2-26-11 Hodgepodge

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Bike Shed" Arguments

Ever since a friend told me about The Endeavour some time ago, I've enjoyed occasionally poking around the blog of applied mathematician John Cook. One of my more recent finds is a post on a type of argument (or, perhaps, a new perspective on a type of argument) called a "bike shed argument."

C. Northcote Parkinson observed that it is easier for a committee to approve a nuclear power plant than a bicycle shed. Nuclear power plants are complex, and no one on a committee presumes to understand every detail. Committee members must rely on the judgment of others. But everyone understands bicycle sheds. Also, questions such as what color to paint the bike shed don't have objective answers. And so bike sheds provoke long discussions. The term bike shed argument has come to mean a lengthy, unproductive discussion over a minor issue. See Jeff Atwood's post Procrastination and the Bikeshed Effect.
I think the above description is on the right track, but its focus on matters of taste is overly narrow, since some of the kinds of questions about bicycle sheds can be about things for which people can have objective answers that still differ based on their individual contexts or priorities. (Although, perhaps in the context of the discussion, the answer is so irrelevant that it might as well be a matter of taste.)

That is, bicycle shed arguments can include mini-"Ford-Chevy" arguments. Indeed, I now wonder whether these are each essentially the same thing, with the "bike shed" name emphasizing the lack of importance of the debate, and the "Ford-Chevy" name calling attention to the rancor. (I can't resist making the following joke: Am I inviting a Ford-Chevy (Chevy-Ford?)/bike shed argument by bringing this up?)

I have to admit that I'd never explicitly considered this type of argument (or at least considered it from this perspective) until I read this post: I have always just bailed at the earliest opportunity when I noticed things becoming unproductive in this general direction.

Weekend Reading

"The new medical ethics allows doctors to salve their consciences by telling themselves that restricting care to patients serves the greater 'social' good." -- Paul Hsieh in "The Wisconsin Protests and the New Medical Ethics," at PajamasMedia

"[T]here's a distinct practical and psychological advantage that comes in playing the cards already in your hand." -- Jonathan Hoenig in "Don't Stand in Way of Rallying Stocks," at SmartMoney

"Emotional pain or discomfort over an error in judgment or a mistake can be a valuable opportunity for a child to learn." -- Michael Hurd in "Four Tips for Good Parenting," at DrHurd.com

From the Vault

Four years ago today, I linked to an article that discussed a pet peeve of mine, oversimplification of complex scientific topics in popular media. Here's a quote from the article:
Contrary to popular accounts, very few scientists in the world - possibly none - have a sufficiently thorough, "big picture" understanding of the climate system to be relied upon for a prediction of the magnitude of global warming. To the public, we all might seem like experts, but the vast majority of us work on only a small portion of the problem. [bold added]
If science is supposed to help us understand the world and better our lives, why not acknowledge that a question is difficult or not-yet-answered?

And here's what I had to say about that.
Isn't it funny how Leftists attack any and all certainty when they want our ear, but feel powerless -- and yet suddenly know everything when they feel strong? If anything shows that Leftists regard philosophical ideas cynically, this shift in attitude is it.
That's often a big part of the answer.

Rock on Bones

In the process of answering a comment on yesterday's post, I ran into the interesting image at right.
Their apolitical views, neutral or negative attitudes toward Soviet morality, and their open admiration of modern, especially American, lifestyles were key characteristics that slowly developed during the 1950s. In the mid 1950s, many people were arrested for making recordings on "bones" (developed X-ray films). Those found guilty of manufacturing and distributing such recordings received from three to five years of imprisonment in labour camps for profiteering. Today, the stilyagi are regarded as part of Russian historical social trends which further developed during the late Soviet era (notably the Stagnation Period) and allowed "informal" views on life, such as hippies, punks and rappers. [links and notes removed]
A comparable phenomenon to Russia's stilyagi also appeared in Nazi Germany, the "swing kids."

-- CAV

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