The Engineer’s Fallacy
One of the things that the Internet is really good at fostering, I have noticed, is the Engineer’s Fallacy.
If you haven’t heard the term Engineer’s Fallacy, no worries — I made it up. More specifically, I made it up about six years ago when I was part of a team building a proprietary and interactive risk-management website for my firm’s clients. The Engineer’s Fallacy occurs when someone erroneously assumes that ‘logic’ (or, for non-STEM folks, ‘common sense’) dictates that their personal perspective is actually an objective fact.
Thanks to Dilbert, even among us in the non-STEM set, the image of the dopey marketing team casually asking their engineering or programming department to create something physically impossible has become something of a cliché. And from my own experience, it’s a cliché with a lot of truth behind it. What is talked about less is this: Those same engineers telling customers that because they personally wouldn’t use something, that something is by definition not needed. And not because the engineer couldn’t do it, but because the engineer assumes that a customer wanting to do something he wouldn’t is illogical and thus somehow what they wish for is objectively unnecessary.
My belief in the Engineer’s Fallacy being an actual thing grew after I switched to being an Apple laptop user. Since having gone Mac lo these many years ago, I don’t think a single week has gone by without some engineer or programmer either in real life or on the web telling me that I have wasted money by being someone who illogically loves bright shiny objects. I should recant and go back to PC, I am told over and over again, so that I can upgrade to more RAM and better gaming cards, be able to go in back doors and reprogram stuff, have access to tons more third-party programs, and save buckets of money.
For a long time I used to take the time to explain to the anti-Apple folk that I switched to Mac because I was tired of my work PC crashing all the time when I was in the middle of a project, and that when it inevitably happened I hated having to wait for our outsourced IT guy to come and spend the afternoon in my office before telling me that crashing, freezing, or generally not working was “just what computers do” after a while. I never needed gaming cards of the ability to go in back doors in my computer. All I needed was something to run a few simple programs like Word, Excel and a browser, that didn’t periodically freeze or crash, and that never mysteriously lost what I had been working on. As to the expense, the extra cash I spend on my Mac Notebook paid for itself in the first few months because I never had to take hour-to-half-day breaks while IT figured out how to retrieve my documents or reconnect me to the network remotely. That’s why I use Mac, and it’s why I will never return to the PC.
I don’t bother explaining this anymore, because I’ve learned over time that the people who go out of their way to tell me Mac is a waste of money simply can’t approach the issue from a different point of view. They simply know that they are objectively correct — not for them personally, but for all people everywhere. My experience and my specific computer needs leading me to keep my Mac are, to them, signs that I have an illogical mind.
Now that I blog and spend time on line, I see the Engineer’s Fallacy everywhere. People on political sites quote the Constitution as if there is one single and logical way to interpret every word of it. Bloggers take crime statistics and state that the numbers mean one very clear thing, and get exasperated with those who see something different in the same data. Others pick apart utterances by someone famous and insist that anyone who takes away a different message than they have wasn’t paying attention. After all, the Internet tells itself, all of these I think are logical and objectively true.
The problem with this kind of thinking is wrapped up in something my Dad used to say:
“There are two kinds of people in this world: The people who don’t tell themselves stories about how the world works to make themselves feel more comfortable in it, and the people who really exist.”
The older I get, the more I am convinced he is correct.
In the “things we can trust as objective facts” column we have basic math… aaand that’s really just about it. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t actual, bonafide, factually correct bits of data — there absolutely are. It’s just that as human beings, we are incapable of wrapping our own points of view around those bits of data and creating a very subjective point of view that we in turn erroneously call “objective facts.” We all tell ourselves that we base our opinions about the world on objective facts and logic and numbers and data, but in fact we are all storytellers. We’re simply hardwired to convince ourselves that our own stories are rational, and that other people’s stories are fanciful.
In Vikram’s post on analogies, he asks that we stop using analogies in contentious discussions and instead focus on the logical facts of an issue. What he fails to grasp, I believe, is that even that is a kind of story he tells himself, which is neither more nor less true than the woman who uses an analogy about property crimes to better come to the best course of action when considering the stickier issue of sexual crimes. (None of which is meant as a dig at Vikram, mind you. The Engineer’s Fallacy is something that we all fall into all the time. I just happened to be reading his post this week when I was thinking about the Fallacy.)
Obviously, not all stories should be given equal weight, and surely we will always have to wrangle over how we weight whose stories. But it is still wise to remember that what we are wrangling over is the stories we tell ourselves, and not stories v. facts. And perhaps as well that even if we do not agree with those on the other side of an issue, that their stories might still contain truths that we can agree upon.
 Along with the Augusta National Rule the Tom Cruise Rule, and Tod’s Law of Commenting,* the Engineer’s Fallacy is one of about two dozen Laws I have made up over the years to identify weird trends I’ve noticed. One of these days I should post them all.
* For those interested, Tod’s Law of Commenting is something I used to bring up with the editors in behind the scenes housekeeping discussions.
The law states that the number of times a commenter/contributor in an Internet community asks/demands that other commenters/contributors be banned/removed from the masthead is directly proportional to the number of other people that will demand that said commenter/contributor be banned/removed from the masthead.
This law is eerily predictive.
 One real life example: A client insisting on a series of icons the client’s employees could click on to get to particular pages, rather than the programmer’s insistence that the client send out a memo with a list of various long-string codes to their employees, so that the employees could then enter these codes into a DOS window that would do the same thing — because he objectively knew that clicking on icons was unnecessary if you had the codes to enter.