Sciencewomen

Engineer, thy name is enlightenment hero

Okay, I’ve been having some interesting conversations on and offline about what boils down to engineering epistemology and identity. Of course, that’s my research area, so I dig it. And I want to start having a bigger conversation about if there’s anything particularly indelible or inherent about “engineers” or “engineering.” But first I want to throw open the comment doors, and see what your thoughts or beliefs are about engineers’ place in the world – how they construct themselves, how they reproduce or resist disciplinary narratives about engineering, why they may be more prone to believe in intelligent design (or not) or that all problems can be solved, or why they might think that they are trained to solve social problems. Let’s have a philosophical discussion about what seems to have been a part of engineering in the past, and think about whether it’s (as it were) a necessary thing for defining engineering in the future.

However, three rules for the comments: keep it constructive (no dissing the stupid-ass engineers you went to school with, for example), keep it focused on the topic, and keep it specific (no blanket statements unless you can back ‘em up, in other words). Please. Or you risk me deleting you with with my deleting wand. :-)

To start things off: I’ve been reading Layton’s Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession, and he talks about how engineering as a profession developed rapidly during the Progressive Era. He talks about how engineers talked about themselves as the best people to solve social problems because they believed themselves to have the rational tools for dissecting any problems and coming up with solutions. I see this philosophy still in engineering education today – engineering as the Enlightenment, engineer as the hero (and a gendered one at that) – when engineers (students, instructors) dismiss the knowledge of the social scientists and humanists as irrelevant to their understanding of issues in, for example, service learning design projects. I don’t think this has to be a part of engineering for the future, though. How can we change this attitude?

Or another thought: maybe engineers are really activists at heart, as what they want to do is change things, to solve problems. But engineers seem to be a pretty conservative bunch overall (did you know Hoover was an engineer?), and anti-union to boot. Why the apparent contradiction?

Whaddaya think? Or will this kill the comments? ;-)

Note: title corrected thanks to Elf Eye. Oops, sorry! :-)

Comments

  1. #1 Female Engineering Professor
    June 11, 2008

    You asked “why they may be more prone to intelligent design”?

    So let me start by saying that I believe in a creator, and I think He is intelligent.

    I’m also a roboticist and I study and teach about ways to get a pile of parts and wires to behave like bugs and birds and animals and humans. As I’ve taught new courses, I’ve had to study things like animal locomotion and navigation. The complexity and beauty of these systems is just amazing. Take flocking for example. There is a whole area of research trying to get robotic swarms to duplicate the flocking behaviors of birds, fish, and livestock.

    I also had a new appreciation for all of this as I watched my children develop locomotion, navigation, pattern recognition, and communication skills over the past 5 years. I sometimes bring in my children’s favorite picture books and when I talk about pattern recognition in class. I talk about how for a while my son thought all red balls were apples (new potatoes, red onions, etc.) but how he knows the difference now. And we talk about how hard it would be to get a computer vision system to recognize the difference between red onions and red apples and red potatoes under a variety of size, lighting, and orientation conditions. One of my colleagues, after watching his toddler son learn to crawl and walk, remarked that there’s just no hope for true artificial intelligence (AI). It’s just so complex.

    I find Anne Foerst’s book God in the Machine to be really fascinating. She’s a theologist who studied in the MIT AI Lab. She makes an interesting analogy to the Jewish golem tradition and suggests that humanoid robots could be “understood as praise of God and as a repetition of his act of creating us.”

    That really resonated with me, because as I study the engineering discipline of robotics, I am constantly reminded of how I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

    So that’s why I, as an engineer, believe in the Creator.

  2. #2 RichB
    June 11, 2008

    I am an engineer (Software and Firmware). I have always wanted to be an engineer, and I truly love the discipline and all that comes with it …

    My political bent depends on the issues. On some I am conservative, on some liberal. Whatever is the most efficient way to solve the problem (I know, typical engineer response).

    I would love to solve all the world’s problems, but I’m sure my solutions would not be well-received :-). Not that they are so bad, but human nature is to resist being told what to do… Very frustrating :-)

    To your questions:

    Intelligent Design — I was brought up Catholic, but since I have gotten older, I have rejected that ideology. As for Intelligent Design, I sort of have to laugh. There’s so much of us that makes biologists say “WTF?” that I find it hard to believe anything intelligent designed us. We seem to be much more haphazardly put together, which would jive more with evolution. Some artifacts are still around, and some structures and functions show “band-aids” that I would have to believe any “creator” with a clean slate wouldn’t have kept around.

    Can all problems be solved? — I think yes, but we have to keep in mind constraints. We can solve overpopulation by killing people, but that’s certainly not acceptable. So, within certain constraints, maybe we cannot solve all problems, but if conditions change, yes, they can be solved.

