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How to lie with technical arguments

Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer

We need to pay attention to how stupid and greedy people get their own way by hiding behind plausible lies. Those lies have a seemingly technical argument behind them that makes people feel that the experts probably understand important things that they themselves do not.

The comment by Michael Gove that the UK was “tired of experts” is now infamous. His journalistic touch had some sensitivity however: the experts of many, many domains were being used to cover up incompetence and duplicity, including his own. The list of domains is of course the list of professional[1] fields that can be debased in this way:

· Accountancy and finance

· Economics

· Law

· Management

· IT systems

· Medicine

· Education

· Et cetera

If you want to do your own sense check on a piece of news or an authoritative opinion, think about the last time that domain’s logic was used to open out political choices, not to close them down. For instance, one of the greatest lies ever foisted on the UK population was the need for austerity. We have used Mariana Mazzucato as an example before:

“Contrary to the post-crisis consensus, active strategic public-sector investment is critical to growth. That’s why all the great technological revolutions were made possible by the state acting as an investor of first resort”

The technical

We have described before a study done by at outfit at Brunel University called CRICT. The study was of a major project by Andersen Consulting, codenamed Luxuriant Consulting, for Thames Water building a new billing system. The authors took one feature of the system being developed that looked to them like the tail of the billing system wagging the dog of Thames Water as a business. They then asked the different groups of the development team (the architects, the designers, the developers, the requirements team, etc.) why this feature was the way that it was. The answer came back “there are technical reasons why it must be that way”: so, they asked which group was responsible for those technical reasons and they were passed from pillar to post with no-one prepared to own what was actually a technical nonsense.

Until you are satisfied otherwise, every reason — every technical reason certainly — why something has to be the way it is, is merely an excuse from someone not being prepared to own a decision that they or someone else has made. It goes deep into our culture, this post-hoc rationalisation of poor thinking and reasoning and tendentious decision-making. The favourite domains are accounting and economics because we use money to discipline our society. But take one example: as I understand it most mortgages in the UK are variable rate: even if you fix them for ten years, they will need to be renegotiated. This gives a fundamental uncertainty to house-ownership. But on the continent most mortgages are fixed for the life of the mortgage. Why the difference?

The other reason to choose a “discipline” like economics to argue, say, for austerity, is that its quotient of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo is so high.[2] If you study economics with an anthropologist’s eye, there are different economic realities that pertain in different societies around the world. But of course it is only western economics, as taught in economic departments around the world, that is deemed to be how the world works. There is a signal lack of demand for alternative economic realities, and that tells us everything we need to know.

If you work with management consultants for more than five minutes you will see this sleight of hand in action. I remember one particular senior management consultant who when some aspects of reality and doubt were visible on a smart-card project, quickly showed us how to build a business case on thin air. If you said that management consultants sell technical reasons that are actually excuses for what they or their clients want to do for their own narrow advantage you would not be far wrong.

Business cases, Net Present Value (NPV), Social Return on Investment (SROI), Asset-Based Costing (ABC) — you know this list better than I do. It would be easy to do a study that looked at decisions notionally made on the basis of such calculations and then ask with hindsight whether the decisions were actually usefully informed, whether better or worse decisions were made. My bet would be that decisions were systematically debased or worsened. The need for a technical reason or excuse is the giveaway.

“The meanings are determined by the theories, they are understood on the basis of their theoretical coherence rather than on the basis of their correspondence with the facts.” (Mary Brenda Hesse)

A major transport project

I do have the scars to motivate my cynicism. I consulted for a while to a giant transport project in its fairly early stages (well, 15 years in). The original client request was for me to look at the IT department to see if it was doing anything useful. When I asked why they had an IT department they said “I thought you had to have one”.

I looked around for something for the IT department to do that was constructive and useful. It transpired that there were two huge elaborate plans for the transport project itself: a time plan, how long things would take and in what order they must be done, and a cost plan, all the things that must be done and the equipment they would need. There was no point of connection between these two plans, and their relationship to each other was unclear. And I knew time-cost integration was a thing.

So, we would have a jolly workshop and work out a basis for time-cost integration and the IT department could make themselves useful. My subconscious told me subconsciously that there might be trouble. I persuaded a frightfully professorial colleague of mine to facilitate the workshop and frankly he was crucified. He never really recovered.

That was how I discovered that one of these plans was owned by one tribe within this transport project and the other plan was owned by the other. The implication of time-cost integration was the tribes becoming more accountable to each other in the operation of the overall project. The un-negotiated and probably non-negotiable agendas of the tribes were of course fully embedded in their respective plans.

For all the technical sophistication of the plans themselves and all the intelligence of the planners, they were about something quite other than building the best new transport link.

