Saturday, July 23, 2005 

Trust and Beliefs

Prelude:I have received an email with a PDF attachment and a single line of text: "numbers are numbers". Someone is trying to convince me of his theories using numbers. I'll write the interlude below before reading the document :-).
People trust information aligned with their belief system without further checking. After all, they're already convinced, therefore they don't need any further proof. They will gladly accept any information that confirms what they already think, and pass it around, spreading the idea.
People also tend to trust information from influential sources; sometimes, the mere fact of seeing the information in print, not necessarily on an influential journal, is enough to take it at face value. Even more so if it's also confirming what we think.
Academic papers, for instance, frequently quote the Standish Group Chaos Report about frequent failure of software projects. Authors tend to believe that practitioners aren't that good at software engineering, so little attention is paid to the scientific foundations of the report. It's confirming their opinions, therefore, it must be true. Only a few papers have criticized the report: it's not a surprise that they're coming from people with an academic background but also a deep experience in real-world software development. Readers interested in this diversion :-) may want to read "How Large Are Software Cost Overruns? Critical Comments on the Standish Group's CHAOS Reports" by Magne Jorgensen and Kjetil Johan Molokken-Ostvold, or "IT Failure Rates--70% or 10-15%?" by Robert L. Glass, IEEE Software, May/June 2005. As for me, it's time to read the document I received :-).
The document is about open source in the enterprise. I'm not going to debate the document itself - it would be largely pointless: I agree with a few statements, and disagree with others. However, it's probably interesting to see how easy it is to reinforce a belief (in this case, the belief that open source is the One Right Way). "Numbers" begin with a couple of charts surrounded by this text: "A 2003 survey by Forrester Inc. shows over 70% of $1B+ North American companies are now running the Linux open source operating system". Let's play with that :-).
- The Forrester report is not freely available (isn't that funny? :-)). Actually, the report ("Your Open Source Strategy") is 24 pages long and is sold for 675$. How big is the chance that the guy sending me the email has actually bought and read the report? Pretty narrow :-). He's trusting a source reported in a document, because it's aligned with his beliefs system.
- How big is a $1B+ company? I mean, how many employees, computers, operating systems can we expect to find there? Sorry, I don't have any numbers here :-(. I would say several thousands employees anyway. Now, what is the chance that someone is using any given operating system in such a company? MS-DOS? SunOs? Solaris? QNX? Linux? Windows Me :-))? Far from zero, I would say. So, is that 70% still so impressive?
- The paper goes on quoting from the Forrester report: "When Forrester asked, 'What products do you use or plan to use?' the answers were:". Here comes a chart, showing a staggering Linux: 100%. Well, I guess, when you ask someone using Linux if he's indeed using Linux, you're bound to get a 100% "yes" :-). The confusion between "use" and "plan to use" just adds to the general mess.
- A last comment (I'm a nice guy, really :-). Forrester Research question on money saving is: "In What Ways Do You Think Open Source Software Might Save You Money?". Again, if you read the statement just as a support for your belief system, you may find the numbers interesting. But if you read the question again neutrally, you may notice that they didn't ask whether or not they will be saving money, and if so, how. They just asked how. Given the price of the report, I would expect a more scientific approach to gathering data :-).
I guess I've lost a few readers :-). Open source is one of those religious issues you can't even think to question. Hey, don't hack my web site: I'm running on Linux too! :-)). Anyway, if you read so far, consider this: in "Democracy and Filtering" (Communications of ACM, December 2004) Cass R. Sunstein argues that the internet is giving readers a huge power to "filter" what they see, that is, to read only what they find congenial, easily avoiding any exposure to alternative points of view. He says "the implication is that groups of people, especially if they are like-minded, will end up thinking the same thing they thought before - but in a more extreme form, sometimes in a much more extreme form". That's where reason ends and a product / language / tool / approach / whatever / is turned into religion. Consider pieces like this a free antidote :-)))).
Post Scriptum
Some meta-reflections on my repeated quoting above (appearing in a post about trusting stuff in print and filtering) are definitely needed :-)))).
Beh, esperienze del genere ne ho avuto parecchie anche io. A cominciare da compagni di studi che solo perchè una cosa veniva detta da un professore doveva essere così, ai professori stessi, che spesso insegnano il loro credo più che quel che dovrebbero (ricordo di un professore che come prima motivazione sull'argomento "Perchè Java è meglio del .NET" riferì sulla portabilità di Java. Forse ancora non aveva visto i progetti mono o dotgnu... :-))
Fortunatamente qualcuno fuori dal coro di tanto in tanto lo si trova :-)))
How sad.

I find it even sadder that the same line of reasoning can be applied to just about any field of the human experience - yes Wanda, that includes scientific research, too.

Mr. Sunstein's article thesis ("The internet gives unprecedented filtering power...." etc.) which I am forced to judge from this poster's account (see how my system of beliefs shows) doesn't appear much convincing though, unless one buys the idea of 16th century villager being much more open/exposed to alternative points of view than a modern internet user.

Independent thinking appears to be as difficult as ever, the internet notwithstanding(?).

A question, however, begs to be asked.

With so many important (several regional and not-so-regional wars and political or unpolitical crisis), and unimportant ("Get the facts" software promoition campaigns come to mind), why flog the po' Open Source boy?

Do I detect a belief system in action here? Naaa, it must be my glasses.
Without resorting to conspirancy theories :-), back then there was a wonderful reason to flog the guy: he was a pain in the neck :-).
In my belief system, having a little fun with him was a viable alternative over his physical disposal :-).

Getting serious, when you say "unless one buys the idea of 16th century villager being much more open/exposed to alternative points of view than a modern internet user", you seem to imply that if one extreme is bad, then the opposite extreme must be good (a belief system in action? :-)), while I'm more of a "in medium stat virtus" guy.
In fact, I don't like fanatism of any kind (now, that's a belief system in action :-), and the guy was, pretty much, a fanatic (although relatively harmless :-).
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