Black Tools

This May Work in Theory ...

(by Hanspeter Schmid, published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 13--14, January/February 2000.)

... but it is wrong in practice." Logically seen, these words are utter nonsense, since if does not work in practice, the theory is simply not good enough. However, if you answer such an attack by trying to defend your theory, you have already lost.

Let me explain why with the four words know, think, feel, and care. Know stands for education, tradition and revelation; think stands for rationalism, logic, and mathematics; feel stands for intuition, feelings and creativity, and care stands for values, society, and environment.

In the middle ages, knowing and caring was very important, but thinking for yourself was not --- it could even be dangerous. Technological progress almost stood still during this time. Thus the middle ages are often called "dark" because the enormous progress made in knowing and caring is little appreciated today, although it was the very basis of our Western civilization.

The advent of modern science, which places thinking above everything else, rang in a time that was dubbed "enlightenment" with reference to the dark middle ages. And indeed there came light, or perhaps one should better say that there came light bulbs. In the past 300 years the dominance of the catholic church as the purveyor of truth was replaced by the dominance of science and its institutions. Technology made such an enormous progress that many scientists and philosophers started to believe that you could solve all problems by pure logical thinking in a completely rational world view from which everything irrational was banished.

It became clear very soon that this was not even remotely possible, since without "feeling" the right way, without intuition, no scientific progress could happen at all. However, many scientists still believed that science should be completely free of values: Science should only think, not care. And we're still paying the price for that, since although many technological gadgets make our life easier, we also have hurt our environment very badly and, with nuclear weapons and genetic engineering, we have two frightening spectres we can scarcely control. Luckily, humanity can learn, and the reconciliation of knowing, thinking, feeling and caring is finally under way.

Unfortunately, lured by the speedy development of the technical sciences, many economists try to imitate the pure scientific methods propagated one hundred years ago. The buzz-words for this thinking-only approach are shareholder value, new public management, and globalization. Our environmental problems will be dwarfed by the social problems this un-caring economy will cause. There's still some hope, since efforts to reconcile caring and thinking in economy are afoot as well, but they are lagging far behind the developments in the technical sciences.

Few people can express all this, but most feel it, and it frightens them badly, as it frightens me. This has implications for us technical writers. It means that whenever we communicate technical information to non-experts, we must appeal to both their intuition and their values. In other words, we must tell how it feels to us and show that we do care. This is also the best way to answer the reproach "This may work in theory, but it is wrong in practice," because in most cases what the speaker actually means is, "Your theory is not intuitive, and I don't believe that you care anyway."

In contrast to this 33rd discussion trick, all other tricks I present in this installment are quite simple to understand. Trick 34, "Breaking a noisy silence," is one of the simplest ones of all. If your opponent does not give a direct answer to a question, or asks a question in return, or tries to change the topic, he is actually keeping quiet about something, although in a noisy way. Then you know that you have found a weak spot that you can exploit. There is no countermeasure against this trick, since if your opponent has found your weak spot and is determined to nail you down, it is already too late.

Trick 35, "As you don't like it," is to show your opponent that he'd really not like it if his idea got realized by showing him, for example, that the results are bad according to his most fundamental values. If you are creative enough and know your opponent well enough, you can always do that. This trick is most powerful if the message gets across in a subliminal way. Since it aims at making the opponent feel insecure, it is normally sufficient to be aware of this trick in order to avert it.

Trick 37 is often used at scientific conferences. I call it "toasting bad proofs." If your opponent's position is actually defensible, but he defends it badly, you can toast his proof, and the audience will think that the statement he proved is wrong, too. If the proof is in fact bad, the only thing that can be done here is to admit that your proof has a hole and immediately give intuitive arguments for your position.

In the next issue of this newsletter you will find a recapitulation of the 38 tricks I presented in this column. You have already read about 37 of them, and I have kept the one I like most until the end. It's trick 36, "If you can't convince them, confuse them." I'll let the British Prime Minister and his Cabinet secretary from the British TV series "Yes, Prime Minister!" demonstrate this trick and its countermeasure for me.

Jim Hacker (Prime Minister): It was the one question today to which I could give a clear, simple, straightforward, and honest answer.

Sir Humphrey (Cabinet Secretary, doing Trick 36): Yes. Unfortunately, although the answer was indeed clear, simple, and straightforward, there is some difficulty in justifying assigning to it the fourth of the epithets you applied to the statement, inasmuch as the precise correlation between the information you communicated and the facts insofar as they can be determined and demonstrated is such as to cause epistemological problems of sufficient magnitude as to lay upon the logical and semantical resources of the English language a heavier burden than they can reasonably be expected to bear.

Jim Hacker (countermeasure): Epistemological? What are you talking about?

Sir Humphrey: You told a lie.

[In case you forgot, as I did, Trick 38 appears in the first article in this series (Newsletter, March/April 1999, pp. 9--10) and is there referred to as the "Last Trick." Ed.]


Last Article (Part VII)   Hanspeter Schmid is an analog-IC designer and Ph.D.-degree student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich) who has an untamable interest in modern philosophy of science and society. He found that many unfriendly people suddenly become very friendly if he applies Trick 36 and at the same time acts very naive. Perhaps explaining a confused situation to a naive person gives people the good feeling of being more intelligent and experienced, and some will do almost anything to enjoy this feeling a bit longer.