The great scientist Niels Bohr, to whom we pay homage when we talk about “The Bohr Atom,” famously pointed out that great truths, such as “Democracy is the best form of government,” are often refuted by “opposite” great truths. Plato, centuries earlier, pointed out that “Democracy is the worst form of government.” Whether great truths are perceived by the one hearing them as true depends on their frame of reference.
Most of us have heard someone complaining, “There’s a lack of critical thinking here.” But what do they usually really mean? If we stop for a moment, perhaps we will realize that it often means, “I disagree with your conclusion.” But does that mean that the thought processes used were inadequate?
On the way into work recently, I was listening to the BBC News Hour. The topic was the collapse (failure) of the crypto-currency exchange company FTX. One of the guests brought up the term “consequentialism.” The host did not follow up on that thought, but I made a point to remember it until I could get to a safe spot to look it up.
Twenty-some years ago, when the ASM International Failure Analysis Committee was asked to lead the charge to create a new version of Volume 11 on Failure Analysis and Prevention for the ASM Metals Handbook, I had the chance to work with several colleagues to create the section on the failure-analysis process.
For those of us who would like to gain high-level competence in any profession, it’s critical to explore many of the branches of the tree of knowledge. If you are helping others solve technical problems, deep knowledge in the advertised subject matter is required. Communication skills serve as one example of a crucial additional area of required expertise.
A related topic is critical thinking. Over the years, I have come to define critical thinking as the ability to confirm that the proper context has been defined. In more technical language, critical thinking is the process of selecting the most appropriate and useful boundary conditions.
In engineering school, we have laboratory classes so that we can also learn from our own experience. Is the iron crystal structure really cubic? We might be given a chance to perform X-ray diffraction in a lab and be required to work out the angles between the planes of the crystal from the dot patterns on an X-ray detector.