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.