Lighten up and be logical

I had a little fun on Twitter this morning. From @UnixToolTip I said

Some of the best programmers use Emacs. Therefore, if you use Emacs, you’ll be a great programmer. #cargocultlogic

and from @CompSciFact I said

Some of the best programmers have beards. Therefore, growing a beard will make you a better programmer. #cargocultlogic

The serious implication behind the joke is that mimicking the superficial characteristics of a good programmer will not make you a good programmer.

Apparently most people thought these were funny, but as usual, some people got bent out of shape. They didn’t realize these were meant to be funny, or at least intentionally illogical, despite the cargo cult hash tag. They thought I was slamming vi(m) or being sexist.

Those who were offended by my humorous logic were not being logical.

Pretend for a moment that the statements above were meant seriously. If I said that using Emacs makes you a great programmer, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a good programmer unless you use Emacs. Maybe using vi(m) makes you a better programmer too. And if I really believed that growing a beard makes you a better programmer, that doesn’t imply that people who do not grow beards are doomed to mediocrity. Maybe childbirth also makes you a better programmer, even though that option is not available to some. In logic symbols, the statement pq does not imply !p ⇒ !q.

I have two suggestions for the Twittersphere:

  1. Lighten up. Don’t take everything so seriously.
  2. If you’re going to play the logic card, be consistent.

15 thoughts on “Lighten up and be logical

  1. This: !p ⇒ !q is everywhere in people’s minds. Makes me wonder what the biological basis for its ‘reasoning’ is.

  2. David: The implication isn’t entirely bad. It’s bad logic but good statistics.

    The statement !p ⇒ !q is logically false. But if you say P makes Q more likely, then Q makes P more likely, that’s true. You can prove that if the conditional probability Prob(P | Q ) > Prob(P), then Prob(Q | P) > Prob(Q). The catch is that this doesn’t say by how much. Maybe P makes Q much more likely, but Q only makes P slightly more likely.

    For example, seven US presidents were born in Ohio. Being a US president increases your chances of being from Ohio. Around 1/30 of Americans are from Ohio, but 7/44 presidents are from Ohio. And it’s also true that being from Ohio increases your chances of being president, but not by much. The vast majority of Americans, even those born in Ohio, have never been president.

  3. Note, however, that if the population of Ohio were more than 7/44 of the relevant population then being from Ohio would not mean that you were more likely to be president than other members of that population.

    That said, it’s reasonable to assume that the population in question is “people constitutionally allowed to be president during the periods covered by the first 44 elections” and it just so happens that the population of such people in Ohio represents less than 7/44 of the total of that population. So, in this context, being from Ohio would indeed have increased your chances of being president.

  4. However, the contra positive would be true, so the statements:

    “If you are not a great programmer, then you don’t use emacs.”


    “If you are not a better programmer, then you didn’t grow a beard.”

    Would be true. Not that I care…

  5. I have severe problems with the suggestion that all great programmers use emacs, and that all better programmers grow beards. The original was funny, because it was obviously wrong. This contrapositive variation isn’t funny because you seem to be believing that it’s true.

  6. Long live Vim I use the Emacs psychiatrist but otherwise feel smarter using a editor that pretty much enforces the use of keyboard shortcuts. Nothing justifies your existence quite like going to the 3rd word on the 5th line replaces all a’s with i’s saving and closing all without leaving the keyboard :)

  7. Telling people to “lighten up” after you’ve rubbed their sore spot is … not nice. Although I only see continued joking and no actual offended reactions among Twitter replies to your tweets, so I’m not sure what prompted this post. Private communication?

  8. Marius: If people get bent out of shape over text editors and facial hair, I think they do need to lighten up.

    There were a few offended responses on Twitter, but they may be a tiny minority. There are about 54,000 followers on CompSciFact and about 12,000 on UnixToolTip. If you say anything to 66,000 people, someone will be offended.

  9. Lucien Le Cam wrote a list of principles where one of them is very similar to your first suggestion.

    Thus, maybe you also like Le Cam’s zeroth principle: do not trust any principle.

  10. So you’re saying it’s fine to casually dismiss the existence of women programmers (by making an unthinking implication that all programmers either have beards or can grow them if they so choose)? And that people who get tired of this kind of unthinking dismissal should just “lighten up”.

    Have you read IIRC it was posted on Planet Python, where your blog is also syndicated.

    Do you disagree with the premise that subtle sexism drives women away, or do you think that’s a desirable outcome, or do you not see the subtle sexism hiding in the tweet we’re talking about?

  11. I am no more casually dismissing the existence of women programmers than I am casually dismissing the existence of Visual Studio programmers.

    The point of my tweets was to humorously point out that it’s silly to focus on external characteristics, and that’s a message supportive of women who choose a career in programming.

  12. This is a great post and was worth writing despite all the boneheads that got bent out of shape over it. Thanks for taking one for ‘team logic’, John.

    Your tweet is nothing like what is written about in that “Lighten Up” blog post that was linked to by a commentor. The point of that other blog post is that the phrase “Lighten Up” is misused because those jokes (e.g. “Being in the kitchen”) ACTUALLY are sexist.

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