Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It Takes a Village Idiot

An essay titled Want to Engineer Real Change? Don't Ask a Scientist appeared in the Washington Post on 25 January, but I just saw it today.

The essay by a distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering, Dr. Henry Petroski, highlights examples in which science was useless for progress, but engineering was transformative. People didn't need science to invent steam engines or airplanes, only engineering. Thermodynamics might explain how things work, but it hasn't been necessary to understand thermodynamics to make important engineering advances. And so on.

I am sorry that Professor Petroski's feelings were apparently hurt that President Obama mentioned science and not engineering in his inaugural speech, but that doesn't seem sufficient justification to attack science.

The essay is remarkably narrow-minded and short-sighted. Or perhaps I am the one who is narrow-minded and short-sighted, as I would have thought that it was obvious that we need both science and engineering.

A world with scientists but no engineers would be just as limited as a world with engineers and no scientists. It is pointless to set the two communities in opposition, as if one has been important throughout history and one has been comparatively useless.

The essay doesn't deserve any more discussion, but I will just mention that when I showed it to a colleague and said something along the lines of what I wrote above, he said that my conclusion that we need both scientists and engineers was like saying that everyone is special and so I must be an it-takes-a-village-ist who thinks that we should all have a seat at a nice round table etc. etc.

OK.. maybe.. I get the point (and the H Clinton reference), but I don't think that recognizing the importance of both science and engineering is a uniquely feminine point of view.

My colleague went on to say that my everyone-is-special philosophy betrayed my liberal-artsy roots. OK.. maybe.. and maybe my colleague will now be inspired to write an essay about how science has been responsible for many major advances in civilization but poetry has gotten us nowhere. Or he could write about how the second law of thermodynamics has been more important for civilization than the collective works of Shakespeare. The possibilities are endless.. and idiotic.


A Life Long Scholar said...

I am reminded of a geology class field trip that the first year students at the University of Tasmania take, showing them some of the local geological hazards. In addition to the geologic features, they show a couple of famous Hobart landmarks (the Tasman Bridge, and the Casino) and explain how engineers who made incorrect assumptions about the underlying rock type caused major, expensive, delays in the construction for both structures when they begun digging and discovered that there was nothing solid upon which to support the foundation. In both cases, local geologists were well aware of the lack of bedrock in those two locations, but were not consulted. Yes, engineering is useful, but there are times when it is helpful to consult a scientist who specializes in a particular field.

Anonymous said...

I don’t think it is as easy as that. A ‘Life Long Scholar’ seems to be on the right track. Being a scientist and an engineer (Yes I am a bit schizophrenic) has given me some insight to this. Yes engineers built the first locomotive and airplane, but it was scientists who made the first laser and I do believe it was scientists who first came up with some practical uses for the laser.

I can just draw an analogy with a research group I used to work with. As a bunch of physicists, they where neatly divided into two groups; experimentalists and theorists (engineers and scientists if you like). It was always interesting to listen to the in departmental talks, especially when theoreticians where explaining something found in the lab and how to test the new found explanation. I always found it fascinating to watch the faces of the experimentalists when the last bit was presented, best case they all got paler and paler or, in worst case, just burst out laughing.

My point being, you need both engineers and scientists, one to have a remote grasp on reality and the other to stretch the boundaries of that reality. As mentioned to some engineering colleagues some time ago; “I may not know the difference between a tube and a pipe but if you make that tube a bit longer you can remove that heat exchanger all together!”

Anonymous said...

This still leaves the question open if the divide between engineering and physics is an artificial one.

If you visit a research lab in a paint company or in a pharmaceutical company you will find chemists and doctors, but if you visit the research lab of a bridge building company you find engineers instead of physicists.

Anonymous said...

People didn't need science to invent steam engines or airplanes, only engineering

I disagree. Without the Physics knowledge of centuries, no engineer would have ever been able to build an airplane.

Unknown said...

Maybe its just the fields of study in my house, but I consider science/engineering to be part of one broader area of study. My degrees are in "Materials Science and Engineering" from a college of engineering. My husbands degrees are in physics, but he specific area of work has always struck me at more "engineering" than mine.

Anyway, I've always taken Obama's references to bringing science back into the decision making process not as being anti-engineering but as anti-Creationist. I.e. We will now begin acting as if we believe the global climate change data as well as other scientific studies.

Alyssa said...

Engineers wouldn't exist without the pure scientists and visa-versa. And I'm not saying that because I think everyone is special -
some people just have a knack for the purity of science - theory, observations, etc., while some people are better at applying that theory to create something.

