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In Skins vs Believers: Linux always loses

If someone attacks a position because the person holding it has skin in the game what they're really saying is that only unqualified opinions like theirs can be considered unbiased because not based on experience or knowledge -and, of course, also that their prior commitment to the other side of the argument doesn't count.

Saturday's reference to a meeting of about 650 scientists questioning the human causation hypothesis on global warming drew this comment from the redoubtable hoonoze:

A coincidence

It's probably just a coincidence that a gentleman by the name of Walter F. Buchholtz, an ExxonMobil executive, serves as Heartland's Government Relations Advisor, according to Heartland's 2005 IRS Form 990, pg. 15

In reality the fact that someone found this affiliation and hoonoze thinks it discredits the conference tells us a lot about hoonoze but nothing at all about the people attending the conference, the papers they're going to present, or the science underlying their results.

Unfortunately this kind of ad hominem attack is characteristic of those who confuse moral issues with scientific ones and believe that majority opinion both establishes the moral right and trumps reality - meaning that they attach moral value to aligning themselves with the perceived majority even when, or especially when, doing so is obviously wrong on objective grounds.

My intuitive reaction to this kind of attack is apply exactly the behavior the attacker recommends to the attacker: dismissing whatever actual arguments he makes on the grounds that he's is obviously an idiot. Unfortunately, that's not the smart thing to do - the smart thing is to separate the arguer from the argument and impute a moral fault only when a biased arguer either knowingly lies in his argument or intentionally and obviously refuses to acknowledge compelling contradictory evidence.

Thus I consider the people who made "Al Gore's" climate movie morally reprehensible liars because they either had to know, or actively refuse to know, that historically atmospheric CO2 change has followed, rather than led, climate change; that melting the world's ice would take, at 434 joules/kg, more than 1,000 years of direct solar heating; and, that the gravitational bulge would have kept most of the water off the coastlines during periods when that did happen.

On the other hand, when Microsoft hires somebody like IDG to prove that Linux is less effective than Windows it's easy to separate argument from arguers - and when the consultants prove their case by hiring the least competent MCSEs they can find and turning them loose with the Linux root password and instructions to "tune" for a couple of days before running the test, you can laugh at the results while admiring the realism - because this, after all, pretty much what happens when the Boss says "Linux" but IT wants Windows.

This gets more complicated when people with agendas quote other people with agendas to cumulatively leave reality far behind. When, for example, Intel quotes Anandtech and is in turn quoted by another Intel true believer, you get stuff like this:

The post itself doesn't really shed any new light on quad-core technology but Sudip does a excellent job of responding when someone asks him to compare Intel's quad-cores with SUN's UltraSPARC processors with CoolThreads technology, 8 cores, and 32 accessible threads on a single chip.

b. Additionally, if the application is not very multi-threaded e.g., some batch jobs or optimizer solvers, then the Sun solution is simply not competitive as its cores are very simple and much lower performance on an individual core basis as compared with the Intel Clovertown Core 2 micro-architecture based cores.

That, it turns out, is pretty easy to verify. AnandTech put Intel Duo Woodcrest Xeons up against SUN?s 8-core UltraSPARCs back in June and Intel whipped SUN handily in Apache/PHP/MySQL processing, Java webserving, and every other category where they compared the two processors.

In reality even Anandtech couldn't get their reviewer to actually say this, the Sun processors hold every performance record remotely in their weight class and while all concerned have obvious commercial loyalties what you find on tracing this argument back is normal human error - not deliberate dishonesty, but merely wishful thinking aided by uncritical acceptance of unsupported argument.

In contrast when IDG's Paul Krill selectively quoted Zemlin as part of something I thought a vicious and unjustifiable attack on Solaris, I don't believe he didn't know what he was doing and therefore see the argument - itself largely a selectively quoted series of third party ad hominem attacks- as discrediting the man.

It's important to know, when separating arguer from argument, who's quoting whom. Thus my assumption in reading the comment from hoonoze above was that he didn't read through Heartland's disclosure documentation himself but is simply and uncritically quoting someone else - making him, I think, about as much sinned against as sinning.

Read his comment carefully, however, and you'll probably agree that he's really both buying and reselling the argument that only vegetarians can credibly review barbecue joints - and correspondingly that the only people whose opinions about Linux you can trust are people whose experience is limited to Windows.

That's obviously the reductio ad absurdum, but it is what he's saying and it's exactly what the people who tell you that having skin in the game proves bias want you to believe about their perceived enemies. So how should you respond? keep a sense of perspective, but when you see an argument like this, it's usually best to assume the contrary: that the arguer is silently granting the argument and hoping the emotional content of the ad hominem attack will blind you to the absence of evidentiary support for his position.