    Can engineers solve social problems? — We think we can, but pesky humans keep getting in the way :-). I spend my working hours (and to be honest, lots of non-working hours) telling a machine what to do. If I tell it all the right things, it just does them, no fuss. People are harder to tell what to do, even if I perceive my instructions as more beneficial to them. I think a lot of engineers have a “god complex” — it helps during work time, but can be a real pain outside the office :-)

  3. #3 SpotWeld
    June 11, 2008

    Perhaps you are proposing the question in a slightly backwards manner. Rather than asking what is it about engineers that might make them more likely to accept intelligent design, perhaps it would be more correct to ask what is about scientists that make then less likely to accept it? Scientists, if I am not mistaken, are rigorously trained to gather data in methods that remove as much error and bias as possible and are expected to be incredibly scrupulous in reaching conclusion that are isolated from any pre-existing expectations. This would, presumably, mean that a well trained scientist is less likely to accept intelligent design as it does not represent good science.

    I am an engineer. I have two masters degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering and have been working as one for the past eight years. I think the shortest summary of what it is that engineers do is “the application of technology towards the solving of problems.” Rather than starting with data and letting it take us where it goes, we are presented with a problem for which there is usually a fairly specific desired result. Data gathering is then done with that specific goal in mind. And the engineering mindset is often one of “this problem can be solved; it’s just a matter of finding the correct solution”.

    So perhaps it is that mindset that carries over to social problems.

    Engineering, in short, isn’t science. Though a large chunk of the field of engineering overlaps with science that much engineers can and do operate with the proper fundamentals of the scientific method in mind. In some areas the solutions that a given engineer creates are based very much on well understood physical constraints and previously established methods. HVAC engineers are expected to review the size, capacity and environmental requirements for a given location. From this data they then review the capabilities of a gigantic array of materials and mechanisms as well as cross reference these against complex and confusing building codes as well and the time and budget constraints of a project. This is not easy work, but it is very reliant on having trust in the published information and the codified formulas that prove the solution. I suppose to an engineer who has spent a life in this area, the idea that things can only work when properly sized and designed by a designer is one that makes a lot of sense.

    On the other hand there are other engineers who must operate in areas where the formulas that define a solution are scant and more strictly scientific methods of data gathering and analysis are required. In aircraft engines, where material capabilities are often pushed to the limits, it is very well understood that care must be taken to look at test data without bias. Additionally, in the field of bio-medical engineering the design of prosthetics will make one very aware of how weird and (mechanically) awkward the human body is.

    So I guess there are some ways that engineering can lead to a mindset that is more likely to accept intelligent design as valid, but I would also suggest there is areas of the discipline that lead to the exact opposite.

  4. #4 SpotWeld
    June 11, 2008

    As for how to change this idea, I can only suggest that more engineers read The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski. It’s a fascinating book that reviews how common objects came to be the shape that they are. The book often underscores how the ways to change a given design are almost limitless, but it also underscores how failure can lead to change. In the case of physical objects, failure leads to removal from the market, to be replaced by a more capable design. While the author does not go specifically into the natural world, I do find it too far a leap to see how a lack of “fitness” is analogous a poor design, and how “random adaptation” is comparable to the amount of trial and error that is sometimes needed to find a design that does work well.

  5. #5 Helen
    June 11, 2008

    I can’t speak for the body of engineers as a whole, but I can try to toss some thoughts in from my point of view:

    how they construct themselves,

    This is a curious one. I tend to see my work as glamorous and exciting, and I tend to pick work that I see as glamorous and exciting, which makes a self-perpetuating cycle. In the fields I work in, there seems to be a lot of self-construction of those areas of endeavor as colorless and a bit dull, which tends to make people both startled and pleased when I bounce through with my assumptions that it’s all glamorous and exciting.

    how they reproduce or resist disciplinary narratives about engineering

    Oh yeesh, this reminds me of a thread FSP had going recently on the reproduction of irrational sexism mores.

    Confirmation bias and self-serving rationalization are pretty much endemic to any human society I’m aware of. It takes quite a bit of work to weed them out. Of course you get a rush rather like a runner’s high every time you succeed, but there’s some real pain involved, the same as there is with doing the kind of running that can regularly get you a runner’s high.

    why they may be more prone to believe in intelligent design (or not)

    I’m not sure there’s any pattern on that one tied to engineering. I do hold that if one can’t clearly separate one’s faith or religious ideas from the rigor required of science and engineering, one is incompetent for the job. There are plenty who can and do hold that separation.

    or that all problems can be solved

    Can all problems be solved? I tend to think so, but the solution may not look like anything we would have envisioned beforehand, and we might like the problem better.

    or why they might think that they are trained to solve social problems.

