Sunday, July 10, 2011

Why I Think Engineers are Less Likely to be Skeptics

Having studied a “proper” science as well as engineering, I can now begin to see how painfully unquestioning engineers are. I have also noticed the high number of engineers that take up creationism despite supposedly being experts on the laws of thermodynamics. I also see engineer colleagues get sucked into homeopathy, anti climate change, mobile phone tumor stories and just about everything they read in trashy newspapers that is labeled as “science”. I practically choked on my lunch one day when confronted with a mechanical engineer proudly showing off a magnet he was going stick on his car fuel pipework and supposedly get savings of up to 30%. I am convinced that I see more engineers peddling this kind of crap than I do other professions (I admit bias here). And this lack of skeptical ability has led me to wonder why such educated people, so used to understanding how things work, appear so prone.

John W. Patterson somewhat confirmed my suspicion when he wrote a paper some time ago expressing his thoughts on why engineers ended up at the forefront of the creationist movement.

As an engineer myself who is approaching 10 years of experience I feel I have special insight into why engineers lack critical thought. In short: they just don’t get the same kind of practice at it that other scientists do. Their job actually encourages them to believe context-less information un-challenged.

My colleagues are almost entirely engineers or mechanically minded technical people. They are very intelligent, intimidatingly so at times, but it seems engineers have an in-grained achilles heel. Engineering is not really an evidence based science. ANY idea that works can be put into practice because it does the job. Engineers are not used to judging the viability of one idea over another. They usually do not have time to examine more than the first viable idea they encounter. Particularly if the first idea sort-of solves the problem. Thus, an engineer’s mental skeptic muscle gets virtually no exercise in a typical day.

Engineers are happy to take the word of the manufacturer that a given product works. Experiments are rare. Work is NEVER EVER published publicly only very rarely internally as a “how to” or drastically simplified (gospal) verbal “rules of thumb” to be passed on to colleagues in a game of chinese whispers. Rare published documents will be questioned when hell freezes over. Same goes for rules of thumb. Recording original sources is considered a waste of time since the given advice is all they have to say. It would only be possible to contact them for advice if they are still with the company anyway. With little or no literature, almost no sources and no cross-examination of past work allowed, most engineers are left making gut decisions based on experience. Their entire library of information is restricted to what they have personally done before.

Once an option has been established by an engineer to be “working” it is almost never examined to determine why. It is generally considered that a project review resulting in a few new word of mouth rules of thumb is a successful review. Rules of thumb are the simplistic wives tales of the engineering world and are generally treated like gospel. They are virtually never studied or verified with theory. I have watched multi-million dollar engineering projects take shape based upon nothing more than the lead engineer’s feeling that “it looks good” and a collection of rules of thumb. I have be reprimanded by various bossed more than once for choosing to chase down rare, latest research on how a process works (even when it was done within the company). “Rules of thumb save time and they are almost always good enough” they say. Except we generally don’t know the original context of these rules so we generally don’t know when they should not be applied. If you were to hire a new lead project engineer, the project and collection of rules would look completely different. Its almost totally down to personal opinion and what the lead engineer has done in the past. I have NEVER seen an engineer that is not already working in academia, subscribe to or seek out academic engineering research. Its another world.

If this doesn’t sound unscientific to you, let us pretend the same thing happens elsewhere. Lets imagine a psychiatrist basing all their clinical decisions only on what they have seen in their own consulting rooms. They would of course select their own treatment for schizophrenia based on what seems right to them, and if it kind of works, it will become the standard. Nothing will be published (commercial confidence) so there will be no alternative treatments derived from colleagues. A schizophrenic who switches to another practitioner will experience completely different treatment and there will be no way to determine which is more effective. There is no literature so there is no cross-examination.

I think you can see why an engineer might have trouble with skepticism. They just don’t get the practice. They don’t need skepticism and evidence based practice to get through the day. In fact they practice the opposite to get through the day. The first answer they see that kind of explains things (no need to be too exact) is the correct one. There is no reason at all to change. Which is why engineers drop like flies when they encounter quack medicine, creationism, anti climate science, wives tales for christ’s
sake, and tons of that misinformed crap newspapers trot out appealing to the beliefs of lowest common denominator readers (it sells).

So next time you find yourself inclined to assume that something a professional engineer has said it true due to their education and professional status, keep in mind that despite being far from stupid, they might not have the honed skepticism skills that you do.



Feasibility is an engineering based blog designed to reach other STEM people. Non-STEM people are also welcome! I try to give good advice and well-reasoned opinions but please don’t hesitate to disagree with me. This blog exists because I realised that I live in a metaphorical bubble and that simply wont do. Nup.


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