Under Control

SENSE AND PREJUDICE

I recently viewed a television show about so-called "junk science." That's the kind of science that happens when what's nothing more than opinion is dressed up in the credentials of a recognized expert, thereby becoming the received wisdom. The resulting nonsense assertions have several distinguishing characteristics. They mysteriously appear, spread rapidly, tell a good story, and are mostly false.

In this way, science begins to be a "world explanation" as magical as any ancient mythology. After all, no one of us is able to confirm that the world actually made up of subatomic particles, and precious few will ever get how quantum mechanics works. Yet the success of scientist in predicting and controlling atomic events means many have faith in what science asserts. Unfortunately, that has led to blind acceptance of some pretty sloppy thinking. Take Social Darwinism, for example, or the belief that a cure for cancer is just around the corner.

We, the techies, are a debunking bunch. Or so we think. As engineers and managers, knowledge workers, and software developers, we-who have faith in progress and the rational-have our own fetishes, just like any communal tribe. We have our own "lite" version of junk science: a kind of "junk wisdom." You can evoke the parameters of our fables by interjecting any of the following into conversation: cellular phones, diesel exhaust, the transputer, Lisa, 68060, NASA O-rings, iron in spinach, computers and productivity, travel is glamorous, nobody uses Macs, paperless office, sexless engineers, ramen soup and Jolt. Unix wins, Unix loses, paradigm shift, or linearity.

Too often, engineers and managers take actions based on the assumption of competence, and are surprised when they don't get results. Since we are the experts, we avoid scrutiny. We state to anyone within Java range that the data speaks for itself, and that all data is wisdom. Ergo, since computers are data manipulation devices, computers can solve all our problems.

Let's level with each other. We know that data doesn't speak. Really. Honest. What we see always is based on our preconceptions. The old saw " seeing is believing" has it backwards. It really should be" believing is seeing." Ultimately, it's as it should be. At the beginning of this century, Ernst Mach and the Vienna Circle tried to come up with a science based solely on empirical facts. They soon found theories to provide a provisional ordering of facts, no knowledge is possible. What's frustrating is that once we admit this, we're forced to wonder if we really ever make contact with the "objective" world.

Bringing this discussion back down to earth, Dilbert is probably the supreme unmasker of management's unstated assumptions. But we'll try our best to identify a few.

Fables of manufacturing include:

Marketing fables include:

These memes have a longevity and vitality beyond all understanding. Perhaps the human spirit seeks to expand it's mastery, even at the expense of truth. We must rationalize and improve products and performance ad infinitum. A treadmill indeed. Our training says we're logical, and that the Newtonian clockwork is the be all and end all of our existence.

Few of us question the day -to-day morass of legacy prejudices: The bosses are idiots. Smart people are weird. Work is dehumanizing. The old days were better. There is no end to what technology can achieve. We are at the top of the food chain.

Now, don't get me wrong. I often believe some of the above. But I try at least occasionally question the a priori assumptions of my own existence. Can't we all just be a little more honest with ourselves?

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine February 1997 Page120
http://www.manufacturingsystems.com



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