Another topic related to education that was discussed at some length was the fact that many companies seem to want their employees to check their brains and hearts at the door. When I was ranting about “Things would be better if employers gave their people time to think,” Bill Corcoran responded that promoting thinking is unpopular with many human-resource programs. He provided a link to an article about the work of a certain Rasmussen, who showed, for high-hazard industries, error rates thousands of times greater for employees who perform their job duties from a knowledge foundation compared to those who perform their duties from a skill foundation.

I responded that I felt there was an error in current HR departments promoting the idea that working from knowledge is dangerous, based on the subject research. But I could not figure out what the error was. In trying to find a way to shoot down Rasmussen’s theory, I started re-reading David Levy’s popular treatise on Critical Thinking. AHA! Chapter 1 of Tools for Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology, is pithily subtitled “To Describe is to Prescribe.” So, while Rasmussen published statistics of error rates in certain industries (i.e. he “described the error rate in high-hazard industries”), the result was that a large fraction of HR specialists took that information (most, probably, without ever reading the actual paper by Rasmussen) and decided that is it bad and dangerous to have employees who thoughtfully apply their knowledge.

Over three or four decades, this justification for keeping people in a reactive, action-based mind-set was spread far beyond the types of industries for which the original research had been done. I posted some comments along these lines, and Bob Nelms responded by summarizing something along the lines of, “We have taken facts about how things ARE, and said that is how things SHOULD be.” Bingo. That is a very common thinking error. It was the first chapter of a book I had been studying for almost 10 years. Interestingly, there is a later chapter in the book that gets even closer to the mark on the subject of “The Naturalistic Fallacy.” This is exactly the fallacy that HR personnel have fallen into and have not been able to get out of. The fallacy is thinking that how things are is how they should be. This mind-set allows companies to justify telling employees to “just follow the rules, just long enough to understand how to do your job, and then keep doing your job long enough that you don’t have to think about the rules.”

You become a robot who reacts to situations and performs the work without having to think at all. Obviously, if you are a pilot whose plane is falling out of the sky, you better have quick reactions. But is applying this theory to engineers doing design work and customer-service people who are supposed to be resolving reliability issues really justified? The forum has been a wonderful place for me to explore ideas about why we do things the way we do with other people who are capable of stepping back from a situation and asking “why” and “why not” and asking “How can we do better?”