Monday, December 22, 2008

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

From the Ethicist in yesterday's New York Times Magazine.
Another college professor and I wanted a student to work on a project of ours, but she is a Mac user and the project required a program written for the PC. My colleague's husband, a Ph.D. in computer science, suggested an alternative program the student could download. She did; her computer froze and would not restart. The husband refused to assist her further. As the spouse of a colleague and the person whose advice caused the problem, isn't he obligated to help?
Randy Cohen, the Ethicist, gave a wishy-washy response that the husband doesn't have to help but he should.

Ignoring the whole Mac/PC issues, why is "a Ph.D. in computer science" relevant to the story? We don't get the fields of the questioner or the colleague.

I certainly would stop giving advice if every time I recommended a program there was an implicit promise of additional support. Though my Ph.D. is in Applied Math so the situation above doesn't apply to me.

Reminds me of some good advice I got as an undergrad when I was working as a programmer for Cornell computer services. Some person called me by mistake asking for some technical support and I helped him out. But then this person kept calling. My officemate suggested I give him some wrong but harmless advice. The caller thought I was an idiot and never called again. Problem solved.


  1. For some time, I have been using this method to stop people from sending me papers to referee, but so far it has not worked.

  2. > For some time, I have been using this method to stop people from sending me papers to referee

    So that's why so many good papers were rejected from STOC FOCS recently

  3. That is why I offer my (unpaid) advice only to people that I know, and never to people who know people who know me.

  4. Is he obligated to help? There is no law requiring it (unlike some duty-to-rescue law in certain states).

    Should he at least try to help? This is where his credentials are relevant. I think he should, given that he is the presumed expert who suggested the specific program to a non-expert, who probably has nobody else to turn to.

    Now, I find it rather strange that he would (willingly?) "suggest an alternative" but would "refuse" to help any further. We don't know all the details, but perhaps he did not really want to get involved in the first place? Or maybe it was his rebellious way of telling laypeople that a Ph.D. in computer science doesn't mean expertise in computer technology. And trying to help fix a computer might expose his "ignorance." :-)

  5. If my advice directly caused a computer to crash then I would try to help mend things, or (if it can't be helped) at least say "I do not know" and "sorry". Generally when I suggest a program or a procedure I say whether I tried it myself before.

  6. There is no principle (as opposed to laws) governing "should" and "shouldn't", other than the principle of service/love/compassion toward your fellow human beings. If you have the time and are willing to help, then do it cheerfully. If not, just say "no" or "later" gently and firmly.

  7. I think that Lance's comment somewhat misses the point, because this case involves marriage as well as expertise. It wasn't just anybody who wanted this guy's help, it was his wife.

    Maybe it depends on the terms of his marriage. My approach is that if anyone in my immediate family needs my expertise, then it makes sense to help further, within reason. If the downloaded program really is a possible cause of the problem, and if the guy did not issue a warning that it could freeze the computer, then yes, if it were me, I would do more.

    At the other extreme, suppose that the program is generally reliable and the student is a schlimazel with computers. Then the guy could tell his wife that he doubts that it's his fault in any sense and he would have preferred not to be involved in the first place.

    If both the professor and the student were strangers, then of course in that case it would just be a suggestion, and not a continuing obligation.

  8. The husband recommended a program, the student tried to install it, and it caused the computer to freeze, and it wouldn't restart.

    It seems likely to be coincidental -- why would installing a program cause a computer not to restart? I would send them to the genius bar as well. Recommending a piece of free software shouldn't include any obligation to be their techie on-call.

    And having a comp. sci. Ph.D. be your system administrator is tantamount to using a chemistry Ph.D. to be your cleaning person.

  9. I guess it was parallels, the visualization program running win on mac. Playing with it without reading documentation which I guess was also the case would result in something like that. Do we have to also take care of people's ignorance when they are not even reading manuals and documentations which come with the program? I don't think so.

  10. Ask yourself "What would Fred Rogers, Florence Nightingale, Hermione Granger, and Ob-Wan-Kenobi do?"

    Then ask yourself "What would Dick Cheney, Margaret Thatcher, Lord Voldemort, and Darth Vader do?"

    It pretty clear which group is more skilled at time management, *that's* for sure! :)

  11. What would Fred Rogers, Florence Nightingale, Hermione Granger, and Ob-Wan-Kenobi do?"