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Ask HN: Is it possible to be objectively good at something?
25 points by trwhite 9 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 61 comments
If most kinds of success or talent are usually perceived, can we ever truly say someone is "good" at something? For example Tolkien was very popular but does that make him a "good" writer?

I understand this kind of question is going to produce lots of different opinions. That's the idea.

Yes, as long you properly define what it means to be good and make sure it's measurable.

Tolkien is a good writer when we define 'good writer' as a writer whose stories are enjoyed by millions of people, or a writer who is capable of supporting themselves financially by writing fiction.

One of the definitions of good is 'having the qualities required for a particular role', which is pretty explicit in requiring someone to establish criteria with which you judge something as 'good'.

There are writers and artists whose work weren't discovered until after their death. Being a "good writer", IMO, is a technical determination.. whereas being a "good author" might be a tactical one -- sales, acclaim, popularity, etc.

I think my answer to the OPs question is "yes".. but, just as I'm doing here, there are always detractors, and digressions available in these discussions.

> There are writers and artists whose work weren't discovered until after their death.

What does that have to do with whether we can call Tolkien an objectively good writer? Just because you can't apply that to everyone doesn't mean that you can never tell.

...and, actually, I thought I was replying to one of the other comments, not the OP. Would've made more sense if I placed my comment properly.. :-(

I think he makes the distinction that those people were good writers but not good authors. Tolkien was both a good writer and author.

> Yes, as long you properly define what it means to be good and make sure it's measurable.

In this case it's no longer about being "good", it's just about "how does it measure according to a rule?"

See Vincent van Gogh.

Yep, my point is that there is no 'good' without choosing rules to measure against.

Much like there is no 'moral' without choosing a set of philosophical rules to measure against.

"good" is a subjective term by definition. What you mean by "objectively good at something" can at best mean "many people think the person is good at something".

What's considered "good" also changes over time. "Earth is flat" was a "good" theory until people found out other possibilities, and so on.

It is only subjective in certain context. The arts are inherently subjective I think. On the other hand I struggle to find an argument where one can't define Olympic gold medalists as objectively "good" in in their respective pursuits. Or at the very least those medalists who are quantifiably greater than the competition by time or other metrics.

Diving, gymnastics, figure skating etc. are in some respects subjective arts.

Some kinds of performance are measurable. Tell me how long it takes you to run a 5K race and I can tell if you are a "good" runner.

In the case of literature you can't stop someone from having a crackpot opinions such as "Tolkien sux because stories about 'other worlds' are escapist and distract workers from class struggles" or "I hate Tolkien because he inspired DanMachi and other sick anime that my boyfriend watches".

The value of Tolkien as a writer goes beyond "he sold a lot of books" to the influence he had with other writers. He was a pagan but certainly had common cause with his Christian friend C.S. Lewis when it came to the books they wrote. Whether or not you think Tolkien's influence is good or fair, it is objective that the influence was vast.

> He was a pagan

This gave me pause.

"Tolkien's Roman Catholicism was a significant factor in C. S. Lewis's conversion from atheism to Christianity, although Tolkien was dismayed that Lewis chose to join the Church of England."[0]

[0] - https://www.wikiwand.com/en/J._R._R._Tolkien#/Religion

> He was a pagan

Tolkien was a pretty devout Roman Catholic [1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._R._R._Tolkien#Religion

I think this entirely depends on if the people involved in the comparison are using the same basis of measurement.

If everyone agrees on what is being measured and how, then it should be easy to then do the measurements to get results. (who is best)

If the people involved in the comparison don't agree to a basis of measurement, then it's an exercise in futility and nothing more than an exchange of opinions.

Oddly, I interpreted "objectively," as necessarily immeasurable, in contrast to commenters here who state the prerequisite is that "good," be measurable. The example I think of is judged sports, which are essentially arts with a measurement criteria bolted on to them after the fact to facilitate governance. In these cases, the interpretation of the performance does more to legitimize the governance and the judges than it does to meaningfully evaluate the performance itself.

In this sense, I'd posit "objectively good," is a question of beauty, and not measurement criteria. Those sports suffer from the Goodhart's Law problem (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart%27s_law), where you don't need a competition to recognize someone is objectively good at something if they perform it beautifully.

The idea of "good," as a set of measurable scalar quantities presumes that you can express the object in those terms, which in the case of writing or a performance, you can't. There is no set of instructions that can reproduce a "real" performance.

You can produce something where people won't care about its difference from the "real" one (lots of economics and cog.sci on that one), but the existence of a simulation does not change the fact of the existence of the real.