The Thames Barrier

In a story that I guess may get revisited soon, I had some conversations with people at the design workshops that planned the Thames Barrier that prevents tidal surges reaching London and which has been used in anger far more than anyone thought. The people responsible for the navigation of the Thames estuary are the Port of London Authority. They were asked how many ship channels navigation needed through the Barrier itself.

Given the nature of such negotiations, the style of the POLA thinking was this: we will be pushed back from our initial negotiating position on cost grounds, therefore, we should ask for four ship channels so that we end up with the three that we need. However, they were not pushed back and were too embarrassed to say what had happened, so four channels it was.

Given the shape of the estuary, there was only one place where four channels would fit and so the barrier had to go there, at a cost some billions higher than the otherwise optimum position. This fact only came out at a review meeting 25 years after the Barrier was completed and looking forward to its replacement given a 50-year design life.

This example is even clearer in showing how the technical nature of the planning process gets projected back into the requirement phase, distorting the very basis on which the technical planning process is founded. I can remember requisitioning a high-end workstation at the NCB, back in the day, and having to find all its unique features to put in the requirement document so that procurement would find the one I wanted.


To put this same effect on the world stage, it is becoming more likely that the Brexit negotiations will be performed by lawyers on the basis of the underlying legal complexities. The politics that produced a referendum result, corrupt or not, will no longer even get an oar in. Of course, there are no shortage of lawyers prepared to say how an agreement has to work, but that as ever begs the question of who it has to work for.[3] The technical reasons are there to provide excuses for the people manipulating the situation behind the scenes, for reasons of their own.

The UK is heading towards a form of Brexit that almost nobody really wants, even if they are in favour of it in principle. There is little evidence that the final deal will be advantageous to the UK, and a great deal of evidence to the contrary. All the same, Britain is now locked into leaving the EU, and on terms prescribed by the union. ­ — David Allen Green

Remember Pascal:

The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.

Remember Christopher Alexander saying that people are able to report whether a proposed development works for them, feels right, but that no-one asks and no-one respects those views.

Doing it properly, with the right technical reasons and reasoning, is not at all what it seems. As ever it is vital to let the “heart” lead and to use reason to challenge and examine those heart reasons.[4] To pretend that big data, or opinion polls, or a referendum, or a business case will give us a way into a choice is utter delusion. We need to ask ourselves why it works that way in public life.

We have a belief that private sector innovation improves our lives. A lot of what we are exploring in this blog series is that corporations almost always pursue only developments that they can sell for significant profit. The question that leaves is about all the potentially much more desirable innovations that are essentially low cost or free. Lifestyle changes that obviate the need for processed foods and pharmaceuticals are the obvious example.

What happens is that rules and bureaucracies and set up to prevent exploitation of the public, that end up preventing the implementation of the very innovations that people actually need. Your GP can be sued for giving you correct heath advice, but not for giving you flawed advice approved by the NHS. That is how our world works. I can give you the financial insights you need to make the most of your assets, but I am not allowed to because I have not passed some qualification that insists on me learning untruths about the financial system, such as that banks lend out money lent to them by savers. Really. I spent a long time trying to find an existing bank that would open an account for an African-style savings circle for some impoverished Somalis: to use their cultural mechanism for leveraging themselves out of debt. The universal response: “we don’t do that”.

The exact set of technical reasons and methods that are supposed to protect us from charlatans and fraudsters and amateurs end up delivering us into their hands. Goldman Sachs and PWC are actually believed while they are ripping off the public using approved methods. Lawyers and solicitors and accountants defend themselves first and sometimes offer usable services if you know what you are doing. That is, if you can follow you heart reasons in insisting they give a service to you.

If you want a laugh, I once had recourse to a lawyer who went by the soubriquet of Stuart the Croc. He helped us with a business divorce, a very painful splitting up of a small company. Stuart explained that it would be better for all if he acted for both parties, and he did! (Heaven knows what he said to the other party.) A totally surreal process that was probably more grounded and focused than any fully adversarial approach.

[1] “All professions are conspiracies against the laity” (George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma, 1906). Any group that gains some privilege erects barriers to membership, to maintain the high rates of ‘qualified’ members. Tim Harford’s book, The Undercover Economist, makes a similar argument 100 years later.

[2] Inversely, in other, more disciplined disciplines, this is known as the signal-to-noise ratio.

[3] David Allen Green points out that Brexit should not be a question for lawyers, but one of policy, with lawyers playing a backing role. It’s the absence of policy that has allowed it to become a legal question…

[4] The ‘challenge’ part of this is likely important, given our natural tendency to seek out confirming evidence and disregard anything that doesn’t fit…



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Aidan Ward

Aidan Ward


Smallholder rapidly learning about the way the world works