How Do You Know That’s True?

About a thousand years ago, rather than configure routers, I taught high school English.

One day, instead of unpacking our favorite Shakespearean sonnet, I was sidetracked by a student who asked me how we know anything about electrons and how they orbit the nucleus of an atom. Apparently he asked his physics teacher the period before and got a pithy “electrons are the essence of a negativity.”

That made no sense at all to my student. It didn’t to me either. It didn’t answer the question, and in and of itself is a ridiculous statement. After making a Zoolander-esque joke about electrons being the essence of negativity, and negativity being the essence of Mr. Treuber’s physics class, he asked me the same question. So I went on for a minute about mathematical equations I didn’t understand and how it’s more an electron cloud than electron orbits. I didn’t know how to answer, either.

Because English class can lend itself to discussions of philosophy, metaphysics, human nature, and the more profound questions of life, my students were accustom to this kind of departure from whatever literature we were studying. I enjoyed it, too, but saw it as an opportunity to encourage them to respectfully ask their teachers how they came to their conclusions and how some indelible nugget of truth came to be known. I encouraged my students to respectfully ask their teachers, “how do you know that’s true?”

Many moons later, I program routers and play with computers all day. I read a lot of blogs, browse through reddit once in a while, and follow several technology publications. I also get to participate in an amazing social community of network engineers and technology professionals.

The community likes to joke about vendor hype which is both fun and poignant because it makes you think critically about the marketing from all our favorite technology companies. But the community also likes to make evaluations and predictions of its own. I tend to take these more seriously because, by and large, these are engineers writing for other engineers. I feel there is less marketing hype and a level of technical expertise that legitimizes the arguments.

But remember that people in any social environment come to conclusions based partly on the communal narrative. For the networking community, this means there are strong statements being made that everyone sort of just goes along with without question.

Therein lies the problem for me. I clearly remember encouraging my class to ask their teachers “how do you know that’s true?” However, I don’t often apply that to the networking community which is made up of, what I consider, some of the best teachers I’ve ever had.

A few years ago I came across a long twitter thread on why having one access point per classroom was bad design. There was no reasoning I could see, just everyone agreeing in rant form how bad a design it is. I asked the person who tweeted first why he believed this, and his reaction was to defend himself. I immediately told him I was not a wireless expert and was genuinely curious how he came to that conclusion. Rather than tell me that “access points are the essence of wireless”, he sent me a whitepaper he wrote on the topic thoroughly explaining his argument using RF math (which I barely understood) and several case studies.

Now I know why wireless engineers believe one access point per classroom designs are a bad idea.

When an entire social community rallies around a set of bullet points, I get a little skeptical. Where did this come from, and how do I know if this is true? Apply this to the blogs you read and tweets that come across your screen. Rather than blindly jumping on the bandwagon, don’t be afraid to politely and respectfully ask a blogger how he or she knows what they say is true.

Be prepared, but not afraid, to explain your position as well. This is our community’s way of iron sharpening iron. 



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