I also run in to my fair share of scientists that believe everyone else is second-class - be it engineers, social scientists, or heck, even other scientists that "sell out" and go into industry. It's maddening.

ScienceWoman said...

Hey FSP - I'd love to read the original essay (and send it to Alice) but the link is broken. Can you fix it? Thanks much.

ScienceWoman said...

Here's the link to the original article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/23/AR2009012302351.html

Anonymous said...

Well, what can I say: I am a female engineer doing science. As an engineer, I tend to want to know why things work the way they do. As a scientist, I try to always find the practical value of my work. I think science and engineering (should) go hand in hand.

Anonymous said...

I have found that practicing engineers overall are much more interested in making the assumptions they have made in the past or been taught to make then actually examining a problem for an effective and efficient solution than those trained as or practicing as scientists. From an educational standpoint, it's understandable - most engineering classes seem extremely focused on The One Right Way From Which You Will Never Deviate. Obviously that's not universal, but it's awfully common. Such unilateral focus generally leads them into trouble, especially because they haven't typically studied as much actual science as they need to answer the real world problems that they face today.

John Vidale said...

This looks to me like a pseudo-philosophy argument by Prof. Petroski really aimed at bureaucrats who set funding levels, perhaps linked to the current pervasive stimulus project battles.

The division between engineering and science is really only clear in university org charts and NSF funding. Real researchers can aim anywhere in the spectrum - my own work includes both basic and useless Nature-style studies and attempts to apply old, boring technology to known problems.

It reminds me of the long-running feud between mathematicians and physicists over who is more central - those who are the most pure (math) or those who solve the problems of the universe (physics), mostly conducted for the sake of argument.

That said, it IS helpful to have one's goals in mind, and the inertia of the scientific establishment leads to dithering around in the dead ends of yesterday's research all too often.

I recommend The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation by Steven Shapin for its comparison of applied and basic research.

Anonymous said...

Petroski's editorial is dumb, but what really bothers me is what your colleague said. Thinking more than one group of people is important and valuable is wishy-washy liberalism? Sure, if you just said, "Everyone's special; we all have something valuable to contribute," and had nothing more substantive to say about it, that would seem like one of those empty bromides politicians all over the spectrum like to deliver. But you've got specifics here: you're an expert in science, and I presume you know plenty about engineering, too. You can back up your claim. And the real issue, as you point out, is that the whole debate needs to be questioned. Divisions between disciplines are a relatively recent phenomenon, and the resultant in-fighting is ridiculous. The underlying assumption of many people, especially politicians, is that only those fields that deliver some shiny new gizmo in a short amount of time are really valuable. Speaking as someone from the humanities, I resent this attitude. I'm grateful as hell for antibiotics, internal combustion engines, cosmology, and so forth. But I wouldn't mind a little respect for the work we do over in the "squishy" liberal arts.

Patchi said...

This is the thinking vs. doing argument, they go hand-in-hand. But all it takes is an idiot in the village to emphasize one over the other and everyone starts acting like they need to choose.

By the way, only an engineer would have thought of an AC system that shuts off when it gets to cold... in Florida you wouldn't need heating, it almost never freezes! But maybe I'm biased; I'm a scientist after all...

John Vidale said...

I think Prof. Petroski's point is that the available funding should be tilted toward engineering (his field, naturally) at the expense of other factions.

Many have made the point that progress on many problems goes faster in corporations than in universities, so why is the Federal government and the tax law so generous to universities? Some private universities have huge endowments that are largely untapped, yet the government funds still more impractical work. The coming shrinking budgets may throw such questions into sharper focus.

Calculations of demonstrable return from investment have become more common when my discipline goes to Capitol Hill to argue for our budget, and are difficult to frame and make compelling.

Argument by anecdote, like some posts here, only goes so far with scientists, but politicians may seize on sound bites like those by Petroski, especially in the rapidfire stimulus process.

Female Science Professor said...

Actually, he just likes to argue about everything. He's a great scientist and teacher.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the minority here but I just read the linked article and I don't think it was so bad, and I think Petroski had a few points. Given how little the general public seems to understand about engineering, I think he did a good job of explaining the difference to a lay person. In Britain, engineering comes at the bottom of the list of things people--especially girl people--think sound interesting to study. (I think pop star came first in the study but that's a different problem.) People here think that engineers are the technicians who come to fix their washing machines. Highlighting the importance of the field in the light of new global challenges is worth doing, especially when most modern engineering departments actually teach little engineering any more (and much more science!) I don't think this has to be read as anti-science over all.

Anonymous said...

