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Category Archives: Assumptions

Healthcare: Ask The Wrong Question, Get The Wrong Answer

“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
-P. T. Barnum

Engineering Thinking teaches us to challenge our assumptions, because if they are wrong, then our subsequent analysis and decisions will be wrong.

The healthcare challenge — it is commonly assumed — is this: how can the government best ensure that the weakest members of society receive adequate health care?

This is the wrong question. The reason it is wrong is that it is based on the flawed assumption that the government should be making our health care decisions. As discussed previously (see “Feedback, Prices, And Sullen Spouses“), the government is inherently inefficient, and is therefore the last organization that one should ever select to provide a service.

But what is the alternative?

First, remove health care from the tasks assigned to governments at all levels: federal, state, and local. This will substantially eliminate the tremendous waste of dollars caused by having inefficient bureaucrats positioned between patients and their doctors, and — just as importantly, if not more so — eliminate the moral hazard created by providing “free” services to those who may not deserve them, at the expense of diligent and hard-working taxpayers.

So who takes care of the poor, the unlucky, the out of work?

We do. But we do it through our local communities, through our churches and charities and civic associations. This was done before the advent of Big Government and worked well (see “What Would Happen If The Government Didn’t Take Care Of Us?“), and it can work well again. Local communities will be able to evaluate best who deserves help and how much and on what terms, eliminating the moral hazard. The rest of us will continue to pay for our own medical coverage. Government’s function will be reduced to its proper function, that of ensuring that insurance companies operate transparently and honestly in a competitive environment.

Does this sound simple? It is simple. Politicians and their special-interest allies (whose prestige and livelihoods depend on fooling you into providing your tax dollars for their grand and impractical ideas) would prefer that you think that all of this is too complex for you to understand, and that fairness can only be assured by putting your faith in the government.

Are you not yet convinced of my analysis? If so, I doubt I can change your mind, and respect your right to your opinion. But I would ask you one question:

Have you ever been asked by a relative or a friend for a favor, such as loaning them some money? If so, I’m sure that you based your decision on your personal knowledge of that friend or family member. But what if someone on the other side of the country that you don’t even know asked you for a loan? Would you give it to them? No? Then why on earth are you so willing to give your tax dollars to anonymous bureaucrats to give to anonymous people who may or may not deserve those hard-earned dollars?

-Ed Walker

 

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Assumptions: What We Know That Might Not Be So: Are You Reading This In The Middle Of The Night?

Please see “The myth of the eight-hour sleep” by Stephanie Hegarty, 22 Feb 2012 BBC News Magazine.
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More Thoughts On Forcing The Rich To Pay “Their Fair Share”

As mentioned previously, the quality of our decisions is largely dependent upon their underlying assumptions (see “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along“). If our assumptions are wrong, then any subsequent analysis will very likely be incorrect. This post examines assumptions about wealth, and suggests how popular notions based on incorrect assumptions can yield grossly incorrect conclusions.

A lot of folks today (based on sensational news reporting of the Occupy Wall Street “movement”) seem to think that it is morally wrong and unjust for some of our fellow citizens to have more income (or more wealth) than we average folks do. So let’s apply some engineering thinking and see just how upset we should be at the rich, and whether or not we should make them our slaves. You can do your own analysis, but here are some things for the Wall Street Occupiers to consider:

1. Do you understand the difference between income and wealth? Income is the flow of money to an individual based on their work (or from investments, which flow from prior work effort, or perhaps due to inheritance or luck). Income does not stay resident in a rich person’s home (assuming they don’t burn their money or stuff it under a mattress), it largely flows through them to other folks who provide goods and services. This is why average folks like to be located near wealthier folks; so they can be closer to the flow of money.

Income, if not squandered, can also accumulate through savings and investment in wealth (real estate, money in the bank, autos, jewelry, etc.). Wealth can also be inherited, or obtained by luck (Wow! I won the lottery!), but wealth is much more likely to be obtained by many years of sacrifice and hard work.

Okay, so if you want life to be “fair,” what would be a fair way of taking the extra wealth or income from those folks who have more than you or me? How do you account for the effort and risks they have applied to their lives? What if they were just lucky? (If you won the lottery, would you like the government to redistribute it to everyone else who was not as lucky as you?) If you have a student loan, should wealthy folks who paid for their loans also pay for yours?

