Tuesday 21 June 2011

The "Not even trying" test


I find that I use the "Not even trying" test a lot nowadays, in evaluating stuff I come across.

If I come across scientists or a branch of science who are clearly not even trying to discover the truth or tell the truth, then I reject their work - because there are infinitely more ways to be wrong than right.

When I listen to or read a modern philosopher, I reject their status as a philosopher if it is obvious that they are not even trying to seek or speak the truth.

When I perceive that government policy is not even trying to solve economic problems, then I know that these problems will not be solved (at least not by government).

When writers, poets, musicians, artists and architects are not even trying to create beauty, then their works will be ugly.

In journalism, in the media generally - are they even trying to be accurate? If they are not even trying to report the news, obviously they cannot be trusted or believed, obviously they will be worthless at best, more often actively misleading.


If people and institutions are not even trying to fulfil their stated functions, not even trying to do good or be good - then they should be avoided.

We should not contaminate our minds with such stuff. We should not be tempted to take them seriously.

They don't deserve it; we owe ourselves better.



The above view contrasts with the idea that personal motivations are unimportant in social systems: that bureaucratic systems or selection mechanisms (such as markets) can produce functionality indifferent to motivation, indeed in the teeth of motivation.

This is the standard view in social science.

But I now believe that you cannot produce a silk purse from a sow's ear: that real science cannot come from hypotheses testing working on the output of dishonest scientists; the real art cannot come from selecting among the works of those who regard beauty as kitsch - and shock, disgust and boredom as aesthetic experiences; that good governance cannot come from a combination of careerism and voting; that real education does not emerge from a system primarily devoted to promoting diversity - even when there is competition. 

Markets, democracy, bureaucracy - all systems rely on selecting, and are constrained by that which is available for selection.

Good outputs can only come from Good inputs.

Unless at least some people are trying to do what is supposed to be done, then it will not be done. 



dearieme said...


Scroll down to "Can do".

Bruce Charlton said...

dearieme's link said:

"In 1921, chemists at Arthur D. Little Inc. reduced 100 pounds of sows’ ears to glue, converted it to gelatin, forced it into fine strands, and wove these into a purse “of the sort which ladies of great estate carried in medieval days — their gold coin in one end and their silver coin in the other. We made this silk purse from a sow’s ear because we wanted to, because it might serve as an example to clients who come to us with their ambitions or their troubles, and also as a contribution to philosophy,” they reported. “Things that everybody thinks he knows only because he has learned the words that say it, are poisons to progress.”


Touche! - except that 1. The purse wasn't made of real silk - so it is an example of superficially-similar fakery (like most modern educational 'qualifications'); and 2. it proves my point. There must be at least *one* person who is *trying* to make a silk purse - it doesn't just-happen.

Alex said...

Scientists, philosophers, writers, musicians, architects, etc., who are not even trying to do their office are, as a rule, trying to do something else under the guise of fulfilling their stated functions. The question then arises: What are they really trying to do?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Alex - usually they are quite explicit about what they are really trying to do - in their 'mission statements' etc.

They see nothing wrong about, are indeed very *proud* about e.g. using educational institutions to pursue multi-culturalism, or to make gestures setting a good example about the importance of global warming, or to to award qualifications on the basis of being a member of a special interest groups, or over-charging the most able students to channel resources to less-able but more 'deserving' students.

And so on...

Alex said...

Suggesting what they are really trying to do in one pithy sentence: These members of the intelligentsia are heterogeneous toilers united in a common ideological project, which is turning the world upside down.

B322 said...

What horrifies me is how deceitful people are even when declaring that profit is their highest motive. You can't even trust greed any more. Tons of companies would happily throw away profit if that's what it took to stick it to the white man. The excellent feeling they get from hurting white men is way beyond a profit motive.

Brett Stevens said...

One way to look at this is that if they're not trying to solve the problem, they have another goal -- Kant touched on this with his analysis of hypothetical reason. Most human errors come from finding the right answer to the wrong question, and when it happens sequentially, it is because those humans are not being honest about what the question should be.

Lemniscate said...

We are supposed to trust the experts and never to engage in the "ad hominen" fallacy, as if someone's ability to discover truth was independent of their character and motivations. Only obvious corporate conflicts of interest are discussed, never the ideological motivations of scientists or the influence of government funding. The concept of bias is used as a protean weapon against politically incorrect science -- look at how an ideologically motivated radical egalitarian, Stephen Jay Gould, managed to discredit Morton's skull measurements as the result of racist bias while biasing the figures toward egalitarianism. Yet the public will still imagine 19th Century racial scientists to be disgustingly biased racists compared to dispassionate 20th/21st Century egalitarian scientists.