Disagreeing with Paul Graham

Paul Graham has provided a primer on types of disagreement, from name-calling through ad hominem to refutation. This is helpful, because I disagree with something he wrote recently, and I want to do it properly.

(Interjection for non-initiates: Paul Graham is a computer programmer who sold a startup to Yahoo in 1998. Now he's an investor with Y Combinator, which provides seed funding for startups. I recommend his essays on programming to curious laypeople; here are three good ones.)

I'm certainly not qualified to disagree with Graham on the subjects of computers, programming languages, or startup companies. (Graham would accuse me of directing an ad hominem attack against myself: "Saying that an author lacks the authority to write about a topic is a variant of ad hominem—and a particularly useless sort, because good ideas often come from outsiders." But this case points to one of the legitimate uses of ad hominem judgments: as a timesaving filter. The number of possible criticisms of anything is infinite, and we need quick ways to weed some of them out. One good way to do that is to ignore arguments from people who are patently unqualified to speak on a subject. This is how physics professors avoid wasting their lives refuting specious arguments from cranks. Using ad hominem judgments this way doesn't really count as disagreeing, though.)

I'm going to disagree with an essay on a more general topic: "You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss."

"The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone's central point," Graham tells us. "And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is." The central point of "You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss" is, "It will always suck to work for large organizations, and the larger the organization, the more it will suck," because "humans weren't meant to work in such large groups."

How does Graham back up this contention? With direct observation, and with an argument from evolution.

Direct observation first: Graham saw some big-company programmers in a café, and they looked less alive than the startup founders he works with. (He doesn't directly say they look less alive; he says it indirectly: "Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive [than lions in a zoo]. And seeing those guys on their scavenger hunt was like seeing lions in a zoo after spending several years watching them in the wild.")

One problem with direct observation is that it's hard to get a representative sample. It can be done, but you have to make it a deliberate project and put some time and thought into it, rather than just stumbling on a bunch of programmers in a café. And an unrepresentative sample is prone to distortion. There's no way to tell what's signal and what's noise. The programmers Graham saw in Palo Alto might all have a boss who's an asshole. They might be working on a particularly boring project. Maybe the correct conclusion to draw from them is "People who work for an asshole look less alive," or "People who work on boring projects look less alive."

Another problem with direct observation is that humans have a tendency to see their biases confirmed everywhere they look. (That's the definition of a bias: something that keeps you from seeing straight.) Graham is a startup founder and an advocate for the founding of startups. He goes to a café, and he sees some non-founders, and he thinks they look less alive than the founders he knows. The fact that this observation confirms his preexisting belief in the worthiness of startups makes it less credible than if the same observation were made by someone who had no particular interest in startups.

(This is a case where an ad hominem argument is relevant and valid. When a writer uses his own observations as evidence, it's legitimate to question his observational ability. It's the equivalent of me saying, "This elephant only weighs 20lb," and you saying, "The scale you're using to weigh it is broken.")

Besdies his experience in the café, Graham cites unnamed written sources and unspecified personal experiences, which he uses to bring evolution into his argument: "what I've read about hunter-gatherers accords with research on organizations and my own experience to suggest roughly what the ideal size is: groups of 8 work well; by 20 they're getting hard to manage; and a group of 50 is really unwieldy." It's notable how thin this citation is. But let's stipulate that his reading is correct, and that our forebears did their hunting and gathering in groups of eight or so.

When you break it down, Graham's argument from evolution goes like this: our ancestors worked in groups of eight or so, therefore humans evolved to work in groups of eight or so, therefore contemporary humans will be more alive and fulfilled working in groups of eight or so.

In a general sense, this is the logical fallacy known as the "appeal to nature" -- the idea that what's natural is ipso facto good or right. There is no reason to believe this: plenty of natural things are neither good nor right.

More specifically, it's a popular contemporary version of the appeal to nature: the idea that living in ways that fit with our evolutionary design will make us happy. (Graham describes startup founders and wild lions as "both more worried and happier at the same time.") This is a superficially convincing notion, but there's no reason to think it's true. Evolution has no particular interest in our happiness. A creature that's perpetually dissatisfied, always striving for advantage, wins out over a creature that's happy. (This is why Buddhist monks, who try to eliminate striving and attain happiness, spend decades performing meditations that to most people seem unbearably tedious and effortful: they're trying to override their brains' natural tendencies to striving and unhappiness, and that takes a lot of work.) There's no reason to think that primitive hunter-gatherers were any happier than we are, and even less reason to imagine we'll be happier if we imitate their management practices.

But rather than pointing out fallacies, a better way to refute Graham's evolutionary argument is by reductio ad absurdum. His argument goes like this: our ancestors worked in groups of eight or so, therefore humans evolved to work in groups of eight or so, therefore contemporary humans will be more alive and fulfilled working in groups of eight or so. What else follows from that argument?

Well, our ancestors worked in hunting and gathering. They didn't work as computer programmers. Therefore humans evolved to work as hunter-gatherers; therefore contemporary humans are more alive when they're foraging for food than when they're programming computers. (Suggested title for Graham's next essay: "You Weren't Meant to Have a Chair.") Our ancestors lived in a world that was shrouded in darkness half the day, therefore we would be happier without electric lights.

One difficulty with disagreeing with people is that you have to present their argument and your argument, and so your essay ends up being longer than theirs.