"Ford-Chevy" Arguments

Monday, February 07, 2011

Over at the Endeavour, John Cook has commented a few times on a common type of acrimonious dispute he calls a "Ford-Chevy argument." In the first of these posts, he generally describes the type of argument.

[A] Ford-Chevy argument is an emotionally charged debate over the merits of two similar things with each side fiercely loyal to its position. These arguments look silly to outsiders but are serious to insiders. We all have our Ford-Chevy topics.

Have you ever gotten into a Mac versus PC argument? Emacs versus vi? Your favorite programming language versus some inferior language? How about your profession versus some rival profession? Your favorite sports team versus a competitor?
Save for the last of these, the dispute is over something of practical value and it is not always completely clear to those having the argument what the relevant standard of value is, for purposes of drawing a comparison. For purposes of my further discussion here, let's omit things (like favorite sports teams) for which a choice is usually only a matter of taste, and let's also set aside the fact that taste can influence choices about things that do have practical ramifications.

The point about having a clear standard of value for such comparisons I bring up on my own, having seen Leonard Peikoff immediately address it when asked whether he regarded Ayn Rand or Aristotle as the "greatest" philosopher. Interestingly, as Cook points out in another post (and Peikoff shows in his answer), it is common for one of the things being compared to be better or worse than the other in different ways:
[I]f one alternative were uniformly better than all others, word would get out. These arguments rage because they involve comparisons along multiple (often implicit) criteria and no alternative is simultaneously better by all criteria.
The need to be clear about a standard for comparison is, however, just one of the many things that can make such arguments unnecessarily charged. Poor communication can contribute, but so can something else: Cook quotes programmer Thomas Gideon on one (in the context of high tech), which I think could occur, at least initially, even between good communicators who are on the same page about the basis for comparison:
[F]eature differences, ones that may paint your chosen tool in an unflattering light, can make you defensive without realizing it. ... how much effort you put in is being called into question, and to a degree, if only subconsciously, your intelligence or judgment may also be questioned by implication. [Cook's bold]
In such a case, it behooves one to satisfy oneself one way or the other whether the other side is right to raise such a question: There is plainly new information of some kind lurking around.

-- CAV


Today: (1) Minor edits. (2) Added a clarifying comment.


John Cook said...

Thanks for quoting the Ford-Chevy post. Interesting comments.

One thing I'd add to this discussion is the idea of the cost of information. Sometimes it's not worth trying to find the best tool (as defined by appropriate criteria) because the difference in the tools is less than the cost of determining which is better.

Instead of agonizing for 30 minutes over whether to wear the green or the blue shirt, just pick one and get dressed! Some technical debates really matter, and it's worthwhile to find out which is better (for you, now, given your environment, your problems, your preferences ...) but sometimes it's not. Sometimes the best tool is the tool you know.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for those posts: insightful as always.

Your additional point is on the money. I've encountered such problems in the past and come to a similar conclusion -- but didn't think to mention the point here.

Indeed, that could well be the kind of information I note late in the post as "lurking:" The additional costs of making a change could well outweigh the benefits of making it. Knowing that would reassure one that, while he might do things differently if he could do them again, staying his course is, in fact, the best option.