2. Do you understand that rich and poor people, for the majority of cases, are not stuck in those positions? Rich people frequently lose their wealth through bad business decisions or bad luck, while poor people frequently obtain great wealth due to hard work or luck. The important point is that “rich” and “poor” are typically not static; they change dramatically with time. Someone rich (or poor ) today is often poor (or rich) tomorrow. So how do you define “rich”? Is it someone who today has more than you or me, or should we take into consideration how long they’ve had their wealth? After all, we should be careful to be completely fair before we make someone our slave.

3. With regard to forcibly taking money from the rich to give to ourselves (via the federal government), how do we justify this? As described previously (“Why PIzzanomics Is Immoral“), government services are no different than any other service. But if we decide that rich people should pay more than you and me, then why shouldn’t they always pay more? When a wealthy person hires a plumber, shouldn’t they pay two or three or more times as much for having their leak fixed? But if so, who should determine the added amount, and how much should it be?

The decision to make someone our slave should be carefully considered, because — at least for now — they aren’t completely our slave, because they can leave. And (although the government doesn’t publicize it) this is happening: millions of Americans are leaving, fed up with being slaves, and they’re taking their money, talent, and job-creating abilities with them.

So who do we get to make our slaves, once they have all gone?

-Ed Walker

 

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Is Your Boss A Narcissist?

Narcissists, similar to sociopaths (i.e. those with antisocial personality disorder), can wreak havoc because most of us are not equipped to detect their deceptions. For a recent study, please check “Narcissists rise to the top because people mistake their confidence and authority for leadership qualities,” by Anna Edwards, 11 Aug 2011, Mail Online.

What do you do if your boss is a narcissist? If at all possible, find another job.

-Ed Walker

 

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Family Comes First: True or False?

Boldly Go Where Your Mind Has Not Gone Before: Challenge Your Assumptions! (Part 2)

Engineering Thinking requires that we challenge all assumptions, particularly those that seem to be obviously true. As mentioned before, such challenges may propel us toward conclusions that may, at first glance, seem weird, wacky, or nutty. Nonetheless, we must learn to go where the analysis takes us, so here we go:

In the area of personal relationships, an assumption that is rarely challenged is the one that says, loud and clear, “family comes first.”

Family Comes First: True or False?

The assumption behind “family comes first” is that we have a higher obligation to family members than we do to other folks. This would appear to be reasonable for nuclear parent-child families, where parents have a moral obligation to properly raise their children.

But what about more distant family connections, with cousins, aunts, uncles, and in-laws involved, or cases where the children are grown? Are there any instances where expending the time and effort on family matters may not be morally superior than spending time with others? Here are a few scenarios to ponder:

1. Your only child has grown, who unfortunately has not turned out to be a very pleasant person. You had an evening planned to go out with some rock-solid “non-family” friends you’ve known for twenty years. Your child suddenly drops by with a standard emergency. Should you cancel your outing with your friends?

2. Your family’s gatherings are full of strife, with excessive alcohol, bickering, and tension. Do you feel obligated to attend these family gatherings on every holiday?

3. Like many families, yours has become split by divorce. Do holiday gatherings become an ordeal where some relatives try to use guilt to force you into eliminating or minimizing the time spent with the other side of the family?

If one starts with the premise that true friends — those who appreciate you and consistently treat you with respect — are the definition of true family, you will find clear answers to the questions posed above.

Merry Christmas!

-Ed Walker


 

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Using Engineering Thinking To Solve Personal Problems

Boldly Go Where Your Mind Has Not Gone Before: Challenge Your Assumptions!

Consider this scenario: You have a close relationship with a fairly rational person, and you have an important personal issue you need to resolve. How to proceed?

In such cases we’ve  learned how different points of view branch from different assumptions (see “Put On Your Emotional Armor“). Therefore, before you even start to discuss the issue with the other party, a way to help improve the odds for agreement is to first review your own position. Dig down to the roots of your beliefs until you reach your baseline assumptions, and then boldly challenge them.

Example

Susan: The issue: Sam never wants to go to the opera, but I always go with him to his ball games. This bugs me.

Susan: My baseline assumption: Fair is fair. If I do something for Sam then he should do something for me.

Challenge: Do you dislike going to the ball games?

Susan: Um, no, they’re kind of fun.

Challenge: Does he insist that you go?

Susan: Um, no.

Challenge: Do you know how much Sam dislikes the opera?

