Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Testing of Claims & Assumptions

Successful organisations nurture both collaborative learning and continuous critical revision. Some may think that the two things would always go together, but history has given us plenty of contrary evidence.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, when Francis Bacon’s philosophy of cooperative experimentalism began to have wider influence, cooperative research in the advancement of the physical sciences became more commonplace. But even the most dedicated participants in such research accepted the tight boundaries drawn around many dogmas embraced by the social and religious establishment. The clash between Darwin’s ideas on natural selection and their theological critics in the 19th century showed that research that came up against ring-fenced dogmas might still be ostracised.

Totalitarian states in the 20th century supported group research in the development of modern weapons but forbade any challenge to those doctrines they declared unquestionable.

This split thinking can be found in many modern institutions and contemporary societies too. It usually happens because those in positions of power accept that educative collaboration can add to their organisations’ knowledge and capability to do more, but they are not willing to concede to subjecting their most precious beliefs to critical examination. When those blind spots become permanently shielded, all kinds of false assumptions and misguided claims are sealed into the system, causing permanent errors.

It is because dogmatisation can be so damaging that it must be guarded against with the continuous testing of all claims and assumptions without exception. This does not mean that everything is doubted all the time to the point that there is no accepted basis for any action. The overall direction of an organisation and its everyday operations require reliance on a wide range of claims and beliefs. Continuous testing only demands that none of these is perpetually excluded from scrutiny.

Provided the examination is scheduled with reference to the emergence of new evidence, fresh arguments, altered circumstances, then in time all claims and assumptions will get their turn in being tested for their veracity.

Once a test has been passed, then the claim in question should be granted provisional validity, which means that it should be acted on and generally accepted unless there is a robust case to cast doubt on it immediately to the extent that its veracity is suspended. It is no less dogmatic to refuse to have any particular claim questioned as it is to insist on questioning a claim irrespective of it having passed all the tests it has been subject to. It is a notable technique of those who want to disrupt the work of others for their own gain to spread doubt about claims which are in fact well founded (e.g., climate change, inoculation).

However, the validity is nevertheless provisional. And the precaution against vexatiously repetitive questioning should not be taken to mean that any claim can be declared as beyond all future revision. Even the shared mission of the organisation must in the light of changing circumstances be open to deliberative re-examination by members to see if different factors need to be taken into consideration, and thus requiring alterations to the aims and objectives of their joint enterprise.

Checklist of Appraisal Questions:
How confident are members in questioning claims put forward by those in more highly ranked positions?
Is everyone aware that nothing (in the name of ‘tradition’ or anything else) can be ring-fenced from empirical analysis carried out by the group?
Is open and critical discussion of current and new ideas encouraged and facilitated?
Are irrational beliefs allowed to take hold & undermine intelligent considerations?
Is there widespread perception that there is no point or scope in subjecting any activity to critical questioning?

[For a complete list of essays covering the 9 ‘SYNETOPIA’ elements, look up ‘Guide to Synetopia’]