Tag Archives: Advice

An Essential Rule For Not Being A Fool

Engineers know that measured data points require context to be meaningful. For example, the total miles that a car can travel on a tank of fuel is not economically useful knowledge, unless you also know how many gallons of fuel the tank holds, and the cost of the fuel per gallon. If you know all this, you get a meaningful metric: miles traveled per dollar spent. In addition, there can be supplementary but important considerations such as safety, pollution, styling, and reliability. Therefore, to properly evaluate economic alternatives, all important factors must be converted to a baseline of total benefits per dollar.



Here are some examples of meaningless data that are commonly used to try to fool people:

Dollars spent per pupil. (The important metric is how much a student learns per dollar spent.)

“On Sale” dollars spent for a car, lipstick, sports equipment, or any consumer purchase. (The important question to ask is, “What benefit will I get from spending the dollars?” rather than concluding, “Wow, the on-sale price is much less than the normal price therefore it must be a good deal.”)

Benefits of taxing the rich 1% on behalf of the 99%: (This example is a case where both benefits and dollars spent (extracted from the rich) are difficult to properly define and determine. For example, how do you define “rich”? Is this a person or a corporation? How much money = rich? Is that earned income, or investment income, or total assets, or a combination? And should everyone who is in the 1% group be taxed more? Why not 2% or 1/2% or some other %? Also, since rich people often become poor, and the poor often become rich, how long does one have to be rich before you would say they are truly rich? Or what about someone who invents something that benefits society? What about someone who’s been poor and wins the lottery? How about an athlete who’s paid a lot of money for their physical talent? Even assuming you can arrive at a rational and moral definition for “rich 1%,” the proper question becomes: what benefits are obtained for every dollar extracted from those folks? This is a complex question not easily answered by the simplistic 1% versus 99% “fool’s chatter” that one typically hears.)

Government dollars “invested” in green energy (or education, or bridges, or whatever). (The important metric is the benefit provided per taxpayer dollar spent, where the benefit to all of the taxpayers is honestly defined and measured.)


Don’t Make Decisions or Listen to Arguments Based Only On $ Spent

A useful corollary to the above is: don’t make decisions or listen to arguments where benefits and expenditures are not clearly defined, or are distorted by appeals to envy or other emotions.

-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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Advice From Professionals: Who Do You Trust? (Part 2)

Doctors, financial advisors, and other professionals — even engineers — can be wrong. They are not in the same category as the deliberate frauds discussed in the previous post, but bad advice is still bad advice, and it can be just as dangerous.

Some professionals get too busy to keep up with the advances in their field, and their knowledge becomes outdated. Others have become so specialized that they have a financial incentive to recommend only those procedures or investments that help pay their bills; i.e. they lose the required objectivity to properly meet your needs. In other cases some professionals may feel threatened by new ideas that undermine their cherished beliefs and diminish their status.

Scientific Sins

Science professionals, being human, are quite susceptible to emotional blockage, bias, and sometimes even fraud. (A very interesting older book on this topic is Betrayers Of The Truth by Broad and Wade; Simon and Schuster, 1983.) The scientific method tends to weed these folks out over the long run, but for the short run (which may take years, or even decades), you can hear scientific “conventional wisdom” that is wrong, even damaging.

For example, up until the late nineteenth century, when Louis Pasteur formulated the germ theory of disease, it was common hospital practice for doctors to perform their work without washing their hands. Many years prior to Pasteur’s germ theory, however, Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that washing the hands with an antiseptic solution dramatically decreased the incidence of a fatal fever. He did not link this to any underlying theory of germs or other explanation; it was simply an empirical observation, but a significant one.

One would think that Semmelweis’ findings would have quickly ushered in a new era of clinical cleanliness, with Semmelweis receiving appropriate recognition for saving many lives, but no. In an ironic and sad example of the stubbornness of humans — even those with scientific training — Semmelweis’ urging of physicians to wash their hands was not only ignored, he was ridiculed and dismissed from his job at the hospital. When he persisted in writing angry letters encouraging physicians to embrace his sanitation methods, he was considered to have lost his mind, and was rewarded with a residence in an asylum. His stay was short, for he was beaten to death by guards within two weeks of his arrival.

Although Semmelweis’ story is an extreme one, it illustrates the fact that favored concepts, even among scientists, die hard. This truth was noted by Max Planck (1858-1947; a German physicist considered to be the father of quantum theory), who said,

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing
its opponents and making them see the light,
but rather because its opponents eventually die,
and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

In many important regards things are not much better today, not because we drive our maverick scientists to madness, but — perhaps even more troubling — because we are experiencing a proliferation of broad systemic corruption in science. Abetted by the shoddy state of journalism, this makes it exceptionally difficult for average folks to evaluate scientific opinions that can impact their pocketbooks, health, and freedom.

The bottom line is that scientific “truth” can lag reality for a very long time. There are two important points to be learned:

It is not whether a scientist, or 99% of scientists, make a claim,
what matters is the evidence and logic that are presented to validate the claim.

Second, a claim should be stated in clear terms that the average person can understand. Unscrupulous people try to win arguments by saying that only the “experts” can comprehend an issue, and therefore the rest of us, the average citizens, must trust them. This is nonsense. The average person is quite capable of understanding basic physics, basic economics, or other basic matters of science.

Demand clarity.
If someone tells you, “You wouldn’t understand,” tell them,
“Oh, yes I would, if you would speak plainly.”

Tips For Obtaining Advice From Professionals

1.  Before you seek an opinion, verify the credentials of the professional from independent and competent persons or organizations of unquestioned integrity.

2.  Obtain two or more opinions on any important issue. Make sure the professionals have no significant business or social relationships with each other.

3.  Avoid the opinions of those who have a vested interest in their answer (e.g. do not ask a doctor who specializes in radiation therapy for cancer if you need radiation therapy; the predictable (but potentially biased) answer may be “yes,” even though other more objective doctors may say “no”).

4.  Be cautious of those whose advice is coupled to extra products or services that they sell (e.g. doctors who recommend supplements, and who just happen to have those supplements for sale in their clinic). A sign of integrity in such cases will be that such folks will readily provide recommendations for comparable products/services from other independent sources.

5.  Do your own research and ask questions. (If the professional can’t find the time for a full discussion, or resents being challenged, it’s probably best to find someone else.)

6.  Seek those who have previously demonstrated that they will offer advice that may be at odds with their own natural inclinations or financial self-interest. (Such folks are hard to find, but if you do find them, file their names in your “trusted source” folder.)

Next Post:

Internet Hazards, Junk Journalism, and Movie Malarkey: Who Do You Trust? (Part 3)


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