Avoiding “Psychic” Software Development
James Randi died October 20, 2020.
The Amazing Randi was a successful stage magician, famously surpassing many of Harry Houdini’s achievements. Later in his career, James Randi took his mastery of magic and used it to turn a critical and skeptical eye to claims of paranormal powers. Claims of divine healing powers, telekinesis, and psychic powers were all put to the test with what grew to a $1,000,000 reward to anyone who could prove their powers.
The “Randi Prize” was never claimed during its 50 years.
Modern Product Development
Edward Deming once said, “In God we trust, all others must bring data”.
Over my career I have become infamous for citing Deming, but if this is a time for confessions, I must confess that my knowledge of Deming came much later than my attitudes toward evidence based decision making. Rather, I can attribute my personal distrust of claims and constant demands for evidence to people like James Randi showing me how, and when, to be critical of my own beliefs.
Both Deming and Randi demand that we approach our observations critically and skeptically manage our own biases.
This has impacted me professionally in two significant ways:
- I am suspicious of software developers that claim they have finished a difficult task
- I am suspicious of consultants promising to make problems go away quickly and cheaply
I say this as someone who has both development and consulting in his past.
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.
The problem is that, like Fox Mulder, I’ve always wanted to believe. Lewellyn publishing can account for much of my allowance.
Unfortunately for my desire to believe, at some point I saw the now classic episode of What’s My Line with guests James Hydric and James Randi. In the show, Randi is skeptical and flat out states that Hydric’s telekinetic ability to turn book pages amounts to him blowing on the pages, and introduces some light weight Styrofoam around the book. He is firm and calm, and completely unrelenting in his stance, and the scene eventually gets uncomfortably awkward as Hydric begins a convoluted explanation of his ensuing failures.
Hydric is a bit of a tragic character. While he was obviously a fraud, it appears he became so as an attention seeking behaviour. Watching his confessional interviews after the Randi event, I got the impression that he had come to believe his own hype; that he had misled even himself.
Whatever the case, Randi’s critical approach to assessing paranormal capabilities has haunted my ability to blindly believe with a shadow of skepticism.
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.
So we tell our managers that the job is complete.
We are physically incapable of seeing that it does not completely solve the problem, or that it is too difficult to use in its current state. Like those that are healed by Faith, we want it to be true.
This is where processes and philosophies around the SDLC come into play.
- Issue boards keep us from reporting more progress than we have actually achieved
- Sprints and backlogs keep us focused on the most pressing issues
- Automated software build/test/deploy ensures that evaluation is unbiased and reproducible.
While the debates continue about which controls are the best, there is no doubt that we need the controls. Like James Randi placing Styrofoam around a phone book, these controls ensure we are being honest … even to ourselves.
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.
Peter Popoff is an evangelical minister whose television broadcast became famous for his claims of divine knowledge and healing abilities. During his shows he would call arbitrary individuals from the audience by name and cite details of their life with no prior knowledge. As he approached them, and they began to stand, he would tell the gathered audience what terrible diseases the person had and that he would heal them. Both the knowledge and the healing were claimed to be directly imparted divine powers.
Rather than being divinely inspired, Randi discovered that Popoff’s wife was the true source of knowledge. Prior to the show, she would gather information from attendees and was broadcasting their names and information via radio to an ear-piece he wore.
Here lies a case of fraud that demonstrates true harm.
People that sought out Popoff truly believed God spoke to him, and that his hands could remove illness from them. Believing that they had been cured meant that they would stop seeking treatment for arthritis, or epilepsy, or heart conditions. When one adds the $4 million a year in “donations” people made, Popoff has made it a little more difficult to replace the pills he told them to throw out.
James Randi, did thousands of people a service when he exposed Popoff. Though we do need to ask why Popoff continues his “healing” to this day.
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.
Unfortunately, this is often not the case.
Due to the short time frame they are present for, consultants are not actually paid for measurable results. The measurable results of their suggestions and changes come after they have left. Their real rewards are tied to making the manager that hired them feel good about their decision. This does not necessarily mean they were successful at solving the problem.
