Scientists vs. Engineers

As if Pepsigate wasn’t enough to get people riled up, this could be even move apocalyptic!

H. Steven Wiley takes a close look at the real Two Cultures, Scientists vs. Engineers!

In the past, I have heard there was conflict between the “two cultures” of science and the humanities. I don’t see a lot of evidence for that type of conflict today, mostly because my scientific friends all are big fans of the arts and literature. However, the two cultures that I do see a great deal of conflict between are those of science and engineering.

*snip*

At one extreme, you have basic scientists, who seek to discover entirely new processes and knowledge. At the other extreme, you have applied engineers who use the knowledge to build useful devices.

When working with these multidisciplinary groups, I have observed a definite cultural difference between scientists and engineers. Basic scientists seem to be very comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. Applied engineers, however, depend on and expect established knowledge and certainty. Of course, there is a continuum between these extremes with respect to specific technical fields as well as the people who work in them. However, there is a definite difference in the comfort zone of people who identify themselves as scientists or engineers.

Of course, the article deals mostly with generalizations and stereotypes, but as with many of those, there is often enough truth in them to make it worthwhile to pay at least a little attention.

My library serves mostly scientists with only a very small number of engineers in the student body.

I was wondering — those of you whose libraries serve large numbers of both science and engineering students, do you see a difference in the kinds of questions they ask, the kinds of services they take advantage of or the kinds of collections they need?

Comments

  1. #1 Dwpeabody
    July 12, 2010

    I work as an engineer right now and graduated last year. Personally I didn’t find much difference between the students themselves…except the fact engineers are always willing to make a guess. The main difference is how we are taught. As an engineering student you spend hardly any time with research papers looking at the latest science that is going on in the subject. Where as my girlfriend, the Biologist, spent most of her time printing off journals. This does not change the fact that all engineers should love science and consider themselves scientists.

  2. #2 bobh
    July 12, 2010

    Frankly I don’t know what to think of someone who would write: “I don’t see a lot of evidence for that type of conflict today, mostly because my scientific friends all are big fans of the arts and literature.”

  3. #3 blf
    July 12, 2010

    I’m not a librarian and don’t work in a library. I’m employed as an engineer and was educated as a scientist. Over the years, I’ve become fairly accustomed to my colleagues expressing a mixture of confusion and exasperation over my written and verbal communication, where I tend to focus on the problems and limitations, and the ways of testing, of an idea/hypothesis/proposal; and my insistence that the whatever be clearly explained using defined terms. (It’s often said that—perhaps like this comment—it’s too long. Which might be a valid point?)

    And conversely, I’m too-frequently exasperated when I read/hear a whatever which omits one of more of the above.

    Upshot is, speaking for myself, perhaps a mixture of both: I’m comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty if you can convince me it’s not relevant to (or within the design limits for) the practical problem/issue at-hand. If I can show, or suspect, some “fuzzier” point matters, then I’m uncomfortable—and more so if “Management” says to not worry about it, or (more commonly?) “We’ll deal with it later”.

    My bookshelf is a mixture of decidedly practical/applied books, and more theoretical books (especially books on principles and underlying theory). Whilst I’ve cut back my journal subscriptions considerably this last decade, that also described the mix the of journals I subscribed to. (Interestingly, I’ve never subscribed to a trade magazine (excluding freebies that I don’t pay for), and rarely consult the non-technical portions of trade/industry sites.)

  4. #4 Stephen
    July 12, 2010

    IME, engineers tend to be Republicans (or Libertarians), while scientists tend to be Democrats. Also, the engineers I’ve known are MUCH more comfortable stating that something is ABSOLUTELY this way or that, while the scientists I’ve known are much more comfortable stating that something SEEMS to be this way or that, within the limits of blah, blah, blah. Engineers also tend (IME) to be much more impressed with their own education than scientists are with *their* own education.

  5. #5 Mu
    July 12, 2010

    ups, I have observed a definite cultural difference between scientists and engineers. Basic scientists seem to be very comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. Applied engineers, however, depend on and expect established knowledge and certainty
    Odd, I always saw it the other way around, as a scientist, I hated the unknown, had to get to the basics of everything that was happening. When getting into engineering, I started to accept that things could be completely non-understood, but as long as we could numerically describe the problem we didn’t care.
    I ended up a material scientist, you don’t need the in-depth knowledge of science nor the precision of engineering.

  6. #6 Lassi Hippeläinen
    July 13, 2010

    “Basic scientists seem to be very comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. Applied engineers, however, depend on and expect established knowledge and certainty.”

    Having worked on both sides of the line, I disagree. Engineers are in fact more tolerant to uncertainty. If precise facts aren’t available, they derive a guesstimate from “best industry practice”. Scientists start digging for the missing facts (“basic research”).

    Applied engineers tend to work in scheduled projects. They want established facts to reduce the risks of the project. But it isn’t a mind set, it is a project management issue. The engineer would also start digging for the facts, if there were a chance.

    The main difference I have noticed is in attitude towards employers. Engineers are not afraid to work for a private company. Some (but not all) scientists wouldn’t do it.

  7. #7 gasstationwithoutpumps
    July 19, 2010

    I think that Wiley made some mistakes in his column and he was clearly feeling that he was a scientist and that engineers were inferior to him.

    More detailed comments in my blog at
    http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/engineering-vs-science/

  8. #8 frank williams
    July 10, 2011

    Lassi said,

    “Applied engineers tend to work in scheduled projects. They want established facts to reduce the risks of the project. But it isn’t a mind set, it is a project management issue. The engineer would also start digging for the facts, if there were a chance.”

    Exactly. In my 35 years in engineering I don’t remember any situation where the parameters of an assigned project weren’t tightly defined by management. Creativity, such as it was, had to fit within the pre-ordained paradigm. You could argue with management about this but experience quickly taught you that you that it was useless. So you followed the Golden Rule – he who pays the gold makes the rules. We didn’t always like it but that’s the way it worked.

    Employed engineers and scientists know this very well. You want to do a good job but your management says, “I don’t want it good, I want it by Tuesday!”

    An old Greek proverb says, “First secure an independent income, then practice virtue.” It’s a lot easier to be virtuous when you don’t have to depend on someone else for you next meal.

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