Fuzzy Thinking

As I have stated on more than one occasion, I am an engineer, working to develop and design test instruments based upon customer needs and marketing decisions. In our business fuzzy thinking can be the death knell for our company. So it came as a pleasant surprise when I came across this over at Random Jottings. It explains quite well the mindset engineers need to have in order to succeed in developing the products that are required. It also applies to life in general, whether you are talking about politics/family/your town/your country/the world, whether you are an engineer or not. John Weidner calls it a “tool for detecting fuzzy thought.”

I had written: Peter Drucker always taught that the key to making decisions is figuring out what the question actually is.

Reader Mike replied: I learned this when I started working alongside of engineers for a few years. It's probably the single most important thing I learned during that time.

Here's another key: things are defined as much by what they are, as what they are not. For example, when somebody suggests a new product that does A, B, and C, we take pains to clearly specify that the product will not do X, Y, or Z. This additional step is crucial in defining the problem we are trying to solve. In engineering terms, it's the difference between a product specification, and a wish list.

In more abstract terms, it's a great tool for detecting fuzzy thought. For example, ask a 9/11 conspiracy buff what the conspiracy could not have accomplished. What are its limits? If he says that anything was possible, then he's hoist in his own petard - "How do you know that Bill Clinton wasn't behind the whole thing?".

Well-formed thoughts have edges. Poorly-formed thoughts are like clouds that endlessly shift and fill the available space.

The "lack of limits" characterizes a lot of goofix thinking today. Whatever the criticism, people keep raising the bar, and can never be satisfied. A friend wrote to me, "I always point out that the people in the top 10% pay 66% of the taxes and then ask: How much do you think they should pay? What's the right number? I don't think I have ever gotten an answer."

The “lack of limits” is one of the problems with much of the It's-All-The-Fault-Of-The-[place name of group or person they're bitching this time, here] Left. They follow such a convoluted logic path that it is damn near impossible to follow their reasoning.

The same “lack of limits” also causes problems with any engineer's job. In my company we usually see it in the form of creeping elegance, where marketing wants to keep adding features until the end result has no resemblance at all to the original specifications. There comes a point where we have to say “No, this isn't going to work. If you want all of these features we'll need to start from scratch because we can't stretch the original design to accomplish everything you want.” If we don't say that, a inexpensive tool ends up becoming a costly does-everything box that very few can afford to buy and that won't work nearly as well as smaller, less expensive individual pieces of equipment designed to perform a specific function. And so it goes with life in general.

How many times have we seen what appears to be an excellent solution to a problem on the local/state/national/international level be turned into a bloated, unworkable boondoggle because fuzzy thinking causes all kinds of 'add-ons' that twist the original idea into something unrecognizable? Far too often, in my opinion. Everybody wants to add something, even if it has nothing to do with the original problem the solution was supposed to solve. We see this happen all the time, particularly in state legislatures and the halls of Congress.

It seems that it's also true that folks come up with solutions to 'problems' that aren't really problems. Or they take a small problem and blow it all out of proportion, trying to make it appear far larger than it really is, and then demanding a solution to the problem. But the solution turns out to be far more harmful than the original problem. Their fuzzy thinking makes connections between unrelated events and comes up with a conclusion that defies all logic. (It can be said that conspiracy theorists are masters at such thinking). Therefore, their solutions make as much sense.

I think that this is a pretty good place to stop this post as my thinking is getting a bit...umm...fuzzy.

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