Relevance, The Fallacy of

The fallacy that the efficiency of a complex system can be sustained by purging the irrelevant.

Living systems, given a chance, are exuberant. The excess produced by a natural system—the supply of seed and larvae, the material abundance—would threaten to choke it if it were not for the predators which prune it and control the surplus, stimulating an even greater variety. There is a wildness here, a sense of inexhaustible invention, of not knowing when to stop.

As the naturalist Gilbert White wrote to his friend Thomas Pennant in 1768,

All nature is so full that that district has the greatest variety which is the most examined.R34

If such a system is tamed and brought to order, the outcomes can be perverse. And this is certain to happen when the mistake is made of acting on an abstract, reductionist methodology, which listens to only one strictly delimited kind of feedback. For a short period, there may be windfall results (on the defined terms), but the loss of complexity and diversity will bring trouble, for characteristics which at first were taken to be irrelevant tend to turn out, after all, to have a purpose, or at least a value. For instance, the weeds and wildness surviving in a cultivated landscape are more useful than they may seem to be: nettles are habitat for the species on which young ladybirds build up their strength before eating the aphids that attack crops; damp pond margins are habitat for the larvae of the gall midge that also feeds on the aphids; wildflowers feed the hoverfly that produce larvae—and they, too, do their bit in the control of aphids. Long grass is winter quarters for pest-eating beetles; insect-eating birds prosper in hedges; bats and chickens protect apple crops from coddling moths . . .R35

An example of the Fallacy of Relevance—purging the irrelevant—in pursuit of efficiency is the closing down of traditional farming in Bali in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A vernacular system had evolved over many centuries for managing water, along with varieties of rice adapted to the local soil and climate. This system was integrated into the culture and religion of the society, and regulated by the priests, whose water temples were beautiful and prominent features of the landscape. When the national government of Indonesia decided that all this should end, that new hybrid strains of rice should be adopted, and that the water temples were irrelevant, the consequences followed a familiar pattern. After two or three years of blossoming yields, the pests and fungi came, the crops failed, and the Balinese religious institutions quickly became meaningless as they lost their relevance to the people’s economy and daily lives. The exuberant beauty of Balinese culture, dismissed as irrelevant, turned out in retrospect to have been indispensable.R36

Seeming irrelevance gives texture, touch and warmth to life. Without it, our encounters with people are bleakly functional. They do the job—sell you the ticket, extract your kidney stone—as a functional, instrumental service, thin and impersonal. The post-war liberal market economy specialises in this hollow efficiency, taking it to be a borderline immoral act to recognise a service provider as a person: to be attribute-blind, person-blind, is now thought as much a virtue as observant, humorous, warm encounter once was. “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will,” said the surgeon as he was about to circumcise the infant author of Lean Logic on the kitchen table one stormy night some time ago. It was not irrelevant: you have to love that doctor.R37

And yet, “lean means”—purging the irrelevant—is one of the five defining principles of lean thinking. So what gives the relevant/irrelevant distinction its meaning? Intention. A system designed to achieve a well-judged intention—e.g., TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas), designed to stimulate solutions for reducing fossil fuel dependency—would look very different if designed for a reductionist aim—e.g., to make money for those involved. Equally, the elegance of the system can be destroyed if a set of additional objectives is attached. Many ways of improving the TEQs model have been suggested: it could be focused on redistributing wealth, especially from the commercial sector to individuals, or it could work as an alternative currency, or be applied as the basis for world government. This “Why doesn’t it walk the dog?” fallacy turns up everywhere—e.g., tacking social engineering onto the core objective of education—heaping up the camel with back-breaking baggage in the interests of compassion.

The divide between the relevant and the irrelevant is not always obvious, but it is critical. It can, given thought, be identified. That is what thinking is for.


Related entries:

Lean Thinking > Feedback, Irrelevance, Rationalism, Harmless Lunatic, Reflection, Spirit.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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