The challenge of compassion for charlatans

I am struggling with a minor issue of conscience, so I would like to get it out of my head and into words. The problem I see is of professional charlatans involved in telecoms policymaking. Many hold academic or lobbying positions. These people do significant harm to the public. What should be my and your response?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a charlatan is “a person falsely claiming to have a special knowledge or skill”. The term is supposed to originate from the patter of itinerant sellers of quack remedies.

In the case of telecoms, we have a wide swathe of books, papers and policy positions that are predicated on a deeply unsound understanding of how packet networks work. I have written at great length on this in the past. (See my ‘Net neutrality’ reading list.)

These foolish beliefs are now having a harmful impact in the world. My current favourite example is the technically incompetent law that the EU has enacted, which cannot be successfully implemented in this universe. As quack remedies go, “net neutrality” is flocking awful.

Fantasists cling onto their idea of “neutral” networks, incapable of fathoming the depth of their misunderstanding of stochastic systems. Incomprehension of the relationship of intentional to operational semantics results in deranged ideas. These are akin to a belief in “packet pixies” working to magically optimise the allocation of network resources.

These policy pedlars have not even got to the debate starting gate. This would require the recognition that they are dealing with random processes interacting in a potentially nondeterministic fashion. Hence their forthright opinions about broadband policy can be wholly dismissed; their credibility is nil and null.

It is the nature of humans to be extremely reluctant to give up false beliefs, however delusional. That we are certain about something is only a reflection of a feeling, not an understanding. After all, we can’t even distinguish fact from fiction from our personal life “memories”!

This is why we have tools of science and mathematics, to help us collectively overcome our individual cognitive biases. Tradition that has stood the test of time is more dependable than beliefs we have recently conjured up, however sincerely held. The absence of action can be a wiser course than a misguided intervention, however benevolent its intention.

So here is my quandary. Should one “name and shame” those who profess technical understanding of telecoms networks where they have none, when their actions cause the innocent to suffer?

One approach is that advocated by Nassim Taleb. I apologise if I mangle his words and thoughts, but the essence is that virtue does not come from passively standing by. Rather, one must do active harm to those who would harm the innocent. This directive would urge me to wield my cutting dagger of slicing phraseology with deadly purpose. Those attacked would be targets, whose injury would reflect well upon the attacker.

Conversely, I am deeply grasped by the ideas of philosophers who urge love, kindness and compassion for the misguided. We are all doing the best we can at all times, however abominable it may seem to others. Lao Tsu also counselled that one should “respond intelligently even to unintelligent treatment.” Mere invective denouncing the intellectually dismal is pointless. Those attacked would be victims, whose wounds would reflect badly on the attacker.

So I ask you, Dear Reader: what is an appropriate response of those of us working at the leading edge of network research to others who (knowingly or not) have become computing charlatans? How should one show appropriate compassion, whilst also protecting the innocent from their ridiculous remedies?

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