Bike shed arguments

bike in front of a shed

C. Northcote Parkinson observed that it is easier for a committee to approve a nuclear power plant than a bicycle shed. Nuclear power plants are complex, and no one on a committee presumes to understand every detail. Committee members must rely on the judgment of others. But everyone understands bicycle sheds. Also, questions such as what color to paint the bike shed don’t have objective answers. And so bike sheds provoke long discussions. The term bike shed argument has come to mean a lengthy, unproductive discussion over a minor issue.

In statistics, utility functions provoke bike shed arguments. Most statisticians agree that decision theory is a good idea, but it is hardly ever used in practice because applying decision theory to any specific problem invites bike shed arguments over utility functions.

Update: See Parkinson’s Law for more on Parkinson and his book that coined the term “bike shed argument.”

5 thoughts on “Bike shed arguments

  1. My wife used to be on a committee at our school, and she’d come home and rant about them arguing for over an hour on what kind of collar to get on the shirts that they were ordering. Sigh.

  2. I’ve found that everyone is an expert on software development. If someone has ever taken a course in beginning programming or cut and pasted a VB Script, or read the title of some technical books at Borders, they know how to do my job better than I do. So, designing software, in my book evolves into a bike shed argument in about four or maybe five nanoseconds. I especially love coding features that some non-developer agreed to with a “no problem” statement.

  3. As a HS teacher, this brings to mind how education is discussed and debated in the public sphere. Most everyone went to school, so they have expert opinions on what works and what doesn’t.

Comments are closed.