ID #5376

Problem Solving, Engineering and Wisdom.

In an interesting book entitled “The Road less Travelled” by F Scott Peck, the first paragraph reads:

“Life is difficult”.

He argues that this statement is a great truth because if one accepts this statement as well as its implications then life becomes easy. Alternatively if one refuses to accept that such a statement is true then life becomes difficult.

The reason is that if one believes this statement then difficulty is the stuff of which life is made. It is the norm rather than the exception. And how one approaches such challenges determines how successful one becomes. If one accepts such challenges with relish and enthusiasm – i.e. as an opportunity to learn and grow -- then one will ultimately succeed regardless of the obstacles. As Winston Churchill once noted in a speech; “Never give up, Never give up, Never give up”, after which he sat down. However, if one collapses in a heap at the prospect of further obstacles and challenges, one will eventually fail. Alternatively if one thinks like a winner one becomes a winner and if one thinks like a loser one becomes a loser.

Edward de Bono, in a fascinating book entitled “The Textbook of Wisdom” notes that wisdom rather than cleverness is required if we are to circumvent such obstacles -- i.e. avoid making errors of judgement -- and notes that 80% of such errors are the result of errors of perception. In other words:

  1. Errors of judgment are not mistakes. Instead they occur after careful consideration of the issues involved.
  2. Most errors of judgement occur because one is unable (not unwilling – the distinction here is deliberate) to "see" other perspectives. Bear in mind that the word perception is used here in its broadest sense – i.e. seeing, imagining, hearing smelling, dreaming, touching, tasting etc. 

There are many examples which illustrate this point:

  1. Fukushima Disaster: The east coast of Japan is an active earthquake zone. Further, earthquakes sometimes result in tsunamis, a Japanese word for giant waves. To protect towns and cities from such tsunamis, barriers have been built across harbour entrances in many places along the east coast of Japan. Yet they built not one but 4 nuclear power stations at Fukushima on the east coast of Japan without any protection against such waves?
  2. When the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York were built, did no one consider the possibility of a fire in the middle of the building which prevented access to the lower levels? No helicopter landing pad? No zipline to the other tower? No parachutes?  
  3. Adolf Hitler was undoubtedly an intelligent, capable albeit immoral person. He must have been intelligent and capable to achieve what he did – i.e. to lift Germany out of the economic difficulties it faced at the end of WW1. Why did he not surrender to the Allies when it became obvious that Germany could not win the war? Similar arguments apply to other infamous people such as Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Saddam Hussein, etc. 
  4. The Queen, on a visit to the London School of Economics, asked whether or not anyone foresaw the bankruptcy of many countries and the global financial meltdown that took place recently. After 3 weeks, the answer she received from the head of the LSE: Nobody thought of it. Are you serious? Did none in the financial community realize that if one spends more than one earns for a sustained period of time, bankruptcy will result? Did none realize that if one lends money to those who cannot repay, one will lose one’s money? 
  5. What was Dominic Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF and prospective President of France, thinking when he tried to rape a chamber maid in a hotel in New York? 
  6. What was Lance Armstrong thinking when he organized systematic drug taking in order to win the Tour de France so many times?
  7. George W Bush’s statement: “If you are not with us you are against us”. As noted by Nelson Mandela, these are the words of an ignorant person. 
  8. Apartheid: It is self-evident that one learns little about someone simply by looking at them. Are they intelligent or stupid, can they read and write, can they ride a bicycle, are they good people, does he beat his wife, does he lie, cheat and steal, and so on. Is it not surprising therefore that HF Verwoerd, Prime Minister and architect-in-chief of Apartheid and widely recognized for his intellect, developed, codified and implemented the system of Apartheid based entirely on the colour of one’s skin? 
  9. Joe Slovo, a member of both the South African Communist Party as well as the ANC, returned to South Africa after 30 years in exile to attend the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as our new President in 1994. Bear in mind that this took place after the demise of communism in Eastern Europe. Asked whether or not events in Europe had caused him to abandon his belief in communism, he replied: “Not at all. There is nothing wrong with communism. The problem is that communism has never been implemented properly”.

Technically-speaking, there are many famous examples (Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea, BP Texas refinery explosion etc). Such behavior leads one to the apparently ludicrous statement: “It’s amazing how stupid clever people are” Are such people simply dim-witted?  We know this not the case. Instead, the reasons for such errors of judgment require deeper insight. Wisdom if you will.

What is wisdom? Like happiness, wisdom is a word we use without really understanding what it means. We intuitively believe that we will recognize it when we see it but cannot describe it. Which is what happened when I first read "The Ascent of Man" by Jacob Bronowski. During my career I recall having met only one person (other than my mother and grandmother), out of many thousands, whom I consider to be wise. So it seems to be in rather short supply. Can wisdom be both taught and learned? Are all educated people wise? Are all uneducated people wise? Are all young people wise?  Are all people with long noses wise?

De Bono accepted the challenge of attempting to find answers to such questions. And it makes interesting reading. So interesting I am still trying to internalize some of the concepts 20 years after having first read it. Such lessons are not easily learned.

Eugene Marais did interesting experiments with human beings in the 1930’s which have a bearing on this subject. He noticed that, under hypnosis, our eyesight, sense of smell and direction are as acute as those of animals such as baboons, dogs and so on. Another example: Under hypnosis, humans are able to tell the difference between the north and south poles of a magnet hidden in a hessian bag – an ability we lose as soon as we regain consciousness. However, unlike humans, wild animals (particularly prey animals such as antelope) are keenly aware of everything in their surroundings and are continuously looking, listening and smelling for signs of danger.  They are in close contact with their environment.

Most scholars have fallen into the trap of believing that engineering (as well as other disciplines such as medicine, architecture, accounting, economics, meteorology, etc) is a science. That given enough computing power one can solve any problem. However this is not the case — there are many examples that illustrate this simple point. For example -- only about 12% of all known problems can be solved using the deterministic techniques learned at school and university. Frighteningly, the balance (88%) cannot be solved using such techniques. As a result, universities produce clever rather than wise graduates. Which has lead to an ever-increasing divergence between the skills of university graduates and the skills required to function in modern industrial environments? Why? Because, gazing intently at their computer screens, they are out of touch with their environment.

The fact of the matter is that engineering is as much about common sense, intuition, loyalty, integrity, tenacity, beauty and kindness as it is about logic, symmetry, numeracy and formulae. Engineering is not, never was and never will be a science. For if it were, Leonardo da Vinci would not be recognized as one of the greatest engineers who ever lived. Similarly Einstein would not have asked, while looking at the clock tower in Berne receding into the distance from his seat on a tram, what one would notice about the clock if the tram were travelling at the speed of light – a possibility which ultimately led him to develop his Theory of Relativity.

Listen to what Charlie Chaplin had to say:


Wisdom rather than cleverness is required if we are to find the best solution to the many problems that beset us, whether it be at home, at work or at a national  and international level. Failure to study such matters condemns one to living a hard life – something even the most skeptical reader would, I assume, choose to avoid. If you wish to avoid such difficulties I suggest you start by reading “The Textbook of Wisdom”.

Alan McIver, Palawan, Philippines, November 2012

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Last update: 2014-03-10 11:19
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.40

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