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.
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