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

Last week I ended the post by stating my belief that Engineers’ tendency to think unscientifically is caused by 3 distinct factors: Education, Job Functions, and Career Advancement.

Today, I’ll dive into each of those areas in an attempt to support my own (admittedly biased) root-cause analysis.

Oh and while I’m at it, Ayn Rand still sucks, and it turns out she’s a hypocrite.

Oh the irony…

1. Education

For the first few years of my Engineering undergrad, I shared classes with students in Engineering Physics which, despite the name, is more about Theoretical Physics than engineering.  These students appeared no different from my Engineering classmates, and were probably just as prone to non-scientific thinking as the rest of us.

However as our separate academic paths progressed, our Engineering problems began to focus more on complex applied problem-solving (i.e. Find the center of pressure on an NACA 2412 airfoil, during a non-symmetric maneuver, assuming asymmetric thrust), whereas the Engineering Physics students focused more on complex problem familiarization (i.e. WHY are the basic equations for finding center of pressure incorrect for compressible flow?)

I would actually argue that our applied problem-solving was often more difficult than the problems which the EP students were studying, because it our courses were structured to force us to understand the process with more weight than the concept.  Conversely, the EP courses were often structured to introduce and comprehend concepts, with less of a focus on the process.

This created A LOT of confusion over the years… professors tend to design complex problems which would never be seen in the real-world, and the concept ends up getting lost in the various formulations of the same problem.

If this is hard to understand, imagine someone telling you that the most efficient path through a forest is found by pointing in the direction you want to go, and keeping your path going in that direction (The Concept).  Now you are told to actually walk through the forest, and you encounter a sheer cliff that blocks your path, and you must figure your way around (The Process).  Understanding “The Concept” will not help you traverse the cliff, and when traversing the cliff becomes the most difficult aspect of the problem, “The Concept” seems unimportant.

2. Engineering Jobs

Granted, I’ve only been a professional engineer for a little over a year… but I think I understand the structure of most engineering jobs well enough to say this: “Front-line Engineers” like myself are SO far separated from the actual goals and overall direction of a project, that it our opinions and judgments have no chance to actually affect the overall success of a topic.  Our focus is always on one activity, one subsystem, one part…and the triple drumbeats of Cost, Schedule, and Quality keep us from attempting to solve problems outside of our little discipline bubble.

And the PROCESS.  The process has to be SO incredibly defined to ensure quality that any deviation from this process can be detrimental to the success of a project.  Don’t get me wrong, these things make sense…  It’s better to train someone to be a structural designer alone than to be a structural designer, electrical designer, aero-analyst, etc…, because there’s only so much detail knowledge that you can hold in your head at once.  But this mindset; this way of thinking…when it’s applied to systems and organizations outside of engineering, it’s very dangerous.

Take AGW for example.  Test engineers know that temperature probes can become extremely inaccurate with use, and also have to be corrected for various factors like humidity and thermal conductivity of the parent fluid.  Because of this detail knowledge, they will look at data from a worldwide temperature study and immediately point out, “Hah! They didn’t correct for humidity! And they’re assuming an increase of 0.2 degrees? Hell, that’s within the margin of error on most probes! These ‘scientists’ are so STUPID!” Sometimes, these are valid criticisms.  But more often than not, the engineers lack of knowledge of the experiment design means that they have completely misinterpreted the process, and therefore completely reject the concept.

3. Career Advancement for Engineers

Like any scientific field, advancement in engineering requires intelligence and creativity. But while sheer problem-solving intelligence is important, being able to accurately predict the outcome of a design with minimal work is even more important.

Let me ask you something.  If I came to you with 2 candidates for a job.  The first candidate, let’s call him Andy, can solve any problem you give to him, and he will document it so well that anyone could repeat what he did if they wanted to… but he takes a LONG time to do it.  The second candidate, let’s call him Will, can solve all the problems that Andy can solve, and he can do it FAST… but no one really knows how he does it because he doesn’t write anything down, they just know that he’s always right.  Which candidate would you choose?

This is how advancement in engineering works, because engineering is a for-profit industry.  Knowing intuitively how to design a bridge is a much more valuable skill than knowing how to calculate the number of rivets needed in building the bridge.  Therefore the engineers that are often the most respected are the ones that have big ego’s because they “know” their discipline better than anyone else.  And as often happens in social interactions, the other engineers tend to emulate their leadership.  This creates a culture of “know-it-alls” that are more prone throw out a gut-reaction answer without thinking through their problem solving process.

