Friday, February 10, 2006

A blast from the past

I was digging up some old posts to submit as samples for a regular writing proposal for a magazine. This is one of those which I selected, written circa 2001 at the height of the Microsoft FUD campaign against open source.

A Microsoft spokesman had just given a press conference dissing Linux. Joey Alarilla, my editor, asked me for a response. I was so fired up I wrote the entire thing in an hour, research and all. Actually, it wasn't that difficult. It really sort of wrote itself. I enjoyed writing it.

So now this unnamed executive is still making kaboodles of money selling licenses and stuff, and I'm sitting out here in this tropical island leading an idyllic existence and just blogging. Hmmm...who do you think made the right choice?

Ah, who cares about that? I got him, and I got him good.


Chasing Aristotle
Aristotle stands as one of the greatest thinkers in the annals of philosophy. Aristotle lived in ancient Greece more than two thousand years ago, around 300BC. He first studied under Plato, and later on went to establish his own school, the Lyceum. At a time when philosophy was synonymous with the sciences, Aristotle made great contributions in physics and biology. But that wasn't all: Aristotle also invented Metaphysics, systematized the study of Ethics, and advanced thought in Politics.

One of the contributions of Aristotle that still stands today is Logic. Logic is the science of thought, and Aristotle systematized it so thoroughly that the principles he outlined influenced the entire body of work of Western philosophy. It is from this intellectual heritage and discipline that we inherit the principles which we use in computer programming.

Far from being a dry and boring topic, Logic can be great fun, especially when you come to Fallacies. Fallacies are false conclusions stemming from incorrect reasoning, false premises, or misunderstanding of terms. The word fallacy itself comes from 'falla cia', the Latin term for deceit.

Logic seeks to uncover and avoid fallacies by means of well-formulated steps in reasoning. Starting from true beliefs and following the steps of Logic will always lead to a correct conclusion. In today' world of sound bites, emotional appeal, and industry analysts, a dose of Logic is sometimes the only way to cut through the fallacies to get to the truth.

Fallacies are best illustrated by example, as I will attempt to show you in the paragraphs that follow. Rather than lifting some well-used examples from the textbooks, I thought I would give it a more contemporary spin by using a news article that came out on the INQ7 web site not more than a week ago. The title of the piece is "Software Company Exec Says: Open Source may stop growth of local software industry" (http://www.inq7.net/inf/2002/sep/05/inf_1-1.htm), and it concerns a briefing given by executives given to local reporters.

An Alarming Conclusion
The reasoning that led to this alarming conclusion -- that open source may stop the growth of the local software industry -- was never clearly delineated in the article, but it seems to be premised on the fact that commercial software is responsible for creating millions of jobs. Thus, in syllogistic form:

Premise: Commercial software is responsible for creating millions of jobs
Premise: Open source software is not commercial software
Conclusion: Open source software will stop the growth of the local software industry

The conclusion above is false because it implies that commercial software alone has been responsible for creating those jobs; in fact there are several other factors that contributed to employment, e.g., government policy, venture capitalist funding, strong consumer purchasing power, etc.; this is the case of a Complex Cause, when the cause identified is only part of the entire cause of the effect. This false premise already invalidates the conclusion.

The commercial software-or-open source question that is being forced upon the audience is a fallacy of distraction, specifically, a False Dilemma, because only two choices are presented when in fact there may be three or more. For example, some companies may choose to employ both commercial and open source software as the need arises.

Furthermore, the argument appeals to motive in place of support, in particular, the fallacy of Consequences. The executive appeals to our fears, that if we support open source, the local software industry will die. It ignores the possibility that open source can actually create new jobs, for example, in the areas of education, support, and consulting.

Of course, I am being a bit unfair here because I am criticizing my summary of the article. To be fair, why don't we examine the statements of the executives themselves to test for fallacies. Diligent readers who wish to follow along can fire up their browser and use the Index of Fallacies (http://www.datanation.com/fallacies/index.htm) as a guide. Ready?

Quote-Unquote
With much passion, [the executive] argued that 'Commercial software model has an intrinsic value, and has been responsible for millions of jobs over the years.'


As discussed previously, this is a fallacy of Complex Cause. The executive also commits the fallacy of Ambiguity by Accent. The statement itself is true, but the emphasis on the phrase is used to suggest a meaning different from the content of the statement. No one is arguing that commercial software is one of the causes of employment, but by his passionate argument, he is implying that it is the only one.

Another...official went further, arguing that countries like Ireland, India and Israel have become software powerhouses because of the successful use of commercial software.

Again, another fallacy by Complex Cause, because other factors could have contributed to the prosperity of these countries. Also, it suffers from the fallacy of Hasty Generalization, because the representative sample consists of only three countries. The official does not make it clear: three countries out of how many?

