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Joel on Software

Anecdotes

by Joel Spolsky
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Michiko Kakutani reviews Malcolm Gladwell's latest book in the New York Times: “Much of what Mr. Gladwell has to say about superstars is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, timing and luck play important roles as well. The problem is that he then tries to extrapolate these observations into broader hypotheses about success. These hypotheses not only rely heavily on suggestion and innuendo, but they also pivot deceptively around various anecdotes and studies that are selective in the extreme: the reader has no idea how representative such examples are, or how reliable — or dated — any particular study might be.”

This review captures what's been driving me crazy over the last year... an unbelievable proliferation of anecdotes disguised as science, self-professed experts writing about things they actually know nothing about, and amusing stories disguised as metaphors for how the world works. Whether it's Thomas Friedman, who, it seems, cannot go a whole week without inventing a new fruit-based metaphor explaining everything about the entire modern world, all based on some random jibberish he misunderstood from a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur, or Malcolm Gladwell with his weak theories on tipping points, crazy incorrect theories on first impressions, or utterly lunatic theories on experts, it all becomes insanely popular simply because the stories are fun and interesting and everybody wants to hear a good story. Spare me.

Friedman and Gladwell's outsized, flat-world success has lead to a huge number of wannabes. I was really looking forward to reading Simplexity, because it sounded like an interesting topic, until I settled down with it tonight and discovered that it was chock-full of all those amusing bedtime stories about the map of the cholera plague in London in 1854, which I've heard a million times, and then suddenly I noticed (shock!) that not only was the author a journalist, not a scientist, but he was actually an editor at Time Magazine, which has an editorial method in which editors write stories based on notes submitted by reporters (the reporters don't write their own stories), so it's practically designed to get everything wrong, to insure that, no matter how ignorant the reporters are on an issue, they'll find someone who knows even less to write the actual story. Panicking, I began to flip through the book at random. There's that story about Don Norman and complicated user interfaces. Here he is reading Nassim Taleb. I've heard all these anecdotes! Stop, already! I threw the book away in frustration.

This is the third one of the day. My business partner Jeff Atwood was busy extracting himself from the flamewars he started by writing an article on, of all things, NP-completeness, which is, actually, something that it's possible to know something about, because it's not a vague sociological hypotheticoncept like simplexiflatness or blinkoutliers, it's actually a real, important result from Computer Science, with a rigorous definition and lots of published papers, and poor Jeff got himself in something of a pickle by writing a book review when he hadn't read the book, and fortunately, he has comments on his blog, so his readers called him out on it.

Now, I am not one to throw stones. Heck, I practically invented the formula of "tell a funny story and then get all serious and show how this is amusing anecdote just goes to show that (one thing|the other) is a universal truth." And everybody is like, oh yes! how true! and they link to it with approval, and it zooms to the top of Slashdot. And six years later, a new king arises who did not know Joel, and he writes up another amusing anecdote, really, it's the same anecdote, and he uses it to prove the exact opposite, and everyone is like, oh yes! how true! and it zooms to the top of Reddit.

This is not the way to move science forward. On Sunday Dave Winer [partially] defined "great blogging" as "people talking about things they know about, not just expressing opinions about things they are not experts in (nothing wrong with that, of course)." Can we get some more of that, please? Thanks.


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