“Prêcher le faux pour savoir le vrai.” (“Preach the falsehood to know the truth.”)
I was on Twitter the other day (my first mistake) and I was thinking about how weird it is that sometimes if you ask a direct question there, almost nobody replies, but if you throw out some dumb opinion, you’ll get hundreds of replies.
For example, if you wanted to know about some good science magazines, you almost shouldn’t bother tweeting, “Does anybody know some good science magazines?” instead, you’d be much better off tweeting, “there are no good science magazines” and waiting for the reply pile-on of everyone ready to prove you wrong.1
It turns out that this phenomenon is called Cunningham’s Law: “the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.” (A relative, for sure, of “Why wasn’t I consulted?”)
The writer Kevin Donnellan tested out the law and reported his findings in “I spent a week being wrong online.” The results were a bit inconclusive, and it’s worth noting that Ward Cunningham, the law’s namesake, denies its paternity, and claims it is a “misquote that disproves itself by propagating through the internet.”
What seems even more valuable is taking the position of the idiot, ignorant, but curious.
Here’s @tcarmody again:
besides getting people riled up, claiming ignorance is a good way to overcome people’s “they must already know about X” rarity threshold. They don’t think they need to be special, obscure, or original in their replies
I like this idea quite a bit — getting answers not by asking others to be experts, but by positioning yourself as a total noob…
— Dan Saltzstein (@dansaltzstein) August 30, 2021
* * *
- @tcarmody suggested “there are no good Ys besides X” as a good construction that gets results.