Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Resume of a Born Skeptic

People are occasionally amazed at my skeptical attitude and my tendency to "go for the jugular" so quickly. Was I raised by wolves? Was I abused as a child? I don’t think so. I think I can make a good case for being born this way. Here are a few highlights of my career as a skeptic:

At age 4, I suspected the terrible truth about Santa Claus. I couldn’t see how he could visit all those homes in one night. I mounted a successful sting operation that conclusively proved my Parents were behind the conspiracy.

At age 5, a little girl explained the idea of God to me in the school playground. It was an interesting but implausible idea. I filed it with Santa Claus. Years of Sunday School did not change my mind.

My term paper for Grade 12 English was “Is there a God?”  I concluded there wasn’t and outlined my reasons. I debated the local Christian group the same year.

My Master’s Thesis showed that the system used to define a new programming language could produce ambiguous language constructs – programs that “meant” two different things. I also proved that it was impossible to get rid of this flaw in the system.

I was asked to “crunch the numbers” for a survey of mentally ill offenders in Canadian prisons. The psychiatrist in charge was delighted with all the “conclusions” popping out of the computer. I tried to convince him that he was reading mathematical tea leaves. If he saw something “interesting”, he’d need to come up with a theory and re-run the survey on a different population. Nope. He submitted the “tea leaf” report and collected his government grant (Few professionals have a working knowledge of math, statistics or logic).

In a report to the Canadian Government I showed that the most popular way of computerized environmental impact analysis was invalid on mathematical and logical grounds and missed the most important biological considerations. Professional biologists in the Department agreed.

In another Government report, I showed that the method Statistics Canada used to measure airport capacity was invalid. That is, you could get two different results by applying the method twice to the same data.

In my Ministerial training, I met many “men of the cloth”. The proportion of saints and charlatans seems to be about the same among the clergy as is in the general population. However, this just means that there are many who are deliberately pulling the wool over your eyes and many whose own eyes are wool-covered. Leaders who are fervently, honestly misguided are even more dangerous than those who are consciously deceptive. Another guide for skeptics: Just because you're honest doesn't mean you're right.

The Maintenance Director of a European airline was worried that he wasn’t going to get his DC-10 aircraft out of overhaul before the tourist season started (He’d booked them solidly, there was no plan “B”).  He asked me if I thought they’d be ready on time. On the basis of what we were reading in the documentation from the overhaul agency, I told him they’d be late. Not just a little late. Months late. I was fired from the project for my negative attitude. The aircraft were months late.

I have tirelessly attacked the method used in the aviation industry to report component reliability in large fleets. It is statistical nonsense. I have been gratified to see this method slowly fall from favor, although I can’t take personal credit for it.

Skepticism is at the heart of my career in the aviation field. I often spend weeks shoveling out crap from records systems that are required by law to be perfect.

My own ability to think things through and draw the right conclusion must be subjected to constant and brutal skepticism. You can’t survive as a computer programmer otherwise.
I am always skeptical about what clients tell me, whether it’s what they want, what the need or what they do. I am especially skeptical about their stated authority within their organization. Anyone who works as a consultant or provides outside services knows what I’m talking about. Everything needs to be double and triple checked. Needs change. Perceptions change. Personnel change. And everything everyone says has an element of bullshit.

In all these cases, you see a similar thread at work. I’m not attacking the system. I’m genuinely trying to understand the system. In many cases, I’m able to fix the flaws I find. I don’t attack from the outside. I’m usually trying to shed a little more light on the activities that I’m actually involved in myself. I’m advocating a better way. Admittedly, I have little patience for the tender egos of defenders of the “old way”. I assume they’re grownups who can take a few lumps, “suck it in” and defend their point of view. I’m often wrong about this and I tend to get people upset at me.  Too bad, I guess.

Looking back, I’m struck by the fact that I’m not often proven to be on the wrong side of the big issues. I have a lot of confidence in my judgment (tempered by skepticism directed inward). This often comes across as “arrogance”. I have often observed that competent professionals of every stripe are accused of arrogance. If you try to convince a doctor that your knee hurts every full moon, his reaction will probably seem arrogant. If you try to convince the stewardess that the aircraft is lost, you’ll get the same impression. 

I’m a master un-learner. What I know I have learned by deconstructing what I “knew” before. I have a first-class bullshit detector and I wield it with confidence and precision. To many people, that comes across as arrogance. People who know me best will tell you that the best defence is to keep the conversation light. Make a joke or two. Things go best if you pretend this isn't a serious discussion.


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