Testing Fundamentalism?

I phrase the title of this article as a question. This will be a short article. I don’t have solutions. I’m not even sure I have a problem. But I think I do. I think I’m sensing a problem based on observations. But maybe not. Let’s see if you agree or disagree.

I recently read the latest edition of the book The End of Science by John Horgan. A fantastic book that I highly recommend. One particular part of the book really hit home for me in the context of my career and what I’m observing lately. Horgan says:

“Even setting aside the enormous problems of misconduct and unreliability of results, some prominent scientists have become arrogant, and dismissive of criticism, in ways that ill-serve their profession. Some seem intent on transforming science from a truth-seeking method into an ideology — scientism — which harshly denigrates nonscientific ways of engaging with the world, in a manner all too reminiscent of religious fundamentalism.”

I sometimes wonder if we see this, lately, in the testing communities. Specifically with the so-called “experts” who seem to be instinctive contrarians and semantic deconstructionists. Neither of those are necessarily bad in and of themselves, and I like to think I practice both … but only to an extent.

I say “to an extent” because there does seem to be a level of constant “bickering with” or perhaps “lecturing at” the wider testing community. I see those techniques being used so much that they almost become a point of distraction rather than a way to engage. Skepticism is good. But constant, ruthless skepticism framed as a critique of every utterance can be distracting. And it’s not helping testers who need to apply a specialist discipline to an ever-increasing technological context.

Putting my money where my mouth is, I’ve tried not to engage in too many “Testing is not…” discussions and rather focus on “Testing is like…” discussions, which I think open the mind to more possibilities.

There is a certain fundamentalism that I see creeping into many discussions on Twitter or on LinkedIn or in blog posts related to testing. I believe this same sort of fundamentalism infected Agile (with a capital A), which is why Agile continues to defend itself against “being dead” or, perhaps worse, being entirely irrelevant and thus better off dead. And, again, from a testing standpoint this often seems to come from the “experts” in the field; perhaps not coincidentally, those experts with classes they want to promote or a business they are using to propel their ideas.

Compounding this, these experts are often such that people don’t want to stand up and speak out with a contrary view. Just as in science circles that Horgan talks about, this often leads to scathing comments directed back at the person who “dares” to speak up in a way that ultimately shuts down, rather than facilitates, dialogue. What’s even worse, I’m finding that this is leading to a lot of parroting in the industry. I see testers simply regurgitating the words of whatever expert whose altar they happen to worship at.

Yet I can say all this and still say that, in many cases, and on the points of substance, I tend to agree with those experts on many points. Where I diverge with them is on their often professor-like way of communicating, which, just as in the science circles, has often stifled very healthy debate and innovation among thinkers, particularly those just entering the field.

I’m too anti-authoritarian to kowtow to experts, even when I would be well-served by listening to them more. So I don’t fall into that trap. But I’m fully aware, and worried, that I might be equally guilty of showcasing some of this fundamentalism. I am, after all, an opinionated careerist who has made testing and quality assurance his life-long passion. And I do try to communicate that passion to others. And in doing so, I very well may come across as quite dogmatic, where “confidence” shades into the realm of “arrogance.” And I may use just enough words — meaning, too many — such that discussion with me is perceived as more exhausting than it would be illuminating.

So in complaining about the above, and what I seem to be observing, I may very well be complaining about myself too.

I’m not sure yet. Maybe the problem is not as bad as I’m thinking. Maybe there’s isn’t a problem at all. Or maybe I’m the problem. Or at least a part of it. This worries me enough to start looking deeper into this.


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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2 Responses to Testing Fundamentalism?

  1. robertday154 says:

    Not having read Horgan’s book, I read your quote from it and wondered quite what position the book took. In using the word “scientism”, the quote suggested some sort of anti-science, politically partisan tract. So I applied the powers of Google, and quickly found John Horgan’s blog, and a post on it: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/was-i-wrong-about-8220-the-end-of-science-8221/

    I then found this review from the Notices of the American Mathematical Society: http://www.ams.org/notices/199802/bookrev-hoffman.pdf; and this extensive follow-up piece by Horgan: https://www.edge.org/conversation/john_horgan-why-i-think-science-is-ending

    Which all go to show that there’s a lot more in Horgan’s argument than you suggest (I found myself veering between agreeing with him wholesale and violently disagreeing with him all the way through each of those three pieces – and then veering back the other way, which suggests that I’m trying to fathom his argument and its implications with too little time for reflection first thing on a Monday morning). On one thing I think you’re right – the problem demands further investigation.

    Oh, and despite the international nature of science, Horgan’s arguments aren’t particularly high profile on this side of the Atlantic. Then again, science has enough to worry about right now in the UK than debates over whether it’s run its course (as long as none of our politicians take time off from getting Brexit wrong to read Horgan’s book 🙁 ). Actually, I find the international nature of the testing community very reassuring, with a liveliness and vibrancy to the thinking and discussion about testing that seems to me like the best of the discussions in the scientific community back in the days of the Enlightenment. And enlightenment is something we could all do with right now.


    • Jeff Nyman says:

      Absolutely well said. To be sure, when I recommend a book it’s not always because I agree with what the author says. Sometimes I recommend books where I entirely disagree or, like yourself, am in conflict about the ideas.

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