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May 30, 2019

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Appealing to Authority in Software Engineering

by Adam Hardin

A great article I recommend reading for all programmers (and non-programmers alike) is Logical fallacies in software engineering by Artur Martsinkovyski.

A human brain is a complex machine that evolved over millennia. It works in the most peculiar ways possible and allows us to excel both at perception, dexterity and mind work. Some of its functions are a bit hacky. There are a lot of stereotypes and shortcuts that our mind takes in order to be more efficient and take less energy to fulfill the task. It helps most of the time although, being overwhelmingly erroneous at times, so that it leans you to the wrong decision, building an incorrect map of reality. The lenses of your perception may be flawed, the mechanism that grinds up the information you collect may be malfunctioning, your mapping can be highly incorrect.

Such errors have a name. This name is ‘fallacy’. A fallacy is reasoning that is evaluated as logically incorrect and that undermines the logical validity of the argument and permits its recognition as unsound.

Like other people of mind work, software engineers require a lot of thinking, analysis, and mapping of reality to fulfill their job. While doing these processes, our mind sometimes takes shorter routes to reach the destination, leading to wrong decisions or poor planning. To avoid that it is better to know your flaws.

He then proceeds to list the following fallacies:

  • Nirvana (perfect-solution)
  • Appeal to authority (argument from authority, argumentum ad verecundiam)
  • Historian’s fallacy
  • Misleading vividness
  • Survivorship bias

Let’s take a look at what I feel is the most common fallacy we as software engineers (or any professional, really) faces constantly: Appeal to authority.

[A]n assertion is deemed true because of the position or authority of the person asserting it. When explaining practices or opinions on some subjects of sofware development, project management, operations, e.t.c, people tend to use somebody elses saying, blogpost, conference talk or other claim as a foundation for justification of their own decision. Even though it might not always be fallacious, mostly it is better to add more contextual arguments that apply to specific solution or project rather than appealing to authority.

This can be a bit problematic when you have multiple people vying for a shred of authority in their role. I worked at a location once where everybody around me nitpicked every line of code I emitted because it didn’t follow their ideas. When challenged, they would fall back on either “This is the way he [architect] taught us to do it” or “This is a best practice” or the implied “I’m older than you and therefore smarter than you so you should bow down to me.”

I think programmers are now afraid of taking the risk of applying what they know and have experienced and instead are falling back on the results of others. Let’s say that you write a method that causes a memory leak. When you’re called out onto the carpet, you explain that the way in which you constructed the code was based on the directed opinion and approval of the project architect. Even though you noticed the potential for a leak, you ignored it because, hey, why should you doubt the architect? Isn’t s/he supposed to be the smartest person in the room? In turn, you get to be thrown under the bus while the authority that you yielded to denies all accusations.

At least with blogs, talks, and other tangible items, they can’t fight back.

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1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Sta
    Jun 8 2019

    It seems to me, that the authority may be cutting off their nose to spite their face. Let us go with the “throw them under the bus” mentality. At some point, by word of mouth (blog, FB, Chit Chat, etc.) it will be known that you do not want to work for “xyz” person or company because of this (thrown under the bus). I know I would not work someone who cannot stand up and admit they made a mistake or don’t know what the solution is. That is just too much of a character fault to work for.

    Reply

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