Avoiding “Psychic” Software Development

A tribute to James Randi for dummy programmers

Modern Product Development

Edward Deming once said, “In God we trust, all others must bring data”.

  1. I am suspicious of consultants promising to make problems go away quickly and cheaply

A Personal Confession

In my youth, I was fascinated by psychic powers. I bought all the books on remote viewing, developing my psychic powers, and becoming a medium. I recognised that information was a powerful tool and was interested in any means to acquire more of it.

Scene from the X-Files with Mulder’s famous “I want to believe” poster in the background

Software Developers

In the process of developing software, developers are expected to produce solutions to problems that have not been solved. That is the nature of the craft. However there are corporate expectations that the problem be solved in a reasonable amount of time, because time is money. This places pressure on developers to “be finished”, and this creates the risk space: scared for our job, eager to please, wanting to appear skilled, we want it to be done too.

James Randi and Bob Barker expose James Hydric as a fraud. Subsequent interviews with Hydric give the feel that this was the moment he stopped deceiving himself.
  • Sprints and backlogs keep us focused on the most pressing issues
  • Automated software build/test/deploy ensures that evaluation is unbiased and reproducible.

Faith Healing

Even assuming it had been real, Hydric’s ability to turn phone book pages was little more than a novelty act. It may have sold a few books, but debunking it was not exactly an earth-shattering revelation. A more significant case can be found in that of Peter Popoff.

Consultants and Vendors

One way management can reduce costs is to hire outside expert consultants that understand the problem better than the internal staff, and nobody knows the solutions better than the vendors. Naturally, as experts they are to be paid more than internal staff, this is justified by their being more knowledgeable.

Faith Healing in Modern Times

In reminiscing about the impact of James Randi, naturally I turned to Wikipedia to refresh my memory. It has been a long time since I have had need to know about Randi’s work: a different time. We now rely on scientific reasoning, and no longer believe in psychics and faith healing. We no longer make business plans based on “gut feelings” but rather “collect data to provide a basis for action”.

The ADE-351 “bomb detector” [Wikipedia]

Thank-you Mr. Randi

Randi has left a swath of fraudsters in his path: Uri Geller, James Hydric, Peter Popoff, James McCormick and many others. Each of them represents a swindler filling their pockets with millions by feeding on the hopes and fears of thousands of people. He showed the danger of blind faith, and importance of protecting ourselves from our own desires.

Further Reading

This has been a personal tribute to a great man and some of the things he inspired me to think about, and the way he caused me to see the world. Naturally, as I was writing this, I came across some articles on perception and how, as humans, we want to be deceived.

  • Skeptic News
    Randi’s recommended daily reading of skeptic news sources that approach the world with a critical and scientific eye
  • Edwards Deming
    the father of data driven decision making

Having discovered a passion for business data analysis in my teens, I love to share the beauty of data and complex systems with other devs and clients alike.