“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The arrogance of engineers

Apologies for the lack of posting. Between a large business deal, my starting of graduate school, and attempts to become conversant, if not fluent, in Mandarin, time has become quite precious. I even thought of abandoning my blog for a while but decided against it. For those who do take the time to read my thoughts, thanks!

So, back to work!

There have been many blog posts and articles written alleging the arrogance of physicists when it comes to believing that their superior understanding of the basic forces, energies, and interactions of our universe gives them the ability to quickly synthesize all of the pertinent information in any field in which physics is involved.  They then, it is said, feel entitled to make authoritative pronouncements that those who've devoted as many years to the study of their own field (say, climatology for example) have it all wrong. The iconic example is Freeman Dyson, a truly brilliant man.

While there's likely a kernel of truth to this accusation of arrogance, there's another field whose practitioners can give physicists a run for their money. I speak of engineers (mechanical, structural and aerodynamic seem to be the worst offenders).

As my regular readers will know, I'm a pilot. Everyone I know who's involved in any way with aviation will acknowledge that Burt Rutan is one of the most original thinkers, brilliant designers, and skilled fabricators in the field of aircraft design in the last, say, 50 years if not more. Rutan retired from the firm he founded, Scaled Composites, in November of 2010. 

In the U.S. general aviation world (i.e., non-scheduled flying including corporate, private, etc.) there is no bigger event than the annual EAA Airventure  gathering. Many attendees have built kits designed by Rutan. On July 29, 2009 ( coincidentally, my birthday) Rutan made a presentation entitled "Non-Aerospace Research Quests of a Designer/Flight Test Engineer." A pdf of the presentation can be found here (though the title is different - "An Engineer's Critique of Global Warming 'Science'" and subtitled "Questioning the CAGW theory," the essentials are the same).

The document comprises a full 98 pages and is replete with graphs (many of the usual ones, some of his own), photos, and quotations. It's a superb example of the "it's not happening, and if it's happening we didn't cause it, and if we caused it's probably good anyway, and if it's not good we can adapt because we've been to the moon and the bottom of the ocean and we fly in the stratosphere" line of argument.

Rutan has been quoted as saying that “If someone is aggressively selling a technical product whose merits are dependent on complex experimental data, he is likely lying. That is true whether the product is an airplane or a Carbon Credit." He is convinced that his engineering skills enable him to understand climate science as a "hobby" in a way that enables him to debunk the accumulated knowledge of those who've made the study of climate their life's work.

In the presentation linked above, Rutan includes on page 95 a quote (or at least I think it is - Rutan's use of quotation marks is sporadic) from one James P. Hogan (more in a moment) as follows: "Science doesn't really exist. Scientific beliefs are either proved wrong or they quickly become engineering. Everything else is untested speculation." Hogan, who was a prolific writer (he died in 2010), authored a tome entitled "Kicking the Sacred Cow," described on his site as "A Collection of nonfiction essays questioning scientific issues that I believe have become dogmatized, where institutionalized science rejects or ignores evidence inconvenient to preconceptions and established theory."

Among the topics covered by Hogan, as shown in the "Summary" page, are intelligent design,  "Did Relativity Take a Wrong Turn?," "Catastrophe as Ethics" with subtitle "The Case for Taking Velikovsky Seriously" (seriously???), and a variety of essays on "Environmentalist Fantasies." I ask you.

Now, it might be said that I'm painting with a broad brush - Rutan's excessive zeal in celebrating his depth of understanding shouldn't tar all engineers and I don't mean to do that any more than the authors cited above mean to tar all physicists. But I've spent more time than I should have reading the comments on skeptical blogs, and a frequent theme is "I'm an engineer. We design things that have to work or lives will be lost. We're much smarter and better equipped to understand climate than a bunch of computer modellers." Of course, there's no way to know if these commenters are actually engineers.

My firm employs eight registered engineers and none of them obviously exhibit this characteristic so I suspect that it's a small minority, just as with physics. But it's worth thinking about the tendency for experts in some fields to think their knowledge base and skill sets transcend the boundaries of their own field and enable them to become experts in unrelated or tangentially related fields without putting in the time to learn from first principles. An excellent complementary personality characteristic to brilliance is humility. Or, quoting that well-known liberal, Dirty Harry Callahan, "A man's GOT to know his limitations."

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