On the Stupidity of People

Posted in Software Development, The Real World by Dan on January 8th, 2009

The big news in the UK today is the mysterious destruction of a wind turbine in Lincolnshire.  The 300ft high turbine lost one of its three blades and suffered damage to a second at about 4am on Sunday morning.  Based on careful analysis of the facts, most of the nation’s media has attributed the incident to a UFO.  The Sun “newspaper” felt that this incident was sufficiently important to dedicate its front page to the story:

Dorothy, of Louth, said: “The lights were moving across the sky towards the wind farm.  Then I saw a low flying object. It was skimming across the sky towards the turbines.”

Hours later there was an almighty smash.

Only “hours later”?  I’m ready to believe already, but there’s more.  The BBC corroborates this evidence with a quote from a spokesman for the prestigious Flying Saucer Bureau:

Russ Kellett, from the Flying Saucer Bureau, said witnesses had told him of activity in the area.

“One saw what they at first thought was a low-flying aircraft on the Saturday evening and another heard a loud banging in the early hours of Sunday,” he said.

A low flying aircraft on Saturday, a bang on Sunday, how can they not be linked?  Dale Vince, a spokesman for the turbine’s owners Ecotricity helpfully suggested to the Today programme on Radio 4 that “something the size and weight of a cow would do it” (which itself suggests an appropriate soundtrack for the incident).

If you’re still sceptical about the involvement of extra-terrestrials, possibly the most compelling evidence comes from witness John Harrison:

John Harrison, another witness, described how he looked out of his landing window and saw a “massive ball of light with tentacles going right down to the ground” over the wind farm. He said: “It was huge. With the tentacles it looked just like an octopus.”

Unfortunately, the journalists at the Guardian don’t exhibit the same imagination as John.  They scandalously suggest that John and other witnesses might actually have been observing the fireworks display just down the road from the wind farm.  It’s an easy mistake to make (at least compared to this).

Now I’m not a wind turbine engineer, but I’m not yet ready to rule out the possibility of mechanical failure.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  This particular turbine had only been operational since April and this week experienced its lowest temperatures so far.  Perhaps there’s a link there?  Or maybe I’m just jumping to ridiculous conclusions?

So what the hell does all this have to do with software development?  Not much really, except it provides an opportunity to mention Occam’s Razor, which is as applicable to debugging as it is to debunking.  The idea is that you should favour the explanation that fits the facts and relies on the fewest assumptions.  Next time you hear yourself uttering the fateful phrase “it must be a compiler bug”, think of the good people of Lincolnshire.  Likewise, if there are 100,000 other developers successfully using a given library and it doesn’t work with your program, you shouldn’t be looking at the library’s source until you’ve proved the correctness of your own.

The alternative to Occam’s Razor is to believe that the Earth is flat, that all the space programmes are fakes (because those photos of a spherical Earth can’t be real) and that the destruction of Tower 7 was an inside job to destroy the evidence of the US government’s involvement in this spherical conspiracy.