Eliminating the incoherent

March 30, 2023

Bcb88d61 2333 790d 3d81 f45570a3333dIn my first post in this emerging series on the naturalising in Naturalising Sense-making, I talked about the need to do multiple parallel probes around any coherent hypothesis in order to find out what is possible. That of course applies to the complex domain, on the ordered domain we can run with the orthodoxy of conventional wisdom and practice.   To take a pretty straightforward case,  if we are looking at evolution there are different theories which can contradict each other and we need to pursue them all, but we can eliminate Young Earth Creationism as incoherent.  Yes, you need to treat people who have genuine beliefs with respect but that doesn’t require you to give credibility to nonsense.

In my second post I established differences between theories, laws, hypotheses, conjectures and beliefs as they have different aspects and understanding those is important.  I also added a postscript to that post to challenge the “all beliefs are equally valid” brigade to understand the degree to which that type of thinking places you at moral hazard, using the example of the physical and other threats to a scientist who dared to challenge the beliefs of adherents of a conspiracy theory.  I’d augment that example with the latest tragic shootings in the US, the war crimes in Ukraine along with the constant micro-aggressions and coercive control that impact women and minorities in all organisations.  Some things are plain wrong and you have a moral responsibility to call them out, or you are conjoined in guilt.

I first set out a series of tests for coherence back in 2016, referencing Thagard’s work as one source.  Now I should be clear that Thagard is a source, and acknowledged as such, but here in Cynefin Co we have been developing the theory and practice of coherence testing for some time.  That doesn’t mean that we buy into or take a position in the various debates about Coherentism (especially the linguistic variants and the idea of internal coherence) in epistemology, its relation with Correspondence Theories of truth or God help us Foundationalism.  Our goals are far more pragmatic in nature.  We simply want to find out where we should focus our limited resources and where we should not waste our time or energy.   Having reviewed that 2016 list by the way I am still broadly happy with it – I might play with some words but better to let it stand as is for the moment.  I may do some more work on incoherence in a future post but let’s keep it simple for the moment,

The other thing to remember is the goal of coherence testing is not to settle on what is right.  It is to create a series of safe-to-fail probes around any coherent idea which isn’t clearly wrong.  The level of uncertainty in the environment you face may cause you to increase the number of such probes and relax the conditions for coherence.  Moreover, faced with uncertainty in the Cynefin framework we use the central aporetic domain to place people in positions where conventional or orthodox thinking cannot sustain itself.  Aporia can be linguistic, aesthetic or physical in nature and are designed not only to prevent the dominance and danger of conservative orthodoxy but to generate new insights and interventions.  In the EU Field Guide we also ask the question about whether you should start with an abductive generation of multiple hypotheses before moving on to allocate the seemingly obvious to experts, or if you should first eliminate what can be handled by them.  Again this depends a little on the time frame for decision-making and the overall levels of uncertainty and threat.

It’s important to realise that these things are designed to work together – tests for coherence come after you have opened up more possibilities than are currently imagined.  The use of aporetic techniques is one way to do that.  This is also a conflict management process as it allows easy an agreement that someone else’s idea is coherent without my having to agree they are right, which gives more space for learning and experimentation.  Also, fewer political power plays and a greater willingness to listen to dissenting viewpoints.

So if you fail to listen to engineers raising concerns about potential systems failure that is an error of judgement it has little or nothing to do with coherence.  The engineers raising those concerns have a valid and coherent hypothesis that you need to test.   Not listening to them is an example of an incoherent approach to decision-making.   If on the other hand, you are phoned by a clairvoyant who tells they have dreamed that a plane is going to crash you really shouldn’t waste any time.  Accepting any idea, however incoherent means you are less likely to pay attention to the coherent ones.  Confirmation ‘bias’ is an issue but it isn’t helped if you confuse consensus with coherence.  Consensus is a possible test for coherence in the context of testing multiple ideas, not in selecting a single pathway.  Always draw on diverse perspectives, but that doesn’t mean any perspective.

I must admit that I am increasingly of the opinion that people who are not prepared to create a boundary between incoherence and coherence (and remember that boundaries can and should move based on the level of uncertainty) are somewhat perverse in nature.  Rejecting young earth creationism, clairvoyants,  applying Ivermectin to autistic children and a host of other conspiracy theories should not be difficult for anyone of intelligence who has the courage of their convictions and even a smidgeon of moral integrity.   How you handle the holders of those beliefs is of course another matter.

Supplementary post

The bulk of the people who picked up on this post and broadcast it via social media picked up on the key phrase:

… the goal of coherence testing is not to settle on what is right.  It is to create a series of safe-to-fail probes around any coherent idea which isn’t clearly wrong

But some didn’t and made the assumption that the assertion was being made that we should only use ideas that fell within a narrow definition (far narrower than mine by the way) of what was scientifically valid.   So for those who were genuinely confused, I’ve emphasised that quote and my final paragraph makes the strong point that using stuff which is clearly wrong has physical and moral consequences.

Now there were also some responses that were not genuine and they all used some form of straw man error per the assumption above.  Some were what I fondly call click-bait posters trying to attract attention to their own services by taking a Devils Advocate position.  I’m cool with the approach, but if you adopt it then it needs to be intelligent and based on more than a skim reading of some sources, or more likely given the timeframe, skimming Wikipedia. The ones I’ve seen to date have not exhibited those qualities.  A few even suggested that I am against the role of intuition whereas the most basic reading of my work would see my strong advocacy of intuition as (to quote Prusak) compressed experience.  They also ignore our work as a company to make minority views visible to decision-makers in order to prevent consensus and convention from stifling innovation, not to mention a broad range of work on adductive logic.  I think the difference is that we want to do something about it rather than spout platitudes about how all ideas are good ideas and/or refuse to engage with hard questions such as those posited in my final paragraph on the main post.

C’est la Vie I’ve learnt to live with this sort of nonsense over the years.  But for those interested, the final post in this series, which is at least a week away or more, will focus on how we manage intuition and abduction.  Genuine questions & comments are welcome.

PS: one of the reasons you eliminate anything clearly incoherent is to increase the possibility that minority or other views, not so eliminated will be given some breathing space.  

The banner picture was cropped from an originalEvolution of a cat-cher comes from Rawpixel and is used under the terms of a Creative Commons licence.  I’m using a visual clue for this series of posts if you haven’t noticed

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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