Beware of the Man of Many Aphorisms .


Thomas Aquinas once said, “beware of the man of one book”; Scott Alexander once said, “beware of the man of one study”; I would like to follow in this tradition with my own aphorism, “beware of the man of many aphorisms.”

This aphorism is the following: in discussions, when someone makes repeated appeals to aphorisms — e.g., “don’t fix what’s not broken,” “easy come, easy go” — then they likely have no idea what they’re talking about. I know this because I was once that man.

As a new software engineer, I often faced a technical problem I did not know how to solve. For example, I might have two ways to build a front-end component; once I picked one, it would be hard to revert the decision. Whereas an experienced software engineer may have had a similar situation in the past and be able to pattern-match on that, I did not. In lieu of experience, I hoped to find general “principles” that I could follow and make the right decisions.

Thankfully, a wise engineer introduced me to the Zen of Python a collection of Python’s — a popular programming language — guiding principles. Some of them were easy to understand and apply, such as: “Explicit is better than implicit” and “Simple is better than complex.” However, others are less so, like “Beautiful is better than ugly.” What determines beauty? I’ve written code that I thought was clever and elegant, but later I realized was fragile and unsightly.

The problem gets worse. When reviewing other team members' code, what I thought was complex, they thought was simple. Appealing to the Zen principles did not work as we disagreed about which ones applied. Thus the “Zen” in the “Zen of Python” was not so!


It is easier to appeal to an aphorism than to discuss the case’s specifics. I will admit that sometimes aphorisms contain wisdom that can help certain scenarios. Indeed, the aphorisms from the Zen of Python have formalized my coding philosophy. (That is, when I see some code I don’t like, I can say, “explicit is better than implicit.”)

However, I know now that one cannot say aphorism X, and ipso facto, the argument is settled. The real world is messier than that. An aphorism, by definition, is a “general truth.” But how does one respond to someone who repeats general truths?

Again, the wise engineer came to the rescue. He introduced me to the “Five whys,” a simple yet profound exploration that uses — you guessed it — a series of “why?” questions. This can help fight the problem of aphorisms; someone who states an aphorism without a deeper understanding of the issue will be unable to answer the “why?”


In arguments, be careful in applying aphorisms or other “principles.” Aphorisms are easy; arguments based on rationality are hard.

Beware of the man of many aphorisms, especially if that person is yourself. If you are stating aphorism after aphorism, then you are fooling yourself into thinking you have an understanding of something you do not. This is a shame because the easiest person to fool is yourself, to paraphrase Richard Feynman.


The Cheese Grater

Do no harm does not apply here.

On Running

My favorite activity that I currently cannot do.

On Writing

This is a dreadful activity.