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Category Archives: Empirical Validation

Getting It Right: Measurements and Cooking (Part 2)

Measurements Trump Opinions & Intuition

“Nowadays when I’m lucky enough to watch a coveted recipe in progress I can come fairly close to replicating it. Even so the streams of liquids pouring into a bowl can be impossible to estimate as are random scoops of ‘this and that’.  I’ve often thought there must be a better way to capture creative genius. Then one day I recalled the secrets of baking – all ingredients, no matter how small, are weighed. Professional bakers don’t use cups or teaspoons, they use pounds and ounces or grams and kilograms. Baking relies a lot on chemistry and a key to making a consistent product is precise control of measurements.”

-from “Seasoning to Taste – and fond memories…..” 29 Mar 2012 post by Chef Joy in Choose Cooking

(Also see “Getting It Right: Measurements and Cooking” (Part 1))

 

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3 Reasons (At Least) To Disregard The Tampa Bay Times Editorial On Fluoride

The Tampa Bay Times Wins Our Silliness Award 

The Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) does great investigative work, but its editorials can best be ignored, unless one is looking for good examples of illogical and sloppy thinking.

A recent manifestation is the Times‘ crusade in favor of fluoridation. In its 18 March full-page editorial, “Reverse the decay of common sense” (a plea that ironically can be applied to how it composes its own editorials), the Times spewed out violations of reasoned analysis in a gusher of polluted newsprint:

1. The editorial starts with a blend of grade-school appeals to emotion and ad hominem attacks: “Defining moment,” “Midwestern sensibilities,” “extremism,” “tea party followers,” “conspiracy theorists,” and “tiny antifluoride group.” This pompous puffery is irrelevant to whether or not fluoride in our drinking water is beneficial.

2. The editorial then states: “The evidence that fluoridated drinking water is safe and prevents tooth decay is overwhelming and widely embraced,” followed by a list of two federal agencies, a state agency, and two dental associations.

This is a great example of the fallacy of naming an expert or two, or even a consensus of experts, to support a claim. Citing experts, however, neither supports nor refutes a claim. Experts make claims that are often wrong. Brilliant people, even Einstein, have said dumb things. Plus, experts can be biased or corrupt. It is the science and analysis presented by experts that are important, not the experts themselves.

Although the editorial listed pro-fluoride evidence (the flaws of which I will not dissect here), no informed contrary views were expressed. Not one, in the entire full page. Since it doesn’t take much digging to find some credible professional opinions opposed to fluoridation, this seems inexcusable if one expects a newspaper to hew to the journalistic standard of being fair and balanced.

3. Fallacious economic analysis: “The annual savings [of no fluoridation] per resident works out to 29 cents.” First, viewing the 29 cents in isolation makes it seem like a trivial sum, which is a fallacy of context: numerous government expenditures, when viewed individually, look like trivial sums, although they may accumulate into a mountain of headache for the taxpayer. Second, even assuming that fluoridation is not harmful and is beneficial (not proven anywhere in the editorial), the actual economic question is, is the expenditure of taxpayer money appropriate, particularly when individuals can obtain fluoridation via toothpaste or mouthwash? The Times seems to think that it is fine to force everyone to pay for those few who may not be able to afford fluoridated toothpaste. To properly determine the worthiness of fluoridation, however, would require a review of government spending priorities; e.g., perhaps that 29 cents would be better spent on community policing.

I could continue, but hopefully my point has been made. Also, although my research indicates that there are credible folks with anti-fluoridation viewpoints, please note that I am not taking a position one way or the other with regard to fluoridation. What I am doing is demonstrating that the Times editorial on the issue is rife with logical fallacies and devoid of a balanced scientific discussion. The editorial’s harsh attack on county commissioners opposed to fluoridation was therefore inappropriate.

How can this be? How can the Times crank out such shoddy work, while still claiming to be a clear-thinking community leader? I will try to answer that in a future post.

-Ed Walker

 

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Paying Their “Fair Share”: Should The Rich Be Our Slaves?

As mentioned in a recent post (“Where Is Eliot Ness?”), making decisions based simply on public pronouncements is extremely difficult, because such pronouncements are often false and misleading.

Today, for example, we hear a lot of talk about “the rich” needing to pay “their fair share” in order to reduce the U.S. deficit.  If you accept that statement at face value, it implies:

1. The rich are not presently paying their fair share.

2. Taxing the rich will reduce the deficit.

3. Taxing the rich is acceptable because they have more money than we do, and it is morally okay to take it from them and give it to the rest of us.