Commercial software, particularly from said software company, has been around longer than open source software in the Philippines. Shouldn't we by now be a software powerhouse ourselves? If we have not been successful in their use, should not then part of the blame fall on the said software company who has had such a dominant presence in the country?

There are myriad reasons for the success or failure of a software industry in a country, and not all of them have to do with the type of software being used.

'If a government bets on open source alone it is dangerous,' [the director] for South Asia region, declared.'


Again, the fallacy of Consequences. Also implied in this statement is that the Philippine government is planning to bet on open source alone, when in fact no such move has been declared. What we have here is a Straw Man fallacy, because the speaker is attacking a non-existent position.

Fixated
The official said "people get a little bit fixated on open source" that they fail to realize that certain studies have shown that the total cost of ownership of [his company's software] is lower than Linux.

The condescending bit -- that open source people are fixated -- is the fallacy called Argumentum ad hominem (argument against a person), because the speaker is assailing the judgment of people who are involved in open source. The next phrase is another fallacy, well, three fallacies in fact: Hasty Generalization, because it has not been proven that the TCO of commercial software is lower in all cases; Anonymous Authority, because the studies to support his argument have not been named; and Slothful Induction, because he concludes that the TCO of commercial software is lower in spite of the fact Linux imposes no license fees.

[The executive] argued that Linux is an "accumulation of various technologies" which does not have an organized support service.

The first part is another case of Ambiguity by Accent. No one is denying that Linux is an accumulation of various technologies; all operating systems are. But by his emphasis, he makes it out that being an "accumulation of various technologies" is a bad thing. The operating system manufactured by his company is also an accumulation of technologies: the IBM PC architecture, the Intel processor, video drivers, networking protocols, disk interfaces, etc.

The second part is a fallacy of explanation, that of Subverted Support (no pun intended) because the reason he claims -- that Linux does not have an organized support service -- is not true. Many companies offer Linux support: IBM, Red Hat, SuSE, and other smaller consulting companies.


The difference that a billion makes
He also pointed out that commercial software has been developed by companies which spend billions on research and development. Linux, on other hand, has grown out of the efforts of various developers all over the world and "people have to spend a lot of time in making the open source plumbing work."

At first, this looks like another fallacy of distraction by Consequence: again, he threatens the audience that they will spend a lot of effort trying to get Linux to work. It is also a case of Argumentum ad hominem, because he is questioning the quality of Linux simply because it grew out of the efforts of developers around the world.

The implications run much deeper, though. Let's deconstruct his argument. The executive is saying that software is only good and reliable if the company making it has spent billions (of dollars, presumably) on research and development. Let's assume that this is true. Where does this lead us?

There is no software company in the Philippines with a billion dollars to spend on R&D. Therefore, no matter it best efforts, no Philippine company will ever be able to make a product that is any good, because it didn't spend a billion dollars on research and development. So what difference does it make for us to have a software industry at all? We would only be able to participate in areas where the big software company didn't play; and if the big software company decided it wanted to enter that particular market, that's it for us. Perhaps the title of the original news article should then be "Commercial software may stop growth of the local software industry!"


The big contradiction
To me, the big contradiction is all the time, effort, and words that are being spent on discrediting Linux and open source. If these executives really and truly believe that open source is a disorganized movement, why all the fuss? If open source is as disorganized as they claim, then it should collapse in a few years, with or without their help.

On the flip side, if they can spend the time for a press conference to attempt to discredit open source, it might mean that there is something to open source after all. As we say in Bisaya: "Ang puno-ang ga-bunga ma-o ang gina-bato. (The tree that bears fruit is the one that is stoned.)"

I have only scratched the surface of the fallacious statements peppered throughout the article. There are several more that a close examination will reveal. I'm such a nice fellow that I won't deprive you of the pleasure of finding them yourself. Fire up a browser, follow the links, and enjoy. As they say in mathematics textbooks, "the proof is left as an exercise to the reader."

If you would like to know more about fallacies, I would like to point you out to a short story, "Love is a Fallacy," by Max Shulman. It was written in 1951, but it holds up pretty well and is still an enjoyable, witty, and elegant tale. You can do a search on Google, or you can find it at http://www.froggiez.com/ellipsis/loveisafallacy.html.

Live long and prosper.

2 comments:

  1. On your statement that the article below 'sort of wrote itself', your experience in writing the above probably comes close to how the divinely inspired prophets wrote the books of the Bible.

    In any case, i agree with your take open source and its benefits to our country. In fact, if they use open source software in any vote counting system that is implemented, that would go some way in ensuring credibility of the electoral process.

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  2. Ha, ha, more like a little devil whispering in my ear. I was gleefully underlining the fallacies and looking up their categories.

    As to the second, hmmm... really depends on the transparency in which the project is implemented, which is what open source is all about.

    Thanks for visiting!

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