The misallocation of scepticism

With today (6/6/6) bearing the number of the beast, my thoughts went back to the most recent scary date 1/1/00 when we were promised TEOTWAWKI thanks to the famous Y2K bug.

Oddly enough, although we seem to be overwhelmed with alleged sceptics on other topics, only a handful of people challenged the desirability of spending hundreds of billions of dollars to fix a problem which was not, on the face of it, any more serious than dozens of other bugs in computer systems. Admittedly not all the money was wasted, since lots of new computers were bought. But a lot of valuable equipment was prematurely scrapped and a vast amount of effort was devoted to compliance, when a far cheaper “fix on failure” approach would have sufficed for all but the most mission-critical of systems.

As far as I know, there was no proper peer-reviewed assessment of the seriousness of the problems published in the computer science literature. Most of the running was made by consultants with an axe to grind, and their scaremongering was endorsed by committees where no-one had any incentive to point out the nudity of the emperor.

Why was there so little scepticism on this issue? An obvious explanation is that no powerful interests were threatened and some, such as consultants and computer companies, stood to gain. I don’t think this is the whole story, and I tried to analyse the process here, but there’s no doubt that a reallocation of scepticism could have done us a lot of good here.

37 thoughts on “The misallocation of scepticism

  1. PrQ,
    The bank I was working for at the time (a large investment bank in the UK) did a large amount of work on the Y2K problem. The bank’s large systems would, on the testing we conducted, have failed to calculate many large positions correctly after 1/1/2000 and some of the older systems did just freeze up. The bank did take it too far in trying to remediate every spreadsheet being used in any way, but in their case at least a large part of it was worthwhile.
    I also had to be in the bank all that night (not my best new year’s eve) just in case; but it passed uneventfully.
    Perhaps your link to climate change is a good one – with a bit more understanding of the real extent of the problem we can do appropriate remedial work at some (but not great) cost and then fix up the rest if and when they go wrong. Paying undue attention to those with an interest in the matter, either way, just tends to cloud the issue.
    The problem is finding those who are truly disinterested (not uninterested)and then coming up with a sensible strategy.

  2. I was actually in the air on a Singapore Airlines flight between Singapore and Perth when the clock ticked over in that time zone. Plane was very empty, although I don’t know if that was because of Y2K fears or because it was New Years eve.

    Completely OT – As a patriotic Australian I thoroughly recommend Singapore Airlines as the best in the region. Beats QANTAS for friendly efficient service hands down. Hopefully QANTAS can send some of their decision makers on Singapore Airlines to see how it can be done.

  3. John, perhaps you could first prove your assertion that “Most of those who’ve been in denial over climate change, despite thousands of scientific studies on every detail of the problem, uncritically accepted the Y2K scare on the basis of press releases from consultants and a few government reportsâ€? before demanding that sceptics prove their disbelief at same.

  4. My other recollection of Y2K preparation was the equally suspect ‘business continuity planning’ that accompanied the hysteria. In the Queensland Government department I was in at the time, that included printing out important documents like phone lists, diaries of executives and agenda for upcoming meetings and storing them in the boots of cars so we could bravely carry on in the absence of technology should the worst happen. I’m sure that sort of allied response added to my sceptism about it all although Dogz is right, it was damn fine bureaucracy.

  5. Not too difficult, Rog. Here’s my list of Australians who went public with Y2K scepticism prior to 1 Jan 2000:

    me
    Graeme Bond
    Stewart Fist

    None of the leading Australian greenhouse denialists appears on this list. So, unless you know something about Graeme and Stuart that I don’t, or you have some names for the list of which I’m unaware, it’s QED.

    Obviously, there may exist people who’ve been quietly doubtful on both issues. But I’m only concerned with vocal “sceptics”, whose energy could have better been allocated to Y2K.

  6. I quite liked Y2K as proof that humans are utterly stupid when confronted with armagedon scenarios. The money spent kept the economy spinning on its endless doomed path. certainly agree journos pumped it up and the effect in the TAFE where I worked was bugger all.


