I was having lunch with friends at a small-college campus restaurant not long ago. Our student waiter was friendly and rather chatty, and among other things we learned that his area of concentration was political science (for the time being). But it was this guy’s uniform that really did the talking. Every inch of his shirt was covered with buttons – each issuing a different command. We were commended to the support of veganism, the banning of genetically-modified organisms, the eradication of nukes, the driving of electric cars, the elimination of war, the wisdom of Lenin, as well as calls-to-arms on numerous other fronts.
I was unsure whether to take these conflicting injunctions seriously, but one button in particular caught my eye, and that was the one ordering us to “Question Everything.” It might have been a good opportunity to ask “What happens if you encounter someone who can engage you in debate regarding these slogans and their consistency?” However, I’m sure I would have been told – not incorrectly – that I was missing the point, which appeared to be information in command form, rather than dialogue.
I’ve encountered the “Question Everything” button periodically, and always found it vaguely irritating. What is that supposed to mean, anyway? It can’t be taken literally, lest we spend our days in obsessive-compulsive dysfunction, wondering each day which breakfast food is least lethal to us and the Earth, which commute to work is similarly least destructive, or which core belief should be jettisoned in favor of something new. On one occasion I even asked a “Question Everything” wearer how this command should be understood by the button-reading public. Perhaps unsurprisingly I didn’t learn anything from the answer, except that if needed to ask, I should think about the button some more.
Which I did. To the extent “Question Everything” is an injunction to identify the axioms that form a basis for what we’re doing, it makes sense to me; to the extent that it’s an injunction to cherry-pick philosophies at will, it’s nonsense – people have to operate from some reasonably-consistent framework. (An engaging speaker on the topic of mix-and-match philosophies, amongst other things, is Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor whose stylistic hallmarks include religious tatoos, and occasionally cursing with skill and alactrity.)
As for auditing our axioms – in particular evaluating the information basis for our conclusions – it’s rarer than might be ideal. That’s understandable, because we’re talking about hard work that might not seem immediately productive. Nonetheless, how else do we know what we have, without checking whether data errors are accounted for, whether our data are complete, whether user conclusions are consistent with the data we have, and whether relevant conclusions are being ignored or missed. Without an audit, I don’t think we can know, really.
In my experience, when we do audit our data systems we try to handle this internally. Professions from psychology to accounting (now there’s a range for you) have found this doesn’t work very well – self-assessment is difficult and biased, and even when we are thorough our potential bias limits the confidence of outside parties. In data systems we don’t necessarily need a separate firm for an audit, but an audit team unassociated with the stakeholders makes sense.
Now, if I had buttons made up that said “Have you audited your questions today?” do you think anyone would wear them? Even if I cast it in the form of a command?