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Engineering a scientifically literate engineer December 10, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in Uncategorized.
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There’s the old saying that you should never discuss two things with in-laws: religion and politics.

And they also say that’s a good rule for work.

But what about when your co-workers or other colleagues bring it up?

Actually, I completely agree that one should not discuss religion and politics at work…although I also admit to having done it when co-workers bring it up. I usually don’t appreciate it when others broach the topic because, more often than not, my political and religious beliefs differ from their significantly. However, it really gets my hackles up when the “religion” or “politics” in question is not really religion and politics but science.

There are social scientists who have shown that engineers are more likely to be terrorists. It’s actually a very fascinating area of study to me because I’m curious about the overlap between how perspective can affect overall outlook and the fact that it may be mirrored in one’s career choice.

One thing mentioned in the article, that I tend to agree with based on observation, is that engineers overall tend to be more religious and conservative. They are attracted to rule-bound systems. That doesn’t imply everyone who is an engineer is that way, but that you’ll find a higher proportion of them than in, say, science. And it makes sense: there are very large chunks of engineering that are more or less applying rules to a system, so engineering is extremely rule-bound itself and is taught this way.

Unfortunately, this becomes a problem because the ones that do tend to be conservative often have a very negative view of science, sometimes to the point of anti-intellectualism, which has surprised me.

I really have no idea how to approach someone who claims to be a very rational thinker but then will proceed to tell me things like how the world is only a few thousand years old or that global warming is a farce made up by Al Gore to help his political career.

This has even concerned me when talking to other academic engineers. When I would start discussing things like topics I have studied in geology, such as magnetic reversals, some of these people have asked me about the time scales. When I answer with times scales that are larger than that of the young earth creationist’s belief in the age of the world, I can tell I’ve made a mistake.

The problem here is that what I am discussing is science: it is something that is empirically determined. The theories are based on observation and capable of being modified or even thrown out should the data drastically differ from expected outcome. But these other engineers don’t see that, and by viewing it this way, I have managed to offend them. The view is that the topic is subjective, and more often than not, I’ve chosen the wrong side. Their belief system will trump decades of work and investigation by scientists, not understanding that some of the work they do is based on the exact same principles and fundamentals that are used by the scientists in this exploration.

I guess what really surprises me is the compartmentalization. As an example, most electrical engineers are required to take control theory somewhere in their path to obtaining a degree. They understand that the majority of cases they look at are linear and well behaved, but that once one gets outside of the linear regime, stability isn’t guaranteed. Maybe the system will begin to oscillate wildly. The behavior becomes unpredictable.

Part of this is because a lot of systems really aren’t linear…we just choose to use the system in a very confined state-space so that it will *look* linear. We’re making an approximation. If you took the system as a whole, i.e. over the whole range of possible parameters, it will not behave so nicely. Most EEs know this.

Climate works in a similar way, and by adding so much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, we’ve managed to push the system outside of its stable range. And yet, when I have made this analogy, I have gotten a blank stare or the comment that, “Well, it’s different.” I would really like for someone to show me in detail how this is different, but no has taken me up on that offer yet.

The end result is that I have yet to figure out how to deal with this problem. It’s very frustrating knowing that there are engineers who are judging me negatively based on scientific viewpoints.

What’s more frustrating is the idea that maybe someday I could be teaching engineers like this. And people will believe them because they are “smart”, not realizing they may not have ever taken a good hard (and most importantly, analytic) look at the topic. I spend a lot of time pondering if there is some way to get them to examine these things using advanced skills and tools they acquire in school. I would hope that one would acquire a sufficiently strong scientific background while pursuing an engineering degree to look at these questions with a ‘scientific’ approach. That hasn’t seemed to work in many cases, so perhaps a more direct tack should be used. Does it make sense to teach about some of these other areas in engineering classes? Should signal processing not just look at questions in engineering but other natural signals as well? Should control systems examine models from things like climate? And should materials classes talk about naturally occurring materials and how they are significant to our understanding of the world?

Do we want engineers who are simply good engineers or do we want engineers who are capable of examining and have been exposed to all kinds of technical issues? If it is the latter, then how do we accomplish this without drawing out what is already a pretty intense learning process?

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Comments»

1. Chris Gammell - December 10, 2010

The problem is not that you end up talking to them about these topics. The problem is if they have no basis for their arguments (or in the case with some of the ones I know who act similarly, quoting their favorite political talking points), that you continue talking to them. Once they refuse to offer data (with sources, there are plenty of iffy internet sources), the conversation should be over.

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mareserinitatis - December 10, 2010

You underestimate the need to be right. 🙂

On one occasion, I was mentioning some news article about melting glaciers to my husband, and one of the other people in the office immediately piped up with, “Al Gore should never have won the Nobel Prize.”

But aside from that, what do you think would solve the issue? Should engineering programs be more diverse in the topics they examine?

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2. GMP - December 10, 2010

I think the best and most creative engineers are actually very good scientists — as you say, it’s the mindset of exploring and pushing boundaries of where the rules start to fail. But I see in my classes a lot of kids who really don’t like physics or math, and want to get to the ‘engineering stuff’ as though there is a place where math ends or physics ends and engineering magically begins.

And don’t even get me started on the compartmentalization. I have several religious faculty colleagues and I am always wondering how that works — how do you make peace between your supposedly curious academic self and the believer in a doctrine. But I don’t think I can have such a discussion with my religious colleagues without coming off as condescending and/or obnoxious so I simply avoid it…

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mareserinitatis - December 11, 2010

I’ve had a few students like that, as well as classmates. They want to just know how to calculate things and will talk about how all the other information is extraneous and how much they can’t stand physics.

Sometimes the religious thing surprises me, but I have to admit that I am pleasantly surprised when I find an engineer who is both religious and has a very positive view of science. In fact, one of my MS committee members is an ordained minister, and we’ve had some very interesting discussions about Biblical history. 🙂 But the ones who are denialists are rather difficult to deal with, and I can never understand why they are that way.

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3. FrauTech - December 10, 2010

I also think when we are young we think about where we want to work or what we want to do and the politics we are predisposed to nudge us in one direction or another. A lot of the famous examples of engineering awesomeness are military related. Or it might be engineers are just less likely to go into other “professions” like law or healthcare because they see these things as wasteful. I went from working on a totally left-wing non-profit clinic to a totally right-wing corporation. I suppose the former did have its share of naivety and idealism but the latter certainly surprises me often with its ignorance and logic holes. So you have to be “smart” enough to get through 4-5 years of math, physics and engineering but you don’t necessarily have to be logical or open-minded.

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mareserinitatis - December 11, 2010

That’s been the surprising thing for me: people who are very intelligent will not necessarily question things if that’s the way they were raised.

Of course, I was raised not to question things, but I did and still do. Drove my parents nuts. 🙂

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