Saturday, 19 April 2014

Simplistic Views, Complex Subtexts and Whaa?

Recently I read an opinion piece, ref [1], from a Technical Evangelist (more on that label later). My first impression of it was a muddled message. Which point was the piece trying to make?

So, I made a quick close analysis of the text and posted some questions, which basically amounted to, “do you have data/evidence to back this up” and “can you clarify what you mean”, ref [2]. I’ll be happy if I get a response.

Close Analysis

Close analysis (after ref [3]) is a form of critical analysis where the text is dissected into argument markers, assuring and guarding terms, discounting and evaluative terms and rhetorical devices. The aim is to analyse a text sympathetically - i.e. to try and make the person’s argument as good as possible - to get to the real meaning of what they are trying to say.

This is my usual first step where I need to pay close attention to text. In the case above I found it unclear and bordering on incoherent hand-waving. Sometimes where the people are responsive then there might be a discussion that starts with, “can I ask some questions?” (ref context-free questions, ref [4])

Yes, it’s time to stop, think and ask questions - what is the message, where is the supporting analysis or evidence.

I will probably be doing this more and more. I’m currently making a close inspection of Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management. I’ve also recently had reason to look at Program Test Methods and I’ll be revisiting that to provide a commentary of it. I started looking at these because they either get referenced in several places or are the basis for further work. I may end up revisiting more of my software testing library and other literature (as I have done with “regression testing” in wikipedia and the ISTQB glossary, ref [5]).  

Some useful Heuristics for Potential Spotting Problematical Articles

Evidence or Data?
If a claim is made is there a reference to some analysis that you can read or how that conclusion was discovered?
Beware of data being retrofitted (cherry picked) to support a claim.
Do the claims appear to be anecdotal or have a single source?

Is the meaning clear?
Does the conclusion follow from the argument? 
 - These two are the main parts of close analysis.
Why was the piece written? Was it an opinion or were they trying to influence opinion?
How was the reaction to the piece? Peer review, open comments, discussion or other commentary?

The labels people use are important. Evangelist has many connotations (to me) of preaching someone else’s thoughts, words and ideas. Ok, so if you don’t think for yourself should I go to the source?
BTW, the same (to me) applies when I hear someone describe themselves as a “passionate <whatever>” - I wonder does that mean they’re enthusiastic, irrational emotional or irascible.
Labels like expert and authority should be distinguished whether it is self-appointed or peer-recognised.

And finally….
I know this won’t stop articles and books where “I only have a few minor comments”, but it’s important to distinguish a simplistic or nonsensical view from a complex subtext or just plain BS.

If you don’t understand it or where a claim is made without evidence, call it out!


[3] Understanding Arguments, 8th edition, chapter 4 [Sinnott-Armstrong, Fogelin; 2009, Wadworth]
[4] Exploring Requirements: Quality Before Design (Gause, Weinberg; 1989, Dorset House)
[5] The Tester’s Headache: Another Regression Test Trap