So… How do we avoid this?

Well, the short answer is that we need to make engineers’ jobs more interesting.  It’s all well and good to become an expert on a specific topic, but much like a manufacturing worker cannot do the same task day-in and day-out, most engineers would be better off seeking to expand their knowledge base, and work in different (but related) disciplines.

Right now, the way most companies work, you’re not just “an engineer”, but rather you’re a “thermal analysis engineer” or a “structural design engineering”, or an “aerodynamicist.” The reason for this is because there is A LOT to learn in each individual discipline.  You could spend 20 years in a single discipline and still not be a “guru” on the subject… However, you could also spend 2-4 years in a particular discipline and learn 75% of the topic. This knowledge will help you become more effective in another RELATED but DIFFERENT discipline than someone who didn’t have your experience (e.g. aerodynamics knowledge will help in designing structures exposed to aerodynamic forces… thermal analysis knowledge will help to understand aerodynamic flow paths… structural analysis knowledge will help to understand system-level structural requirements).

At face-value, this doesn’t appear to be a change that is really very “scientific,” but I believe the separation from routine is what is needed in order to get engineers to think more scientifically.  If engineering jobs are reconfigured to function in this manner, then the education and job advancement practices will follow.  NASA is already pursuing a similar “re-imagining” of typical engineering disciplines. Typically “Structural Analysis” and “Structural Design” are two separate but symbiotic disciplines.  NASA has decided that these disciplines are so dependent on one another, that their engineers need to understand both practices.  Any given structures engineer can be either an analyst or a designer (but not both) on any given project. I’ve often heard that people either have an “analysis” mindset or a “design” mindset… that may be true, but a good analyst understands design, and a good designer understands analysis, so I think NASA is on the right track here.

To boil it down to a quick blurb: Engineers are the “Oompa-Loompa’s” of Science; but they need to be treated like Willy Wonka’s. Engineers are creative problem solvers that bridge theory and reality through the exercise of empiricism.  Not trained automatons that are only capable of “plugging and chugging” numbers…


Engineering companies are some of the richest companies in the world because of the intelligence of their workforce.  Yet the recent practice of hiring “Business People” to manage these companies (instead of the engineers who do the actual work) has turned what used to be a very lucrative industry into one that strives to be “average.”  Stop giving out 12 Million dollar CEO bonuses, and start treating your employees better.  Maybe then we’ll develop a culture of empirical science instead of one of rhetorical here-say.


Final Note: Don’t let this crap keep you from studying to be an engineer.  The satisfaction of day-to-day problem solving is something that academic science can’t give you, and it’s truly the only way to be involved on projects that would be considered “Modern Marvels”, like an aircraft, a ship, a rocket, a wind turbine, or a skyscraper.  Just make sure to stay grounded in science, and try to maintain a constant curiosity as to WHY engineers do the things that we do.


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

  1. EastwoodDCNo Gravatar 3 February, 2011 at 7:57 pm #

    Part 2 was even better!
    As a grad student I usually taught intro statistics for the “soft science” majors, but I covered for my advisor a few times teaching an engineering stats class. What really struck me was that the engineering majors hardly asked questions, where other students would ask about all kinds of things. On the whole I’m sure the engineers were much better at math, and they were probably smarter on average, but it was like they were actually unwilling to challenge the teacher. Science is about asking questions, and risking/seeking the possibility that the accepted answer might be wrong. That seemed to be an uncomfortable thought for them.

    • JacobNo Gravatar 7 February, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

      That’s an interesting observation. In my engineering classes, I tended to ask a LOT of questions compared to my classmates, but I just assumed I was “that-kind-of-student”, and that the distribution of “that-kind-of-student” was the same in any given major.

      But overall, I can see that mindset of, “the accepted answer is irrefutable; only the process to get there can be questioned” as a symptom of what I was saying about over-emphasizing THE PROCESS. When all you’re trying to teach is the process, the students begin to assume that everything supporting the process is irrefutable.

      Thanks for your input!

    • ClintonNo Gravatar 9 February, 2015 at 7:44 pm #

      “but it was like they were actually unwilling to challenge the teacher.” Engineering Profs in general are horrible teachers. Their mindset is if you have to ask questions you’re too stupid to understand the material. Hence why engineering students are more likely to go home and look at the textbook/notes for their answers.

  2. Engineering Is A ReligionNo Gravatar 21 September, 2015 at 5:22 am #

    All profound technologies have been invented by Scientists & Technicians not Engineers.