For example, if some future GPT-7 produced the literary equivalent to crack cocaine, it would still not be Ted Chiang, whose work is beautiful and could be said to be objectively good. People might prefer this new crack-lit, which mutes their ability to sense ugliness, parasitism, disgust, or horror, but its existence does not obviate the existence of Chiang. That essential existence is what makes Chiang an objective phenomenon, and the beauty of his work is what makes it good.

I don't think there are short answers to this question though. :)

Writing is creative and typically produces a final product that is subjective. However there are components of writing such as spelling that are not subjective.

It seems reasonable to me to say that he is a popular writer and subjectively good and that he is an objectively good speller.

> there are components of writing such as spelling that are not subjective

I'm not sure this is the case, at least not in English.

Which is correct: "color" or "colour"? They are both correct, of course, but for different dialects of English (en-US vs. en-UK)

Another example that I recently came across that is not dialect/localization dependent: what is the word for "able to be parsed"? Is it "parseable" (with an "e") or "parsable" (sans "e")?

While I've found some sources assert that "parsable" is correct - and I believe it is - others claim that they're both correct or that "parseable" is the correct form.

Suppose I'm working on optimizing a database. I add an index to the the columns `bar` and `baz` of the `foo` table. Have I added two "indexes" or two "indices"? While some sources say that "indexes" is an acceptable way to pluralize the word in English, they seem to all agree that "indices" is also correct. See: https://grammarist.com/usage/indexes-indices/

To make it more complicated, the link above states:

> [...] "indices" is generally preferred in mathematical, financial, and technical contexts, while "indexes" is relatively common in general usage.

Databases are certainly technical contexts... but I've never seen "indices" used in documentation:

So... which is correct? :)

For an objective measure we expect/demand a measurement standard. There are standards that would say one way or the other is the only way, while there are other more relaxed standards that say either is acceptable. If you know the standard measure you can objectively say if "color" is correct or not.

For example, if we accept Merriam-Webster as our standard measure then in each case both spellings of color/colour and indexes/indices are acceptable. One might be preferred over the other but both are objectively correct.

We would then conclude that an author writing for a US audience (per the standard measure of Merriam-Webster) would not have erred in using colour (or color).

counterpoint: intentional misspelling to convey a specific dialect or affect.

i.e., the subjective quality of the work is enhanced by intentional introduction of "inaccurate" or low-objective-quality spelling.

If we would otherwise say that someone is a good speller, but recognize for some artistic reason an author is intentionally misspelling some words then have they actually made an error?

Does the ability to do something intentionally wrong for artistic reasons reveal that you are objectively less skilled at a task or more skilled?

"Objectively" means that someone should be able to unambiguously tell, without having to apply any judgment.

And yes, it's possible. Am I objectively good at calculus? I passed the AP test. That's an objective measure.

But it's not that simple, for at least two reasons. First, it's always possible to question the "objective measure". Is the AP test a good test of whether someone is good at calculus? AP says so, but that's not actually any help. College admissions departments think so, too. But grad school admissions people don't think so at all, and neither do math department hiring committees. This shows the problem: There is a measure that can objectively be met or failed, but is it the right measure? How can you tell? Not objectively.

Second, in many fields, there is no analog to the AP test. Is Tolkein a good writer? Is the Mona Lisa a good painting? There is no clearly objective measure. The only measure is that many people think so; more people than think, say, my daughter's watercolor is a good painting. That's subjective, but at least it has the merit of being subjectively shared by many people. And with something like Mona Lisa, it's shared by many people across many years - it's not just today's fad. That's still subjective, but it's at least a subjectivity that has widespread agreement to it.

> There is a measure that can objectively be met or failed, but is it the right measure? How can you tell? Not objectively.

I think you've hit the nail on the head with this. Thanks for responding.

Some people believe that if something can be judged subjectively, then it can only be judged subjectively. Modern art is often only critiqued in a subjective way, rather than objectively. But that's not necessarily always right.

For example; a good movie can be subjectively bad (you didn't like it), but objectively good (great filmography, original plot, consistent story mechanics). And vice versa.

I suppose subjective criticism is like your gut-instincts, whereas objective criticism is trying to quantify metrics which explain these instincts.

Yes, I believe you can be objectively good at anything if you practice enough and receive feedback/make an impact.

Can you be a great writer if nobody reads your work? Can you be a great artist if nobody sees your paintings? ...... I'm not sure you can be honestly good at something if there's no audience to witness it......

My understanding of your use of the word "good" here is that you are referring to "quality". If so, then the philosophical discussion about "quality" has been covered at length by many great philosophers, one interesting example being "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance".

My use of the word "great" here is, of course, debatable.

