The Right Answer?

It may be going out of style, but I have lived my whole life being graded against a standard: getting the right answer.  Yes, there have been many times when you need to ask more questions before answering a seemingly obvious question, but at the end of the day you are either right or wrong.

I was always taught to “show my work” meaning that as I wrote out the problem, I was to state assumptions, show logic, and be especially careful not to skip steps.  It was not at all unusual for points to be deducted if you did skip steps, even if you got the right answer.

We engineers do skip steps, especially when we communicate to other engineers.  We use many forms of intellectual shorthand often described as ellipsis for those with large vocabularies.  We can sit with each other and muse about very complex systems and ideas … intellectually jousting one might say.  By the way, that … I just used is defined as ellipsis.

To those sitting around us, they probably think we are speaking another language.  To some, we sound like we are showing off.  No, we are not.  We are honoring each other’s time.  We know what is “intuitively obvious to the casual observer” as we were trained to consider.

But what if there is no right answer?  What if the questions are mysteries of the universe?  What if we are on the edge of the known and are seeking something entirely new?  Are we so arrogant that we think what we don’t know now can be known by just studying it?

Think about what we now call cancer.  There is no one cancer.  Some we think we know.  Others baffle us completely.  Yet, we create the appearance that we do know through scientific sounding labels.

Take for instance multiple sclerosis or what we commonly call MS.  It is defined as a chronic, typically progressive disease involving damage to the sheaths of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, whose symptoms may include numbness, impairment of speech and of muscular coordination, blurred vision, and severe fatigue.  It is often fatal.

Is that a definition of what it is?  Not at all!  It is a description of what it seems to do to us.  If you talk to medical professionals, they will admit they still do not know what it is. They only have some ideas how to help us cope with it.

As I hear the polarization of today’s advocates for this or that, I wonder if we could step back for a moment and consider first what problems we are really trying to solve.  Anyone who has been trained in this area knows that defining the problem is the first and most critical step.

It isn’t as easy as it sounds.  You keep asking “why” or “what” we define as this or that.  Let’s take a very simple example like energy sustainability on the planet.

Today’s pundits claim the answer is solar and wind.  But, following my logic, we should first ask why we say we need the energy in the first place?  Is there a better solution by considering the definitions of housing, mobility, and productive workplaces?  Should we redefine nutrition rather than just proclaim we want to solve world hunger?

We seem all to prone to want easy answers to questions that are, quite frankly, poorly defined.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *