“Considered Harmful” Essays Considered Harmful

It is not uncommon, in the context of academic debates over computer science and Web standards topics, to see the publication of one or more “considered harmful” essays. These essays have existed in some form for more than three decades now, and it has become obvious that their time has passed. Because “considered harmful” essays are, by their nature, so incendiary, they are counter-productive both in terms of encouraging open and intelligent debate, and in gathering support for the view they promote. In other words, “considered harmful” essays cause more harm than they do good.

What Are “Considered Harmful” Essays?

The Jargon File has a short entry on “considered harmful” that encapsulates the genesis of such essays:

Edsger W. Dijkstra’s note in the March 1968 Communications of the ACM, “Go To Statement Considered Harmful,” fired the first salvo in the structured programming wars…. As it turns out, the title under which the letter appeared was actually supplied by CACM’s editor, Niklaus Wirth.

The controversy resulting from the article’s publication became so heated that the CACM subsequently decided to never again publish pieces with such assertive positions.

The seeds of conflict were already in the ground, however, and in the years since 1968 there have been thousands of pieces published with the general title format of “[something] Considered Harmful.” A search of Google at the end of 2002 turned up more than 4,700 Web pages with the exact phrase “considered harmful” in the document title. A similar search which looked for the exact phrase “considered harmful” in all document content yielded approximately 46,600 results.

All of this content is the more wasteful because “considered harmful” essays have become something of a joke. In some cases, these essays are written as jokes, but more often they are serious statements of opposition to a practice, idea, or technology. The problem is that “considered harmful” essays rarely, if ever, have the intended effect of weakening support for whatever it is they consider harmful.

Why Do People Write “Considered Harmful” Essays?

There are those cases where such essays are written because the author enjoys grandstanding, and knows that use of the “considered harmful” format will get them noticed. A piece of this type is usually so over the top that it is easy to spot. For example, a piece titled “‘Considered Harmful’ Essays Considered Harmful” would very likely be a case of using the “considered harmful” format to draw attention for its own sake. We will ignore such essays in this commentary.

Typically, “considered harmful” essays gets written because someone has an axe to grind, and they feel like making that grinding process both public and dogmatic. This is a form of grandstanding, of course, but it is done with a purpose beyond simple publicity seeking. Usually such “considered harmful” essays are intended to draw attention to a little-known subject about which the author is passionate, or to highlight what the author feels to be a poor decision by someone else.

In addition, there are those “considered harmful” essays that are written as part of a long-running argument that has gradually escalated. Indeed, debates over W3C standards seem to be particularly susceptible to this trend. Instead of being the opening salvos, these essays are more like doomsday devices in the eyes of their authors. The idea is that the arguments presented will be so devastating to the opposing side that capitulation will immediately follow, thus securing victory for the essay’s author and right-minded people the world over. Following in the footsteps of Godwin’s Law, we can draw a similar maxim: As a theoretical debate grows longer, the probability of a “considered harmful” essay approaches one.

In the main, however, it often seems that “considered harmful” essays get written simply because an author can’t think of a better way to express his point of view. This is a sad commentary on both the authors in question and the level of debate most often present in our societies.

How Do “Considered Harmful” Essays Cause Harm?

There are three primary ways in which these essays cause harm.

Is There An Alternative to “Considered Harmful” Essays?

Absolutely. The most basic alternative is not to write them at all, but to instead engage in reasoned debate without resorting to dogmatic assertions or distractive tactics (e.g., ad hominem attacks and straw man arguments). In those cases where some sort of document is needed outside of the debate, there are a number of superior alternatives.

The Considered Conclusion

“Considered harmful” essays are not only a sad cliché at this stage of the game, they are counter-productive to reasoned debate and most often do far more harm than good to whatever cause they promote. It would therefore seem obvious that the only intelligent course of action is to abandon their use entirely, and instead look to more constructive forms of essay writing in the support of debate positions.


As I prepared to write this essay, I did a quick search to see if it had already been done. The answer was mostly “no,” although I quickly found that Steven Engelhardt had written a brief comment on the same topic, with links to some commonly-seen “considered harmful” essays.

I would like to thank Tantek Çelik for motivating me (however inadvertently) to finally write this piece, after I’d been threatening to do it for months.

Finally, I’d especially like to thank all the people who wrote “considered harmful” essays over the last few years. Without the degree of annoyance you collectively created, I might never have bothered to write this essay.