Yes, you can be objectively good at simple tasks. You can be objectively good at typing, but not at writing. You can be good at dicing vegetables, but not at cooking. You can be good at knitting, but still knit nothing good if you lack the design choice to choose good things to knit.

Cash is one way to judge talent. How much cash would people pay for a service? If you can make money off glass jewelry, you're a decent jeweler. An objectively great chef would have people booking his restaurant months in advance and charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for a meal. If you're not able to make a cent off it, you're not yet skilled enough.

In the classes I teach, I design the skills learned in terms of cash. A 3 day class will teach you enough to avoid paying a professional to do something, but not enough to get a job. A 3 month bootcamp will be enough to land you a nice job, but not $X salary.

With Patreon today, it's more directly correlated than ever. Even skills like birdwatching or poetry could pay out.

I would argue that if a majority of an audience says something is good (subjective to them), then that thing is good objectively. If something is popular, then it is good. Not to say it is without flaws. That is different.

Take the example of spelling that another user brought up. They claimed it is objective, but that isn't really true. Is the correct spelling color or colour? The answer to that is cultural, and therefore subjective. Unless you hold as I do that popularity is similar enough to objectivity to qualify. The cultural or popular notion determine what is right regarding subjectively judged subjects. This notion, including the spelling and even usage of words, can change over time.

> Is the correct spelling color or colour? The answer to that is cultural, and therefore subjective.

This argument doesn't really work; it would be equally valid if you rephrased the question as "is the correct spelling 'thing' or 'thnig'?"

There is a difference of opinion on 'color', and none on 'thing', but they're equally "cultural".

That proves the argument. "Thing" is only considered correct because the culture has decided it is correct. If it changes to the alternative you proposed, then that would be correct. It wasn't even always "thing". It used to be different, and that was correct too.

> "Thing" is only considered correct because the culture has decided it is correct. If it changes to the alternative you proposed, then that would be correct.

Sure, but it's not correct now, despite being cultural.

Exactly. The culture is what determines good spelling.

Again, it's cultural, but that doesn't make it subjective. The fact that it will be different in the future doesn't tell you that it's already different now. There is a fact of the matter here on which everyone already agrees; it's as objective as any other fact.

Yes, it does. Unless you subscribe to popular=objective, which I do. It is different now though. Looking at the past tells us that. It isn't like every other fact. There is a lot of disagreement in this thread. It isn't a fact like 2+2=4 is a fact.

"-our" endings are a fairly recent British concoction based on French envy. (French spells it "couleur".) French probably has a good reason to write it that way because it captures the phonetics. The extra "u" does nothing in English other than take up space and ink.

The "color" spelling is: (1) shorter: absence of the superfluous is better than its presence; (2) etymologically correct, since the Latin original is "color"; (3) closer to the spelling of the word's cognate in a bunch of languages: Spanish: color; Basque: kolore; Italian: colore; Polish: kolor.

For at least these three reasons, it can be regarded as correct.

English dialects that use "our" endings and whatnot should rid themselves of the baggage, except in the case of direct French loanwords like "velour", pronounced "..oor".

By the same reasoning I see you've incorrectly spelled superfluus.

The reasoning is not the same at all.

Firstly, I'm not aware of a documented "superfluus" usage in English. Maybe we have to go back more than seven or eight hundred years to find it?

Secondly, "-ous" (like "-ose") functions generally as an adjective-forming suffix and is derived from the Latin "-ōsus"; it does not correspond to, and is not an expansion of the the "us" ending in "superfluus". "superflous" can be regarded as a derivation of "superfluus" that has been regularized with the "-ous" ending to make it recognizable as an adjective. This has happened with other words, like "continuus" and "contiguus". In contrast to these, many "-ous" words in fact some from ancient "-ōsus" counterparts, like "numerous" from "numerōsus".

The case for reviving "-ōsus" in English isn't very good; since neither of its "s"s are silent, it calls for a change in the actual spoken words, rather than merely spelling. Plus, it is unfamiliar to English speakers.

The case for creating a class of "-us" adjectives to restore Latin spellings like "contiguus" or "superfluus" is also not very good. It may be shorter, but adds to the proliferation of suffixes. To retain the pronunciations, we need "uu" to be rendered as the diphthong /yuə/ or /uə/, the precedent for which is scarce (being apparently limited to just "continuum"?) I'm not aware of any dialect of English in which such a restoration attempt has taken place, unlike "color" and "neighbor".

Now you're applying different reasoning. You may be right, I don't speak latin.

“I would argue that if a majority of an audience says something is good (subjective to them), then that thing is good objectively”

The majority of Nazi Germany thought Nazi literature and art was good. Does that make nazi literature/art objectively good?

