In addition to being blind to false assumptions (“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”), humans tend to resist having their assumptions challenged. Assumptions can be very comforting, even essential, to a person’s sense of emotional well-being. We often don’t want to discover, or be told, that our cherished assumptions are false.
An important aspect of being objective, therefore, is the willingness to empirically test our conclusions and see how they stack up against reality. In engineering this is generally a straightforward and uncontroversial process: we just take a measurement. When dealing with social issues, however, such as measuring the effectiveness of public schools, this is much more difficult. The difficulty is not in the measurement, which, for example, can easily show that spending more money per pupil does not improve student learning. The difficulty is in getting policymakers to accept such a measurement, because it threatens cherished assumptions that are intertwined with their financial self-interest.
Even in engineering one sometimes runs into this stubborn reluctance to admit than an old practice has become obsolete, or has even been wrong all along. This resistance is more likely to occur in sub-specialties that are harder to measure and quantify, such as quality and reliability, as compared to more specific and concrete specialties such as hardware design. (We’ll look at some interesting examples in a future post.)
In some cases we’re reluctant to challenge our assumptions because of fear. For example, when confronted with a life-threatening disease, many of us blindly put our faith in the hands of our doctors. We want to believe their assurances that radiation and chemotherapy will kill those cancer cells, and we don’t want to question their assurances because the alternative is very unpleasant. Unfortunately, as we will see later, such unquestioned trust may be misguided.
If we are to apply engineering thinking, we must be willing to overcome our reluctance to digging down to the bottom, and be willing to follow our chain of logic to its roots. If the roots are rotten, it will mean that the tree you have constructed in your mind is only an illusion. Or as software programmers say, garbage in equals garbage out.
Protect False Assumptions
As we noted earlier (“Put On Your Emotional Armor”), we may encounter those folks who simply do not have the required emotional armor to discuss issues rationally. A two-way and even-handed discussion, at least on certain touchy topics, will be impossible.
Why are some folks so shackled by irrationality? It could be that they were raised in a family or culture where certain beliefs were conveyed by fierce emotion, and questions and independent thinking were forbidden: This is the way it is, period; my way or the highway. In other cases a person may have experienced an emotional trauma whose impact eclipses rational discussion (“I would have died in that accident if I hadn’t been wearing my lucky rabbit’s foot!”).
As an example of a specific emotional blockage, consider those who are taught at an early age to be compassionate, where compassion is defined by how one feels, rather than how one evaluates. Such folks may have a difficult time putting on their emotional armor when discussing social issues such as the homeless. Are you helping that pitiful-looking homeless person when you hand them a few bucks, or are you just indulging in sentimentality to make yourself feel good, and actually harming that person?
Here are some good clues to spotting those who will not respond well to reasoned arguments:
Signs Of The Rationally Challenged
- They get easily irritated if their opinions are questioned
- They do not ask you for your opinion
- When their argument is not accepted at face value, they repeat it, only louder
- They punctuate their points by blustering, scowling, or table thumping
- They arrogantly dismiss the merits of your argument and engage in personal attacks (“Ed, what makes an engineer like you think you know anything about economics?”)
- They use their professional authority to avoid debating the merits of an issue (“I’m a doctor; what does a housewife like you know about medicine?”)
- They cite a single personal experience as incontrovertible proof of their argument
- Vague condescending statements are presented as proofs (“as everyone knows…”; “as even an idiot can see…”)
- When they realize they are losing their argument to a rational, patient person, they either change the subject or suddenly jump up and walk off
The above guidelines can help tell us whether or not someone with whom we disagree has emotional blockages. In the next post we’ll take this topic an uncomfortable step further, and see if we ourselves have such blockages.
I’m Right! (Or Am I?)