I've read with great enjoyment Petroski's regular column in American Scientist and I also had the pleasure of hearing him speak at a conference in 2005 when I was also giving a talk.

I think you have to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

I agree with your sentiment that both scientists and engineers are needed, important and valuable. In fact, I consider myself to be both a scientist and an engineer, and I suspect Mr. Petroski does too.

I think this post though, and the comments it has spawned, and hopefully the article itself, are the best refutation of your claim that t is pointless to set the two communities in opposition, as if one has been important throughout history and one has been comparatively useless. In a roundabout way, Petroski is not only inviting praise of engineering AND science but also creating a great opportunity for visibility outside our regular circles.

They always say that companies should be your own competition. Let's learn from that.

John Vidale said...

I'd agree scientists and engineers should pull together (to the extent their arguments hold water) but not that Prof. Petroski should get the benefit of the doubt.

"I'm not so convinced that [Obama] accept that science, for all its beauty, is not the best place to seek practical fixes."

"Only when skeptical engineers designed ships that made this supposedly impossible task possible were the naysaying scientists forced to reconsider."

"... we shouldn't look to science. What we need is engineering."

It's hard to consider his views supportive of engineering AND science, rather unbalanced homerism is my opinion.

Doctor Pion said...

This is probably repeating a few points already made, but if so, I am just reaffirming them.

1) He definitely missed the point of the opening quotation, which clearly meant that science was going to replace superstition when it comes to decision making in his White House.

2) He is wrong about the Wright brothers, because what they did was basic science, just as what some engineers do today is basic science. They did not follow a trial-and-error process such as Petroski outlines in the excellent book "To Engineer is Human", they did experiments to determine the basic physics of airfoils and then applied it to their engineering problem.

3) He seems to overlook the significant fraction of engineering that depends on the fundamental physics discovery we call the Transistor, or the potential of one we call Superconductivity. I also don't get his comment about batteries. Does he know they depend on chemistry and physics research? Does he know that some suitable ones exist but require engineering research to reduce their cost, or that many key developments in Li-ion batteries have taken place at universities? BTW, that would be my example for your snide colleague who needs an example of links between disciplines.

4) I'd be more worried that Obama wants to put most of the effort into engineering rather than basic science, given the main themes of his campaign and the problems he has to solve in the near term.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry that Professor Petroski's feelings were apparently hurt that President Obama mentioned science and not engineering in his inaugural speech, but that doesn't seem sufficient justification to attack science.

The essay is remarkably narrow-minded and short-sighted. Or perhaps I am the one who is narrow-minded and short-sighted, as I would have thought that it was obvious that we need both science and engineering.

FSP, did you read the essay? I am having trouble following your arguments. I cannot find where in Petroski's essay it says that we do not need scientists. Nor can I find any "attacks" on science.

What I do find is a fairly narrow argument that engineers do not always have to wait for scientists to theorize and categorize in order to advance technology.

The argument might be good, or it might be bad, but we would never know from reading your post. In the comments, Matt has offered some useful counterexamples to Petroski's argument (e.g. laser), so I am not convinced Petroski is right.

But I am convinced that your reaction to the piece seems extreme and unfocused.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how the point that both scientists and engineers are necessary is even arguable. If ever there were two groups of people whose activities were symbiotic, it's these two.

I don't know which I'm more shocked by; the original whiny essay--which is transparent in its jealousy, and misses the point that cutting edge science is often a lot like engineering in that new ways to measure or experiment must be developed or the comments of your colleague which seem to indicate an incredibly myopic view of engineering.

Anonymous said...

So many commenters have levied arguments like 'what about the "Transistor"?', or 'but batteries depend on chemistry!'

These arguments are straw men. I doubt Petroski would disagree that the invention of batteries depended on pre-existing chemistry and physics research, and even if he would, it sure isn't obvious from reading his essay.

All I thought Petroski's essay was saying was that engineers can solve today's problems now, even if the science isn't settled. I agree with this idea at least in part.

To be glib, engineering solves today's problems, but we of course will still need science to solve tomorrow's.

John Vidale said...

My last post on this.

"we shouldn't look to science. What we need is engineering."

"... science, for all its beauty, is not the best place to seek practical fixes. Obama should keep his promise to restore science to its rightful place -- and put engineering on at least an equal footing."

The bookends on the article make the agenda clear - boost engineering relative to science. FSP is right to be offended, and her senior colleague is right to say genuflecting politely is not an effective response either.

Anonymous said...

Why on earth is the suggestion that we "boost engineering relative to science" "offensive"?

Maybe it is bad policy. Not one person here has explained why it is bad policy. Instead, most commenters just decide that must be Petroski is "transparently jealous" of science, and then they get to dismiss his arguments for free.

