Sunday, July 20, 2008

If only spirits of the law could talk to us

Yesterday I spent a few minutes playing my electric keyboard. I took a break, and read the paragraphs on correct playing technique my organ teacher had assigned me. One of the instructions about hand position did not make any sense to me. I thought perhaps it would be useful to people at more advanced levels of skill, but was probably not important for me right now.

I played a little bit more, and noticed my pinky finger was hurting. I looked at how I was pressing the keys, and thought about exactly what was causing my finger to hurt. I changed my hand position to that described in the technique book, and the pain in my pinky stopped. I should have had more respect for the author of that book.

But I believe it is reasonable to be wary of following rules I don't understand. For one thing, such blind rule-following impacts me negatively at work. I've had college training as an engineer, and worked with engineers at our customers. If a part we process fails to meet its specifications, I have a general idea about whether it is still a functional part.

Not true for a few of our customers, who not only don't understand the reasons behind the specifications, but are not interested in learning them. They will insist we either rework the part to meet spec (not always possible, and a waste of time and money if the part is perfectly good as-is) or pay to replace it (again, what a waste if the only thing wrong with it is a technicality).

I have no desire to provide bad work to any of our customers. Unfortunately, having a customer that is a blind rule-follower makes it very tempting to rely solely on the judgment of my own company on whether an out-of-spec part is still fully functional. Not offering the customer the opportunity to make their own evaluation increases the risk of a part failure.

Ideally, everyone would understand the reasons behind every rule. Furthermore, they would be able to ignore the rules in situations where the "spirit of the law" does not apply, and never be skeptical of the rule in applicable situations.

This can't happen in the real world; we just don't have time to research the reasoning behind every rule we encounter in our lives. We often use the heuristic of evaluating our trust of the rule's source, following rules for sources we trust and ignoring rules from sources we lack faith in. Without such heuristics, humans couldn't function, especially in today's complex society.

But "appeal to authority" is a logical fallacy. That and our other heuristics inevitably have failures. Experiencing such failures can lead to a skepticism of all regulations: and then we fail to follow beneficial rules. I hurt my pinky yesterday. Sometimes the consequences are a lot more serious.

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