Tag Archives: Emotions

A Simple Solution for Businesses Whose Religious Convictions Will Not Allow Them To Serve Gays

melissassweetcakesNote: This post, like a prior one on race (Yes, Race Can Be Discussed Constructively and Civilly), is intended to provide an example of how Engineering Thinking can be used to discuss contentious issues in a good-natured and civil manner.

Engineering Thinking principles tell us that gays are usually gay because they were born that way. A logical analysis supports this. In decades past, gays who were openly gay were risking loss of jobs, loss of societal respect, and in many cases violence. Therefore, it can be argued, with such penalties in force against being gay, why would someone choose to be gay? In addition, studies of animals have found that a small percentage of the members of numerous species engage in homosexual behavior, including same-sex mating.

These factors lead to the strong hypothesis that being gay is simply a natural phenomenon. (If you disagree please provide your logic-based or empirical arguments, and you will receive a respectful and fair hearing, although I reserve the right to question your comments from a science perspective. Also, anti-gay comments solely based on emotion will not be posted.)

But what about those folks whose cultural/religious beliefs prevent them from arriving at this gay-is-okay conclusion? Should they be forced to change their views (e.g. “Christian bakers face $135K fine for refusing to make cake for gay wedding“)? If this is what you think, then you are subscribing to a view that is as unscientific as it is tyrannical.

Although science indicates that being gay is a natural phenomenon, science also says that people who have deep emotional imprints due to long-held cultural beliefs are not going to rapidly change their views, regardless of rapid changes in the general culture. Forcing folks (by penalty of fines or imprisonment) to immediately adopt the latest “politically correct” beliefs (which are often based on junk science) can be just as damaging to society as the maintenance of beliefs that have been shown by science to be invalid.

Here’s the solution: A business that does not wish to serve gays should simply change the business to a members-only club — a private club. Patrons can be charged a modest annual fee to become a member, and membership can be made contingent upon the values held by the club. For example, Melissa’s Sweet Cakes becomes Melissa’s Christian Sweet Cakes (Private Club).

Private clubs can therefore provide a civil intermediate step that allows those with emotionally-ingrained habits to follow their beliefs, until such time as the results of good science — a long-term process — percolate throughout the general culture.

Ed Walker

Related: I Don’t Want To Hear It



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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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Update: An Engineer Writes A Novel

NEXUS receives “highly recommended” rating from Cindy Taylor, Allbooks Review. Read the full review here.


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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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Why Not Go With The Gut?

We humans can sometimes leap to a conclusion without conscious thought. This subliminal intuitive process, “going with our gut,” may be just fine, provided our brain is indeed doing its behind-the-scenes work. In general, however, the following is true:

Can We Always Trust Our Intuition?


A study of science teaches that many facts are counter-intuitive. For example, intuition suggests that if you flip a coin three times and get heads, then the next flip will likely be tails. Actually (for an honest coin-flipping test), there is no improved chance of getting tails. Con artists have a long history of using such non-intuitive facts to beguilingly fleece unwary folks who, through faulty intuition, think that they are making safe bets, when the opposite is true. (An engaging old movie that demonstrates this point is The Flim-Flam Man.)

Gut-based decisions are more likely to be correct if we have deep experience with the issue being pondered. For example, although not intuitive to a young child, an adult learns through experience to avoid dark alleys, and to be very wary of street gangs. But there are numerous situations for which even an adult will have scant experience or knowledge. Worse, we can unknowingly encounter frauds who know how to look and act respectable in order to thwart our protective instincts. In these cases trusting our intuition can be quite hazardous.

Therefore it’s important to be sure that an intuitive insight is based on knowledge or experience. One way to do that is to examine a flash of inspiration and, upon reflection, see if you can construct the behind-the-scenes path your brain took to arrive at your intuitive conclusion. If it was based on logic, that’s good. If not, you need to ignore your gut.

Before You Go With The Gut,

Check It Out With The Brain

For example, assume one morning you wake up in a great mood and have this compelling thought: “Today’s the day I beat the roulette table at the casino!” Before you rush out to place your bets, why not examine your impulse? You will find, after Googling a bit of probability theory, that the force will not be with you, and furthermore, if you act on your inspiration on a grand scale, you will almost certainly go broke.

The avoidance of faulty intuition and emotional impulses is characteristic of the important principle of objectivity. This principle will be explored further in the next posts, but for now here are some simple guidelines for everyday life:

  • Don’t blindly trust your intuition. [Engineers are expected to provide a blend of logical analysis and concrete testing to back up assertions.]
  • Be wary of conflicts of interest and hidden agendas: Don’t believe information just because it was delivered by a smiling celebrity, a favored relative, a salesman with an honest face, a financial advisor who was recommended by your neighbor, an earnest frowning doctor, or a charismatic politician. [Engineers learn to ignore dazzling presentations and dig down to the unvarnished facts.]
  • Don’t make a decision on a complex issue based on a single piece of data; research all of the available options. [Engineers who tend to jump to conclusions can expect to enjoy a brief career.]
  • If someone makes a request that is based solely on emotions, just say “No.” [An emotional argument presented by an engineer to other engineers is good only for comic relief.]
  • Resist those who press you to make quick decisions. [Some engineers — those with overly-demanding managers — find that this is often difficult to do.]
  • Closely examine exalted claims, such as “free” offers and one-time-only “opportunities.” [Engineers learn to intently probe the truthfulness of claims made by sales reps, such as “super high efficiency,” which translated means “a zillion miles to the gallon.”]
  • Seek out independent objective advice; e.g. if a surgical specialist tells you that you need surgery, get a second opinion from a knowledgeable non-specialist. The latter is more likely to be aware of various alternatives and will not be biased towards surgical solutions. [Engineers use the Design Review meeting — attended by a panel of experienced and sometimes cranky senior engineers — to help ensure objectivity.]

As a current-events example of using one of the above guidelines (examining exalted claims), consider the following:

Assertion by President Obama: The proposed reform of health care will be “paid for” by eliminating billions of dollars of waste and fraud in Medicare and Medicaid.

Assumption: The dollars of waste and fraud in Medicare/Medicaid are sufficient to pay for health care reform (this is dubious but will be assumed to be true).


  • Medicare and Medicaid are run by the federal government.
  • The government has been running these programs for many years, under both Democrat and Republican administrations.
  • If massive waste and fraud have been occurring in those programs, that is the fault of the government, irrespective of which party controls the government.

Conclusion: It’s illogical to entrust the government with elimination of waste and fraud, because the government has proven itself incapable of preventing the waste and fraud in the first place.

Next Post:

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

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Posted by on September 13, 2009 in Intuition, Objectivity


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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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