Category Archives: Big Gorilla Variable

Are Vitamins Useless?; Is US Health Care The Best?; Is The US Becoming A Police State?; Should Our Fellow Citizens Be Our Slaves?


Study Stating Vitamins Are Useless An Example Of Junk Science

Reports on the Iowa Women’s Health Study (e.g., “Multivitamins no fountain of youth for women,” 10 Oct 2011, Reuters) hit the major media outlets recently, trumpeting the study’s claim that vitamin supplements are useless, or even harmful. Based on the numerous problems with the study (e.g., “Findings from Flawed Study Used To Discredit Multivitamin/Mineral Supplements,” Life Extension), it should be ignored.

US Health Care The Best In The World? Hardly

As mentioned often in ET, proper economic evaluations require the use of ratios; i.e. what you get for each dollar you spend. To evaluate health care, for example, one metric would be: how long do you live for each dollar spent for health care services? In the US, the answer is not good. “The U.S. healthcare system is more effective at delivering high costs than quality care than other developed nations.” (Ref. “What’s killing America? U.S. ranks 28th in life expectancy (lower than Chile and Greece) while it pays the MOST for health care,” 24 Nov 2011, Daily Mail Online.)

Is The US Becoming A Totalitarian State? The Signs Are Ominous

See “Government Forces Private Citizens to Pour Bleach on Home-Grown Organic Food.”

Atlas Shrugs: The Consequence Of Trying To Make “The Rich” Our Slaves

Engineers spend a lot of effort in designing reliable control systems for autos, aircraft, telecommunication centers, etc. One of the hallmarks of a good design is that it can’t “leak”; i.e. there are no sneak paths which can prevent the control from achieving the desired system response.

When humans try to control the behavior of their fellow humans, however, they often forget that–unlike machines–humans object to being controlled, and will find a way to “leak” around the controllers.

For example, there’s a lot of talk these days about “the rich” paying their “fair share” of taxes to support government services (also see “More Thoughts On Forcing The Rich To Pay ‘Their Fair Share’“). Regardless of your personal beliefs in whether or not those sneaky rich folks are pulling a fast one on the rest of us, it would appear that our government can force them to pay up (by threats of fines or imprisonment), except for one thing: they can leave.

And they are, in droves. But they’re not just the bling-laden cigar-smoking jet setters and corporate titans that you or I typically think of as rich. No, this little-reported but major exodus is composed of a lot of middle-class folks like you and me, who are simply fed up. As stated by a reader in Sovereign Digest #44 (a newsletter of The Sovereign Society):

“My wife and I have already voted with our feet. We moved to South America in May. We do not like the way our country is headed at all by the politicians — Since I have it so good here in a beautiful country filled with kind loving people, and I live for 65% less than in the States — why would I want to go back? Also, as one over the age of 65 I am treated with great respect and dignity here … PLUS, they reimburse me for the 12% national tax every month since I am a senior citizen — Also, my medical care here is just as good, if not better, than in the States for up to 80% less – and I can be seen almost immediately.

“Why would I even consider going back? I’ve been screwed enough by my government, and I was smart enough to get out!!! I worked hard for my money, put my kids through college, played by all the rules, saved my money – and now they want to take that away and give it to people who just expect to live off me and others. No way!!”

The Big Gorilla is the fact, like it or not, that people want to decide for themselves how best to spend their own money. They may be compassionate and caring people, or they may be self-centered and selfish. It doesn’t matter. If we try to make them our slaves they can simply leave, taking their talent, money, investments, and jobs with them.


A Society That Forces Some Of Its Citizens To Support The Rest Of Its Citizens Will Eventually Result In Either (a) A Totalitarian Society, or (b) A Poor Society

-Ed Walker


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Vaccinations, Autism, Psychics, and Silver Bullets

To solve complex problems, engineers try to identify all of the important variables that might be in play. Working from this list, each variable is analyzed and tested to determine its effect, if any, on the problem, until the root cause of the problem is identified. The root cause is often traced to a dominant variable, a Big Gorilla. Sometimes, however, it’s not possible to clearly identify a root cause, either because an important variable was not on the list, or because the cause is a combination of variables, and that combination was not considered.