    I think the incidences where hubris comes into play on this tend to be tied to privilege issues. In the US, engineers are still disproportionately drawn from privileged groups. Privilege makes irrational blind spots, which leads to hubris. And this train of thought is leading me to sounding like Yoda.

  6. #6 Karen
    June 11, 2008

    Do we actually have data indicating that engineers are more likely to believe in ID than scientists? I know that conclusion seems intuitively obvious by what’s posted in internet discussions and by the distribution of professions of the DI’s supporting “scientists”. But it could be that engineers who support ID (or other creationist beliefs) are more inclined to speak out than their colleagues who accept evolution?

    Data?

  7. #7 C. David Parsons
    June 11, 2008

    Engineering, in short, isn’t science. Though a large chunk of the field of engineering overlaps with science that much engineers can and do operate with the proper fundamentals of the scientific method in mind.

    A clarification: Due to the advent of space
    technology in the late 1960’s, specifically, placing
    a man on the moon and launching satellites
    into the far reaches of outer space, many falsely
    believe that scientists were responsible. For the
    discerning, physicists, chemists, and mathematicians
    were not responsible for these great achievements.
    Although each played a minor role, the
    real heroes were the engineers; for, they were the
    ones who built the rockets, created the guidance
    systems, and launched the vehicles, not scientists.
    Regrettably, scientists unfairly stole the limelight
    as they attempted to make some sense from the
    acquired data. The result: quantum distortions
    and evolutionary surmises.

    In summary, the half-life of technetium 122
    is deemed exceedingly extravagant, even bogus,
    when due consideration is paid to the fact that
    the element does not exist per se. The projected
    half-life of a nonelement serves as a prelude to
    the numerous problems the investigation still has
    to face in an attempt to restore classical physics
    to academe. — The Quest for Right http://questforright.com

  8. #8 infidel57
    June 11, 2008

    Engineers are not evolutionary scientists. They are engineers, period. I attended the text book hearings in Texas when they were considering ID, and I was amazed at how many electrical engineers thought themselves qualified to give expert testimony. As it turned out, all of it was misinformation, and they were spouting the science they had learned from the pulpit. They were just making an “argument from authority” the authority being their being engineers.

    If you want answers to questions about evolution, an engineer is not the one to ask. Ask an evolutionary biologist.

  9. #9 RichB
    June 11, 2008

    @helen, @infidel57:

    I think it’s not hubris or overinflated delusions of grandeur that makes engineers believe they are the “authority”. It’s their job that makes them think this.

    Imagine this: Every day you are asked a technological problem. Some small, some very grand. It is your job to solve the problems, and you do. Every day. You exercise your brain, test things, find data, analyze it, and come up with solutions. You solve things.

    Now think, someone comes along and wants to introduce ID, or some other nonsense into your community. What are you going to think? “Here’s a problem that needs a solution. And I am a problem solver”.

    I rest my case.

    I’m not saying it’s good or correct, but I can imagine that’s why engineers think they are so great…

    It’s also why doctors and scientists think they are great outside their field as well..

  10. #10 JustaTech
    June 11, 2008

    I’m not surprised that engineers see themselves as heros: that’s how popular culture sees them. In movies and so forth, when there needs to be some kind of technical solution (defuse the bomb, MacGyver something) it’s always the engineer who saves the day, usually from the mistakes of the biologist (the first mad-scientist archtype).

    I think this is because engineers work on things you can *see*. Engineers build robots, they don’t pour clear liquids into other clear liquids, or look through microscopes.

    Or, in other words “I built a chicken gun!” will always be cooler than “I made blue bacteria!”

    (Says a slightly bitter biologist.)

  11. #11 Helen
    June 11, 2008

    @RichB

    Guh, what?

    Why would I imagine what it’s like to be an engineer when I am one? Do you imagine what it’s like to breathe?

  12. #12 KEngineer
    June 12, 2008

    Engineers believe they can solve the worlds problems because we are told that. From the first day at college, you are subtlety and not so subtlety told that you are the best students there, that you are desired as an employee, that engineering is the peak of human achievement.

    What does it mean when, in my senior seminar for Mech. Eng., we had people from Law school, Med school, and Business school all saying how much they want engineers to come to their schools? We learn problem-solving. We want to solve problems. Scientific study is fun, but fixing something is so much more.

    Oh, and the engineers I know don’t believe in ID. We don’t see how any ‘designer’ would ever design a system this skewed. And we are scientifically trained to know that all evidence points to evolution, and nothing else.

