"Earth is Flat" - Survey

- by Paul Murphy, -

If you read a report sponsored by the flat Earth Society in which an independent research organization found the world to be flat, would you believe it? I'd guess not, but any reputable research organization hired to survey the society's membership on the question would have to come to that conclusion - and I don't think you could call the result dishonest.

I found a whole bunch of examples just like this the other day when I followed up on a Microsoft ad urging me to "get the facts" on the relative cost performance of Linux versus Windows. Not all of those reports, available, on Microsoft's site, are based on surveys, but they all illustrate the magical power of money and emotional commitment to prove all kinds of otherwise counter-intuitive things.

What's interesting about these reports isn't that they're intended to deceive, but how that deception is carried out by carefully selecting, slanting, and wordsmithing bits of truth to the point that you can rant about omissions and unfairness, but not demonstrate a pattern of deliberate lies.

There's one, for example, by IDC, which almost perfectly illustrates the survey recipe for proving the earth flat. This one, showing that Microsoft's Windows 2000 has a lower five year total cost of ownership [TCO] than Linux starts, as usual, with the assumption that TCO is just a matter of opinion. Establish that by assumption, and proving the improbable is just a matter of interviewing the right people and doing a little hand wave over any conflicts that come up. Now you might think getting the right people for this would be hard, but it isn't. Just start with a list of people who publically declared deep personal committments to Microsoft a few years ago and you'll find that those who are still in the same jobs tend to have just the opinions you want to hear.

There are some minor issues in applying the survey methodology to this particular case; it's tricky, for example, to get reliable five year cost data for both Linux and Windows 2000 when only 40% of the companies interviewed admit to having Linux somewhere and you're doing this early enough in 2002 that none have more than about 18 months of experience with Windows 2000. On the other hand this is the kind of nit picky thing most people don't notice, so just keep muttering the liar's mantra ("don't ask, don't tell") and you'll soon find that proving Linux more expensive than Windows isn't any harder than proving that the world is flat.

The nicest thing about this basic three step technique: first assume quoted opinions define facts, then pick the right people to quote, and finally wave your hands to make any uncomfortable realities disappear; is that it applies to everything from alien abduction to Windows security since there's never any shortage of idiots eager to strengthen their own faith by voicing it in public. Don't be misled, however, into thinking that convenience makes this is the only way, or even the best way, of honestly delivering dishonest results in service to a client.

There are at least two equally good or better ways of achieving the same results: omission or denigrative diminution, and sleight of word. Just remember, if you try this yourself, that lying truthfully is like any other magic trick: you just have to believe with the audience that if they don't see you doing it, then it isn't happening.

In denigrative diminution you pass off a true, but negative, statement about the stuff you want to hide as a discussion of it. The trick here is to create just enough of a negative perception to prevent your audience from wanting to explore an obviously unrewarding topic and then redirect attention elsewhere by quickly moving on to something positive. That way the emotional response will block the intellectual response and very few people will notice that you skipped any discussion of the facts.

For example, here's how the widely used Lauden and Lauden Management Information Systems textbook describes Unix: "an interactive, multiuser, multitasking operating system developed by Bell Laboratories in 1969 to help scientific researchers share data." That's actually wrong, but the magic trick isn't in the errors (which are probably unintentional) it's in silently dropping the next 34 years of continuous technical progress to enforce the impression of Unix as old, dated, and geeky. None of that's true for Microsoft, of course, whose insanely great "Windows 2000 is used as an operating system for high-performance desktop and laptop computers and for network servers." Denigrative diminution can be very effective, but it's easy to go to far. In this case, for example, the authors go a bit over the top by ignoring security in their multi-page paean to Windows but adding: "Unix also poses some security problems, because multiple jobs and users can access the same file simultaneously" to their second, and final, paragraph (p. 196 of the 8th edition) on Unix.

It takes real chutzpah to do this, relying on the dog that doesn't bark to denigrate Unix while hyping Windows/XP in a college textbook, but sleight of word offers the ultimate professional challenge in the genre. What makes it so dangerous and exciting is that the artist pulls the audience into the act, showing them exactly what he's doing, while he's doing it, but in such a way that most of them will see something entirely different.

For example, in another of those flat earth reports available from Microsoft's get the facts site, the Meta Group introduces its proof that Windows Server System is cheaper than Linux at the database level with a couple of sentences that are absolute marvels of sleight of word construction: "Windows or Unix costs a few hundred dollars more per server than a Linux distribution (Red Hat, SuSE). For example, Red Hat's Advanced Server edition costs about $800-$2,500 per year (annual subscription license), depending on support service levels. Microsoft's Windows 2000 Advanced Server edition costs about $4,000 upfront."

As examples of the art, this is awesome. That linkage of Windows and Unix as comparables against Linux establishes authorial fairness while the single word tacked on at the end: "upfront," makes the absurd comparision between support fees and license fees completely defensible. That's great stuff by itself, but the real genius lies in that phrase: "a few hundred dollars." After all, what's a few hundred dollars in a systems decision? and what kind of curmudgeon would notice that "a few" ranges from 15 to 32 here?

The numbers are questionable too, of course, so next week I'm going to look at what Linux actually costs, but meanwhile I'd urge you to look at some of Microsoft's flat earth findings. There are valuable lessons there, on quoting fools, assuming results, selective omission, tight word smithing, or fine tuning emotive content to mislead that you simply won't find nicely collected in one place anywhere else.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry.