Monday, January 10, 2005

False Neutrals

In one of his blog posts, Clay Shirky writes:

We need a word for the class of comparisons that assumes that the status quo is cost-free, so that all new work, when it can be shown to have disadvantages to the status quo, is also assumed to be inferior to the status quo.
Hear hear! In my opinion that is a very common mistake. I use a term for such things, and here's a very quick, sketchy description:

I believe this is actually the conjunction of two mistakes. The first is the mistake is the assumption that if you can demonstrate that something has positive aspects then it is good, and similarly that if you can demonstrate that something has negative aspects then it is bad. (The reality is that you have to consider the combination of the positive and negative aspects, and compare them to those of the other options, and to see which aspects are important for what is being considered. You also need to not assume, when considernig a particular option that isn't the way things are now, that if was realised the world will be the same as is now, because otherwise you are unfairly biasing the evaluation against them... but I'm getting away from my point here).

The other mistake -- which is the thing Shirky is primarily talking about in that quote -- is to assume that one of the options is fine as it is, such that you don't evaluate it, only the others. I call these options false neutrals. I've got a feeling that this doesn't just apply to the status quo, though off the top of my head I can't think of any examples.

(BTW, that post of Shirky's is quite good, and I think it's a good example of how people tend to think of things in pretty much only in terms of their ostensible purpose and how they aren't very good at realising, or factoring in, 'economic' sorts of considerations).

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