October 11, 2014

Specialized Knowledge Does Not Constitute a Professional Relationship

Deutsch: Wiberg Professional
Wiberg Professional (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Joe is what someone of my generation might refer to as a computer whiz. He worked for a large company designing security applications for some time before getting burned out and wanting to do something he truly enjoyed. He now works for a small family-owned business where he builds custom high-end gaming PCs for enthusiasts with lots of disposable income. He's up on all latest technology, writes a computer-focused blog as a hobby, and loves his work.

One day, Joe comes across a blog post from a well-known tech blogger describing a problem he's having with his computer. The post is publicly available for all to see, and the blogger provided a detailed description of what his computer has been doing. To technologically inept people like me, the description means little. But to someone with Joe's expertise, it is rather informative.

Although Joe is usually eager to help in such scenarios, this one is different. You see, Joe is familiar with this particular blogger, a pompous fellow who has a habit of treating people who disagree with him rather poorly. Joe has had a few previous run-ins with this blogger and has been treated horribly by him and his friends a number of times. Joe is not about to offer assistance to someone who has repeatedly declared him an enemy.

Joe retreats to an online community in which he participates and writes a bit of silly speculation about what might be wrong with the blogger's computer. The details aren't important; suffice it to say that his speculation involves Internet porn.

Outrage ensues. The blogger's friends demonize Joe and campaign to get him fired, unconcerned with how this could impact his family. Their rationale for doing so is fascinating, and it is what I want to address here.

Friends of the blogger claim that it was unethical for Joe to use his specialized knowledge of computers to speculate about the problems the blogger was having with his computer. They compare Joe to an attorney who violated attorney-client privilege in the disclosure of confidential information. Had Joe had a professional relationship with the blogger where he had first-hand knowledge from working on the blogger's computer, I'd tend to agree with them. This would indeed be a breach of a professional relationship, and Joe would certainly be in the wrong. But Joe has never looked at the blogger's computer. They had no professional relationship whatsoever. Joe has no first-hand knowledge of what may be wrong with the blogger's computer. All he has to go on is what the rest of us saw posted publicly on the blogger's blog.

Joe should be compared to an attorney who read a public blog post and speculated about what it might mean but who had no more first-hand knowledge than anybody else, an attorney who never represented the blogger at all. 

Does the fact that Joe can comprehend publicly available information better than most of us due to his specialized training mean that he cannot comment on it? Of course not! Does his specialized knowledge somehow constitute a professional relationship with the blogger all by itself? Obviously not.

Joe said something the blogger and his friends did not like, and now they are punishing him for it through a campaign of what sounds a bit like harassment (e.g., publicly shaming Joe, encouraging others to contact his employer, smearing him with wild accusations of unethical behavior). Seems to me that they are in the wrong here.

Fortunately, nothing like this would ever happen among atheists. We are far too rational for such nonsense. And besides, we are "able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other." Sure we are.

Update: I was appropriately called out for writing what was a fairly obvious allegory here without a final reveal of what the hell I was referring to. For those who don't follow such things and are curious what prompted this post, I'll hand off to Damion at Background Probability.