Testing and the Human Element of History

What an awful blog title, huh? Testing and history? What am I even talking about? And the “human” element of history? As opposed to what? Have you ever seen a blog post that starts with such short sentences ending with question marks? Utterly awful. It’s like splitting infinitives. Or running sentences on and on (and on). Still with me? If so, let’s talk about history. And science. And the human aspect of both.

Somewhere around 1932 Albert Einstein said:

“Science as something already in existence, already completed, is the most objective, most impersonal thing that we humans know. Science as something coming into being, as a goal, however, is just as subjectively, psychologically conditioned, as all other human endeavors.”

The reason I find that quote interesting is because it brings to the forefront the idea that there is a notion of “work being done” versus “work that is being verified.” We have this in testing and quality assurance when we consider that we do “checking” and we do “testing.” The former is largely, if not entirely, algorithmic. It is simply doing experiments that we already expect to work. This is the domain that we can, for the most part, relegate to tools that support testing. Testing, on the other hand, is perpetually that which is “coming into being”, to use Einstein’s phrase.

I was reminded of this quote while reading the book Einstein and the Quantum by A. Douglas Stone. The author asserts that when learning physics it’s often the case that the “history that is mentioned is sanitized to eliminate the passions, egos, and human frailties” of the physicists of the past.

The author is relating the idea that many people simply want to get to the science parts, without worrying necessarily about the human element that makes the “science parts” possible. The author continues:

“After all, since physical science (we believe) is a cumulative discipline, why shouldn’t we downplay or even censor the missteps and misunderstandings of our predecessors?”

The idea being that it’s the outputs of the discipline that ultimately matter, not necessarily the many false starts that got us to where we are. Whereas I would argue that our blunders are exactly one of the things we should be studying more of.

Continuing along this idea, which I should note, Mr. Stone is actually arguing against, he says:

“Wouldn’t telling the real human history of discovery just confuse people?”

Or, would it, in fact, make the discoveries themselves more discoverable and understandable by considering how they are the output of human creativity and innovation?

Now, again, I want to note here that the author is actually arguing against the simplistic viewpoint and this was based on an epiphany he had. It’s an epiphany I think we need more of in the testing world as well. What is that epiphany? Putting it simply, just about everything is in the past and the most interesting parts of the past are how people interacted in it.

The Outputs of History

As just one example, I had tried to do something very like what I’m talking about above with my Dialect framework for automated checking. At the end of a series of posts, I had realized that I had completely failed in my approach. But it was the documenting of that which, I think, could be more interesting than if someone was just shown an abandoned framework or, as is most often the case, a successor framework that is more in line with what the author ultimately believes is “right” or “good” or “truth”.

My Dialect framework has purposely been deleted from GitHub to show how history can be “lost” but how we can recover traces of it. Think of Dialect as being like the lost books of Alexandria, or perhaps the “Gospel of Q” in Christian studies, wherein we have traces of what something must have been, even though we have no actual sources. And sometimes, as in the case of “Q”, we may not even have any source, but rather the later interpretations we layer on that suggest there must have been.

When you consider how we piece together our discipline through screencasts, blogs, articles and whatnot, I trust the relevance of this will make sense. I also hope that this will go a small way towards helping people understanding my “tester as historian” concept that I’m going to be covering more as time goes on.

Note that while I’m talking about a technical framework with this example, the same could be applied to any aspect of test thinking. For example, anyone who reads my TDL category will see me on a voyage of discovery, using structuring concepts like Gherkin. I have purposely kept some of my own historical thinking through those posts a bit muddy.

Again, we often have the outputs of history but we can’t recapture the exact history as it happened. We can, however, represent history. And we can fit our representations to the reality we encounter.

The Broad View of a Discipline

So, again, that last point is crucial to what I’m working on now in my career: the idea of testers acting like historians. This, however, requires a broad view of what historians do. Much like testing, the discipline of history is often taken to be much simpler than it is. In fact, historians are often asked why social scientists don’t simply just do their job. Much like how testers are asked why developers don’t just do their job. Or, even worse, why tools can’t just do their job.

I’ll close this post with a great quote by Tom Griffith in his book The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft:

“So here is our double historical quest: to be astonished as well as to understand. This tension goes to the heart of the historical enterprise – a tension between the past as familiar (and continuous with our own experience) and the past as strange (and therefore able to widen our understanding of what it means to be human). The essence of good history is this balance between empathy and perspective, intimacy and distance. Historians immerse themselves in context; they give themselves wholly and sensually to the mysterious, alchemical power of archives. As well as gathering and weighing evidence, piece by piece with forensic intensity, they sensitise themselves to nuance and meaning, to the whole tenor of an era, the full character of a person. Historians move constantly between reading and thinking their way into the lives and minds of the people of the past – giving them back their present with all its future possibilities – and seeing them with perspective, from afar, with a bracing sense of their strangeness.”

I would urge testers to read that quote and abstract from it what they can. I do believe that testing is about moving between polarities of thought. I believe this is what, as a whole, our discipline is in danger of not doing as we fall prey to the technocrats, the complex methodologists, and the “guiding” hand of technological sophistication rather than the nuance, and uncertainty and messiness, of human reason and communication.

About Jeff Nyman

Anything I put here is an approximation of the truth. You're getting a particular view of myself ... and it's the view I'm choosing to present to you. If you've never met me before in person, please realize I'm not the same in person as I am in writing. That's because I can only put part of myself down into words. If you have met me before in person then I'd ask you to consider that the view you've formed that way and the view you come to by reading what I say here may, in fact, both be true. I'd advise that you not automatically discard either viewpoint when they conflict or accept either as truth when they agree.
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