  13. #13 Female Engineering Professor
    June 12, 2008

    Re: KEngineer
    It’s important to realize there are a whole spectrum of beliefs concerning creationism and intelligent design.
    While I can’t speak for others, personally, I recognize that there is an ongoing process of evolution. I also know that the cosmologists who study the origins of the universe say that there is this instant in time where something came from nothing and they don’t understand how that happened. For me, I see a Creator at that moment.

  14. #14 Karen
    June 12, 2008

    I’m a former engineer (BSEE, specialty graphics and video imaging, 2 decades spent doing design and system architecture) who is studying to be a geologist. One of the toughest things I found about engineering was establishing and maintaining a mental state where I believed I could solve any problem that came my way. It required conscious effort, though in the end I got the hang of it pretty well.

    In contrast, my in-progress MS thesis study focuses on collecting and analyzing data which may or may not support hypotheses being floated by other workers in this area of research. Either way, it’s okay. I get to follow the data and see where it leads. I’m learning a helluva lot either way. Even if my conclusions can’t support or refute a hypothesis, they can provide a constraint on the interpretation of other data. It’s just as important to identify what you don’t know as what you do know. For me, this is sooo much more fun than just solving problems.

    If I’d only followed my heart and pursued geology as an undergrad… but engineering was safe, and I was young, insecure, and wanted a profession that provided a good living without attending grad school. I’m extraordinarily fortunate to get a second chance at learning to do what I love, and being able to accept that my new choice of career does not pay nearly as well as my old one. I wonder how many other proto-scientists detoured into engineering for the same reason?

  15. #15 Ray Ingles
    June 12, 2008

    “Engineering does not require science. Science helps a lot but people built perfectly good brick walls long before they knew why cement works.” – Alan Cox

    It’s possible – indeed, common – to be a good engineer without being any kind of scientist. Engineering may also dispose people to creationism or ID because they spend much of their time working on things at human timescales ,that need fairly precise conditions to work in, and where even slight changes can have catastrophic results. It often doesn’t occur to them that other conditions may apply in other areas.

    I say this as a guy with a graduate degree in electrical engineering. (Which can be anagrammed to “rectilinear negligence” – your random fun fact of the day.)

  16. #16 Richb
    June 12, 2008

    @Helen:

    My apologies. I was responding to the “hubris” part of your comment in my first sentence. The “imagine this” was directed at others reading the thread.

    Didn’t mean to cause offense. Sometimes I rush to make a comment or a point, and my communications skills suffer…

  17. #17 Helen
    June 12, 2008

    “Figuring out how to do what no one knows how to do,” has long been, for me, the fundamental definition of engineering. When I think about it, I’ve run with it further than most — throughout my career, employers have been continually surprised by my willingness to tackle problems well outside my experience, and produce good results. To me the only surprise is how unwilling so many other engineers are to make that kind of leap.

    There is the fact that leaping into a problem that no one around knows how to solve or even start working on, including you, means you’re going to spend quite a lot of time feeling like an idiot while you flounder around and get your bearings. That might be part of the answer — it’s much more comfortable to feel like an expert all the time. I’ve become something of an expert at feeling like an idiot and getting on with the job anyway.

    Regarding the idea that we believe we personally can solve all problems because we are taught so, I disagree: Above all, we are taught to question assumptions, including questioning the authorities that taught us. Not questioning the notion that we personally can solve *everything* (especially without at least a whole lot of starting afresh in new fields of endeavor) is falling down on the job.

  18. #18 Oliver Letraix
    June 12, 2008

    Engineers and their attitudes occupy a pretty broad spectrum. Some work in hellish conditions to maintain production, others create models for component design in comfy offices, others work for banks, some just do project management. Some are even scientists, poor bastards.

    Apart from the “problem solving” monolith, I don’t think any blanket will comfortably cover all engineers. In particular, blahs like “pretty conservative bunch” and “anti-union” certainly don’t apply universally. Some engineers study the application of new technology for poverty aleviation, sustainable community development, etc. Some actually work for unions.

    Hey, wasn’t there going to be a “deleting wand” for blanket statements? For shame, Alice!

    That said, there are fundamental differences in the modes of communication that engineers and scientists use. Engineers get very frustrated by people (perhaps the social scientists mentioned above?) who communicate inneficiently. And some scientists do have a tendency to waffle needlessly (as do many non-scientists). Data is often presented without usable conclusions, which inspires the engineer to write off the entire exercise as a project delay. Solutions that don’t consider project parameters (too expensive, completely impractical) also rile engineers up something fierce.