Because we are prone to thinking there is always a single silver-bullet solution to every problem (see “The Single-Event Fallacy (Am I Psychic?)” in this post: “I’m Right! (Or Am I?)“), the possibility of a problem being caused by a combination of significant variables is often disregarded, making problem-solving efforts ineffective and even misleading. For example, a scientific study of thimerosal (50% mercury) in vaccinations may conclude that there is no correlation to autism, and the media will then shout, “Vaccinations don’t cause autism!” But this conclusion is not scientifically justified. For example, is there something else in vaccinations — either by itself or in combination with other factors, including thimerosal — that is linked to autism?

Therefore, in addition to all of the standard skeptical questions one should ask about any study (e.g., was there a control group? were statistics used properly? was the study funded by an organization that has a stake in the results?), it’s always good to be cautious about accepting overly broad conclusions from a study where only a single variable was considered.

Regarding autism and vaccinations, researchers have recently identified a correlation between the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine and autism (“Hypothesis: Conjugate vaccines may predispose children to autism spectrum disorders,” discussed here). Hib can now be added to the list of possible significant variables (see “Off Topic: The Autism Epidemic) that may play a significant role in the perplexing and devastating puzzle of autism.

-Ed Walker


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ET EXTRA UPDATE: Man-Made Global Warming? Apparently Not

Scientists at the CERN particle-physics laboratory in Geneva have recently presented results that tend to confirm that the Big Gorilla affecting the earth’s temperature is — the sun. The results appear to be based on good science, and accordingly have created a commotion amongst the “man is causing global warming” crowd that appears to be motivated more by a lust for government money than the search for the truth. (Also see the earlier ET post, “Globaloney Warming,” and “Global Warming” in the 3rd Quarter 2008 DACI Newsletter).

A nice summary of the reactions to the CERN results can be found here: “Sun Causes Climate Change Shock” by James Delingpole, 27 Aug 2011, The Telegraph

-Ed Walker


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ET EXTRA: Birthers and the Big Gorilla

Where, oh where, is the journalist who is trained in Engineering Thinking? By focusing on the birther issue’s Big Gorilla factor (a factor of such importance that it makes other factors moot), such a journalist could quickly cut to the heart of the matter by asking President Obama this simple question: Why have you, or others on your behalf, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to keep your birth records, and other details about your past, private?

Until the president answers this simple question, the birther and related conspiracy theories will not fade away.



More Big Gorilla Insights: High-Speed Rail

Is High-Speed Rail A Good “Investment”?

In an earlier post (“Hunt The Big Gorillas: Climate Change, Birthers, and Chocolate“), the Engineering Thinking concept of the Big Gorilla was described.  As stated in the prior post, if you are weighing several factors while trying to make a decision, and happen to spot one that is so large that all the other factors become negligible by comparison, you have found a Big Gorilla. Then, by focusing only on the Big Gorilla factor, you can quickly make a good decision.

The Big Gorilla is helpful when evaluating claims by politicians who want to spend our money on “investments” such as high-speed rail. In my state of Florida, our governor recently decided not to accept federal funds for development of a high-speed rail system, part of the Obama administration’s national rail plan.

The reaction of many ranged from dismay to anger. “How can the governor give up federal money?” was one common lament. One could argue that federal money is not free, since it  comes out of the pockets of taxpayers, and the federal government is already so much in debt that it doesn’t make sense to borrow yet more money. The politicians and special interests, however, find clever ways to counter such arguments, saying in essence that the spending will pay for itself and be a net benefit. This is generally the argument that governments always use to extract money from taxpayers: we (the government) know best how to spend your money wisely for the common good.

