Choosing Utility over Truth

I have previously discussed on this blog my skepticism about the existence of a single Truth. I’ve been reminded of that in several recent conversations, so I thought I’d revisit that idea again.

The most recent example was a conversation on Facebook where a friend linked to a debunking of learning styles, showing that students don’t have one defined learning style, and to treat them that way was harmful. He derided learning styles as being pseudo-science on the order of Myers-Briggs personality types. I said I still found the concept of learning styles useful as a reminder to have a variety of ways to teach a concept, as you never know which one will reach a student. I find the concept useful even if it’s not True in some Platonic sense. Same for Myers-Briggs – even though people are not locked into a personality type, I find the concept useful to remind myself how best to persuade people who think differently than I do.

I had a similar debate in the Facebook comments on my post about choosing Action over Identity. I referred to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset several times in that post, and a friend pointed me at a set of Slate Star Codex posts that “debunked” the growth mindset, showing that it had not been proven scientifically. And I shrugged it off saying that I didn’t care whether it was True, because it was a useful concept to me in designing the life I want to live.

I discussed this flexible thinking with regard to the Truth in that post from 2006, but these recent conversations are a reminder of how befuddling that is to many people. Because I was trained as a physicist, people expect me to respect the Truth, and that cold, hard facts are the way to convince me. And yet in some ways that training is what convinced me that Truth is often messy and difficult to discern.

The scientific method is not about finding Truth. It’s about seeing what we can with the tools that we have. In particular, one of the key qualities that makes an investigation scientific is having a hypothesis as to what will happen, and being willing to let it go if the hypothesis is falsified by an experiment. But confirming a hypothesis via experiment does not mean the hypothesis is now the Truth – it just means that it was confirmed in the context of this one experiment. We design more and more experiments, but we always know that the next experiment could be the one that invalidates everything that we thought.

Scientific truths are contingent in that sense – they apply to the situation in which they were created. This is why we still teach Newton’s Laws in physics class, because they work for almost every situation we are likely to encounter – it’s only in special cases that we have to use relativistic corrections (boy, the special relativity reference was actually unintended, but I’ll leave it in to make myself seem like I was clever enough to write that). I worked at physics labs, and I know just how messy and unconvincing results are before they become established as the Truth in textbooks. Bruno Latour was also a great influence in that respect.

So when somebody says “this is not True”, I don’t think “Oh, well, then I can’t use it”; instead I ask “It’s not true under what circumstances?”. I am happy to continue using an idea that is unTrue in some situations, because there are other situations in which it is useful. I don’t see ideas as being sorted neatly into piles of True and unTrue, but as scattered on a table in my mind, ready to be used as tools in the right situation.

In a similar vein, a friend recently asked me for feedback on his resume, and he asked whether the resume was good. And I asked “For what job?” I couldn’t tell him whether it was good until he defined his goal. It’s like asking whether a hammer is good. It’s good for pounding nails, not good for dealing with screws. Both a hammer and a resume are tools – their “good”ness is dependent on the task at hand. I feel similarly about the Truth of ideas – the utility of an idea is dependent on the context.

Part of the value I bring as a generalist is that I have dozens if not hundreds of ideas and frameworks floating around my brain. When giving advice, I pick and choose from those frameworks not based on how they rate on the scale of Truth, but based on how well they suit the task at hand. Whether it’s learning styles, or Myers-Briggs, or growth mindset, I find nuggets of utility in all of them, and deploy them as necessary to tell a story that will drive action in others. By sharing a framework that resonates with somebody, I can help them find their right path forward. I love it when I can help make that happen, and I believe this flexibility and willingness to use different ideas as necessary is critical to that process.

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