  7. “Not too difficult, Rog. Here’s my list of Australians who went public with Y2K scepticism prior to 1 Jan 2000:

    me
    Graeme Bond
    Stewart Fist

    None of the leading Australian greenhouse denialists appears on this list.”

    Nor do any leading Australian environmentalists, physicists, catholics, jews, muslims, bricklayers or hermaphrodites.

    So from this we can conclude, by your own “logic”:

    “Most [environmentalists, physicists, catholics, jews, muslims, bricklayers and hermaphrodites] uncritically accepted the Y2K scare on the basis of press releases from consultants and a few government reports.”

    Reductio ad absurdum.

  8. Good wurk there, Dogz. Yoo shure prooved that ol perfesser rong.

    Except you missed this bit:

    So, unlessyou have some names for the list of which I’m unaware, it’s QED.

    Obviously, there may exist people who’ve been quietly doubtful on both issues. But I’m only concerned with vocal “sceptics�, whose energy could have better been allocated to Y2K.

    Caint beet that ole logik, Dogz.

  9. Only 3 John required to form a consensus of sceptics? I guess 6 would be an “overwhelming majority”.

  10. I always felt that the Y2K issue was the ultimate retirement plan for IT people. Is it really possible that people smart enough to design all the systems in use were not smart enough to see that using two characters insead of four for the year was a limited life option? Or were they smart enough to know that it would result in a boom period for the IT industry when the time came?

    So many IT technologies that today are mainstream were experimental when they were designed. People reasonably expected them to be superceded before they reached critical mass. Two examples I deal with frequently come to mind.

    TCP/IP is today the backbone of the phenomena called the Internet. It has only recently been retrofitted with notions of quality of service or priority. However due to legacy systems and neglect the Internet still operates like a road network with no bus or transit lanes (ie not quality of service). A real time voice conversation across the internet can quite readily get bumped if bandwidth is running low and a time insensitive email or background system update wants the bandwidth also. There are solutions in place but they are far from ideal. We could scrap the internet and deploy ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) to the desktop and have end to end quality of service, real time video conferencing of high quality etc. However on economic grounds that would be seriously stupid. It is better to evolve rather than start again.

    More apparent perhaps to the masses is the problem with SMTP. The designers of SMTP were quite obviously not planning for a global email system, they were just trying to do something novel and useful. The “S” in SMTP stands for “simple” and yet today it carries pretty much all the worlds email. The world found out just how simple SMTP is when spam took off as a phenomena. Some unwanted email was probably always inevitable but the extent of spam in the form of fraudulent emails (ie not actually from who it perports to be from) is huge.

    Since then we have had loads of refinements to SMTP. Things like SMTP-AUTH got added and practices like running mail servers as open relays has become a no-no. More recently Sender-ID and SPF has offered a way forward in tackling address spoofing (spammers love spoofing because it helps to maintain their veil of anonymity and even allows them to increase their appearance of credibility).

    IT systems and their development, at least since the microprocessor took off, appear to be highly iterative. Top down design only ever seems to be a first cut and ongoing refinement and interative improvement is the norm. Typically things become popular if they work adequately and they are the first on the scene, not because they are well designed. To their credit the early designers had the forsight to make a lot of these protocols extendable.

    Right now nobody seems to be anticipating the Y10K bug. Perhaps it just seems a long way off and their busy on other things.

  11. John, this topic can’t pass without this priceless contribution from the so-called professional society in IT, the Australian Computer Society (ACS).

    Monday 14 July 1997, Canberra – “Media hype aside, the Year 2000 problem poses a serious risk to all computer-based systems and all IT professionals have an obligation to assess and report the extent of the problem in all systems for which they are responsible,” said ACS President, Tom Worthington.

    “Any ACS member who fails to take appropriate action on Year 2000 is in breach of the ACS Code of Professional Conduct and Practice. Lack of knowledge, resources, or authority to act is not a valid defence and they can be charged with professional misconduct under the rules of the Society, as well as facing possible civil or criminal proceedings.”

    http://www.acs.org.au/news/y2k.htm

    As you might guess, the ACS is not much of a professional society at all. Its president from 2003 to 2005 was a recruiter, recently preselected to stand for the NSW Liberals. The current president is a corporate lawyer.

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