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Medicalization and Intolerance by Ed Catmull


This interview with Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, has some good thinking about fallibilism. He understands that even when he isn't aware of any particular error, he still has to be concerned with errors. And he talks about trying to deal with error but not prevent any from happening in the first place. That's good because preventing all error is impossible and leads to authoritarian policies (because freedom allows for too many possibilities to even dream of preventing all errors).

Ed Catmull also uses a recurring "health" metaphor. He means well in the interview, but he's making two serious mistakes regarding health. He expressed a rational attitude towards criticism, so I will explain the mistakes in hopes of helping.
If the team is functioning well, and healthy, it will solve the problem.
[At Pixar] there is very high tolerance for eccentricity, very creative, and to the point where some are strange… but there are a small number of people who are socially dysfunctional [and] very creative – we get rid of them. If we don’t have a healthy group then it isn’t going to work.
First, this talk of "healthy" is a bad metaphor because it's a medical metaphor, but the issues he's discussing are social-psychological, not medical. This is the (inappropriate) medicalization of everyday life.

Issues of how people treat each other, how they feel, what they think, how they approach interactions, and so on, are all important issues, but they are not medical issues. So a medical metaphor is inappropriate. Thinking about these issues in the wrong way is one of the causes of errors that should be fixed.

Second, the claim here is "very high tolerance". But it's actually saying that the category labelled "unhealthy" is not tolerated. What is in that "unhealthy" category? The use of a vague metaphor hides which things are not tolerated.

It's fine not to tolerate absolutely everything, but it's better to speak clearly about this. The limits of tolerance deserve serious thought and clarity, not vagueness. That would help find and fix any errors in the choice of what not to tolerate.

Being clear and open about what isn't tolerated also lets people know what the rules are. It's good to have openly and precisely stated rules so people can know whether they are following the rules or not, and can choose to make changes to follow the rules better. Clarity would also allow for feedback and would prevent nasty surprises for people who fail to guess the unstated rules correctly.

Elliot Temple on May 27, 2013


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