Logical Fallacies for Testers V: False Dichotomy

In this installment of my Logical Fallacies series, I’m taking a look at the False Dichotomy fallacy. The False Dichotomy fallacy is used when someone presents two opposing options as if they are the only possibilities; that no middle way exists. This is detrimental to progress because it limits people’s thinking; they feel that they must choose one side or the other. In more extreme cases, this can make people afraid to speak their mind for fear of being associated with the “wrong” side of the debate. And it can make small-minded people unable to look at both sides of an issue objectively.

There are many examples of the False Dichotomy fallacy in society today, but let’s examine one from a few decades ago. Back in the 1990’s, there was a phenomenon known as “The Mommy Wars”. This was a debate about whether mothers should stay at home during the day with their children, or whether they should go to work and put their children in day care. The sides were extremely polarized: the stay-at-home moms cited studies that showed that children thrived when they were at home wth their mothers, implying that working moms didn’t want what was best for their children, and the working moms group cited studies that showed that women who weren’t working outside the home were unfulfilled, implying that staying at home was hurting the movement for women’s equality.

Of course, with the wisdom of thirty years behind us, we can see that this was a False Dichotomy. It’s possible for moms who stay at home with their children to have thriving at-home businesses, and it’s possible for moms who work to choose flexible hours so they can be with their kids when they come home from school. And we can see that fathers were clearly ignored in this False Dichotomy; today I work with many dads who step away from their desks to pick up their kids from school or drop them off at day care, and dads who work longer hours on some days so they can take one day off every two weeks to spend time with their kids.

In the area of software testing, there are two obvious False Dichotomies. The first is the Manual vs. Automation debate. I’ve written about this before, but I’ll summarize why this is a ridiculous debate:
• “Manual” and “automated” are arbitrary designations. Things can be automated as part of a manual test (such as using a script to create users), and things can be manual as part of an automated test (such as doing a visual check after a script runs).
• There are some things that are best tested through running a script, such as performing a load test, and some things that are best tested through a manual test, such as driving up the road with a cell phone to check that the GPS location services in an app are working correctly.
In order to ensure that our software is of the highest quality, we should use all the tools at our disposal, including our hands and eyes, and think of ways to use those tools as efficiently as possible.

The second common False Dichotomy in software testing is the debate about whether we need software testers at all. Some software teams believe that all their testing can be done by software developers and that testers are irrelevant, while other software teams believe that testing should be left to the testers and that it’s not the job of developers to test their code. I believe that both of these positions are misguided and potentially harmful. When developers try to do all of their own testing, they may miss important bugs that are caused by the interaction between two different feature areas of the software. And when developers don’t test at all, they may create buggy software that slows down the team’s progress as testers log more and more bugs to be fixed.

Software testing is most effective when the whole team focuses on quality. What does this look like? It can vary by team, but here are some examples:
• Developers and testers work together to do manual exploratory testing just before a release. Each engineer uses their own expertise to think of ways to test the application.
• Developers create test harnesses for things that are difficult to test. For example, to test file uploads, a developer could create a web page connected to the API that would allow the tester to easily upload files.
• Testers attend meetings where features are architected to provide important insight about the current behavior of the product, raising concerns if the new feature might impact existing functionality.
• Developers and testers work together on test automation. The tester provides insight about what should be tested, and the developer reviews the code for clean coding practices.

Is your company suffering from a False Dichotomy fallacy? If so, see if you can work with people from the opposing side to brainstorm new and innovative solutions.

3 thoughts on “Logical Fallacies for Testers V: False Dichotomy

  1. KimBley Griffin

    This installment of your series is a whole sermon in itself, Kristin; and can be applied to many aspects of our lives — professional and personal. Your “And it can make small-minded people unable to look at both sides of an issue objectively.” statement is the cause of much lost time and lost progress to better understanding and acceptance, if nothing more than to have parties agree to disagree. Very excellent article!

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