Saturday, March 22, 2014

Assessing Reliability of Knowledge and Experience: “The Three Whys”

A common problem in all walks of life is determining the value and dependability of information as well as that of its source. Sometimes that is sought and sometimes offered. These days, especially with the advent of the Internet, it is thrown at us by some people, almost on an attempted force feeding basis, though that, immediately, tends to mitigate against its usefulness and reliability, similarly with the person, or person promoting it.

The Three Whys

Early in my engineering career I learned of a useful way of assessing the reliability of information put forward by someone else, whether they have been asked for, or offered, it, without having to have as much knowledge as the person themselves. The exact origin of the approach is partially “lost in the mists of time”, though I am virtually certain it arose during my years at British Aerospace, through the 1970s and into the early 1980s, and that it derived in large part from a good friend of that era, W.J. (Walter John) “Dickie” Bird, a very unusual and inventive character who worked in the Project Office.

The approach is founded, to a large extent, on the basic principle that, a person who really understands their subject and is endowed with even just a reasonable amount of professionalism, basic civility, will be able to explain themselves, their specialist subject, or any other subject of which they claim to have knowledge and experience, in a straightforward, reasonable and civilised manner without any overt emotion, histrionics, or abuse. “The Three Whys” approach adds just a little more formality as well as being structured.

The basic principle is simple and is as follows. When someone puts forward an opinion on a particular matter, whether sought, or, simply, offered, consider what has been said and, on the basis of what you have been told, ask as in depth a question as you are able, endeavouring to take them “a level deeper”. On the basis of the answer you are given, ask a further question to take the matter another level deeper. Reflect on that answer and, with a third question, endeavour to take them deeper still,.

All of the questions you ask, should, of course, be put in a gently probing, considered and civilised manner, and the answers you receive should also be considered and civilised.

It is a basic convention of discourse that discussion, exchange of views, is carried out in a polite, mature manner and that when someone becomes abusive they forfeit the argument. Applying that to the previously described questioning process, if the person responding to calmly posed questions responds in a similar manner, he/she is likely to know the subject in question to a useful, even reliable, depth. Even if you do not fully understand the answers, particularly the third one, as long as the response is in a measured, calm, reasonably detailed manner, it is likely that they really do know what they are talking about, even if you do not follow it fully, or at all. However, if at any time there is any evasion, or abuse, it is likely that the person’s opinions can be, safely, ignored, quite apart from them having demonstrated a lack of professionalism which would rule out any involvement for them in any enterprise related to the subject matter.

Unfortunately, there are people who are abusive even before being asked a question on their subject, or any other. It is quite reasonable to ignore, even dismiss, the views of such persons, perhaps in their entirety, though at least to the extent of not bothering to take matters any further with them. Even if there just might seem to be something worth while in what they have to say, it is rarely worth pursuing when exchange of views becomes hostile; far better to seek out those of a more civilised and worthwhile disposition. Among those people are high level academics, who, one would have thought, would be more likely to take a professional approach. One such person seems to know his subject area but not a great deal beyond it though seems to think he does. Another professes knowledge, quite literally but is unwilling, or unable, to answer questions on his own subject, as well as displaying an unpleasant manner, at least to anyone who does not agree with his outlook. Rather than bother which such people simply go elsewhere; there are plenty of other people with as much knowledge and experience, likely more, of a pleasanter disposition and, therefore, far more likely to engage with people on a mutually productive basis.

As far as my own profession of engineering is concerned, there is a tendency towards conservative views, in the non-political sense, of course, so histrionics in debate, discussion, from an engineer is very rare and the sign of a not very good engineer. In recent years I have come across the apparent practice of intense and heated debate among scientists, at least those people of a pure science, classical science disposition, rather than the applied sciences and engineering sciences. If that is there way, fine, though it seems to belong more to, as well as being more suited to, the laboratory and academia. The engineering world is more a place for civilised informed discussion and debate rather than arrogant histrionics, hot headed decisions and similar. Much the same goes for the medical world, though one would be forgiven for not thinking so, given the opinions freely given on the Internet, frequently unsolicited, by, for the most part, people who have no relevant knowledge, qualifications, or experience, as well as it being done so rather forcefully, to put it mildly, as well as extremely rudely, also to put it mildly. Needless to say, by far the greater majority of such views are worthless and if there is any suspected worth in such views it would be far better to go elsewhere and find someone of a more civilised disposition to explain further, even more so if specific advice is desired, or required.

Related Thoughts

In engineering there is a willingness to take risks, though, mostly, only in terms of small steps and the situation being retrievable, if something goes wrong. That is combined with welcoming new ideas and approaches, subject to careful evaluation. That evaluation is from an engineering perspective, which includes science but is certainly not limited to science, or by it, no competent engineer would be. A great deal of knowledge and experience is required, along with knowing one’s own limitations in that sense. However, some knowledge of many subjects is also part of the profession, which provides a good basis for assessing the reliability of other sources of information and expertise; knowing and being aware enough to be able to ask questions of sufficient import to judge the quality and value of the information received, as well as the person, or person, imparting it; hence the approach outlined above. A competent engineer will be well aware of that and will engage with others in an appropriate manner. Should someone claim to be an engineer and not take a reasoned and civilised approach, go elsewhere; such people are distinct outliers, in the minority, close to the vanishing minority level, in my experience. If in any doubt, go to a professional institution, their claimed Institution, if they have one, for advice. Note that by “engineer” I mean in the professional sense, someone who is registered with the Engineering Council as a Chartered Engineer (CEng), Incorporated Engineer (IEng), Engineering Technician (EngTech), in the U.K., and the equivalent in Europe (EurIng), the United States, Canada, etc., rather than in the colloquial sense, especially the more general U.K. sense and similar.

On a final note, I am willing to give views beyond my areas of knowledge and experience, at least in those in which I have taken an interest over the years and with which I have at least some knowledge, or familiarity. However, I tend to make clear my limitations in such areas, at least where practicable; certain interactive systems, such as Twitter, for example, are not exactly geared to detailed explanations and qualification. On the other hand, I am open about my professional background and other involvements, most of which can be found on the Internet, though my engineering interests, knowledge experience and involvements, outside engineering, are such that a number of mainstreamers are unable to engage about them in a mature manner, though my experiences, in that sense, are rather similar to those of many other people. The sort of approach I take as a guide when going outside my own fields of expertise and knowledge is that of Irwin Schrödinger, about which I write in “Science Knowledge and Noblesse Oblige”. Obviously, I do not claim to be at Irwin Schrödinger’s level, though he is a much better role model than  many scientists, let alone of those who can only claim to be “of science”, though do not seem to be as knowledgeable of it as they suppose, or even very good at it.

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1 comment:

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