    The implication that engineers are more susceptible to ID propaganda is very distressing and, I hope, untrue. Engineers need to have a good bullshit detection engine, because many clients will try to manipulate data and force their agenda on project outcomes. And yes, by “many” I do mean “most”. An engineer who falls for that kind of poo could end up signing off on something you’d better hope you never walk under.

    Unfortunately, some engineers do tend to assume they know everything about everything. Misinterpreting and mis-applying observed patterns to other fields they know nothing about is a common pitfall (certainly not restricted to engineers).

    If you’re looking for scientific information, ask a scientist, or, if you can’t find one, an engineer who is intimately involved in that field. Since there are very few engineers involved in biological and evolutionary research… What you’ll get from an engineer on this subject is an opinion, as valid as any lay person’s.

  19. #19 Lora
    June 12, 2008

    I am technically a scientist, but I did a lot of engineering and the majority of my graduate classes were cross-listed with ChemEng. I’m also a member of my local AIChE.

    The one thing that flustered the hell out of scientists taking ChemEng courses was the concept of the *educated guess*. In science, you don’t guess–if you don’t know for sure, you do an experiment to figure it out for sure. You never, never guess. Because we’ve all had the horrible experience of trying to do an experiment that doesn’t work, over and over, and it turns out that Dr. Bigshot’s Nature paper was missing a crucial control that wasn’t immediately obvious to reviewers, and so the whole paper we’re basing our thesis on is utter crap. We’ve ALL done that, and know how it is. Thus we are disinclined to guess at anything, and we like to start with a basic re-verification of whatever is published on the subject, just to double-check that it’s real and isn’t Journal of Irreproducible Results silliness.

    The biggest issue that engineers tended to have with cross-listed classes was the sheer amount of stuff to know. Rote memorization that is just a normal part of your domain of knowledge as a scientist: order of organic functional group reactivities, chemical structures of various common molecules (starting materials in synthesis, biological reagents, etc.), curious histological features of mammalian tissues, Things That Induce Inflammation, metabolic pathways. They couldn’t fathom that not only did you have to know ALL this stuff in order to make a medical device/drug/protein, but you couldn’t just look it up any old where in some master textbook. And that it was changing all the bloody time, too, and you had better keep up on it and read, read, read. They figured that there must be some unifying theory they could just learn, but the whole idea that we haven’t got a good one yet seemed inconceivable to them. It wasn’t just the memorization but the very idea that anyone would have to memorize.

  20. #20 banerjee
    June 12, 2008

    Most of you seem to be comparing undergraduate level engineering/engineers with postgraduate level science/scientists. Beyond a certain point the distinction between science and engineering disappears (unless you want to maintain an artificial distinction). I would suggest that making blanket statements about engineers in the absence of peer reviewed empirical data is not useful.

    Lora says “It wasn’t just the memorization but the very idea that anyone would have to memorize” that was “…inconceivable to them”. That statement also holds for most people in physics (or maths) – which is why we self-select to study those subjects. The aim is to break up complex phenomena into simple models and then attempt to find solutions for those models. Then you don’t have to memorize the zillion different ways that fluids can flow or solids can deform and break. Mathematical analysis is the foundation of the physical sciences. The biological and social sciences need more analysis but the right tools are probably not here yet.

  21. #21 Paul Murray
    June 12, 2008

    “why they may be more prone to believe in intelligent design (or not)”

    If by ‘intelligent design’ you mean rebranded creationism: engineers deal with the real, physical world. Any discussion of engineers cannot be done without accepting that that world, with which they work everyday, is an inescapable context.

    Creationism is false. Any discussion of engineers and “intelligent design” that does not come to terms with that fact will go nowhere.

  22. #22 Paul Murray
    June 12, 2008

    As for anti-unionism, engineering is inherently meritocratic. To a person who expects social stratification to manifest along class lines, or racial lines, engineering can seem egalitarian. It isn’t. Engineers despise people who are stupid. Hence the anti-unionism, the anti treat-everyone-the-same.

    Another factor, of course, is that engineers often are not socially aware. You know that religious cult members tend to be white collar? That scientitst are the worst people for detecting trickery in paranormal fakery? Perhaps what makes them easy prey from these people also makes them easy prey for objectivists and free-market fundamentalists.

    The main thing, I think, missing in an engineers education is an appreciation for this sort of thing. Confidence trickery, scepticism about people’s motives. It’s here that the humanities can be of service, providing a needed defence.

  23. #23 KEngineer
    June 13, 2008

    A thought on why us engineers may not like unions. It may be because once we get a degree and go to the shop we’re not allowed to touch anything. Not one machine, not one screwdriver because we’re not in the union, and we can never be since we’re the engineers.

    It doesn’t matter if we designed and built the machine from scratch. We can’t even press the button to turn it on; the union person must do it.

  24. #24 Alice
    June 13, 2008

    Thanks, everyone for the great comments. A couple of notes:

    Karen — yes, I want data on that too. Greg Laden said he’d post on this topic, but I don’t think he has yet.

    Oliver Letraix — touche. Just figure the delete wand has been restrained due to lack of my time. :-) Plus I think there’s some interesting convos going on here.

    I’m not going to comments on the substance of the comments yet. Any other thoughts out there?

  25. #25 Lora
    June 13, 2008

    As for anti-unionism, engineering is inherently meritocratic.No, I don’t buy that. I’ve seen far too many mediocre reactor designs with obvious, serious issues sold as “cutting edge” to believe that. Often designs get picked not because they are the best design for the job, or the cheapest design for the job, but because the PE/project manager happens to be golf buddies with the Purchasing department manager, sort of thing.

    My grandad, working as an EE Westinghouse, never had a problem with not being allowed to touch the shop tools and machines. They actually did what I think is a quite clever idea, the engineers who designed the circuits had to go into the shop once a week and do the work of building them and making them functional and doing the quality testing. That way they could maintain a hands-on feel for how things were supposed to go, and they wouldn’t come up with something that was too obviously infeasible. Union contracts, like any contracts, are all in how you negotiate them. Or were you referring to the incidence of mechanical engineers being anti-union? In which case, I’d like to point out that many of the major employers of MechEs are virulently anti-union themselves, and salaried engineers who are outside of the bargaining unit are required to toe the company line and parrot the company policy.

    In my experience WRT engineers being politically conservative as a group, may I suggest that they are (or were, until very recently) ethnically and in terms of socioeconomic class, fairly homogenous, and that this contributes to their world view? I find that many engineers overseas, or who immigrate here, tend to be much more progressive.

  26. #26 JimV
    June 15, 2008

    I also know that the cosmologists who study the origins of the universe say that there is this instant in time where something came from nothing and they don’t understand how that happened. For me, I see a Creator at that moment.

    Posted by: Female Engineering Professor | June 12, 2008 6:48

    And for me (Masters in Mechanical Engineering, 38 years experience in turbine design and development), I don’t understand how that assumption adds any explanatory value. (Where did the “Creator” come from?) In other words, how does it help our understanding to say that one thing which we don’t undertand very well (our cosmos) was created by something else which we understand even less, and for which there is no reliable direct evidence? Why not just accept the facts that a) we might not yet have the tools to get at the further evidence we will need to understand the cosmos better and b) humans may not be smart enough to ever understand everything about the cosmos?

    As someone mentioned above, just about every engineering calculation or design decision I’ve made had some assumptions in it. (I often don’t even have good statistical data on the material property constants I need, aside from the fact that models I plug them into are only approximations of reality.) Engineers get very comfortable making assumptions and judgements based on incomplete information, and there is a risk of getting too comfortable (especially as we get older), and ignoring new data, or of trying to extrapolate our experience too far. I think this has something to do with the engineering mindset, if there is one.

    I could also give a long spiel about all the similarities I see between the engineering design process and biological evolution, but I have done that several times at other forums and no one seemed very interested, so I will spare the readers at this forum. Except for this brief conclusion: I see nothing mystical or supernatural about the engineering design process which would warrant the need for some superhuman “intelligent designer” to explain fortituous biological and cosmological mechanisms.

    Unions: in my initial job interview (1968) I was asked whether I thought engineers and technicians should have unions, and sensed that the right answer was “no”. (Now I am not so sure.) In my career I have occasionally run afoul of union bureaucracies, but it hasn’t been a big problem. Without industrial unions I would not have had the health insurance, vacation, and pension benefits I have had (which are being phased out now that unions are in decline), so I am grateful to previous generations of unionized workers. Like most organizations, unions became corrupt and bureaucratic over time.

    Sorry for being a typical, long-winded engineer with strong convictions.

  27. #27 Chris' Wills
    June 15, 2008

    Engineer = Handsome/Beautiful
    Engineer = Wise beyond the understanding of our managers
    Engineer = ID is a load of cack, well I don’t know any engineer who thinks that God has to stick her/his/its/their finger in all the time.

    More seriously;
    I studied engineering because it is fun, enjoyable, interesting. I look back on the days when I actually designed things and could see them built with fond memories.

    Engineer used to equal male, thankfully that has changed a lot.

    Not sure about the anti-union thing, I once tried to join a union and was told that they didn’t accept chartered engineers.
    Unions are wonderful things for some but as I’ve been a self employed contractor/consultant engineer for a long time they wouldn’t be much use for me nor me for them.