Yes. The culture decided it was so, and therefore it was. The majority of the United States seems to think the Bill of Rights is good, and therefore it is. The majority of Europeans seems to think the European Union is good, and therefore it is. Other cultures may not agree, but that doesn't matter.

That doesn’t make it an objective good. Just because the culture at large is under delusions and hysteria does not mean their assessment of reality maps to an objective good

Considering I'm saying the mapping for an objective good is popularity it does. What definition of objective good are you using?

My opinion is that it is possible. But if you are rigorous about what "good" and "bad" means, then no because there's always going to be someone who thinks different. Can we say Mozart was a good composer? I'm pretty sure you can find music experts who would say no, even though the majority would say yes. I personally don't like the idea that art evaluation is completely subjective because then I can just spit on a canvas and say it's art and you don't have arguments to say it's bad art when in reality we "know" it's bad. Happens a lot with music.

> [...] I can just spit on a canvas and say it's art and you don't have arguments to say it's bad art when in reality we "know" it's bad.

I'm no art historian, but I believe you just described Dada.

I think for any sufficiently complex human activity, including writing, musicianship, or performance in a sport, there's no way to be objectively good at every aspect of it, and there's no one measure that captures all the different possible ways to excel. Overall performance is a complicated mix of competencies, some of which are easier to measure objectively than others. Different observers will judge the "goodness" differently based on which sub-tasks they consider more important. Even among the "greats", you can point to sub-areas that they don't do as well.

> If most kinds of success or talent are usually perceived, can we ever truly say someone is "good" at something?

Only if there are established and accepted criteria, standards on which everyone agrees. The driving range of an electric car, for example.

By contrast, outside science and technology, "good" is a matter of individual taste.

My point? Standards must be defined and accepted by all interested parties.

Here's my favorite example of the opposite case: an optimist and a pessimist have a debate.

The optimist says, "This is the best of all possible worlds!"

The pessimist says, "That's right!"

Both declare victory.

It's impossible to be "good" (or bad, nice, etc.) objectively, because objectivity would require everyone to agree on that. "X is good" is not a proposition in logic, so it can't be confirmed or negated.

However, you can choose a more objective formulation of what you want to achieve. One way is to express it in relation to what others do, e.g. "I won a marathon" - this is a proposition and an objective fact.

To be openly judged at something, you need to openly lay out your plans and then try to make it happen. If it worked out as expected - you're good at it.

I don't think there is an absolute best. Everything is relative. Suppose somebody scores 100 out of 100 in a test. Is that supposed to be objectively good/best?

When we say someone is the best in their field, all we mean is that they seem to do something much better than everybody else in that domain or they possess some special quality that not many others have it.

Only if that something that someone does is objectively measurable.

Usain Bolt, Michael Jordan, objectively the best at what they do.

Best doesn't mean good - as others (and you) said, to be able to claim "objectively good" you need to define what "objectively good" means and how you measure it. You can say "good runner = can run 100m in less than 10s" and then Usain Bolt it good; or you can put the threshold at 9s (nobody is good) or 30s (even I am good).

Agreed Tolkein books are really boring and overly wordy. Shakespeare is worse.

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.

Michael Jackson is a good basketball player. Wayne Gretzky is a good hockey player. Mike Tyson is a good boxer.

I think we can easily say these unbelievable athletes are "good" at their respective sport.

I would add Michael Jordan as a good singer. ;)

I would think things that have a simple objective measure are candidates. The 100m race for example, “good” = fast. Fast tends to be a pretty objective measurement.

I know you asked about "good" implying skill, but your example of Tolkien made me think of Hume's "Of the Standard of Taste"[0]

Not the lightest reading, but very worth the effort. TL;DR - taste is something that can be more refined or less refined. We have some reasons to believe that more refined tastes are 'better' than less refined tastes (people who have learned to appreciate more sophisticated tastes never want to 'go back' even though they now have fewer opportunities for enjoyment).

Obviously it's very controversial and you can make the argument that it's just snobbery, but I think Hume gets at something.

[0] https://web.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361r15.html

Go a round against a heavy weight champion in boxing and ask the question again.

Well, that's one of the reasons that athletic competitions are popular. At the end of 100 meters, someone's in front. And within the sciences and technical fields, the limits of charlatanism are sooner reached. Plenty of writers go out of fashion pretty quickly, but it takes a Stalin to back a Lysenko.

I would say that there are better and worse writers, and I can offer my reasons where I offer an opinion. Yet I know that there have been ages that reversed the attributions of better and worse held now. Shakespeare was out of fashion for a good part of a century, to name an obvious example in the English-speaking world.

To answer your title question...

Not if you're me.

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