Tag Archives: Decision-making

ET EXTRA: Do Economists Use Engineering Thinking? Not Nobel Prize-Winner Paul Krugman

From prior Engineering Thinking posts we’ve learned that opinions should not be accepted at face value. Unfortunately, most of us are too busy to fact-check everything we read, so we tend to allow our opinions to be swayed by the writings of well-known columnists for the major newspapers. We are even more swayed if the columnist holds major credentials, such as being the recipient of a Nobel prize.

Consider Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman, who is also a columnist on economic matters for the New York Times, and a major advocate of the Obama administration’s policy of massive “stimulus” spending. If you were to follow Mr. Krugman’s more recent writings, you might be swayed to think that massive government spending is good and necessary.

One of the traits of those who employ engineering thinking is consistency. Therefore, a trait to be wary of is inconsistency. Mr. Krugman is not consistent. For numerous examples please check “Paul Krugman, the Self-Contradicting Economist” by Arvind Kumar, 23 June 2010 American Thinker.

The bottom line: Based on his record of contradictory statements, Mr. Krugman is not a reliable source, and therefore his writings can be safely ignored.

-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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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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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?


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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Put On Your Emotional Armor

In a prior post (“Is The President’s Reason For Taxing The Wealthy Moral?”) we saw how differing assumptions can lead to very different conclusions. Which conclusion is correct? It depends on which assumption is correct. Assumptions are in essence just low-level assertions that can often be proved or disproved by test and/or analysis. This process, however, is often thwarted by the inability to overcome emotional blockages.

Reason Versus Passion

One of the most popular characters on the original Star Trek series, the sixties-era TV show that chronicled the adventures of the starship USS Enterprise, was the pointy-eared half-human half-Vulcan character named Mr. Spock. As memorialized by Leonard Nimoy, Spock was beloved by viewers because of his devotion to logic and his disdain for emotion. You could always count on Spock to keep his cool during any tense situation. Surprisingly, this trait was not fully appreciated by his human crewmates, who liked to point out the perceived shortcomings of Spock’s heritage. (Political correctness in the twenty-third century apparently did not extend to the sensitivities of a half-alien.)

Ironically, the emotionally-overloaded Captain James T. Kirk (unforgettably portrayed by William Shatner) employed a passionate approach to problem-solving that makes the word brash seem like a down pillow. Kirk’s grand save-the-universe-with-passion methodology, although perhaps a good lesson in using emotion for motivational purposes, was not a good example of the virtues of critical thinking.

Emotions can be positive and rational (exhilaration after getting a promotion at work) or negative and irrational (anger at the rug you just tripped over). In either case, emotions tend to bypass the thought processes that are essential for good decision-making. When solving important problems, engineers get Spockian and put on their emotional armor. They want to make objective decisions, because the consequences of decisions based on feelings, rather than on sound science, can be catastrophic.

For Better Decisions

Act More Like Spock And Less Like Kirk

Overcoming emotional blockages may be tough to do in a world that is becoming more and more like a Jerry Springer episode. We are — unfortunately — becoming accustomed to making critical decisions based on flashy ads, celebrity endorsements, and the pleadings of white-smocked actors pretending to be doctors. Although advertising can be informational, companies that sell products and services know that the quickest way to your wallet is to bypass the brain, by appealing to glitz and glamour (cars, cosmetics, perfumes, clothes, travel), fear (prescription drugs, home alarm systems), too-good-to-be-true hype (super glue, auto scratch remover), and envy (political candidates).

The tactics are relentless and effective. By lavishly employing whatever it takes to pack an emotional wallop — sparkling vistas, dramatic enactments, advanced animation, gorgeous celebrities — mega-dollars of dubious goods are shipped annually to those who have no emotional armor in place. Similarly, short catchy slogans that tout “fairness” (at your fellow citizens expense) elect numerous charismatic but questionable candidates to public office.

Those who have read various inspirational books over the years — the ones that include exhortations to “go with your gut,” “trust your instincts,” or “rely on your intuition” — may say, “Wait a minute! Those are all Kirkian traits. Then why should I be a cool Spock rather than a hot Kirk?”

We’ll answer that in the next post:

Why Not Go With The Gut?

-Ed Walker


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