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Debatable propositions

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A good debater, I’m told, can successfully argue either side of an issue. I’ve also been told, mostly by debaters, that this is desirable … that learning to debate is an excellent way to create fair-minded citizens.

Being debaters, they do an excellent job of making this case. Ironically, they do not seem able to argue the other side of this issue very well. And as it’s a proposition that has left the realm of evidence and logic and entered the realm of “everyone knows,” they don’t need to.

And yet, it’s a dubious proposition, unless you think arguing the merits of both the round-earth and flat-earth theories of planetary form with equal success is a sign of wisdom.

Debaters are, culturally speaking, lawyers. The point is to win. Which side of the issue is correct doesn’t much matter.

When I listen to a debate, at the end I’m only persuaded as to which of the two opponents is the superior arguer. I’m not convinced one position is superior to the other because the whole point is that the superior debater could just as easily persuade me of the opposite proposition.

Compare that to how research scientists approach the world. They certainly spend a lot of time arguing with each other, face-to-face and in published journals. The difference: When scientists argue, they’re trying to understand the evidence, the implications of each others’ theories, and what additional evidence they need to collect to find out who (if anyone) is right.

So when I read, say, Leonard Susskind’s The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics (2009), it’s clear Susskind and Hawking had the same goal — to better understand how the universe works. Their arguments were all intended to further that goal.

Few people have the gifts necessary to understand in even the most superficial sense that the universe is a hologram, with information at its boundary creating the illusion of matter and energy in its interior. I’m not one of them.

Most of us, though, have more than enough mental horsepower to understand how our IT organizations work, and how they could work better. This doesn’t take genius. An understanding of how scientists go about their business might be useful, though, seeing as how it has a centuries-long track record of actually working.

Here it is: Scientists understand they can’t ever prove a theory. All they can do is try to disprove them (“falsify them,” according to the vocabulary introduced by Karl Popper, the epistemologist who first explored this subject in depth). Fail to falsify one enough times in enough ways and researchers start to gain confidence that they’re on the right track.

The way they try to falsify a theory is to explore its implications. Some of those implications result in predictions — that under a specific set of conditions, the researchers should be able to observe a specific phenomenon. The researchers then either create those conditions or find them, and either observe the predicted phenomenon or something different. If they observe something different they’ve falsified the theory.

Let’s take an example — the popular theory that running IT as a business is “best practice” and doing so will lead to IT delivering more value to the enterprise than it otherwise would.

To be considered scientific, this theory has to lead to testable predictions. For example, if IT organizations that are run as a business deliver more value than any others, then companies within which they are run this way should be more successful and profitable than competitors that don’t.

Except this would be a bad test. The theory isn’t that running IT as a business is better than the average of all other ways. The theory is that it’s best practice — that it is superior to all known alternatives.

So a better test would be to compare running IT as a business to a specific alternative. Here’s one: Integrate IT into the enterprise, providing strong strategic business leadership and disciplined governance. Compare the success and profitability of companies that use the two different approaches and you’ll have made a start.

You’d think that given how many industry pundits have promoted running IT as a business with perfect confidence, at least one might have performed a comparative test along these lines.

Maybe they have. I’ve seen no trace.

In The Devil’s DP Dictionary (1981), Stan Kelly-Bootle proposed that computer science is to science as plumbing is to hydraulics.

It appears the same is true of management science, only more so.

Comments (4)

  • Some faulty logic there. Maybe the problem is your word “successfully.” Being able to argue the best case for both sides of an issue does not mean the superior debater could just as easily convince you of one side vs the other.

    And yes, I think it would be good practice for people at some time in their life to debate the merits of simple things like round-earth vs flat-earth. It’s a lot better than just accepting something on authority — especially on a question where evidence is accessible to ordinary people.

    It’s good to put yourself in the other side’s shoes once in a while and make the best case you can for their side. It shows that you’ve really understood their argument.

    In oral societies, like those of Native peoples in America a couple of centuries ago, people in council were expected to be able to state the points that had been made so far in the council before advancing their own. It made the proceedings seem tedious to European-American observers, and even a few Native people had little patience for it. But it’s not a bad idea to be able to demonstrate that you understand the opposing views before making your own case. It keeps things from degenerating into a shouting match, and can produce some unity in the end.

    Learning some debating skills in a program in which you might have to argue either side of a question can produce people who are capable of understanding other points of view. We need more of that.

  • Bob – one of your best columns yet.

  • Bob, Good column, and good article in InfoWorld. Entertaining repartee on slashdot, too.

    How does one run an IT business like yours?
    Not as a business? Perhaps as a hybrid of good (not best) business practice and the principles you espouse?

    Sometimes I am guilty of referring to a “customer” in a moment when I want a project manager, tech, or dba to think of how they would want to be treated and build a better relationship. Hard TQC habit to break…

    Nonetheless I want our organization to have a “…strong vision of success shared by everyone involved in a business change, with an iterative process for making the change happen.”

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