take the time to read the group description and follow those links?

I think it is a reasonable assumption for a moderator that new members would at least have read the description of the group before joining.

Groups like this have to self-help. There cannot nor should there be an obligation on the moderators to "educate" anyone. While members aim to be helpful and co-operative, open and collaborative, there is no obligation to "educate."

Eric points out that a lot of new members struggle to catch up. To those who feel that way, I'd ask the same questions, have you read the description of the group? did you follow the links? have you read the original papers on the Microsoft and Corbis case studies? have you read any of the other recommended reading?

It will get awfully tedious in here if we have to regurgitate the foundations every couple of weeks for the new members."

Commentary: This isn't being reasonable to limit intrusions into the group. It's a kind of bullying behavior. This is a little cut/paste from a discussion list, and yes, If I had to do it over again, I could have improved the tone in my comments. It cuts both ways.

4) Insistence that the reason you don't get it is because it is "hard"

Classic Example: "Oh, ha ha ha, I don't know if anyone can really understand real options without a Ph D understanding of economics, mathematics, and physics."

Commentary: This is worse than you don't get it. At least with "you don't get it", you can go read the case studies and say "in light of my previous questions, my comments still stand."

With insistence on "hardness" you are left with nothing, because in order to engage you'd have to spend nine to fifteen years in graduate school.

What this person is really saying in this example is that no one is in a position to challenge them about their statements.

As someone once said, the true genius makes the complex seem easy to understand; while the charlatan makes the easy to understand appear complex.

5) Abuse of the Socratic Method

In the Socratic Method, one person assumes the role of "teacher" and asks a series of questions to lead the student to a conclusion. It bogs down when the student actually understands the subject well. When the student has not granted the teacher any authority or role as teacher, it can revert to verbal bullying.

Person A: "I'm curious, why do you do practice X?"
Person B: Detailed and exhaustive reasons to do practice X
Person A: "But doesn't that leave you open to risk X?"
Person B: Detailed and exhaustive risk mitigation plan for risk X
Person A: "But what about ..."
And so on.

I don't have a great counter for the faux Socratic method. One counter is to say "this seems a lot like the Socratic method. I'd rather not have that kind of a discussion. I will, however, respond to a position you take."

6) Aggressive questioning

Person A: "Why would you ever do that?"
Person B: Detailed and exhaustive reasoning why they do that
Person A: "Hey, no need to get defensive, I was just asking questions."

Commentary: When this is done, I think it's rarely done with intent. Person A actually means it when they say "hey, no need to get defensive" - they just might not realize that the very question they were asking was requesting a defense.

The counter to an aggressive question is another question, such as "why do you ask?"

7) Appeal to irrelevance

This one is more common in the real world. Examples:

In a private email, one person said they had a co-worker insult or mock them for "finding obscure blogs and testers that 'no one has ever heard of and then calling them testing experts'"

A real experience I had: I recommended a consultant to a group, and the hiring manager replied "Never Heard Of Him." After a couple more names, I asked who he had heard of, and he looked at me quizzically and said "shoot, I guess there aren't any real experts in software development, are there? Maybe that Fred Brooks guy, I guess."

Counter: For the first issue, which is really just a thinly-disguised insult, I'd reply with comedy to make the insult more obvious. For example: "Your fly is open." To the second, "Who have you heard of?" lets the other person realize that he, in fact, doesn't know anyone, so "never heard of him" is not a fair statement.

8) Changing the subject

Most popular with politicians, when asked one question, they respond to a different question.

Example On Video or Another One

Counter: Continue to re-ask the question until the subject answers it - or it becomes clear the other side will not answer it, with the implication being they can not answer it in a straightforward way. (Unfair questions with a hidden premise, such as "have you stopped beating your children yet?" should be dealt with directly; challenge the premise.)

A big problem with these statements is that they often work. The challenged person is likely to look bad, be embarrassed, give up, and go away. As such, out-of-line person is rewarded for this behavior. Things we reward, we'll see more of. If we want to see less of it, we've got wade through the crap and press on.

Those are just a few behaviors I find unpalatable, try to avoid, and try not to reward. What are yours?


Unknown said...

Nicely put. I'm taking a course on resistance right now and some of what they talk about falls right in line with this. The types of resistance we're discussing are Confluence (someone is afraid to say something they know the group won't agree with), Deflection (changing the subject), Introjection (acting enthused about something but not really supporting it), Projection (attacking someone), and Retroflection (refusing to discuss something and withdrawing). It's kind of interesting, since it's giving strategies to help break down resistance to ideas. It's also somewhat revealing in how one tends to put up resistance themselves. Me? I'm normally a retroflector. If I don't want to discuss it, I don't.

Interesting post!

- Linda

John McConda said...

Wow, I could use some of that resistance training you're talking about Linda.

Great post Matt. Subtle bullying is the hardest to detect, and also the hardest to call out in a tactful way. I'm still learning...:)

Frank Carver said...

Over at the JavaRanch developer community we have a page describing a lot of this sort of stuff:

It can sometimes be useful to point all the participants of a forum fight at something like this, in the hope that some of them will "get it" and calm down.

Jeroen Rosink said...

Well written, especially the big problem: "they often work".
Your thoughts can help identifying situations which should be avoided.

I hope you have time to continue on this project and teach us how to deal with these type of questions and how you would approach this. What do you think are good questions?

Michael Bolton said...

You'd probably be interested in Tools of Critical Thinking, by David Levy. Although it's not about argumentation per se, it is about critical thinking errors that are often at the foundation of disagreements and expressed in arguments.

One handy insight came to me from Ian Heppell once; he's not sure it's original, but it is succinct: most arguments appear to be about conclusions, but they're really about premises.

There are also of oodles of logical fallacies and cognitive biases listed on Wikipedia. I've found those lists to be interesting and valuable.

---Michael B.