So here’s where a Big Gorilla can brashly step in and clear away the brambles of confusion: If high speed rail (or any project) is going to pay for itself, then it’s highly likely a private business will already be there, implementing the project.

One of the major benefits of a capitalist system is, if there is a need that justifies an investment, then it will be automatically provided by a private business.

Naturally, private firms would love to have public funding for “community” projects such as high-speed rail (sports stadiums are another good example). Having you — the taxpayer — providing funds and eliminating financial risk is a no-lose deal for the private firm. It is also a prime example of capitalism being corrupted by an inappropriate deal between politicians and private businesses. Invariably, such firms will provide donations and other forms of support to assist in the reelection of  those politicians who helped secure the public financing.

Bottom line: always look for a financial connection between the politicians who promote a project, and those who implement the project. Corruption is its name.

-Ed Walker


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ET Extra: Vaccines And Autism And Fraud

Engineering Thinking Extra Is A Short Review Of A Current Hot Topic

A Major Study Purporting To Show That The MMR Vaccine Causes Autism Has Been Shown To Be A Fraud: What Can We Learn?

A 1998 Lancet paper by Dr. Andrew Wakefield et al concluded that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. As a result, many parents refused to have their children vaccinated. On January 5 of this year the British Medical Journal (BMJ) declared that the Wakefield paper was a fraud.

Scientific corruption is, in my view, a most foul betrayal of the public trust. Hopefully Dr. Wakefield and his cohorts will receive appropriate punishment. Moving on, however, what can we learn from this revelation of fraud? There are two basic cautions provided by Engineering Thinking:

1. Wakefield’s Fraud Does Not Prove That Vaccines Are Safe

Since the Wakefield paper was a fraud, does this mean vaccines do not cause autism? No, drawing that conclusion would be a logical fallacy. This may seem counter-intuitive, but here’s an example to help clarify: Assume that I published a paper purporting to show that 2 + 2 = 4. In my proof I used erroneous math and logical fallacies. Therefore my paper did not prove that 2 + 2 = 4. However, that does not alter the fact that 2 + 2 = 4.

In other words, there is nothing in the Wakefield saga that allows one to eliminate the possibility that vaccines may contribute to autism.

2. The Link To Autism May Be Multi-Variable

Humans tend to look for a smoking gun — a single cause — to explain a fearful event. If we eliminate the smoking gun, then all is okay. However, some medical doctors have expressed concern about vaccinations based on mercury content, mixing of multiple vaccines, and other issues. The hypothesis is that it is a combination of variables, related to the production and/or application of vaccines, that may overwhelm the embryonic neurological system, causing damage that manifests as autism.

There are independent studies that strongly suggest that MMR vaccines are safe, but those do not necessarily constitute a proof. Unfortunately, many studies are flawed or even completely invalid because of the improper application of statistical methods. Failure to account for significant variables as mentioned above can also contribute to poor or invalid results.

Therefore what can we conclude?

Showing the Wakefield paper to be a fraud, as explosive and damaging as it may be, does not move the science forward with regard to the key question: do vaccines, under certain conditions, contribute to autism?

If anyone has some links to studies that are scientifically sound (that use appropriate statistics and that properly account for all variables), and which demonstrate that vaccines are indeed unambiguously not a factor in autism, please forward them to me for posting here.

In the meantime, the old cliché “better safe than sorry” is best applied. Some suggestions for consideration can be found in an earlier blog: “Off Topic: The Autism Epidemic“.

-Ed Walker


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Hunt The Big Gorillas

Climate Change, Birthers, and Chocolate

Engineering Thinking includes some key concepts, or sub-principles, that engineers use to improve the chance of making a good decision. One of these is called sensitivity analysis. This is simply a methodical way of separating the wheat from the chaff, or a way of detecting what is truly important and allowing trivial distractions to be dismissed.