Like the Faith Healer, consultants can reap huge rewards for making promises of solving problems, and making their audience feel that the problem has been solved through some special conference from an authority. Unfortunately, like the Faith Healer, this can be, and often is, done as an act of faith.
In fact, it is almost impossible for this to be undone because the person that has paid out their life savings to be healed, or the manager that has spent a significant portion of their budget, cannot admit to themselves that they were swindled.
The more we pay, the more we want to believe.
I have worked with some great consultants over the years, but I’ve spent more working hours with bad ones. The reinforcement cycle is one in which the best rewards go to those who make management feel good. Unfortunately, they are also the ones that consume the most time in fixing and retrofitting good solutions around their popular one. Given they are paid by the hour, this means the feedback mechanism benefits the dishonest.
There is no easy answer to this except to be skeptical of smooth talking salesmen that echo what you already want to believe. Often consultants are brought in because local staff have been asked to solve a problem and have given an undesirable response. Unfortunately, that is often the honest, but hard-to-hear, truth.
Like James Randi upsetting a lot of Peter Popoff’s believers, the truth can be hard to hear, but healthier for you in the long run.
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”.
That was a different time, a simpler time.
Imagine my shock to learn that frauds Randi has exposed continue to be active as recently as 2015, with terrifying consequences.
According to Wikipedia, the ADE-651 is an explosive detection device that is used internationally to keep people safe from terrorism. Naturally, people want to be safe from terrorist bombs and put their faith in technological devices to protect them. Randi first challenged the developers of the device in 2008, and it has since been demonstrated to be ineffective, to the point of containing no operating machinery at all. The FBI has repeatedly issued bulletins to law enforcement to stop using the device. In spite of this, it continues to be used, as a life saving device, by several countries and local law enforcement agencies.
People are so desperate for it to be true, they just will not let it go, and people are dying as a result.
The false sense of security provided by the device had catastrophic effects for many Iraqi people, hundreds of whom were killed in bombings that the ADE 651 failed to prevent
— Wikipedia: ADE-651, Investigations, Iraq
Perhaps people cling to it for hope, perhaps they cling to it for vanity, but in these modern times, people are paying millions of dollars for devices that end up getting them killed.
Reading about the ADE-651 I am reminded that there is no quick cure for superstition. We still want to believe that we are finished, and still want to believe that we are clever, and we are still greedy when it comes to getting that promotion. Like Randi, all we can do is be eternally vigilant against our own fears, hopes, and biases.
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.
From time-to-time I still blame software errors on “planetary alignment”, or “demonic possession”. Other times I amaze people with my psychic ability to know an error without ever having to have seen the problem they are experiencing. But these are done in jest, and always followed by (at least the offer of) a detailed investigation or explanation as to how the discovery was made.
As individuals with a responsibility to achieve goals, and under pressure to deliver, its is sometimes hard to hold ourselves to account. Sometimes we feel tempted to give or accept false hope to preserve our own dignity. Randi’s approach to debunking the paranormal did not make him friends with believers, but it cut directly to the heart of the matter. When lives and livelihoods are on the line that’s what really counts.
So thank-you, James Randi. You did not make friends among the frauds and charlatans of the world, but you certainly inspired at least one developer to push beyond the illusion of success.
Allow people to make assumptions and they will come away absolutely convinced that assumption was correct and that it represents fact … It’s not necessarily so.
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.
- New York Times: Sleights of Mind
An interesting discussion on the scientific description of how magic is based in cognitive perception
- Skeptic News
Randi’s recommended daily reading of skeptic news sources that approach the world with a critical and scientific eye
If you are impressed with James Randi, you should also learn about
- Margaret Hamilton
who put quality control at the forefront of her teams software design, saving the Apollo Moon landing; but who’s design of a error free programming language is largely forgotten
- Edwards Deming
the father of data driven decision making
… and in the interest of being skeptical of Randi, and because I still “want to believe”
- The Myth of James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge
an article critical of Randi’s requirements for the prize, which indicates he may have used it as a vessel for suppressing legitimate evidence.
- The Unbelievable Skepticism of James Randi
A slightly more critical look at Randi’s life’s work. Raises questions about Randi’s personal bias and profit motive.