Monday, February 22, 2016

A Partial Defence of "Apathy"


I have had one reply that I know of to my Apathy post containing useful critique. You can find it here written by a name you may know, Matt Heusser! First I have to say that I'm grateful to have a considered response. Now I'll expand a little on the points raised, and hopefully draw an interesting conclusion.

When you critique someone in public, there is an audience. That observer effect, to borrow a phrase, changes the nature of the conversation.

This is a useful insight, and it shows how dangerous my post could be. I don't know who's reading, and how they might employ the idea that they should shrug off apathy and argue the point - maybe I'm empowering people with immoral aims or ones who misunderstood my intent! I didn't expect anyone to question me on it. Now they have, and I have to pose some clarifications and try to be honest with what I learned and where I was wrong.

Sometimes, it can be tempting to play to the audience. If you think you’re talking to the other person, and they are playing to the audience, you’ll see a bunch of bizarre behaviors that don’t seem to make sense and you won’t be able to figure out from your position.

Wait, did I just play to the audience? Of course I did! But why? It's quite simple: I want to express and emphasise the idea that critique can be constructive for both parties and doesn't have to be a social nightmare or just to further personal ends. We can place the pursuit of further learning and conversational exploration above our need to seem clever... but it does depend on a hidden intent. You have to believe that my intent is to make us more honest with things that matter in our industry, although if you were following my advice you'd be slightly suspicious of my intent and make up your own mind.

So how do I salvage the point? There's not much I can do about intent. What I can do is say that with a critical mind you'll always be better poised to find a more objective truth than without criticism. Just look at scientific progress. I can also say that the critical tools you use in discussions about a subject are ones you can use in testing software.

Instead of “yes, but…” say “yes, and.” Add, ways to do things, or think about that. “Here’s what has worked for me”. Consider the environment.

This is another critical point, the partial answer to which I hid in a footnote. People are emotional creatures and no amount of intent to find the truth will help you convince someone who thinks that your intention is to attack them instead of seeking a better idea or the limitations of one. Of course some people abuse this and deliberately overreact with anger or hurt feelings to make you look cruel, which can be a smokescreen to hide their bad ideas. It's not as simple as I made it seem, far from it.

That's not to say I regret typing it, though. I'd rather people asked the questions (nicely, generally speaking) and discovered what the reaction is. I'd rather people reading publicly-posted advice had the opportunity to look deeper into the subject. If the person posting the advice refuses to defend the advice (no matter the reason) then we can make a useful judgement about how valid that advice might be, although not necessarily how invalid it might be. If the person posting the advice cannot defend the advice then we can make a similar judgement. It's not that the advice is intrinsically bad. Even if you're right that doesn't necessarily make their point wrong, and making them seem wrong also doesn't make their point wrong. But it does mean that you, and anyone else reading it, is subject to a reminder that they should question what they are reading. Maybe someone else could take up their cause.. happens to me all the time and I'm often glad of it.

Consider getting to know the speaker. Find out if feedback is warranted. Ask if feedback is wanted. Ask for the best way to give feedback. [...] Sometimes, the right choice is to say nothing.

If we're talking about feedback this is great advice. If we're talking about tackling bad ideas and keeping us honest it's... a reasonable heuristic. Part of my intent is to get the professional testing community to tactfully request reasons. In most scenarios it doesn't have to look like feedback and it doesn't have to look like critique. When someone says "I had a great time at the testing meetup" you can say "sounds great! Did you learn anything good?". When someone says "I thought that lecture on testing was really good" you can say "sounds like you enjoyed it! Do you think it will change the way you test or think about testing?". When someone says "Bob's a really awful tester" you can say "what did you see that makes you think that?".

There are a lot of little cognitive tools and heuristics we can use to do this (I'm writing something on
some of them now). That last one I used is called the data question [1].

That's a great start. It's positive. It can often be just asking for clarification so that you're on better ground to ask more questions, even if those questions are of yourself! We must create somewhat safe spaces in which to find better solutions, whilst not, in our friendly way, opening ourselves up to nonsense and 

If the idea is bad, if it is actively doing harm to the community, let’s separate that from “you are a bad person.” Character attacks might not be fit for public consumption, but you can attack bad ideas, often by the consequences of those ideas.

Please, let's! Character attacks aren't usually very useful to prove a point.. unless the point you're arguing is about their character.  Making character attacks to prove a point not connected to a character is not going to help you express the idea that you're a professional skeptic (to other professional skeptics) because every professional skeptic should know about the misuse of ad hominem attacks.

Do it too much, though, and things can change; you’ll find your reputation is built on criticism. That can become a very dangerous business. Better to be known for what you stand for.

It's true, it can get to be excessive. It's also very tiring, and can be emotionally challenging, and we need to know that it's probably the same or possibly worse for others. It's possible to lose sight of the learning and focus on making an argument. If you've ever seen two people argue who don't listen to each other you'll have seen how it can get. If you've ever seen an argument where one or more parties have no intention of ever changing their opinion you'll know how pointless it seems. But it does show something important about that party - if they aren't willing to defend their idea or consider that they might be wrong or be open to learning something new then how reliable are they with such matters? That doesn't mean that they're bad people, of course, just that they might be a marketer or salesperson rather than a professional skeptic. Perhaps it's not their job to seek truth in confusion. We can judge the value of their advice for ourselves when we know more about then.

However, I do want to be known as a professional skeptic. I also want to be part of a community that keeps me to account if I say something confusing or disagreeable, so I want to be known as someone who is willing to critique and be critiqued, preferably in a somewhat humanitarian and professional way.

I'd like to invoke the words of someone else to help me here.

Thanks Kino. If I had to critque, I might say the post was a little naive. That’s cool tho, man.

This is useful to mention, because it was naive. I did not construct a particularly well-formed argument in my post. I did not expand on the details or predict possible important counterarguments. I think my post was important, and served a message, and promoted thought, but it didn't question itself and it didn't urge caution or handle its own weaknesses. Moreover, I knew that I was doing it, which is why I put any defensive detail in a footnote. Mr Heusser spotted this and called me out on it.

Now look where we are. How did I find these additional insights? How is it that we dug deeper on this issue? Because one (of a very select few) took it upon themselves to shrug off the apathy and question me. Because of that we've found some of the limitations of my heuristics. I've had to go deeper in my explanations. I've had to express more of myself for you to make a judgement about the nature of my intent. I've had to agree with weaknesses in my over-generalised argument, concerning caution and context.

See how good that is? If you're a professional tester you do this sort of thing as a job with software already! Now we can apply some of the same rules with each other.


PS. Many thanks to Matt Heusser for both taking my advice, and improving it at the same time.

[1] Gause, D. and Weinberg, G. (1989). Exploring requirements. New York: Dorset House.

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