Tom Pittman's WebLog

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2007 November 21 -- Miller's Law

Upon some recommendation, my sister bought a video -- then loaned it to me before watching it herself. Stupid behavior is not entertaining to me, and the stupidest character in this movie called himself a computer programmer, which made it even more offensive. You cannot be a competent programmer by ignoring details. Thinking my sister liked such things, I returned it without comment. Today she called to complain that I didn't warn her it was a stupid movie. sigh

This got me to thinking on the nature of fiction and communication. Fiction works because of the suspension of disbelief. You accept the premise of the story as "could be true." Otherwise you can't get into the story at all. That was my problem with the movie. Maybe there are people that stupid somewhere, but certainly not a computer programmer. I think that character was there for people to ridicule, not empathize. People dislike geeks.

Suzette Haden Elgin is a retired professor of applied psycholinguistics. As is common with people who have one brilliant insight, she has written several books in The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series, but you only need to read any single one of them to get the whole message. The title of the book is misleading. While she does deal with holding your own in verbal combat, the one luminous idea she acknowledges getting from George Miller; she calls it "Miller's Law":

In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.
This is exactly what suspended disbelief is in the appreciation of fiction. I cannot imagine people being as stupid as that movie portrayed them.

In verbal combat -- this is Elgin's title topic -- I try to assume the other person is honest, and go from there. Once in a while, it just doesn't make any sense. Nobody can be that stupid! Maybe they are ignoring some crucial information? I try to supply the missing data, if I can. But if they assume I'm dishonest -- remember, people dislike geeks, and imagine of them all sorts of unsavory attributes -- then there is no communication in that direction, and ultimately none at all in any direction.

Miller's Law.