On Being Right

[Originally published in the Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

There’s an interesting conversation happening today on one of the geek community sites I frequent. It all started because of some genuinely insightful commentary on Computer World’s website by Jeff Ello. Here’s what set everyone off:

While everyone would like to work for a nice person who is always right, IT pros will prefer a jerk who is always right over a nice person who is always wrong. Wrong creates unnecessary work, impossible situations and major failures. Wrong is evil, and it must be defeated. Capacity for technical reasoning trumps all other professional factors, period.

I wish I had read that in my twenties.

It took me years to realise that, often enough, insisting on absolute correctness is a great way to lose friends (or at least, to be ignored until someone needs help cramming for an exam). You can imagine, then, what a relief it was to discover that the world of IT consists by and large of people who grant respect based on technical competence.

Now, such an environment does have its costs. Try listening in sometimes on a conversation between geeks about which software is best for writing code, or weighing the relative merits of different operating systems. You’ll find yourself wondering if these creatures are from the same species as you.

This innate emphasis on correctness sometimes makes people feel that geeks are arrogant, even antisocial. As Ello puts it, “When things don’t add up, they are prone to express their opinions on the matter, and the level of response will be proportional to the absurdity of the event.

Especially in a society such as we have in Vanuatu, this can sometimes rub people the wrong way. You see, here more than anywhere, it’s difficult to separate the speaker from the speech, the style from the substance.

The stereotypical geek tends to have a fairly rare ability to focus (some might say obsess) on one thing at a time, and to discard anything that isn’t immediately relevant to the object of that focus. This is generally true because those who lack this ability don’t tend to last very long in the field.

So, when faced with what appears to be pointless – or worse, illogical – gabbing, geeks sometimes respond in a way that others consider inappropriate.

Likewise, geeks often forget that it’s often considered more important to say nice things than to tell the hard, cold truth.

It’s clear that the urge to gossip is ingrained deeply in our social structure, deeper than the more abstracted process of research and reason. Of course, that’s nothing new; there is evidence for this throughout recorded history. In fact, to my (quite limited) knowledge, it was only during the Enlightenment that the mass of Europeans even started to consider that abstract reason was more valuable.

It’s also clear that throughout history, there have been some who, instinctively or deliberately, have known that to feed the gossip channel, as inexact as it might be, is innately more effective than to process and publish data according to the more demanding strictures of what’s become known as the scientific method.

The purpose of gossip is not to find truth; it is to determine, with a finger in the wind, what the prevailing view is among a given group, and according to the vicissitudes of one’s social group, to align oneself accordingly. The purpose of reason – according to the reasoners, anyway – is to allow one access to the facts that will in turn allow one to better understand the world. Gossip cements the individual’s membership in the group, improving their odds of survival. Reason aims to refine the group’s collective ability to survive. They are, in effect, the two faces of a hollow sphere.

These two worlds are not exclusive – not always, anyway. Often common sense frames and guides curiousity, effectively challenging its own tenets. Accumulated, indirect wisdom generates practices that are only later validated by empirical means. Negative effects are just as common, leading people to invest huge amounts of time and effort to empirically prove the unprovable.

But it’s only recently that the practice of wrapping gossip in the rags of reason has become a systematic process. While we have always been a species prone to squabble and natter, never before have we been as adept. There’s no need to recount the means by which consumerism, media and politics have connived, deliberately and accidentally, to subvert rationalism in the public discourse. If you’re reading this, you already know.

What I do want to look at, though, is one facet of this debasement: The shooting of the messenger not merely because the news is unwelcome, but because of the tone of its delivery.

There is a significant proportion of the population whose world is not ruled by empiricism. For those people, it’s more important to follow the appropriate leader than to be right. There are really good reasons to act this way, not the least of which is that it keeps one from being singled out. The only trouble these people experience is shared by everyone. Nonetheless, this drives the empiricists crazy.

Worse, being ‘comfortably wrong’ (i.e. following the dominant mantra even when you know it’s not correct) can prove extremely destructive at times. So the rationalists among us feel compelled to shout the truth loudly. Problem is, the truth is useless to those who don’t operate in a world driven by logic. This is nothing new; Greek legend tells us about Cassandra, doomed to know the future, and never to be believed.

None of this is to excuse those who rant at the ’stupidity’ of the majority. Nor is this an attempt to excuse people who will not be swayed by reason. All I’m trying to do is to point out that there are two languages being spoken most of the time. Both may sound like English, but their purposes and means of expression are only close enough to cause confusion.

So how, then, do we find the balance between impatient stridence and reasoned tones that get lost in the noise of gossip? I don’t have any simple answers.

These days, one of the most significant issues in electronic communication is its abuse by people who systematically spread disinformation and suppress truth. The motives for doing so are manifold.

People in a position to know better first assumed that the problem was that others just didn’t have access to the right information. They packaged up the data in the proper format, and presented it to the world. They were largely ignored.

Still believing that the word just wasn’t getting out, they tried harder, spoke a little more forcefully, worked harder at discrediting the other sources.

At a certain point, the rationalist proofs began to seep into the colloquial consciousness, and people started to listen. The propagandists realised that they could not win the argument on merit. So they attacked the source.

Internet technologies provide us with a way to mitigate the worst kinds of ad hominem attacks. When we read a story online, we don’t have anything but the words to go by. If they are clearly stated and empirically true, then they tend to maintain their weight, no matter who wrote them or why.

A little rhetorical flash never hurt anyone, of course, and having an opinion is everyone’s right. But nothing matters so much as being right.

This is an opinion column, and I’m expected to have one. That said, I do my best to ensure – with what meagre time and resources I can spare – to ensure that everything that appears here is based on facts and properly reasoned.

I may not win too many friends that way, but hey, what can I say? I’m a geek.