Even though all of the above implications are arguable, “the rich need to pay their fair share” is spoken as though it is gospel, a classic example of evoking powerful emotions (primarily envy) that bypass the brain, in order to dishonestly advance a policy position.

What can be done? Demand serious discussion based on evidence and logic. Write your congressional representative, compose a letter and send it to the editor of your local newspaper, stand up during a town hall meeting and respectfully challenge talking-point blather, or express your views (with careful research and analysis) in your own blog.

-Ed Walker

 

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The Government’s Policies And Our Economic Crisis

Engineers review past evidence and build from there; they try not to reinvent the wheel. As mentioned previously, there is ample historical evidence that indicates recessions/depressions — although they can be severe — typically last no longer than about a year, provided the government does not implement anti-business legislation and regulations.

Image: Dali’s “The Average Bureaucrat”

This last statement above is considered by some to be controversial, but to the best of my knowledge it really isn’t: the data are there for everyone to review. The doubters point to the Great Depression (the last one, not this one) and claim that President Roosevelt helped guide the country through the extraordinarily long 10-year downturn. The evidence, however, says that President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was actually the villain in the story, because his anti-business policies helped extend what would have been a typical downturn of a year or so into ten long years of economic agony.

For an example of this thesis, see “FDR’s policies prolonged Depression by 7 years, UCLA economists calculate,” by Meg Sullivan, 10 Aug 2004. Excerpt: “The fact that the Depression dragged on for years convinced generations of economists and policy-makers that capitalism could not be trusted to recover from depressions and that significant government intervention was required to achieve good outcomes,” Cole said. “Ironically, our work shows that the recovery would have been very rapid had the government not intervened.”

So what’s the prognosis? Based on the historical record — and also on analysis that strongly indicates that governmental attempts to manage the economy are destined to be highly ineffective or even counterproductive — we can expect a lousy economy (high unemployment, sluggish or no growth, an erratic stock market) until the Obama administration reverses its anti-business policies, or until we have a new pro-business administration in 2012, whichever comes first.

The good news is that, once new policies are in place, the economy can recover quickly. If we persist with the present policies, however, be prepared for many more years of economic turmoil.

-Ed Walker

 

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Engineers Are Shocked!

It seems like the free market is great, except when it comes to government grants where the taxpayer funds your salary.

Senator Tom Coburn, known for his efforts to try to reduce wasteful federal spending, recently cited three robotics projects as being examples of such.

My, my, how shocked — shocked! — and offended some of my fellow engineers are at the notion that perhaps their efforts do not best serve the needs of the taxpayer (“U.S. Senator Calls Robot Projects Wasteful. Robots Call Senator Wasteful,” by Erico Guizzo, 14 June 2011 IEEE Spectrum.

Although the federal government wastes tons of money on projects that are perhaps less worthy than robotics research, why should the government spend taxpayer money on any research? Shouldn’t the private sector be responsible for that, rather than the taxpayer? Let’s apply a little Engineering Thinking to this heretical notion and look at the big picture:

Proposition: Government (taxpayer) spending on research achieves better societal good than private spending.

Analysis: If government-funded research achieved better results, then the old Soviet Union would likely still be in existence, and would be the dominant technical behemoth on the planet. But whoops, no, that grand experiment failed. The Russians have been there, done that, and have the “Socialism Doesn’t Work” t-shirt to prove it. Likewise, socialist-leaning European countries would be kicking our technical butts, but they’re not.

Conclusion: The empirical (historical) evidence is simply overwhelming that the taxpayer — and society at large — is better off with minimum governmental “investments.” That so many of us are willfully ignorant on this — when our salaries depend on us to be so — is just anther example of how easy it is for some of us to be corrupted.

-Ed Walker

 

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Big or Small Government? Check the Empirical Evidence

One of the key principles of Engineering Thinking is to rely wherever possible on actual evidence. Therefore, given a design challenge, engineers typically start by doing a lot of research; why reinvent the wheel? If good hard data are available that answer the question at hand, then the issue is resolved and the team can move on to other challenges.

This scientific process does not have to be restricted to questions about integrated circuits, robots, nuclear energy, or other hi-tech products; it can be applied to any issue. One of the major issues of our day — and for many decades prior — has been the debate over the pros and cons of big versus limited government. As we’ve pointed out previously (“It’s Just A Systems Thing: An Engineering Thinking Review Of Government As A System“), governmental organizations generally perform poorly compared to free market alternatives.

