Dilbert's Confusion

-- by Dick Coren

I am constantly amazed at how people compartmentalize their minds. Even in the highly trained, their perfectly proper thinking modes in one situation are ignored in others. For example, I teach Electrical Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia and am frequently called on to give a course in basic EE to Business or Humanities majors. I hear them discussing theories of stock market variation and interaction, with all the complexities, cycles, and interactions that that involves but yet some of them refuse to learn how to fit data to a straight line equation. (Note I say refuse, not can't -- some are so panicked by an equation that they "freak-out" and won't even consider such problems.)

I occasionally discuss engineering and science issues in the news. I point out the pros and cons, how they are evaluated, and how the evidence is derived, so as to consider how trustworthy it is. This often involves judgements on the role of hearsay, the use of controls, the motivations of those raising issues, etc. I frequently find that these modes of analysis are ignored a few days later when a similar issue is raised. If we can't teach our students to think analytically then whatever we do teach them is of little value.

My engineering students display the same division of thought. They can evaluate precisely all the strengths and weakness of a computer, or an audio system, or a mechanical support design but, when confronted by a news report of some event, such as a UFO sighting or a reported medical breakthrough, their critical powers dissolve. Their training did not treat this specific case so they assume it doesn't apply to it at all. My worst personal experience with this occurred a number of years ago when I entered my laboratory early one morning to find a group of graduate students holding a seance. I was crushed! These were individuals on the verge of earning an M.S. or a Ph.D. in a highly technical field. They were, supposedly, perceptive and analytic. In discussing it with them a few days later I realized that they were condescending to me because "as a non-believer, I couldn't understand."

This is a problem that has me and other educators terribly frustrated. There are courses offered that attempt to treat it specifically. I don't know how successful they are but I wonder if the general ability to be skeptical is conducive to classroom learning. Although training students to be skeptical is just the point of true education, I'm afraid there are too many forces acting against us skeptics. This brings me to the reason for writing this.

For a recent birthday my son gave me copy of Scott Adams's book "The Dilbert Future: Thriving on Stupidity in the 21st Century". I put it on my night table and every night I read a few pages. Through his Dilbert comic strip, Adams has become the engineer's critical guide to today's corporate world. His observations and presentations are always pithy and generally hilarious. His book on the future carries this on. My wife complained that every night I awakened her, shaking with laughter over the book.

That was until I got to the last chapter. That chapter opens with the bold prediction that "The theory of evolution will be scientifically debunked in your lifetime," followed by a warning that the author is "turning the humor mode off for this chapter . . ." And, indeed, it develops that he believes this to be true. Along with his own "Assumptions about reality" he introduces "Affirmations," the experiences he's had where firm belief in something, and repeating its statement many times, causes it to happen. An appendix details the technique. I am appalled by this lack of understanding of causality and of the nature of science.

In the future I'll read Adams's comics with the thought in mind that, beneath the surface humor there lurks a misdirection of thought that may be influencing the reader. Undoubtedly I've lost a good deal of my appreciation for Dilbert. I am saddened that Scott Adams is just another of the many students I see who, despite his astuteness in criticizing corporate management and aspects of society in general, never really learned to be skeptical.

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