It is a fact, often cited in previous columns, that IEEE (the "parent" Institute of our Society) is a much more complex and, some would say, bureaucratic organization then any one of the Technical Societies, let alone the Information Theory Society, which is known for its strong tradition of adherence to the principle of always placing substance over form.
Over the years, there have been several occasions in which the differing philosophies and mindsets of the leaders of the IT Society, in relation to those of the leaders of the Institute, have mildly clashed. A case-in-point is the fact that our Constitution and By-Laws lay unapproved by IEEE for over ten years. Another example is the fact that we remained the only Society that continued to call itself a "Group", despite a threat from IEEE that we might be forcibly converted to a Society that might be called the "Information Theory Group Society" (!). In certain cases, we may have been perceived by the Institute as, perhaps, a bit high-browed or even arrogant. On other occasions, however, we have stood firm as champions of the best that the Institute does, or should, represent. In this issue, I would like to highlight an example of a small confrontation from the past that definitely pitted valor and virtue against hidden agendas, truthfulness against falsehood, forthrightness against special interest, or, plainly, right versus wrong.
Reminiscing about this event now is especially appropriate since it involves Dick Blahut, the 1982 Society President who was recently honored at a special workshop preceding the 35th Allerton Conference. At that time, the United States Activities Board (which, recently, and probably unbeknownst to most of our members, renamed itself IEEE-USA) was exploring the possibility of establishing a Political Action Committee (PAC) to pursue what it perceived to be the best (professional) interests of the IEEE members in the United States. Political Action Committees were a rather new concept at that time and did not have the negative resonance that this concept has today.
Of course, the dichotomy between technical activities and political lobbying has been the cornerstone of much of the malaise and disputes within the Institute; and, for the most part, the Technical Societies have taken a negative view of the efforts of USAB. They have (with good reason) concluded that these efforts are ineffective endeavors to influence Congress that consume resources, project an unfavorable image of the Institute, and divert from the technical focus that most members seem to wish of the IEEE.
In 1982, the head of USAB (holder of the official position of Vice-President-Professional Activities of he IEEE) was Ed Doyle, a skillful, stalwart, and formidable proponent of USAB's lobbying efforts. To bolster his case for the establishment of a PAC, he solicited inputs from the Presidents of the Technical Societies. However, this input was requested through the form of a questionnaire that was indeed masterfully constructed to conceal the negative aspects of establishing a PAC and to literally "force" a response that could only be interpreted as favoring the formation of a PAC.
Indeed, Doyle's efforts succeeded; a PAC of some form was eventually established and it is fair to say that its accomplishments over the last fifteen years have amounted to little above zero. Nonetheless, the response he received (with a bang!) from Dick Blahut must have resonated in his mind for a long time. Known for his propensity for speaking his mind freely and calling a spade a spade, Dick simply gave a crushing reply that is a "vintage" example of forthrightness. I let Dick do the talking by quoting from his November 2, 1982 letter to E. Doyle.
Dear Mr. Doyle:
I am writing to express myself on the proposed questionnaire about the IEEE Political Action Committee, a subject to which I am opposed. The questionnaire proposed by the USAB to justify PAC is a good example of how any bureaucracy can always create a story to justify its position and expand its power base. One method is to produce statistics supporting the desired position.
To create a biased questionnaire, the following techniques work well:
1) Lead the responder by gaining his agreement early and then expanding the position slowly through a series of linked questions.
2) Word the questions so that the responder cannot be against the desired position except by filling in the "no" choice over and over. Human nature is to wish to appear reasonable and so he is apt to occasionally take a compromise position.
3) Ask whether the responder agrees that the good points are in fact good. Do not ask about the bad points. How about the following question:
Will the PAC tend to become a self-perpetuating entity, representing the IEEE but not accountable to anyone? ( ) Agree, ( ) Disagree, ( ) No opinion.
4) Give multiple choice questions where almost all answers can be interpreted as agreement. Look at Question 9 and look at how easy it is to portray as positive almost any random response to this question. Suppose the choices were worded as follows: ( ) I am against IEEE PAC because I think PAC would be ineffective. ( ) I am against IEEE PAC because I think ........ Is this really the same question?
5) Keep the questions general. How about some specific questions about how the PAC makes its decisions or about whether it is really possible to kill something like this after a three year trial period.
It should be quite obvious that I put little credence in the results of such a questionnaire.
My own view is that the attempt to form an IEEE PAC is an attempt to set up a comfortable bureaucratic niche where a few people could continue to perpetrate their existence with a continuing source of funds and with little accountability to the outside world. This questionnaire is designed to justify such an attempt by creating a body of statistics. A more honest survey would be a straight yes-or-no vote based upon prepared statements for and against.
Thank you for soliciting my views.
Richard E. Blahut
Even though IEEE proceeded eventually to sanction USAB activities, Dick's response remains a vindicating and haunting reply that is a tribute to our Society's (and his) value system.
There have been, over the years, other vocal representatives of our Society who have taken similar bold positions and who have displayed similar forthrightness and courage. We will hear their voices in due time.