Thursday, August 09, 2007

willful ignorance

This account of people at OSCON dumping scorn on MySQL and PHP hit a chord with me, especially when the writer, a prominent Perl user, had the insight to compare it to when a Java fan scoffs "People still use Perl?" The "grass is always stupider on the other side" perspective can afflict anyone, going in either direction.

I doubt I need to cluck my tongue and admonish everyone to ignore the usual ideological conflicts and use what works. (The fallacy of identifying programmers with languages was the topic of a rant a while ago.) My new revelation is recognizing that one of the ingredients of robust technological snobbery is a disturbingly natural human trait: willful ignorance.

Willful ignorance is the compulsion to either 1) avoid learning something which could conflict with a truth someone is personally invested in, or 2) learn something just enough to find valid reasons for dismissing it. Willful ignorance is everywhere, because people not only want something to be true but need it to be true. Once someone's mental and emotional energy are mixed up with some piece of information, employing a mechanism to defend it is as instinctual as tensing up when a toothy predator pounces at him or her.

Interestingly, this constant also applies to people who pride themselves on their rationality; they need it to be true that rationality matters and works. For instance, someone who has the grating habit of correcting others' grammar to make it internally consistent may also be someone who both desperately wants to consider language as a logical system and to believe in the importance of logic for valid thinking. Such a person would be well-advised to keep willfully ignorant of the notion of language as a creative act of communication. Starting from the wrong axioms more or less guarantees the failure of rationality to reach the right conclusion. I remember a time when I couldn't figure out why some code under test never produced the expected test result. I took a short break after realizing the test had been wrong.

Therefore the proper antidote to willful ignorance is not rationality alone (rationality can mislead someone into excluding too many possibilities). But a wide-open mind isn't the antidote, either. Accepting information without discrimination leaves one open to each passing fad, or paralyzed with indecision. The best strategy is to make one's mind a centrifuge. Pour in whatever ideas are lying around, then stir and process and compare until the useful portions are separated out. If one of the challengers to your beliefs has value, isn't it better to figure that out as soon as possible? At the risk of getting off point, I respect the Java thinkers who heard about Rails and worked to apply some of its ideas to the Java world, instead of willfully ignoring Rails altogether or trying to immediately convert to it (thereby incurring significant costs).

The above was about willful ignorance. It doesn't apply to ignorance born out of a lack of time/energy. I haven't been able to look into Seaside at all, for that very reason.

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