Monday, September 24, 2007

Big Bang DNA

A senior British judge argued earlier this month that a national DNA database should contain everybody or nobody [BBC News, September 5th 2007 - see also Robin Wilton and Scribe].

In a rational world, multiplying the costs and risks of a future project without matching benefits usually reduces the chances of the project's going ahead. But in the absurd world of public sector projects, it takes a lot more than outrageous costs and implausible benefits to kill a project.

One way to kill a project is to argue for its expansion. People may pretend to support your project, may suggest ways of making it even grander and more expensive, but their real agenda is sabotage - trying to make sure the project never happens. By making it large and complex, they hope to make it impossible.

Of course, we cannot always infer deliberate intention. Some people adopt the same tactic in innocent enthusiasm, so excited by the potential of an idea, that they do not realise that they are overloading it. And some people are driven by a perverse interpretation of systems thinking: obsessively trying to avoid the environmental fallacy, they fall into the opposite fallacy, which I call the Fallacy of Escalation.

For an example of project escalation, see Eberhard's classic story "The Warning of the Doorknob", which is frequently reproduced in software engineering circles (for example in this piece by Ed Yourdon). See also my own short essay In Praise of Scope Creep, which has also been widely reproduced.

John P. Eberhard, “We Ought to Know the Difference,” Emerging Methods in Environmental Design and Planning, Gary T. Moore, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970, pp. 364-365.

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