Susan: Um, no. We’ve never discussed it. He just never wants to go. I think he might like it if he went and tried it.

Challenge: Does he object if you go by yourself to the opera?

Susan: Um, no.

Challenge: Are there other activities that you both enjoy doing?

Susan: Yes. We both like hanging out at the beach, and motor biking.

Challenge: Your assumption for fairness seems to be that Sam should do something he doesn’t want to do for you, while you do things for him you like to do. Is your definition of “fair” really fair?

Susan: Well…

ET Observation: Humans spend a lot of time trying to control others, under the guise of “fairness” or “compromise.” Wouldn’t it be better to apply that energy to seeking activities that are mutually agreeable? After all, there is a whole universe of things to do out there, so why become obsessed about those few that one party doesn’t like?

-Ed Walker


 

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Update: A Summary Of Engineering Thinking Principles

CounselorBarb™ has just advised this engineer that he should have defined the term “normal” that was used in the prior post’s step 3:

“ET Step 3: Challenge Assumptions: Be willing to adjust your views and lower your expectations if you find that your roommate’s behavior is more normal than you think it is.”

Barb points out that the word “normal” may imply judgment regarding behavior. In engineering the term “normal” refers generally to an average condition, with no judgment implied. Since an objective of Engineering Thinking is to remove or reduce emotional influences, Barb’s point is a good one.

It is indeed important to use terms that do not imply guilt/innocence or other pre-judgments of a situation, otherwise a discussion may go off track before it really gets started; e.g. “Fred, I’ve researched your underwear-dropping habit and it’s just not normal.” As opposed to, “Fred, I’ve researched your underwear-dropping habit and it’s not one that’s shared by most of the population.”

-Ed Walker

 

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My Spouse Is Too Moody: What Do I Do?

Now that we’ve learned the importance of objectivity — that we should avoid emotional blockages, and be willing to challenge our assumptions — let’s try applying some Engineering Thinking to solve a common problem: a moody spouse.

In solving problems a lot can be accomplished by simply being sure that the same words mean the same thing to both parties. For example, just what is a “moody spouse,” anyway? If you think it means “easily irritated” while your spouse thinks it means “sad,” the ensuing confusion may ignite an emotional argument that makes things worse, not better.

So how do we define “moody”? In fact, is moody even a good choice of words? If you say, “Honey, I want to talk to you about your moodiness,” could that provoke a defensive reaction? Probably, because “moody” is a vague term with negative and judgmental connotations. Since we wish to avoid emotional blockages, perhaps we should use a more diplomatic approach, such as, “Honey, you seem to be tired and stressed a lot lately; is there anything I can do to help?” Voila, we’ve switched the dynamics from what would have likely been a defensive confrontation to one of concerned support.

In the engineering workplace, the managers that I consider to be excellent use the same approach. Instead of scowling, “Ed, you’re behind schedule — again!” they will say, “Ed, I see that you’re not keeping up with the schedule; what can I do to help?”

The Phrase “What Can I Do To Help?” Works Magic

Okay, so now you’re ready to frame the issue constructively. But before you approach your spouse, you should challenge your assumptions. You’re assuming that your spouse has a moodiness issue, but could it be that you’re just too darn ornery? Or perhaps you have some mood issues, too, that are no big deal to you, but might be highly annoying to others? Therefore, when you say, “What can I do to help?” you should be ready for your spouse’s response. In particular, you should be prepared to accept the possibility that you may be viewed as a contributor to the problem. You should be ready to engage in some self-examination, and be willing to modify your own imperfect behavior.

Problems Between Partners Travel On A Two-Way Street

Finally, before your broach the subject, do your research. You should have a good idea of what causes mood swings, and some suggested solutions. A person who tends to be moody may be experiencing adverse reactions to medication, or perhaps they have poor diet and exercise habits. They might have a genetic predisposition to be moody, or perhaps they have psychological issues such as lack of maturity, or destructive behaviors that stem from a bad childhood or a prior abusive adult relationship. In the latter cases the two of you may need professional assistance from a qualified mental health professional. Are you willing to take that step? You should be.

During an engineering development project, sometimes a design team will be confronted with a serious problem that they just can’t seem to solve. In those cases the smarter project manager picks up the phone and calls a consultant. This is absolutely not a negative reflection on the team’s abilities, it’s simply a rational and productive solution to a problem — a qualified consultant offers specialized expertise, a fresh perspective, and doesn’t take sides.