I'm not a policy wonk, and this isn't the place for an in-depth analysis, but I'm not so sure that "boosting engineering relative to science" is necessarily good policy. Compared to basic science, engineering projects tend to bear fruit in a trame frame amenable to private investors, so there is less need for government support.

I wonder if the upcoming US "stimulus" and its promises to dole out one-time cash boli, especially to various large-scale infrastructure projects, is unintentionally boosting engineering relative to science anyway.

Maybe at educational levels the idea has some merit.

John Vidale said...

That apparently was not my last post.

An engineer arguing in the mainstream press to redistribute resources to engineering from science is offensive.

People with experience in pushing a legislative agenda would immediately recognize that promoting oneself while dissing one's closest ally is unwise and usually not fruitful.

This is independent of the merits of the case.

It is particularly offensive because NOAA, NSF, USGS, and university science proposals are on the table in the stimulus package this winter, and the engineering arguments are semantic, anecdotal, and weak.

Anonymous said...

This one was a can of worms for me, so I responded at my own blog:


Anonymous said...

John: I don't see where Petroski does any "dissing" of scientists in the piece. Did you feel "dissed" when you read it?

As I understand it, your argument boils down to "it was offensive, well, because, I was offended." I suppose that's accurate enough, but it isn't really very persuasive.

Doctor Pion said...

I don't see where the development of Li-I batteries is a strawman, because Petroski identified better batteries as one of his concerns. I was pointing out that the advancements in Li-I battery technology have resulted from basic scientific R&D, whether in a university or corporate lab, just as that novel battery concept (only a few decades old) came out of basic research.

Some advances come from making a windmill that is significantly more efficient or has a longer lifetime, others come from finding something that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago, such as giant magnetoresistance (high density disk drives) or Li-I batteries. Electric cars have been around for a century but, like magnetic storage devices, they work a lot better with this new technology than with an optimized old one.

Since we can't predict which approach will yield the greatest benefit for any given problem, both approaches are essential.

And I repeat my observation that I think it far more likely that their spending priorities will emphasize short-term return over long-term investment in research than the other way around.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine is a civil engineer who is responsible for implementing the plumbing systems in commercial buildings. There isn't a lot of new knowledge being generated in this type of job, and there isn't a lot of innovation or pushing-the-envelope or creativity. So it is possible for engineering to just be plug-and-chug. (with a bachelors degree in engineering you can start practicing in this type of job). this is the type of job that - in R&D - would be considered "technician" work. Even though it carries a lot of responsibilities (which is why many practicing engineers must be licensed). It is not whether the job is important or not, but what the nature of the work is.

But in R&D or in academia (which I presume is the audience for this blog) it is clear that the lines between engineering and science are blurred and both types of skills are often found and utilized regularly by the same individuals.

So the way I see it is that the distinction is not science versus engineering. But rather the distinction is whether the work emphasizes innovation/creativity/exploration versus boiler-plate/plug-and-chug approaches even though the latter still requires extensive knowledge and skill and experience.

I got my phD in electrical engineering and I work as a researcher (whether you want to call me a 'scientist' or not) in a national lab where some of my colleagues also got their phDs in engineering while others got theirs in physics. Sometimes we kid each other with "engineer vs scientist" stereotype jokes. But in the end we are all doing the same type of work despite the fact that some of us got our PhDs in engineering and others in physics. In some national labs, your official title is "staff scientist" if you have a PhD and are doing research. And your title is "staff engineer" if you do not have a PhD and/or are not doing research directly but are performing support activities for the researchers (like maintaning facilities for example). so even though you may have a PhD in engineering, your job title is still "scientist". Similarly, you may have your degree in physics but if you are working a support-staff role then your job title will be "engineer".

(but this classification also leads to the snobbism that engineers are below scientists)

Candid Engineer said...

You are not being idealistic. Good scientific progress involves two fundamental tasks:
1. Making awesome new technology (engineering).
2. Understanding why stuff works (science) so that we can intelligently design better technology.

Hand in hand, ying and yang.

Unknown said...


Offensive, I suppose, which may be too strong a term, means that he is violating norms and is likely to be counter-productive more than that anything he says is over the top.

He is clearly aiming at political leaders and the public, and trying to boost funding for his own field, which is all fine and often done. His offensive, in my mind, is to drag science in for unfavorable comparisons.

If he really thinks science funding should be cut (or not boosted), then his POV is at least consistent, although not effective. The boost for engineering and the cut to science should be separately argued, as to the public it is not an either/or proposition.