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“Conventional wisdom” is driving me crazy

We're in the prime season for lazy reporters and meaningless news reports, repeated over and over, that are probably no longer true–if there every were. Among them: the claim that the day after Thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the year (and supposedly called “black Friday” since that's when retailers go into the “black”, i.e. profitable); that the Monday after Thanksgiving is the day when folks start their holiday shopping online, mostly from work (and thus referred to as “cyber Monday”); and that “the Wednesday before/Sunday of Thanksgiving is “the busiest travel day of the year.” I could cite many more examples, and I am sure you could, too.

The problem with these stories is that there is little or no data to back them up. Maybe, just maybe, some of them were true before, but not any more. Since they are fluffy soft-news pieces, they have no meaningful impact on me, except to reinforce the fact that there are a lot of sloppy, unverified, or unverifiable stories in circulation. They also show me that's it's easier to pull out last year's playbook and repeat the same myth than actually do some serious investigation, and that those who need mental filler will never lack for it.

But that's not what really riles me about these reports; after all, they're basically harmless filler. It's that their so-called data is then compared to previous years, as if it's solid and scientific, with breathless headlines that “travel this year will be up by such-and-such percent.” Sorry, I am not impressed.

What does have to do with design and engineering? It's simple: just because something is repeated often doesn't make it true; just because something is said with confidence doesn't mean the person saying it should have automatic credibility, and verify as much as you can on your own. For those things which are inherently based on sophisticated hunches as much as data (hello, marketing!), be honest and admit it.

For an interesting perspective on knowing what you know, check out this 1974 Caltech commencement lecture by the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman, it's at http://www.cs.umbc.edu/www/graduate/feynman-cargo.shtml.

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