No silver bullets – on the nature of “Proof”

Pierre de Fermat, Pythagoras of Samos, and Jose Antonio of Venezuela


I’ve devised something I call the “Culpability-Responsibility-Accountability Progression.” Yes, that’s right, CRAP. It’s a product of my observations upon the function – or dysfunction – of corporate structure. Here’s how it works. If a person within an organizational structure makes a mistake, he’s culpable. The person who signs off on the mistake (usually the direct superior) is responsible. And that’s where it should end: by the time you get to discussions of accountability there’s nothing meaningful left within the process, just a public relations exercise undertaken to mollify stakeholders. By the time you get to discussions of accountability, you’re at the end of the progression. You’ve got CRAP.

That’s the second harsh assessment in as many blogs entries, but it’s important to understand why funding agencies are so data driven, so obsessed with finding “proof” of impact. The word accountability has been simply been confused with responsibility, namely, the legitimate, genuine obligation of an agency to disburse funds in the manner most consistent with its mission. Accountability is simply a way of diverting or managing the disposition of blame if there’s a problem or disagreement with a decision, and numbers, preferably impenetrable in their presentation, make a lovely smokescreen with which to obfuscate.

Unfortunately, as a result of this institutionalized numbers obsession it’s very easy for those involved in advocacy for music education to fall into the trap of believing there’s a data-based silver bullet, the one study/evaluation/document that will put to rest all disagreements now and forever, the final proof before which all objections will fall, with which all funding will be restored.

Like Fermat’s Last Theorem, such an ideal proof might actually be out there, but the concept of proof is as problematic as that of accountability. Our current efforts to prove the viability of social action through music are simply an extension of the premise that music is, in some shape or form, “good for you”, a hypothesis that has been extensively tested in the past with uniform results. By uniform, I mean that the researchers agreed there was a benefit, other researchers disagreed as to the study methodology or validity, and few if any funding decisions were changed. We keep accumulating more and more data in this area in an attempt to prove the same point, while fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of proof.

Don’t fetch your ruler.

Accumulation of data is nothing more than an attempt at an empirical proof. This would be akin to Pythagoras of Samos attempting to justify his theorem by measuring every single right triangle imaginable – an exercise, and as such, a “proof” bound to fail. Such a collation of data would only prove that those right triangles measured aligned with his postulation, that at best one might assume other right triangles would exhibit the same relationships in terms of dimensions of sides, but still leaving an infinite number of right triangles still unmeasured, and thus the extent possibility of one triangle that did not conform.

Empirical proofs aren’t proofs at all, ultimately. They always leave room for doubt or disagreement, and this is why if there is “one proof to end them all,” it won’t be a collection of data. Numbers are useful for agencies to satisfy their organizational need for accountability (and everything that word implies) as well as their responsibility, and can actually be invaluable in guiding program development internally, but that’s generally where it ends. Remember the three rules for data: 1)be modest in your promises 2)be ruthless in your assessment 3) be realistic in your expectations.

Pythagoras proved his hypothesis via logical proposition, creating an argument unbounded by measurements that established the universal applicability of his theorem. We may not have a logical proposition as yet that accomplishes the same, but much like Fermat’s Last Theorem (now proven), the social power of music is something we hold to be good and true. And in many ways, this is greater proof than any study, the fact that so many people have chosen to dedicate their lives to it, so many across the globe stand in solidarity with Maestro Abreu, accepted his argument not because he has a study to support his premise, but because the idea itself has worth inherent to make it almost axiomatic.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s