Sensitivity analysis can be described as the hunt for the Big Gorillas. A Big Gorilla is a dominant factor that swamps out all other factors. If you are trying to make an important decision — for example, the purchase of a car — you have many things to consider, such as cost, gas mileage, reliability, warranty, styling, etc. If you examine all these factors, or variables, and happen to spot one that is so large that all the other factors become negligible by comparison, you have found a Big Gorilla, and can use it to quickly arrive at a good decision.

For example, a quick household budget review may tell you that you simply can’t afford a car, new or used. This budgetary Big Gorilla is telling you there’s no point in worrying about all the other variables; why waste your time?

But perhaps you can afford a used auto, and are tempted by the price sticker on a sleek sports car offered by a certain dealership. You do some research and find that the dealer can’t be trusted. The Big Gorilla — lack of trustworthiness — tells you that you had better have an independent mechanic check out the car before you buy, and also to review the contract very carefully. Or better yet, walk away and take your business to a reputable merchant.

In issues involving human behavior, the Big Gorilla is often a major motivation that someone tries to hide from view. Therefore it’s a good idea to be skeptical of surface factors when dealing with glib humans.

Remember those times when, after listening to someone’s complaints, assertions, or boasts, you had the uncomfortable feeling that the comments didn’t ring true? That’s your cue to look for a hidden Big Gorilla.

Dig Deep Enough,
And You Will Find A Compelling Reason

For example, the “climate change” debate is not at all settled science; there are huge numbers of highly qualified skeptics. Yet proponents claim that the science is settled, and have made many efforts to silence or discredit the skeptics. This should raise an alarm, and prompt a hunt for hidden Big Gorillas. A little research indicates that climate change proponents, by and large, tend to be governmental employees, or employees of firms that are funded by the government. Financial motivation is a major Big Gorilla, and may explain why some proponents try so hard to silence the skeptics: their salaries and status are threatened if their views on climate change are undermined. Another factor: scientists that are not corrupted by a hidden agenda do not try to silence fellow scientists, but instead welcome them to a hearty debate.

On a smaller matter, consider the issue concerning President Obama’s birth certificate, where some folks (the “birthers”) claim that the president is not a U.S. citizen. This seems like a ridiculous notion, and most evidence indicates that it is indeed ridiculous.  However, one fairly unpublicized factor strikes me as a perplexing Big Gorilla: the president has apparently expended hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal efforts to deny access to his original birth records. Why? Big Gorillas always point to a significant truth. In this case, it may not be related to citizenship, but there must be some significant reason for those large legal fees.

A Big Gorilla can exhibit itself in amusing ways. Some years ago, my then small daughter April bought her Dad a birthday gift of a small box of chocolates. This was at first puzzling, since I didn’t eat chocolates. In fact, being health-conscious, we usually had no candy in the house. The hidden Big Gorilla, of course, was a child’s self-interest.  My little daughter had found a clever way around the candy embargo, by purchasing a “gift for Dad” that she promptly consumed.

Next post: More Engineering Thinking Concepts

-Ed Walker



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

In the last post we learned that solving relationship problems is very dependent upon (a) framing the issue in a supportive manner, (b) admitting that we may be part of the problem, and (c) if necessary, being willing to seek couples counseling from a mental health professional.

There are other guidelines that can help as well. Let’s examine a common hazard that can complicate the process of resolving a relationship issue.

Seeking The Silver Bullet

When confronted with a problem, we humans like to find a single simple and direct solution. This includes that magic weight-loss pill (the one that requires no exercise and allows us to munch all the donuts we want), the drug that “keeps our diabetes under control,” a perfume or cologne that will attract the perfect mate, or a quick visit to a couples counselor, who in one session will tell us how to fix our relationship (the one that has been deteriorating over a period of years). No muss, no fuss, no interrupting our busy social lives, no hard choices or self-discipline required.

In reality, life is almost never that simple or easy. Although it makes sense to search for the magic bullet that will solve our problem (the Big Gorilla variable], it ‘s not realistic to expect to find it. Solving problems generally requires some hard work and tradeoffs.

Life Is Complex:
Don’t Expect Simple Answers
Do Expect To Work Hard, Be Patient, And Accept Tradeoffs

Tradeoffs are part of the important engineering principle of optimization. In a future post we’ll see how that principle can be applied to solving relationship issues.

Next Post:

Cause or Coincidence?

-Ed Walker


We Interrupt This Blog To Bring You This Important Health Care Bulletin: It’s Just A Systems Thing

The post originally scheduled for this time (“Put On Your Emotional Armor”) has been delayed so that engineering thinking can be applied to the current debate about health care reform.

Complex subjects such as health care can — and should — be reviewed and debated from various perspectives, including federalism, privacy, cost, freedom of choice, and others. But is there a way to avoid being overwhelmed by complexity? Oftentimes, yes. One of the most important tools of the engineer is called sensitivity analysis. This is simply a methodical way of separating the wheat from the chaff, or a way of detecting what is truly important and allowing trivial distractions to be dismissed.

For example, assume that you’re relaxing on a beach and are trying to optimize your comfort. You’ve picked a scenic spot with a breeze, you’ve adjusted the umbrella for just the right amount of shade while not spoiling the view, and you’ve brought along your favorite drink. As you take a sip, you gaze out idly at the blue-green sea, and —- no, it can’t be! Suddenly there is only one factor of importance affecting your comfort, and you make a frantic dash away from the shore to escape the inrushing monster tidal wave.

These dominant factors are the Big Gorilla variables. Compared to the Big Gorilla, all other factors are largely irrelevant, and one can simply focus on the Big Gorilla and see where it leads. From an engineering thinking perspective, the Big Gorilla variable in the health care debate is how well government performs as a system:

Assertion: The government is a better system for providing health care services to the public than the free market.

Assumption: “Government” is defined as a social system wherein power is centralized in the hands of a relatively small number of leaders who make decisions for the balance of the population. “Free Market” is defined as a social system wherein power is distributed broadly and evenly among the population.


  1. If a social system is effective at providing health care services then there will be a tendency for good outcomes, regardless of the talent of those who work within the system.
  2. If a social system is ineffective at providing health care services then there will be a tendency for poor outcomes, regardless of the talent of those who work within the system.
  3. The governmental system has the following attributes: (Note: these attributes will be explained in more depth in future posts.)
    1. Poor feedback (services provided are not significantly affected by whether or not the population wants or likes the services).
    2. Slow response time (it responds very sluggishly, which can trigger instabilities that can create the opposite of the desired result).
    3. Control is not distributed (its centralized organization makes it unreliable, inefficient, and prone to corruption).
  4. The free market system has attributes that are the opposite of the governmental system.

Conclusion: The assertion is false. Government provision of health care services will be ineffective and therefore highly unsatisfactory compared to the free-market alternative.

Corollary: Improvement in health care services will be more effectively achieved with the government strictly avoiding any attempt to control the health care industry, and instead by providing a judicial framework that supports free-market principles (e.g. prevention of monopolies, elimination of laws that favor one company over another, reduction of barriers to free trade between the states, and streamlining judicial review rather than relying on regulatory micromanagement).

An important aspect of analysis is that it often allows results to be generalized. The above analysis leads to the following important general conclusion:

The Government Should be Used

To The Minimum Extent Possible For Providing Services

The above may seem counterintuitive since, after all, what is government for, if not for providing services? Nonetheless, an objective systems analysis indicates that the governmental system is vastly inferior to the alternative of free-market capitalism. This is not an ideological conclusion, nor is it a criticism of government workers. It is simply a fact that, regardless of the talent, integrity, intentions, and compassion of those in government, they will always be hobbled by an inefficient system. Plus some of these good folks will, over time, tend to become corrupt.

Engineering thinking requires, wherever possible, that theory be compared to empirical data. A future post will present a Big Gorilla historical antecedent that supports the above conclusion.

Next post:

We Return To Our Regular Scheduled Program: Put On Your Emotional Armor

-Ed Walker