Why do Engineers prefer to think unscientifically? Part 1 of 2

This is a topic I’ve been mulling over for quite some time.  It’s a hard concept to express, since it hits so close to home for me.  But after recently reading a discussion about the topic on Reddit, I felt I needed to use my “bully pulpit” and speak my mind.

So here’s the issue.  Engineers are, without a doubt, trained in hard science.  My education consisted of math topics up to Partial Differential Equations, and physics topics ranging from chemistry, thermodynamics, materials science, aerodynamics, and space physics.  I think it’s safe to say that most engineers understand Newton’s Laws of Motion, along with many other core scientific theories outside of their personal scientific discipline.

With that being said, why is it that engineers often fall into the logical traps of the un-scientific mainstream media and pseudo-scientific topics?  This is, in fact, a quantified effect, and has been given a name, “The Salem Hypothesis”, and is discussed in various forums online, including RationalWiki.

This is part 1 of 2 of my analysis of the assumptions in the Salem Hypothesis, and let me just begin by saying that I, for one, blame Ayn Rand.

FYI - She's batshit crazy

OK, I don’t really blame Ayn Rand… but her novels and way-of-thinking are often very similar to the mindset of the engineers I am talking about.  Let me lay out a few examples.

  • During my co-op, I worked with an engineer who was very knowledgeable in the field of aerodynamics.  She could talk about entropy-changes, boundary layers, and the Komogorov Scale all day long… BUT, she was deathly certain that bluetooth headphones caused electrical shorts inside your brain.  I tried explaining to her the concept of ionizing radiation and Bremsstrahlung (which Ben artfully explained in Episode 69), but she seemed to have no concept of the sheer difference in scale between radiation particles/waves and actual molecules.  This, to me, was a VAST area of science missing from her knowledge-base.
  • During my first year at university, I had some wonderful Humanities courses with my fellow students, where we were free to discuss and debate the topics of the day.  A VAST MAJORITY of my engineering classmates were global warming deniers.  (Sadly, I must admit that I was one of them at the time, as my knowledge in the topic was fairly limited.  I have since looked at both sides of the story, and converted)  In hindsight, I would like to believe it was because we were only just beginning our education, but now in the real-world, many of my colleagues are also AGW deniers. Though many engineers fully understand the concept of feedback loops and closed-systems, these aspects of the AGW body of data are ignored and their vehement opposition is directed almost entirely at 1) the accuracy of temperature measurements in the distant past, and 2) assuming climate scientists actually understand the climate.
  • Finally, and perhaps most startlingly, is the case of an acquaintance who is perhaps the most intelligent structural analyst I know.  This is someone who can look at a complex structural system, tell you how the load is likely to be transferred through that system, and how it is going to fail.  Yet even with this almost-savant level understanding of materials and structures, this person has come to believe that the World Trade Center towers could not have fallen from the impact of the planes after watching an episode of Jesse Ventura’s “Conspiracy Theories”.  This pretty much blows my mind.  The arguments I’ve seen laid forth in pieces like “Loose Change” and “Zeitgeist” were easily dismantled by myself and my classmates in my Sophomore year.  Yet this literal EXPERT on the topic has become convinced after watching a show with the stated purpose of convincing it’s viewers to believe in conspiracy theories…  MIND BOGGLING

So how does this happen?  Is it severe cognitive dissonance? Is it arrogance? Is it a lack of curiosity?  RationalWiki argues that it’s because engineers focus on “results” instead of “means”.  I think all of these things are partially true, but in the end I think it’s a function of the culture of engineering; starting with our education, continuing with our job functions, and ending with our career advancement.

Next week I’ll tackle all three of these factors, and try to figure out what we can do to prevent this sort of mindset from prevailing.



3 Responses to Why do Engineers prefer to think unscientifically? Part 1 of 2

  1. benNo Gravatar 25 January, 2011 at 8:37 am #

    yeah, i’ve met a strange cross-section of physicist and physics trained people who…
    i have some friends who were physics undergrad students with me. they were afraid of using microwaves. they were afraid of eating food microwaved, and were afraid of standing near them when they were working 0_0.

    also, i had a prof who didn’t believe in evolution of life on earth from gunk.

    i look forward to your coming analysis!

  2. EdNo Gravatar 3 May, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    My hypothesis is that the Salem Hypo author, and legions of his more left fellows, have had a hard time with the rationality of engineers, with their typically conservative bent.
    The S.H. is a way to deal, by ad hominem sleight.


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