It's all a game
© 16 Apr 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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When you get far enough into anything, everyone is flying by the seat of their pants. I think.


I’ve been to a lot of Ph.D. defenses lately. Ph.D. defenses are when people who bumbled around trying things out for half a decade stand in front of a bunch of people and try to tell a cohesive story about how that wandering forwarded the world’s understanding of something that people will care about.

But couldn’t that describe many things? Biographies read like stories, but the principles are merely people like you and I; I don’t know about you, but the plot in my life is yet to make itself clear to me. How often do you suppose a manager knows if it’s wise to invest or retrench? What is the point were a politician should trade a vote to get a good bill passed with a bad instead of letting both die? Yet don’t we, as employees, investors, and constituents want to hear about these guessing games as if there were wisdom to the actions?

In science, in mathematics, in art, in politics, in business… everywhere I’ve looked, everyone I find seems to be making it up as they go along. God alone seems to have any handle on the big picture decisions, and seems to leave plenty of hard decisions even for the most sensitive of saints.

I graded papers most of the day today. I have no idea which students understood the topic of the assignment, but I know which ones understood how to write about it. So I grade the papers, not the students. It’s a game we play, pretending we can tell how people are doing. We pretend a Ph.D. means more than that the student had the gumption to keep at it until declaring success. We pretend a politician understands the real impact of policies and bills. We feign omniscience.

And yet, from all this chaos, guesswork, and pretending emerges order, truth, and direction. Most Ph.D. dissertations and papers are basically ignored by everyone but their author, and yet in aggregate they further the understanding of the world in very practical ways. Most tests frankly fail to evaluate understanding, yet in aggregate grades tend to track understanding reasonably well.

Some days the game feels futile, the emergent truth out of site. Other days the game feels real, the feigned understanding fools me into believing researcher’s promises. But, rain or shine, the game goes on, and order continues to grow.

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