Ford-Chevy arguments in tech

If you’ve never heard a Ford-Chevy argument, you may find it hard to believe that such things exist. People actually get into arguments, sometimes violent arguments, over which trucks are better, Ford or Chevy.

More generally, a Ford-Chevy argument is an emotionally charged debate over the merits of two similar things with each side fiercely loyal to its position. These arguments look silly to outsiders but are serious to insiders. We all have our Ford-Chevy topics.

Have you ever gotten into a Mac versus PC argument? Emacs versus vi? Your favorite programming language versus some inferior language? How about your profession versus some rival profession? Your favorite sports team versus a competitor?

Thomas Gideon recently recorded a podcast on software tools. Gideon gives a good explanation for why we have technical Ford-Chevy arguments.

The time needed to gain mastery over a single deep tool usually precludes being able to learn anything else in that category. Pointing out feature differences, ones that may paint your chosen tool in an unflattering light, can make you defensive without realizing it. … how much effort you put in is being called into question, and to a degree, if only subconsciously, your intelligence or judgment may also be questioned by implication.

When you’ve made a large investment in time or money, you don’t want to hear someone question that investment. You may feel that your intelligence or judgment is being called into question. You may fear that you’ve picked the wrong tool but don’t have the time or energy to learn an alternative.

I’d like to think I’m above Ford-Chevy arguments, but I’m not. I would never get into a literal Ford-Chevy argument because I don’t care about trucks. But I could easily fall into a Ford-Chevy–type argument about something I care more about.

It’s no surprise that emotional factors influence our choice of music or clothes. But it is surprising how much emotional factors influence even highly technical decisions. For example, people often choose statistical methods for emotional reasons, though they would never admit it. Once we make a decision, we come up with rational justifications after the fact. This applies to choosing a computer or a statistical method just as much as it applies to choosing a truck or pair of shoes.

Read a few of the over 6,500 comments on the video to get a taste of a real Ford-Chevy argument.

Related post: Doing good work with bad tools

11 thoughts on “Ford-Chevy arguments in tech

  1. You should mention that the *fear* of Ford-Chevy arguments often precludes people from going into meaningful comparisons. People cry for trolling whenever someone asks for a comparison of A vs B.

    But you *can* have a Ford-Lada comparison. There are many pieces of software that are better than other.

    I can’t stand it when people just get away by replying “use whatever is better for you”, or “use what is best for the job”.

    Assume that, in the real world, you could choose between driving a Lada or a Ford (for the same price). Who would tell you that: “it’s a matter of taste”, “choose the one you like best”. Honestly? But that happens all the time in computer science!

    I don’t have any good explanation for that “fear of Ford-Chevy argument” phenomenon.

    Maybe that is because, unlike in the real world, we have access to a whole range of tools for the same price (often for free). That leads people to believe that everything is equivalent to everything.

  2. Oliver: Good point. Comparison discussions can be productive, even if they get a little heated.

    But comparisons are more productive if they have explicit criteria. In an A to B comparison, I want to hear someone say exactly in what way they believe A is better than B, and they’ll have more credibility if they also list a few advantages for B. Heated arguments are often heated because the criteria are left implicit.

  3. Ford-Chevy and Ford-Lada is a good example highlighting why these discussions become so heated and pointless: Comparing wildly different tools is worthwhile, but similar tools – in functionality and quality – is mostly not. The decision between them really becomes mostly a matter of taste or habit. The cost of switching to an unfamiliar tool may well be substantially higher than any benefit accrued, so “use the one you like best” really is the optimal answer.

  4. ‘Emotional reasons’ =identity.

    Microsoft has implicitly acknowledged this with its latest ‘I’m a PC’ campaign, just as Apple did previously, and continues to do. The truth is that we make luxury purchases (clothes, gadgets, cars) based on whether the product fits our identity – I’m cool, so I have to have cool stuff; I’m classy, so I need those classy shoes; I’m a Ford guy; I’m a Lakers supporter; I vote Democrat; I’m Norwegian.

    These are all statements of identity, and it’s identity that drives us to our most embittered arguments.

    The truth is always subtle and a shade of gray. Identity lends us a large hammer to make that a black vs white argument: Ultimately it is the mind making allegiances, with which it constructs the self. Those with no identity are those we pity the most; the poor, the homeless, the displaced.

    So I’d say that often the problem is that we approach a rational weighing up with the question “Which is better?”, without defining criteria. In that circumstance, we know only that the self is best, and thus its affinities – its identity – reigns supreme.

    Who is best, you or me?

  5. People have Ford-Chevy arguments over everything, dont they, depending on ones particular passions. Religious affiliations, political parties, economic systems… some more “controversial” than others… though the notion of controversy is equally subjective.

    “When you’ve made a large investment in time or money, you don’t want to hear someone question that investment.”

    People are reluctant to “lose” their investment by changing… even when that change is ultimately for the better. Its called the Sunk-Cost fallacy.

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