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.
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.