Can we get by without truth?

One of the challenges of the social sciences is establishing empirical truth. It’s impossible to do the science. Perhaps that is just how it is and we must judge by beauty and goodness instead.

It is very hard in creative knowledge work in the VUCA environments of the real world to gather any empirical evidence. For example, DORA (now owned by Google) do the best they can with DevOps, but they’re helped by DevOps being at heart a linear (pipeline) process, which is more amenable to metrication and causal inference than most systems of work. The challenge is in having any sort of controlled experiment. Too many variables are always changing in real life. 

To put it another way: work is a complex adaptive system. You can’t meaningfully measure the performance of an individual component or agent within such a system in isolation from the rest of the system. You can’t establish causalities. You can’t be assured that measures of the past are predictors of the future.

All social science has the same issue: it’s debatable exactly what is being validated and how well. It can’t distinguish between correlation and causation. In the absence of anything better, they’ve accepted it as good enough.

I’m not saying there is anything better. The issue is whether it is enough. Maybe we just have to Iive without real evidence. Instead of judging whether it is true, we can only judge whether it is good and beautiful. The scientific findings may help to reassure us, but they cant prove it.

This aligns with so much else that we talk about at Teal Unicorn:

  • You can’t measure the work of individual humans unless you have reduced them to being a machine.
  • The best measure of a person is the opinions of their peers.
  • The best way to “improve” someone – or *shudder* to “fix” them – is to ask them what they need.
  • Maturity assessments are only mildly interesting.
  • Quality is subjective.
  • Value is subjective.
  • Morality and business are inseparable. “It’s just business” is no longer acceptable.
  • The best way to find out about work is to ask those doing it.
  • Adaptability is more important than efficiency in the 21st Century.
  • Judge a business on how they contribute value to the society around them, not what profit they make.

By all means measure work if it makes you feel better, or helps to convince yourselves or others, but for pity’s sake don’t make numbers into people’s goals, or worse still make their working lives dependent on numbers, because you will do harm not good, because the numbers aren’t true.