    Applied Science requires as much hands-on experience as it does science & mathematical expertise along with logic and creativity.

    Licensed Mechanics & Physicists with their own Tech Companies will continue to innovate the most radically-advanced technologies while Engineers become obsolete.

    Right now in 2015 most corporations don’t want put up with the incompetence of Engineers when they can contract out developers from Tech Companies who are primarily Scientists, Technicians & Designers.

    It was Computer Scientists, Technicians & Designers that put NASA on the Moon not Engineers. Werner Von Braun was a Physicist not an Engineer and knew how to think outside of the “box”.

    Engineering college at universities are religious not scientific and convince their graduates that they are “educated” when in fact have been dumbed-down!

    Just because university engineering coursework stresses complex theory exhausting students to near collapse does not make such graduates educated at all. You will learn more about true scientific R&D in a technical or community college allowing for mastery of real science allowing for creative innovation.

    The “System” does not want innovators in charge of anything since this would create massive competition with the elite giant corporations that own and control the entire “System” itself.

    So why not sell a bad product such as a university engineering degree charging more money than it is worth leading to stupidity & arrogance amongst its graduates? Stupidity and arrogance are the highest virtues of 99% of all Engineers.

    To the elite this is perfect: A monopoly of brainwashed idiots!

    But this is all changing as Tech Companies on the world wide web are making Engineers obsolete. 80% unemployment rate for Engineers in the US.

    A good engineer (1% of Engineers) will tell you that they rely on the genius inventions of Licensed Mechanics & Designers to guide them and thereafter set into motion all of the materials data and legalities of product expansion.

    All of the most profound technologies on Earth are creations of Licensed Mechanics, Technicians, Physicists & Designers not Engineers.

    Conclusion: Engineers are religious nuts like priests who abhor true creative science and will be phased out completely by IT Companies & Computer Scientists.

    Eventually AI will phase out IT & CS as well.

    When both the electrical & mechanical aspects of AI are perfected in the next 10 years this will be the LAST invention of humanity.

    All R&D, manufacturing, maintenance, design, manual labor, transportation, medicine, law, accounting, defense, law enforcement, emergency response & sales will be replaced by AI.

    This means everything will literally be free on Earth and all people will have an “automated income”.

    This also means all the complex R&D needed to solve all of humanity’s problems will be conducted at hundreds of thousands of times the speed, accuracy & implementation than one million human scientists working around the clock 24/7!

    It won’t take 80 more years to invent a material that has inherent anti-gravity properties allowing structures to become weightless, but perhaps only a few months with AI on the nano-technological.

    If humans beat AI in accomplishing something like “electro-gravitic” chemistry it will probably be some technician or scientist in his own company working all alone who accomplishes this feat.

    Probably because they are free to think outside of the box unlike in the profit-based religion known as engineering who’s sole purpose is to repeat the same old crap in order to please the money-whores. Engineering is a religion.

    If you want to innovate new technologies in the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates & Mark Zuckerberg then go your own way and avoid universities but instead conduct your own serious R&D on the technical level and imagine outside of the box.

    Science & Math are just tools to synthesize an imaginative idea within the laws of nature in order for the given idea to operate perfectly as intended.

    Imagination is more important than rote knowledge as Einstein once said. Einstein himself wasn’t even a university graduate and was seen as a loser for most of his life by everyone around him. When Einstein proved the relationship between matter & energy mathematically after 30 years of formula tinkering he proved the theory of everything the missing link Physicists were looking for.

    Almost all profound scientific geniuses in history were either Physicists, Technicians, Licensed Mechanics or Layman not Engineers!

    If you’re looking to make money then go into Finance & Investment Banking. But if you love Math & Science then stick with Technology or Science and avoid the cult of Engineering! No offense to the engineers on this forum but you can’t deny all these facts posted here.

    99% of Engineers suffer from mental diseases such as False Pride, Arrogance & Delusions of Grandeur which have retarded their progress and making them obsolete in the 21st century. Universities are to blame for these ills and are also being phased out by the Internet.

  3. What...No Gravatar 9 December, 2015 at 10:58 pm #

    Professing to accurately describe the mindset of an entire population based on anecdotal evidence without rigorous testing. This is unscientific, illogical, and completely guttural.
    Regardless of degree/training anyone can fall to these tempting logical fallacies.
    It is with dripping irony that you commit the same errors that are the premise of your post.

    – Engineer

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