Thursday, 6 October 2022
Winds and currents
A little unpremeditated insincerity must be indulged under the stress of social intercourse. The talk even of an honest man must often represent merely his wish to be inoffensive or agreeable rather than his genuine opinion or feeling on the matter in hand. His thought, if uttered, might be wounding; or he has not the ability to utter it with exactness and snatches at a loose paraphrase; or he has really no genuine thought on the question and is driven to fill up the vacancy by borrowing the remarks in vogue. These are the winds and currents we have all to steer amongst, and they are often too strong for our truthfulness or our wit. Let us not bear too hardly on each other for this common incidental frailty, or think that we rise superior to it by dropping all considerateness and deference.
George Eliot - Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879)
Imagine a test. Doesn’t matter which test or what kind of test, but suppose we begin with a medical test of some kind.
The imaginary test is a few decades old and one of the problems with it is that it takes days to perform, doesn’t work reliably and can be misleading. There are better tests around, but our imaginary test is part of a standard protocol and has been for years.
A committee exists which could propose but not decide that the test be discontinued in favour of something else, but what that might be is unclear. Nobody in the committee really supports the test, but it is part of a standard protocol, so they use it.
Nobody in the committee is prepared to bang the table and push hard for a replacement test either. In private, every member would say the test is obsolete and ought to be abandoned, but only in private. Some would say so more forcefully than others. In public, some would also defend the test more forcefully than others, but none would openly say that it should be consigned to medical history.
The imaginary test could be any one of many procedures in many fields, but collective dishonesty can prevail over individual honesty. Even in professional life, social norms may prevail. These are the winds and currents we have all to steer amongst, and they are often too strong for our truthfulness or our wit.