    The pay isn’t great, but you’ll rarely be out of work unless you are really really bad.

    As for being conservative well yes, if by that you mean being very safety conscious and environmentally aware. Also in some industries and situations being conservative is good (tried and tested, we know it works safely is essential in Petrochem and when building planes).

    Politically conservative, in the main I’ld say yes.
    I probably don’t fully match your meaning of conservative though. For me and most of those I work with being conservative means accepting responsibility for your mistakes, paying your bills on time, not making leaps to conclusions, not expecting a free ride etc. It doesn’t mean that we are opposed to free at point of need health care or education for all.

    On having common backgrounds, I have to say yes. Irrespective of their country of origin most engineers I know (me included) are scions of the middle classes.

    There is also a tendency for engineers to beget engineers (just as teachers beget teachers).

  28. #28 shelly
    June 15, 2008

    Karen,
    Like you, I wish I had gone into science (biology) instead of engineering. I studied engineering to play it “safe” too. I am now in the water/wastewater field as an engineer. I am an atheist with a strong personal belief in protecting our environment. If only i could study fish instead of designing piping!

  29. #29 Chris' Wills
    June 15, 2008

    …Let’s have a philosophical discussion about what seems to have been a part of engineering in the past, and think about whether it’s (as it were) a necessary thing for defining engineering in the future.

    Serious questions:

    Of what value is it to engineers to be defined?

    Most of the engineers replying here are grads/postgrads/professional/chartered etc, does engineer exclude technicians (those with OND/HND to use British terms, though probably out of date ones)?

  30. #30 cory
    June 15, 2008

    Engineers despise people who are stupid. Hence the anti-unionism, the anti treat-everyone-the-same.

    One of the (few, admittedly) bits of maturity that I have picked up along the way is to have finally lost the arrogant assumption that less formal education = less intelligence (or its kissing cousin, formal education/interests other than mine = less intelligence).

    One engineering PhD whom I know well insists that I am damned to hell for being an atheist evolution believer. He truly believes, and can prove, that the world is only about 6,000 years old and that fossils were buried by God to test our faith. He is a PE/PhD and I failed to quite complete a PhD that was sucking my psyche dry like a vampire. How do he and I stack up in the meritocratical hierarchy?

  31. #31 student
    June 16, 2008

    I’m studying to be a chemical engineer with a concentration in bioprocesses. While most of the people I go to school with are catholic, I *have* noticed a higher proportion of atheists and agnostics in ChemE (and all 4 of its concentrations offered at my Uni) than I have in the student body in general (and I do know a lot of people doing BA’s etc.) Those who do have a religion tend to keep it separate from their schoolwork, and may seem to me to be simply paying lip service to how they were brought up. I don’t think I’ve met more than 3 or 4 creationists – we laugh and point.
    And they’re all of the “I dunno what else to be!” variety of engineers – most of them are guys. Apparently us girls, as a whole, take engineering more seriously: we know this is what we want. Most of the guys do as well – others are just here to get a “reputable degree” and/or follow in daddy’s footsteps and/or make him proud.

  32. #32 JimFiore
    June 16, 2008

    I’m an electrical engineering professor. I’ve been teaching for about 25 years and I’ve dealt with an awful lot of engineers, engineering professors, and potential (student) engineers and technicians.

    The first thing I would note is that engineering is applied science. The students tend not to be drilled quite so much on the scientific method and I’d wager that a fair number of them could not give a solid discussion of the differences between a theory, a hypothesis, and a guess. There is a lot of “received wisdom” in engineering (in some areas more than others, for example the emphasis on standard practice in civil/structural, but those are real, hard-earned lessons).

    It has been stated that engineers are taught to focus on solutions, on solving problems. In doing so, I have noticed an undercurrent of subtle derision for mathematicians, physicists, etc. I first noticed it as an undergrad. Because engineers “actually make things”, they often feel they are more useful, more down-to-earth, less elitist than pure scientists. Of course, coupled with the heavy math requirements, this sometimes results in amazing levels of conceit. Further, it is the rare engineering student who has any love for the arts, literature, politics, social sciences, etc. If I had a dollar for every complaint I’ve heard along these lines I’d have my own private island by now.

