The Euthyphro Dilemma in New Zealand

I recently had the opportunity to converse about tester certification with Carol Cornelius, who’s on the board of the New Zealand version of the ISTQB. The discussion went well in one respect: she did not physically run away. (Oh, and she concurred with me on the subject of Stuart Reid, which was nice to hear.)

[Considering that they misrepresent my ideas, perhaps she should have run away. To give two examples, my work on SBTM has been plagiarized in their Test Management Syllabus (page 47 of the Advanced Level Syllabus) and of course, they have taken it out of context and gotten it wrong. And my definition of exploratory testing has also been plagiarized and corrupted (page 51). It’s mischaracterized as a cute little informal test technique when in fact it is an approach, universal to good testing, that applies to any technique, and the citation they give (to a chapter I wrote in an out of date book) directly contradicts what they say about it.]

Well, Carol stood her ground, at least physically. But as the debate developed, she made an odd-sounding claim. She said words to the effect that the ISTQB Syllabus is what it is, and is not subject to her criticism. This shocked me, especially since this admission was made in a rather off-handed way– somewhat like commenting that the moon is in the sky.

The reason for my shock was the sudden realization that I was putting a lot of energy into arguing with a person who was, essentially, behaving as a puppet. Oh dear. I was doing the equivalent of yelling at my television instead of engaging the guy ON the television.

If someone defends a principle that he has not originated and is not free to change, reject, or even criticize, then he is not defending it rationally. He cannot. No rational defense can be made under those circumstances. Rationality, in fact, loses its meaning. What he is doing is simply advertising his commitment. And that has no more weight in an argument than have the words of a baseball (or netball) fan who predicts his team will win the big game.

This triggered a niggling memory in me, and afterward it popped fully to mind: the Euthyphro Dilemma.

The dilemma occurs in the Platonic Dialogue of Euthyphro. Socrates is examining Euthyphro about the source of the notion of piety, or good behavior in humans. Euthyphro says that what is loved by the Gods (all of the Gods) is good. Then Socrates asks:

“Just consider this question: Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?”

Now this isn’t just a question, but also an attack on the whole notion of appeal to authority. That’s why Carol’s offhanded comment triggered the memory.

Let me apply it to the case at hand: Is the ISTQB syllabus good because it’s a powerful, helpful set of ideas that define genuine testing professionalism, or is it good simply because the ISTQB organization says so?

This question is a dilemma for ISTQB supporters, because if they go with the first option, then they must:

  1. Avoid making any claim or behaving in any way that suggests they believe the syllabus just because they are unable or unwilling to study testing for themselves. (Saying that the ISTQB Syllabus was beyond her criticism violates this one.)
  2. Be prepared to explain and justify any aspect of the syllabus on when challenged by a colleague, just as anyone is normally expected to do for a personal opinion in a professional context. (I felt that Carol did not do this. At one point I cited my definition of coverage, and she agreed with it. Then I began to point out implications of my view that contradicted ISTQB dogma about measuring coverage, and I didn’t hear a coherent response after that.)
  3. Be prepared to change their views (thus breaking with the ISTQB) in the face of compelling evidence or reasoning. (I did not witness Carol do this, but I can understand that she wouldn’t necessarily consider my word as a tester to be evidence. What I can’t understand is why she seemed unaware of the work that my community has done and published, over the years, that does comprise compelling argument and evidence. This is not a new or novel debate. The issues have been clearly and repeatedly and publicly established.)
  4. Admit that they don’t need the ISTQB to learn testing, nor to be recognized as a good tester. (I don’t think this applies to Carol, since my understanding is that she doesn’t consider herself to be a tester, strictly speaking.)

And if they go with the second option, then they are choosing to be zombie non-combatants and can be safely ignored in the Great Conversation of testing.

Ideological commitment can be a bitch. That’s why, in the Context-Driven world, we keep that part pretty simple. There are seven principles that define our program. Of course there are many other common patterns and beliefs beyond those seven, but there is tremendous flexibility, because our whole focus is on DENYING a One True Way of testing.

We see testing professionalism as a matter of vigorous personal study and development. We reject any universal syllabus of testing. That’s why it hardly matters whether some particular definition or claim in the syllabus is also one I hold– because the nature of my commitment and the way I understand is completely different from that of an ISTQB board member.

This is why I say that supporting the ISTQB is, in and of itself, inconsistent with the goal of being a testing professional. A professional tester must own his craft.