December 18, 2010

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

I'm Wary Of The Personal Truths Of The Agile Tree-Huggers

Milk and cookies been keeping me awake. (Actually, I nodded off during QI and woke up at eleven bright and breezy and can't get back to sleep.)

Forsooth, a cautionary missive about creeping relativism in software development...

Thoughts turn to a conversation I had with a UFO believer earlier in the week via the magic of YouTube private messaging. Her point was that skeptics are BAD PEOPLE because, by saying "where's your evidence?" when someone claims they saw a flying saucer or a ghost or Big Foot in a Basque, you are actually calling them a liar. And anyone who goes around calling people liars is obviously some kind of arrogant arse.

Putting aside the fact that I actually am an arrogant arse, her point is not valid in this context. She waxed lyrical about "absolute" and "relative truth" saying that in reality there's no such thing as "absolute truth" and that the truth is different for different people. People have their own truths, she said, and each truth is equally valid. Anyone who challenges another person's truth is therefore a bit of a shit.

Putting aside the fact that I actually am a bit of a shit, I don't feel that the idea of absolute and relative truth is helpful in any practical sense. I prefer to think in terms of personal truth and externally verifiable truth.

An example of a personal truth might be "what chicken tastes like". I have no way of knowing what chicken tastes like to anyone except me. For all I know, to you chicken tastes like what strawberries taste like to me, and vice versa.

An externally verifiable truth might be something like "every action has an equal and opposite reaction". I can set up countless experiments - preferably experiments that involve firing rotten eggs at Ann Coulter using one of those automatic tennis serving machines - and observe in every case that every action does indeed have an equal and opposite reaction.

Dr Steven Greer, guiding light of and driving force behind the Disclosure Project, offers us a personal truth that we cannot disprove. He claims we are being visited by aliens from distant civilisations that offer us advanced saucer technology that could solve all our energy problems. I am unable to test his claims, since they are inherently untestable. I cannot prove the non-existence of alien visitors, or the non-existence of government cover-ups. It will not be sufficient to produce a photo of "no flying saucers" or a secret government dossier detailing "no conspiracy".

It's always possible, I suppose, that what Dr Greer tells us is actually true. It's not impossible that aliens are visiting us right now. It's not impossible that governments have covered it up. But it is unlikely (but no so unlikely that I dismiss it out of hand as confidently as I might dismiss the idea of the Earth being 6000 years old).

My mother is an active member of a spiritualist church and identifies strenuously with theories about ghosts, astrology, the afterlife, astral planes, faith healing, ley lines, and - of course - alien visitors and intergalactic love-ins. (Why technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilisations got lumped in with a load of New Age woo is something we'll probably have a hard time explaining when they finally do get here. I'm presuming they won't have travelled light years across the hostile vacuum of space just to get their birth charts read.)

Mum and I have an understanding. I accept that these are her personal truths, and she accepts that my preference is for externally verifiable truths. I do not profess to know that these things definitely don't exist. But I do profess that my inability to test them in any meaningful way means that to me, at least, they might as well not exist. When there is hard evidence, then we can discuss them in a rational and robust fashion.

I'm equally hard-headed about personal truths in business. Myers-Briggs Type Indicators are one example of a business truth that is not externally verifiable. What people claim to be like when you ask them "what are you like?" is no great indicator of what they are actually like. If you were to add "are you psychic?" to the questionnaires, you'd get plenty of positives. To me, Myers-Briggs is astrology for personnel managers.

Someone on Twitter - apologies, I forget who you are - mentioned they were considering proposing a session on tree-hugging for an Agile conference next year. I have also noted this alarming trend towards personal truths and away from externally verifiable truths in the Agile community. I notice words like "Zen" and "energy" and "consciousness" cropping up in Twitter profiles and on blogs and even the odd business card.

We need to be very, very careful here. If the community of practitioners and coaches (and, let's face it, the tree-huggers tend to fall into the latter category) wanders too far into the dark, dark woods where the pixies and fairies and unicorns and other manifestations of personal truth are said to live, we may never find our way out again into the light of externally verifiable truth.

Posted 10 years, 3 months ago on December 18, 2010