    Having said that, I will note that I seem to be able to classify engineers into two broad clumps, though far from perfect mind you. There are those who are very conservative politically and socially. They tend to be authoritarian and sometimes have a huge chip on their shoulder. The other clump tends toward a more open, curious sort of demeanor, more reflective and broad in outlook. To be clear, within both groups I have friends and colleagues. I’m not saying you can’t be a nice person if you’re in one group or the other. But, here’s the trick: when I first meet another engineer, one of the things I want to know is whether or not s/he has any hobbies of an artistic nature, something decidedly non-tech, like painting, playing a musical instrument, etc. I find that people in the second clump tend to have this attribute and are the sort of engineers who would not follow ID. The creationists, global warming deniers, etc. tend to fall into the first clump. For the record, I’m also an atheist and musician.

  33. #33 RichB
    June 16, 2008

    JimFiore wrote: Further, it is the rare engineering student who has any love for the arts, literature, politics, social sciences, etc.

    I’m not denying or doubting your experience, but mine has been quite the oppostite. Of course, my degree was Computer Engineering (EE/CS mix), so my experience was more with the computer nerds. In that group, I found that most of the engineers were musicians, myself included (tenor sax). Several of the non-musicians were talented artists, and I know one who started life as a very good painter, and only got his engineering degree later in life.

  34. #34 Rich
    June 16, 2008

    When I first started training to be an engineer, engineering was defined to me as “The application of science to solve a practical problem”. That’s still how I veiw it, the problem is some engineers do seem to belive they have expertise out sid of their own feilds. We should remember that there are many different kinds of engineer, not all are comparable.

    I’m not convinced about engineers being particulary prone to belife in ID, most that I know tend towards agnostic/atheist beliefs.

    “There is also a tendency for engineers to beget engineers” This is true to some extent, my dad and both grandads were all engineers.

  35. #35 Zuska
    June 16, 2008

    On the engineer/scientists dichotomy and debate: my undergraduate degree was in Engineering Science. Hah! This may be why I’ve tended to see lots of similarities as well as differences between the two…

    On the ID thing: I’m not sure if it’s so much the case now, but in the past and recent past, engineers tended to come more from the working class. Is it possible that this group, as a whole, was more likely to have strong ethnic religious roots and beliefs, and therefore perhaps the greater manifestation of belief in ID (if it truly exists) among engineers is a reflection of the social class from which engineers are drawn?

    On the union thing: historically, the professionialization of engineering in the early 20th century involved drawing clearer and firmer lines (there’s that boundary thing, Alice) between the “engineer” and the technician, or worker. Originally they were more closely linked, and mobility between the two groups was possible. Engineers could become engineers through apprenticeship. But as requirements like degrees and professional certification were added to keep out the riff raff then the gulf widened between the two groups. There is a lovely photo in Ruth Oldenziel’s book “Making Technology Masculine” of the Businessman, the Engineer, and the Worker, with the engineer in the middle, and the sartorial delineation of the three positions is just too much. I think engineers being anti-union is likely a result of this historical repudiation of association with technicians in the attempt to define just exactly what constituted being an engineer.

  36. #36 baley
    June 17, 2008

    I am a chemical engineer and I am atheist, I am not sure that engineers are that prone to believe in ID, maybe thats the case in USA but here (europe) I don’t think there are many of such individuals (I try to be polite).

    Don’t forget that engineers unless they are biochemical (chemical in some cases) or biomedical engineers don’t get any biology classes at all so what they know about biology depends on their previous education and personal interests. So that would be due primary to the lack of good education I guess more than to the engineering profession.

  37. #37 baley
    June 17, 2008

    One more thing: Most of my university professors (in Italy) were conservative in engineering wise (as what methods to use to do this task etc), and that’s very engineering of course but as far as political views go they were mostly non conservative (left wing) in their political views.

  38. #38 Ale
    June 17, 2008

    I studied Comms Engineering and worked in fiber-optics for 5 years. During that time I found myself gravitating towards networking and information security, and I studied masters in these. Eventually I started finding my engineering work (network design predominantly) boring, and I started studying my PhD (I am in my 3rd year now). Now I am much closer to computer science.

    I am atheist in the popular definition of the word, agnostic in the philosophical sense, and highly intolerant of religion and superstition. I find ID not only theoretically unsound, but offensive due to the sheer insecurity it is based on: the need for some sort of divine father figure.

    Regarding the propensity of engineers to fall into the ID trap, I think it might be because some engineers consider models with uncertainty as inherently worse that completely deterministic ones. This, when coupled with a tendency to think of systems as formed by subsystems connected in a logical way according to some efficiency criteria, can cement the “extreme implausibility” canard of the cdesign proponentsists.

  39. #39 Helen
    June 19, 2008

    Regarding the propensity of engineers to fall into the ID trap, I think it might be because some engineers consider models with uncertainty as inherently worse that completely deterministic ones.

    That’d be really interesting if there’s a connection. I work in an area with a definite resistance to probabilistic methods even in cases where they’re definitely needed.