Embrace your testing ignorance

What is ignorance? Well most people will think of ignorance as the following:

  • Wilful stupidity
  • Callow indifference to facts
  • Stubborn devotion to uninformed opinions
  • Ignoring of contrary ideas , opinions or facts
  • Uneducated, unaware, unenlightened, uninformed

I think you’ll agree that none of these are good. There is also another, less pejorative type of ignorance however. This is more of a common ignorance. The absence of facts, understanding, insight or clarity about something. This is where data does not exist or more communally does not make sense, or add up to a coherent explanation.

Ignorance can be a positive tool. It helps to frame better questions, which in turns produces better answers. It’s this ignorance that drives the scientific world. In his book “Ignorance: how it drives science”, Neuroscientist Stuart Firestien goes into great detail about this very subject, and I recommend reading it. In his book he, humorously, goes into details of why ignorance is at the heart of science; how in the day-to-day process of scientific activities it’s not what is already know that gets discussed, but more the what is still to be discovered that scientists discuss amongst themselves in the bars at night after a hard day in the labs. What he calls the “exhilaration of the unknown”.

“One never notices what has been done; one only notices what remains to be done…” – Marie Curie

Science has for 500 or so years systematically pursued knowledge using the scientific method; a body of techniques for acquiring new knowledge, interrogating and correcting previous knowledge, and investigating phenomena, that is based on evidence which is both empirical and measurable. But Firestien points out that the belief that this amalgamation of facts is what science is all about as a bit of a misconception woven by the media, and educational system, and argues that science is more like bumbling around in the dark. As Mathematician Andrew Wiles describes: It’s groping and probing and poking, and some bumbling and bungling, and then a switch is discovered, often by accident, and the light is lit, and everyone says, “Oh, so that’s how it looks.” And then it’s off to the next dark room. Stuart Firestien jokingly says science is less scientific method, but instead more “farting around…. In the dark.”

“It’s very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room, especially when there is no cat” – Ancient Proverb

Testing in many peoples eye is very closely aligned to the world of science; I am one of those that feel there are a large number of parallels, and after reading this book I could not help but feel that this all seemed so familiar and aligned with how I feel about, and see testing. That is to say that for all the “procedures” that are in place in testing most of the good information that comes from testing in my experience is when I or one of my team have been bumbling around in the dark, even if at the time we were afraid to admit that to anyone, including ourselves.

We like to think that testing is all controlled and process driven, even those that are in the Context driven school to some extent (just those processes change depending on situational context). But the reality is that for all that control a large part of the day to day activity of testing is the same as in science, you are looking in a dark room for bugs based on some rumour that one might be in there, or they might not; if you’re lucky you might stumble across it. If not you move on to the next dark room.

In testing we must embrace our ignorance. We must use what we don’t know as the fuel to drive our testing. We should use the facts from our results from previous testing as the raw material for new, better quality ignorance as we learn about what we are testing, but not so we can say what we know about it, but to better articulate what we are still to discover.


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