Chad Perrin: SOB

4 June 2007

how to recognize good information from advocates

Filed under: Cognition,Geek — apotheon @ 06:27

There are flame wars all over the place, on the wide wide Internet of ours, as I’m sure you’re aware. Many of these flame wars involve advocates for one thing getting into fights with devotees of another. Among the classic crusades that are still relevant today are:

  • GUI vs. CLI
  • vi vs. emacs
  • Linux vs. MS Windows
  • WYSIWYG vs. text
  • Ubuntu vs. not-Ubuntu
  • Mac vs. MS Windows
  • coffee vs. tea

There are people who might be called “religious zealots” on both sides of each debate, though I personally tend to be less than impressed by using the word “zealot” as a point of argument when the debates actually burst into flames. Digression: Throwing the word “zealot” around doesn’t make a valid point. It just proves you have decided to disbelieve what the person thus labeled says, no matter what it is. As far as I’m concerned, the traditional end of an argument upon realization of Godwin’s Law should be extended to cover “zealot” as well as “Nazi”.

So . . . back on topic: Sometimes, for those of us who actually want to get the truth, and speak the truth, and perhaps do a little give-and-take in the learning-and-teaching department, it can be kind of a challenge figuring out who is going to be reasonable (preferably before getting embroiled in a flame war with them). There are obvious cases of people who spout lots of dubious (at best) “information”, who are easily ignored or at least easily flamed and dismissed. In my experience, the vast majority of PCLinuxOS users fall into that category, though I haven’t the foggiest idea why it attracts or encourages such cult-like behavior.

Most of the time, to judge each statement on its own merits and hunt down corroborating or disputing evidence is the only way to be really certain of the veracity (or falsity) of any given statement. If you happen to know something about the other guy, however, you might be able to get some sense of how much suspicion to apply to his statements, all else being equal.

  1. If the other guy has never, with any seriousness, used anything but what he’s currently advocating, you can be pretty sure that a lot of what’s being said is wild speculation and comical reliance on unreliable sources of information. The classic example is the Microsoft Windows user who claims it’s the best, despite never having used another OS for more than two or three minutes at a time. Mac-heads are occasionally in this category as well. These are people whose personal sense of self is bound up in their choices, and feel they must justify to themselves as much as to anyone else their decision to stay with what they already know.
  2. If the other guy has only used two things with any seriousness, is a strong advocate for the second, and claims that second is the best thing out there, some information might be accurate. Unfortunately, this can serve as a distinct problem, as it might lull you into greater trust of the person’s knowledge. Then, this person might exaggerate or otherwise misrepresent facts based on a nigh-religious attachment to his new favorite. The classic example is the Ubuntu user who switched from MS Windows and is now a frothing-at-the-mouth Linux advocate who refuses to allow that Ubuntu might not be the Best Thing EVAR. Mac-heads are often in this category as well. These are people who, because the second options seems so much better than the first (and may well be better), assume that it’s the best out of everything everywhere in every way.
  3. If the other guy provides examples of various benefits and detriments, is widely experienced beyond just a couple of examples, and is careful to avoid confusing a specific choice with a general category of choice at every turn, you might be well-served to listen — even if you disagree. The classic example is the FreeBSD user who was a long-time user of various Linux distributions between MS Windows and FreeBSD use, that explains that his choice of FreeBSD is based on his own specific preferences, gives examples of the benefits of FreeBSD that meet those preferences, and openly admits that he doesn’t know enough about something like Plan 9 to be able to say whether or not it’s a good choice. Mac-heads are occasionally in this category, but only if they got there from something like Linux, generally. These are people who, having seen a fair bit and let the initial fervor of the convert die down (since they’ve already converted at least twice, and the fervor is getting old), have learned from experience how to be more reasonable about the whole thing.

At least, that’s what occurred to me, as I was considering a recently ongoing flamewar on a particular discussion forum I frequent, and reading about the “second system effect” as it applies to the vi vs. emacs religious war.

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License