Thursday, April 21, 2011

essential FUD

upon reading mike rothman's recent post on categorizing FUD i was struck with a rather surprising realization. not only has the much reviled APT suffered semantic dilution, but apparently so has the seemingly simple concept of FUD.

i say semantic dilution rather than semantic drift because, rather than taking on a new meaning, the apparent elimination of uncertainty and doubt from mike's description means that it's 2/3rds of the way to having no meaning at all. it seems that anything invoking fear is now some kind of FUD - but can that be true? are fear and FUD interchangeable? do we want to make them interchangeable? wouldn't we really only be saving a single keystroke in the process?

i don't agree with mike's characterization of FUD (which seems only fitting as mike doesn't agree with much i say). although i have tried to define FUD before, i've never gone into enough depth that it would contradict interpretations like mike's. that changes today.

if there is one part of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that could clear this all up if it weren't so often completely overlooked - one word that held a surprising amount of meaning - it would be:


it's not fear, uncertainty, OR doubt, boys and girls, it's AND. we're talking about the intersection of the three, not the union. no single one of fear, uncertainty, or doubt qualifies as FUD on it's own. FUD requires the presence of all three. fear is only part of it. i'm tempted to say fear is only the beginning, but that's not true, something as yet unmentioned is the beginning and fear, uncertainty, and doubt are the consequences.

what's going on behind the scenes with FUD, what makes it such a bad thing beyond the simple fact that it's used as a manipulation, is that it introduces an inaccurate mental model that competes with superior ones and the results are rather insidious. mental models inform our actions. they allow us to predict outcomes and consequently allow us to make plans designed to control outcomes in our favour. they are a tool which allows us to effectively formulate strategies for satisfying our basic human needs.

unfortunately, mental models are never 100% complete. there are always holes, always missing pieces and weak points. these are what FUD models exploit in order to compete with existing mental models. obviously if someone's mental model is more complete and internally consistent they are less susceptible to FUD because they "know better" than to fall for it, but unfortunately many people have mental models that are largely incomplete so a FUD mental model has a good chance of taking hold and effectively competing with the model the person had.

that competition is a problem. it causes a person to be confused, to question what they thought they knew. this is the uncertainty - the U in FUD. subsequent to that a person would then logically start to distrust the sources that had informed them and helped them form their previous mental model. this makes it difficult for those or similar/consistent sources to fill in blanks in the original mental model and thus interferes with a person's ability to build a better mental model. this is the doubt - the D in FUD. finally comes the logical conclusion that if what one thought one knew was wrong then the steps one took based on that knowledge could also be wrong. the consequence of that being that the person is no longer prepared or capable of handling something they needed to handle and the emotional reaction to that is fear - the F in FUD.

recapping then, a more in-depth account of FUD is that it is a communicated inaccurate mental model that causes:
  • uncertainty about what you know
  • doubt in those whom you learned from or could learn from in the future
  • fear that you're no longer going to be able to satisfy some need that you have
it should be noted that that same fear can result when you fill in some of the blanks of an incomplete mental model. what differentiates that from FUD, however, is that although fear can result in the short term, there's no uncertainty or doubt. building a better, more complete mental model results in a person being better able develop strategies to satisfy their needs in the long run and is thus beneficial, as compared with FUD which stymies a person's ability to develop effective strategies.

now the argument could be made that mike himself was spreading FUD about FUD (meta-FUD). a model of FUD that seemingly allowed for anything involving fear to be called FUD would certainly make people uncertain about what they previously knew about FUD and doubt the people that had previously informed their opinions about FUD. and since mike also opened the door for the possibility of good FUD and suggested that FUD was more widespread than one would have otherwise thought (as a consequence of dropping 2/3rd's of the requirements), there would certainly be room for people to be concerned that they no longer knew how to navigate the sea of FUD mike was depicting and thus be afraid of getting duped.

on the other hand, however, the argument could also be made that mike's model of FUD is simply incomplete (seemingly missing uncertainty and doubt) and that what might appear to be meta-FUD is actually inaccurate conclusions drawn as a result of missing pieces of that model.

i'm not going to accuse mike of spreading meta-FUD, primarily because i feel accusations of FUD spreading should be reserved for those who should know better than to believe the model they're communicating. those spreading inaccurate or inferior mental models unwittingly should certainly be notified, however.