“An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments” by Ali Almossawi

Most engineers I know are good at writing software. Some engineers I know are good at writing software for extraordinarily complex projects. Some have a brain that naturally, instinctively, just worked this way while some took all sorts of courses on algorithms and structured programming in university. Regardless, when you are coding by yourself, these important coding and problem solving skills are probably good enough. However, when you transition from coding-by-yourself to coding-in-a-team, there is the need for an additional skill.

Now you need the skills to explain to other engineers why your code, your approach, is best. Maybe even why your approach is better then an alternate approach being proposed by someone else. It is a given that you can write good code – that is how you got on the team in the first place. The question is: can you explain why your code is better then any other alternatives available?

This skill might sound deceptively simple, but in reality it has a few super complex twists to it. Someone once explained it to me as follows: smart people, given the same start point, the same goal, and the same restrictions/limitations, would come up with similar-enough solutions. Maybe not identical, because all humans are slightly different, but at least similar in approach – and would solve the same problem. Given that, if I was to find myself in a situation where very different solutions are being discussed, maybe we have different understanding of what the starting point is? Or what the goal is? Or what restrictions/assumptions/limitations to work within? Double checking all those can quickly uncover missing (or invalid) problem statements, restrictions/assumptions/limitations or goals. If it turns out that we’re trying to solve different problems, then of course the proposed solutions would be very different!

If your skills in logic/reasoning/conflict are weak, and if you skip the verification step, then it is easy to get frustrated by your inability to “convince others” of the greatness of your code or design. Maybe you cannot explain it correctly. Maybe the others don’t want to listen to you – because they feel equally about their proposals. Maybe both. If you are passionate about your code, but cannot have others understand its greatness, the situation can easily turn to frustration (“I give up – why does no-one understand how great my code is?”) or even anger (“This code is too important to give up on – what do they know anyway – they’re just idiots”). This shift from working together to find the best code/design (something which can be objectively measured or stress-tested, after everyone agrees on what they all think is “best”.) to destructively debating the other humans (using hard-to-measure qualities) is dangerous. Even if the “right” code is actually chosen in the end, the manner in which the discussion was carried out can be toxic to the group.

Like many other engineers, I never had any formal training in logic/reasoning/conflict at any of my universities, so I had to learn these skills on-the-job, or at workshops I found over the years. Sometimes it went well. Sometimes it did not. I’m still working on this. Being able to talk through differences of opinions, in a constructive way, is a crucial skill set to develop as you work with others during your engineering career. And essential for *everyone* in a team to have, in order for the *team* to work together effectively.

I stumbled across this book in 2014, loved it, and was then delighted and surprised to discover that it was written by someone I knew from when I worked at Mozilla!! Ali’s book is focused on describing the different types of arguments used in logic debates, with very easy-to-understand examples. This will help you keep your logic and reasoning honest when you are a discussion. It will also make it easy to notice when someone else switches to using “Ad Hominem” or “No True Scotsman” or “Genetic Fallacy” or “Straw Man” or any other of these types of arguments on you.

I think many many people, including myself, find the idea of a book about arguments to be daunting, almost off-putting, so I really like how the simple one-page description and the full page cartoon images make the whole topic area more approachable, appealing and in turn, very easy to understand in a non-threatening way. At 56 pages, it is a super short book, and almost 50% of those pages are cartoons, so you could expect to be done in a few minutes. However, each page found me sitting rethinking different conflicts over the years, so this took a lot longer to read then I expected. And I re-read it often. In addition to the printed version of the book, there is also a fun https://bookofbadarguments.com/.

Try it, I think you will like it.

John.
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ps: This is one of two great books that I really like in this area – both of which I think should be required reading for engineers. Both of which I just discovered I had not yet blogged about, hence this post. Watch for another post coming soon.

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