The Betrayal Bit: Credibility, Cheap Talk, and Arrant Nonsense

Steven Pinker's essay on taboo topics reminded me of two social cliches (cliched in my work environment, anyway). I think they illustrate an interesting ambiguity (or incompatibility, and sometimes persistent confusion) about what it means to establish credibility.

There is a (very short) chapter in Jim McCarthy's book
Dynamics of Software Development called "Don't Flip the Bozo Bit". It is about my first social cliche, the tendency of software developers to come to the conclusion that someone is not worth taking seriously. The point of that chapter is that this behavior is unwise, but all I need from the chapter is that whether or not it is unwise, at least the tendency clearly exists. (People who don't deal with software developers sometimes doubt this. Strange but true.)

This tendency is strong enough that its existence (and the projection of its existence onto other people -- sometimes, naively, onto people other than software folk) is in fact a significant consideration in the interactions of software folk with other people. This can lead to a certain amount of friction and confusion when a programmer interacts with others who are also prone to oversimplifying people into those you can rely on and those you can't -- and who use an incompatible definition of reliability.

Engineers and -- in preparation for daringly using "we" despite dwelling in Dallas -- nonengineers-in-Texas, like those who work with software for a living, prize accuracy of judgment. We don't have nearly as much of it as we might like, and we don't know anyone who does, but what we do have and can find is very valuable. Then when we reduce someone's reliability to a quick "yes" or "no" summary, voila, the bozo bit. (This is a convenient oversimplification; really "bozo bit" can describe competence at achieving things, too. But I don't think it's a big oversimplification, or a misleading one.) But others -- like some in management -- are place higher value on other kinds of reliability, like respect for taboos. Thus, my second social cliche: the classic scenario where the engineer^Wsoftware worker gives his best judgment about how long something would take, acting with the boss as he might act with a technical person who might flip the bozo bit if the judgment were found to be nonsense. Then, when the boss is the kind of political person who for whom reliability is blind loyalty, there's a mismatch: the boss gets pissed, and the result is that the boss flips the betrayal bit ("loyal? no") on the might-be-an-engineer-in-some-less-free-state. (Meanwhile, the legally-not-an-engineer flips the bozo bit on the boss; to each his own...)

Can't we just get along? I have seen enough of this kind of behavior that I think I can see the pattern clearly. But by inclination I am very solidly on the accuracy-of-judgment side. Even though I think I understand the thought processes of the blind loyalty side, I still consider the signalling that they seem to want to be deeply weird. Really, to the extent that one cares about the things one is supposed to be caring for (like the welfare of the company), or even that one cares about things that the boss might cynically want one to care for (like the welfare of the boss, company be damned), or that one respects the things one is supposed to (like the judgment of the boss), then the true way to show loyalty would be to give the correct information (and agree to respect the boss's decision). But something in political animals seems to hunger for the "damn the actual consequences" (and damn other considerations too, like the literal truth) answer: the incorrect answer which doesn't help the organization, and which doesn't even help the boss, but does have the special virtue that it signals loyalty because blind loyalty is the only plausible reason for giving that answer. Strange, strange. But it is not such complicated logic that I can't follow it, and something like this does seem to go on, because it explains behavior which seems hard to explain otherwise.

By the way, I was also tickled to see, for the first time I remember, an opinion piece draw a analogy between creationism on the right and various kinds of wilful blindness on the left. Cruel, certainly; and certainly no less cruel for Pinker drawing the analogy in a demurely backwards way. But I am still in reaction to the big 2004 crescendo of the perennial theme that left are on the left not because they love their preferred controversial means for their own sake or by unreasoning faith, unlike their opponents on the right or, of course, the libertarians. The left, instead, are the smart pragmatic reality-driven folk who can see the truth that their preferred means are pragmatically the best way to achieve uncontroversial goals (like prosperity and safety). Maybe if and when I'm ready to return to an IRC channel where accumulated aggravation about this helped drive me to blow a fuse, I will find that my reaction has mellowed somewhat. But not yet; meanwhile, my grumpy opinion is in fact not just "cruel" but "cruel but, far too often, apt." Of course, by the analysis above possibly it is not, on net, cruel at all, but backhandedly helpful. After all, if the strategy is signalling one's credibility as a loyalist by destroying one's credibility on matters of literal truth, then it could become even more effective when unbelievers are acidly observing just how asinine the nonsense is; it is not such cheap talk any more. (So another possible subtitle might have been "Thank you, Professor Pinker, may I have another?")

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This page contains a single entry by published on March 17, 2005 12:43 PM.

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