25 October 2021
Intelligence alone doesn't cut it
A couple of years ago, when I attended a computer science class at university, we were given an assignment that I'll never forget. I often had difficulties with exercises at university, and this assignment was particularly challenging for me. We were given an equation and our task was to find and write down a proof for the correctness of this equation. No matter how I attacked the problem, I couldn't find a solution. I must have spent hours just on this one exercise and got more and more frustrated. The longer I thought about it, the more it seemed like the exercise was impossible - but I often felt like that about perfectly ordinary exercises whose solutions were obvious, once revealed. But then, I was able to construct a counter-example, that is, a particular set of numbers for which the equation did not hold. If my calculations were correct, that would mean that the proof they asked the student to write down does not exist. I was very confused and doubted my understanding of the subject matter, but I wrote my counter-example down and later attended the exercise session where we discussed the solutions.
To my surprise, at the exercise session, everyone else showed up with a complete proof and nobody I talked to encountered a problem. I was even more confused. I asked the teaching assistant about it. He took a look at my counter-example. After going through the calculations, he confirmed that, yes, indeed, there is an error in the question; the equation cannot be proved like that. That means that every single person in that room, other than myself, diligently proved a falsehood, as required by the assignment.
I'm not telling this story to put myself above my peers - far from it. Many of those people went on to get better marks and a higher degree than myself and it's likely that most of them have done better work in the past couple of years than me. In that particular group, I was of average intelligence at best. But the thing is, the kind of error that they all made was precisely one where intelligence alone simply doesn't cut it. To arrive at the right answer, it's necessary to break free from the shackles of false assumptions, to think not only within the problem space but also about the nature of the problem itself and the foundation upon which it rests. For this, you have to question that which was already assumed to be true from the get-go and by doing so, you may expose yourself to a rather unpleasant and intense feeling of confusion and otherness. But that's okay, because all things considered, it's still a small price to pay for deeper and unusual insights.
This event taught me that one sole diverging opinion - no matter if it isn't uttered by the smartest person in the room - may be correct. I am now acutely aware of this fact, not only when my opinion diverges but in particular when it aligns with everyone else's. Because if the scenario above were to repeat in a similar form, I could belong to that majority that was wrong, so it's always good not to get lulled into a false sense of security by consensus.
This is what I consider critical thinking. Not media literacy or cross-examination of evidence, but the ability to expand one's reasoning space by recognising and scrutinising preconceived notions. Nature equipped us with a physiological mechanism to automatically become attentive when we hear a strange noise in the dark, but there is no such mechanism to raise our awareness when we take a wrong turn in our intellectual pursuits. So it is upon us to deliberately and consciously make out the strange noises in the darkness of our understanding, to sharpen our wits, so we can navigate this difficult terrain safely.
Asking dumb questions is so underrated. And entertaining dumb questions is at least as underrated. When you do so, one of two things will happen:
1. Someone who didn't know something obvious now does, and will be better equipped to solve similar problems in the future, armed with new knowledge.
2. Bad assumptions will be challenged, opening up new solutions that may not have been considered initially.
I design manufacturing equipment for an aerospace OEM. Most of the designers I work with spent years in the fabrication shop building our equipment, took a CAD class, and then got promoted to be a designer. I'm one of the few degreed engineers in our group.
Frequently, I find myself in meetings with design and process engineers, trying to figure out a way to build an assembly, or lift and rotate an assembly into the next position on the assembly line, or troubleshoot some quality issue.
Without fail, whenever one of those ex-shop guys are in the meeting, they'll ask a dumb, almost outrageous question. Something like "what if we used a ratchet strap to make the part conform to contour?"
Often times they're not great ideas, but they always open up the scope of solutions and foster some really candid discussion about possibilities that weren't on the table prior to the comment. I always admire their ability to not worry about looking stupid. Sometimes, they'll hit a home run with an idea that no one had even considered.
I find that a lot of degreed engineers (myself included) are afraid of looking dumb in a meeting. We have trouble asking simple questions because we assume everybody else has an answer, or has at least thought through it sufficiently. When I find myself feeling that way, I try to actively ask dumb questions, and I usually find that everyone else was more or less in that same boat.
When you sit down with people and make all of those seemingly obvious assumptions explicit while walking through the problem, I find it really helps illuminate the solution, or at least make the profile of a possible solution much more well defined. And a big part of that process, I find, is asking seemingly dumb but critical questions.