But what about the empirical evidence? For one example,  please check “Detroit: The Triumph of Progressive Public Policy“, by Jarrett Skorup, 6 July 2009, Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

-Ed Walker

 

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Shameful Behavior Award: Pushing Grandma Off A Cliff

The image to the left (from YouTube) is from an ad created by the Agenda Project. The ad states, “Now, Republicans want to privatize Medicare,” as it shows a man wheeling an elderly lady up a cliff, against her will, and then dumping her over the edge.

From an ET perspective, does the ad portray any empirical evidence to support its allegations? No. Does it provide any analysis to support its allegations? No.

The Republican plan, put forward by congressman Paul Ryan, does not affect anyone over 55, which rules out most elderly “Grandmas” as depicted in the ad. It also tries to responsibly address the fact that Medicare, as it presently exists, is broke, and a plan such as Ryan’s will be required to save Medicare. This is exactly the opposite of the message conveyed in the ad.

Creating and running an ad designed to scare the elderly, and doing so by blatantly lying, is despicable. Therefore ET awards its Shameful Behavior award to the Agenda Project, and its founder, Erica Payne.

 

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ET EXTRA: Cancer and Sugar

Evidence-based science points to sugar as a major factor in many cancers. Read more here.

 

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Getting It Right: Measurements and Cooking

Engineering Thinking & Cooking: Measurements Trump Opinions & Intuition

An important Engineering Thinking principle is measurement. If you ever have to choose between someone’s opinion, or your intuition, versus reaching out and actually measuring whatever it is that interests you, you are well advised to do the measurement.

Measurements, also known as empirical validation, are a part of experimental science.  They are the bottom line, the proof of the pudding, the holy grail. Two analyses in the bush are worth much less than one good experiment in the hand.

Analysis is also important, because it can expand upon and offer insights into data that are provided experimentally, or even point the way to discovery. But analysis is theoretical and arguable, whereas measurement (done properly) is not arguable.

For an example of how engineers apply the important principle of measurements to a routine task such as cooking, please see “Cooking & Measurements: Why Engineers Get It Right” in the DACI 1st Qtr 2011 Newsletter.

-Ed Walker

 

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A Summary Of Engineering Thinking Principles

Engineering Thinking is a wonderful tool set for making good decisions. This is not because engineers are better than anyone else, but because engineers work within a scientific/capitalistic framework, or culture, that strongly promotes excellence. Within the framework, if you do good work, you are rewarded; if you don’t, you aren’t. It’s really as simple as that.

You can pick any issue or problem — world events, politics, a purchasing decision, a relationship issue — and ET will help.

So what are the basic principles and corollary traits of Engineering Thinking?

ET PRINCIPLE / RELATED TRAITS

Define the problem and set the goals / Organized & focused

Do the research / Thoroughness and persistence

Challenge assumptions / Avoid emotional blockages and confusion factors

Analyze & test / Apply logical thinking, as supported by empirical evidence

Conclude & correct / Follow-through to apply what has been learned

ET principles can simplify your life and lead to better decisions, while reducing stress:

Life is simplified if you have some rules to follow for important decisions; ET provides those proven time-tested rules. Better decisions are the result of ET’s reliance on objectivity — which includes the avoidance of emotional blockages — to improve the odds of making a good decision. Note that ET does not guarantee the proper decision, but it does optimize the chances of arriving at a good decision, and for human beings that’s as good as it gets.

ET also reduces stress. Although you may not (and should not expect to) win every argument or make the best decision every time, you can sleep better by knowing that by applying the principles of ET you did the best that you could.

Furthermore, after applying ET in a civil manner, if you experience unreasoned hostility or stubbornness (emotional blockages) from the other party, such a response provides you with significant feedback as to whether you should bother to discuss certain issues with that person; i.e. why waste your time? In some cases such a response may suggest whether or not you should even continue to maintain a serious relationship with the other party.

Example: You have a roommate that drops their socks and underwear wherever they happen to be at the time they are changing from their work attire and getting comfortable for the evening, such as in front of the TV. Seeing dirty socks and underwear in the living room annoys you.

ET step 1: Define the problem and goals: Messy roommate, want them to pick up after themselves.

ET Step 2: Research: Get on the Internet and determine if this is a common problem, and if so what are some solutions.

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.

ET Step 4: Analyze the situation. Assuming that your research has determined that your roommate’s behavior is considered generally unacceptable [note: I have not researched this and don’t really know what the norm is for such unkempt behavior], apply the remedies suggested by your research and monitor the results.

ET Step 5: Based upon the results of your roommate’s response to your trial solutions, if satisfactory, then problem solved. If not, (a) modify the solution and try again, (b) learn to live with an out-of-the-norm roommate, or (c) get a new roommate.

-Ed Walker

 

 

 

 

 

 

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