Obtaining The Advice Of A Psychologist To Tune Up Your Relationship
Is No Different Than Seeking The Advice Of A Pro To Tune Up Your Golf Game

(I would like to express my appreciation to my wife, CounselorBarb, who has provided invaluable advice on how to properly present psychological issues within the Engineering Thinking framework.)

Next Post:

My Spouse Is Too Moody: What Do I Do? (Part 2)

-Ed Walker

 

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I Don’t Want To Hear It!

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.

Emotional Blockages
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

  1. They get easily irritated if their opinions are questioned
  2. They do not ask you for your opinion
  3. When their argument is not accepted at face value, they repeat it, only louder
  4. They punctuate their points by blustering, scowling, or table thumping
  5. 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?”)
  6. 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?”)
  7. They cite a single personal experience as incontrovertible proof of their argument
  8. Vague condescending statements are presented as proofs (“as everyone knows…”; “as even an idiot can see…”)
  9. 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.

Next Post:

I’m Right! (Or Am I?)

-Ed Walker

 
 

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Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

To combat the informational distortions caused by emotion, we humans have been clever enough to devise a wonderful process called the scientific method, which embodies engineering thinking: be objective, review pertinent data, use logic to arrive at the most likely solution, and obtain independent verification.

So, one may ask, if we’re intelligent enough to have a procedure that allows us to obtain the truth, why can’t we all agree on the various issues that tend to divide us? Why aren’t we all liberals, or conservatives, or libertarians? Shouldn’t there be just one right answer, if we apply engineering thinking?

In theory, yes. But the Achilles’ heel of engineering thinking, and for analysis in general, is our assumptions. Over the short run, faulty assumptions can easily corrupt the scientific method. It is not until assumptions are challenged that we, over the long run, can be sure that we’re converging on the truth.

Our Mental Blind Spot: Assumptions

You may not realize it, but you are partially blind in both eyes, close to the center of your vision. There is a small area in each eye (located at the optic nerve head) that contains no photoreceptors, and hence transmits no visual information from that area to the brain. We do not notice these blind spots because the brain ignores them, even though they are there. (You can confirm this as follows: close your left eye and focus your right eye on the center of this page. Hold up a finger near the screen at the focus, and while not shifting the focus slowly move your finger a few inches to the right. Through your side vision you will “see” the tip of your finger vanish. In the left eye the blind spot will be to the left of the focus.)

When we try to logically analyze an issue, we start with a foundation of basic assumptions. Since we tend to blindly accept such assumptions, if they are wrong then our view of the world will be wrong.

Consider this small example. My wife Barb and I (and our cat Misha) live in a nice tree-lined neighborhood, where at one time our new next-door neighbor painted their house a bright blue color. In contrast to all of the soft earth tones of the other homes in the neighborhood, the blue color stuck out like a sore thumb.

During this period I had gone on a business trip, and returned very late one night. Early the next morning a stocky man with a serious expression knocked loudly on our door. When I swung it open he held up a summons, but fortunately he was at the wrong address. “You want the house next door, the blue house,” I said, gesturing to my right.

From our vantage point the house was not visible, so he took a few steps back and looked to his left. He stared for a moment, and then turned back to me. “The blue house,” he said.

“Yes,” I nodded, “That’s the one you want.”

He once again looked to his left, stared, and again turned to me, only this time he appeared to be getting upset. “The blue house,” he said sternly, scowling.

I’m pretty mild mannered and patient, but he was starting to annoy me. “Yes,” I said, more firmly. “The blue house, right next door.”

He appeared about to say something, but instead just scowled some more, and without a further word swiveled and left. I remember thinking that he was quite peculiar and rude. It was only a bit later that morning, after I ventured outside to get the newspaper, that I understood the reason for his scowl. While I was away the neighbor’s house had been repainted a nice beige color.

I Knew I Was Right

But I was Wrong

Sometimes, as in the example of the blue house, we will discover for ourselves the falsity of our assumptions. In general, however, false assumptions tend to stay buried and hidden. Therefore we need to share our reasoning with our objective friends and colleagues, and allow them to challenge us. Even though we are blind to our assumptions, others may be able to point out that our logic is built on sand, rather than rock.

But do we really want to have our cherished assumptions challenged? We’ll dig into that question in the next post.

Next Post:

I Don’t Want To Hear It!

-Ed Walker

 

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