Misinformation in Tech

January 15, 2014

“Node.js doesn’t work when Javascript is disabled…”

I laughed the first time I heard that. Node.js is a server-side platform, so by its very nature such a thing would be impossible. But then I heard it again… and again… and again until it stopped being funny.

It’s not that these people are dummies; In fact, it’s usually the exact opposite. I’ve heard this from very smart people working on very impressive projects, usually with many more years of experience than myself. That’s what’s so troubling: how can someone be so confident in an assumption – especially one that reveal such a fundamental lack of knowledge on the subject – that it becomes fact.

Psychological Laziness

Misinformation is false information, spread unintentionally. When you hear something new, you quietly file it away in our brains to recall later. The more knowledge you have to recall, the better you’re able to make a decision (well, a rational one, anyway). But when you’re naive to a subject and know only bits and pieces, you have much less to go on. You’d think this would make us wary to definitively make up our minds. However, that’s rarely the case.

In a purely psychological way, this is laziness. Your brain will use whatever shortcuts it can when trying to make quick judgements. So if asked about Node.js, I could recall that it’s written in Javascript, and that things break when Javascript is disabled in my web browser. It’s also newer than most frameworks, and new things usually break more than old things. Knowing only this, it’s not unimaginable that I might conclude that Node.js is unsafe for use.

Know Thyself

This is a fine assumption to make, and it would be ridiculous to require everyone to be current and knowledgable about everything they see. We need these mental shortcuts to function. Without them we would float around in an indecisive purgatory all day just deciding what to eat in the morning.

The real problem is knowing when you’re taking this shortcut, and acting accordingly. It’s important to know what you do and don’t know, so that you can be open to new information. Even more important, be careful touting these assumptions as fact. Someone who respects you might assume you know what you’re talking about, and now they have a very good reason to believe your assumptions as fact and spread it to others. Like high-school gossip, on and on it will go in a great big feedback loop of lies.

”… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know…” – Donald Rumsfeld

Be wary of the unknowns, and act accordingly.