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Mr. Fix-It
November 14, 2012 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Mr. Fix-It: The engineering mentality
posted by azazello (68 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
This essay was better written 20 years ago.
posted by DU at 9:29 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not for nothing does Mr. Spock remain the central figure of the science-fictional imagination.

Say what? Spock isn't even the central figure of the Star Trek imagination, much less that of Science Fiction as a whole...

flawed essay is flawed.
posted by namewithoutwords at 9:35 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like this piece from Waggish on the same idea a lot better, both because it conforms better to the engineers I have known and because it has less of an overtone of ill-informed genre prejudice. Deresiewicz knows the 19th-century novel very well indeed, but I don't think he's actually very well qualified to talk about SF.
posted by RogerB at 9:42 AM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's probably worth talking first about what's wrong with this essay. Most glaringly:

“Perhaps that is why our scientific visions often involve the transcendence of human nature. We either become machines, perfectly rational actors, or are replaced by them. Not for nothing does Mr. Spock remain the central figure of the science-fictional imagination.”

It is ludicrous, I think, to say that Spock 'remains the central figure of the science-fictional imagination.' I'm not even sure what that means, to be honest, and the few meanings I can think of for it make ridiculous assumptions about the simplicity of "the science-fictional imagination." And even if it were true that Spock is central in that way – the author is missing the entire point of the character, which is clearly intended to highlight the limitations of the reification of rationalism. Over and over again, Spock comes up against problems that can't be solved through acting logically. That is one of the major themes of the series, and anyone who knows about it knows that the interplay between the three main characters, the conflict between them, is the whole point.

And aside from that, there's a general vagueness in this essay that bothers me. The author simplifies grandly, although I guess that's the point with an essay this short. But he has a woefully inadequate notion of science fiction, which is emphatically not "usually far more science than fiction—that is, the human complexity of fiction." A review of the most popular instances of science fiction over the past fifty years makes it clear that human complexity is what people like about science fiction.

I find that annoying, because I think the author is straining toward a good point, a point that might have been more a propos forty or fifty years ago but which is still worth making. There is no science of human nature and human good. The good is beyond observation and experiment; coming to understand it requires moral thoughtfulness, which is not scientific in nature but which can be no less rational.
posted by koeselitz at 9:46 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Flawed essay fails to have a cogent criticism even of the straw man it presents, let alone the actual people he thinks he's talking about.
posted by hattifattener at 9:47 AM on November 14, 2012 [14 favorites]


This person has no idea what engineers and scientists actually do. They seem to have a caricature in their minds based on, I assume, the attitudes of their local IT staff. The politics and philosophies of engineers are just as diverse as any other group (maybe skewed slightly libertarian, and every scientist I know is pretty damned socialist).
posted by spiderskull at 9:48 AM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


20 years ago? Meh. The 1930's had Technocracy and long before that is the idea of a merit based bureaucracy of old China.

But hey - WWII's Propaganda was re-branded Public Relations and the emotional button pushers have had decades to work on the craft of making sure merit has little to do with selection. But you techno-people keep thinking you are above Propaganda, m'kay?
posted by rough ashlar at 9:56 AM on November 14, 2012


Yeah. Anyone who thinks engineering is robotic and precise and not full of messy compromises, guesswork, and human flaws has never done a day of software engineering in their life.

It's pretty ironic that an essay which criticizes engineers and scientists for being simplistic, condescending, and pat is itself so simplistic, condescending, and pat. I'm an engineer who used to be in the humanities. Neither humanities nor the quote unquote hard disciplines have a monopoly on useful ways of looking at the world. Sure, the humanities folks are right to think that there are multiple correct points of view sometimes. But sure, the scientists and engineers are right to think that the process of trying stuff out, looking at outcomes, and throwing away what doesn't work is a good tool for making progress, whether you're working on a phone app or on public policy. And neither of these points of view is in fact exclusive to the humanities people or the science people.

This is a bit of university culture war rah-rah that savors strongly of its author's insecurities and reinforces division between humanities people and science people when what we really need is comity.
posted by amery at 9:57 AM on November 14, 2012 [10 favorites]


Politicians should not be scientists or engineers.

However, they should know and respect both mathematics and the scientific method. They should be able to spot bad science instinctively.

This background should hopefully make them humble enough to know to appoint a team of scientific advisers, and should give them enough background to actually pick that team carefully.

Basically, we need to make sure our kids know science and math, because they're eventually going to be running this place.
posted by schmod at 9:57 AM on November 14, 2012


You pick up whiffs of it on the discussion threads, in the blog posts and talks. It expresses itself, with the weary arrogance of the guy who fixes your computer, as a contempt for politics as hopelessly imprecise.

So he's based his devastating critique of this alleged engineering mindset on...blog comments and his helpdesk guy? If this is the kind of wisdom and deep knowledge of human motivation that his team, the politicians and I guess 'critics' or whatever, can deliver, I'll stick with the technicians, thanks.
posted by The Prawn Reproach at 10:00 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe your local IT staff is so weary and arrogant because you keep proving to them, time and time again, that you have no clue how to use even the most basic functions of the machines upon which your entire job depends, and because you keep clicking on the infected links that your Aunt Mildred sends you. You know, kind of how we keep electing people who make the same kinds of disastrous decisions over and over again?
posted by 1adam12 at 10:01 AM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


Also, sometimes, Politicians really do need to step back, ignore touchy-feely subjects and popular opinion, and make the choice that is clearly (and mathematically) going to benefit the greater good. There's a fucking good reason why we didn't create a direct democracy, and it just _kills_ me to see the glee that most Americans take in subverting that system.*

Politics can be messy, and I think that our current generation may be taking risk-avoidance to crazy extremes. Sometimes we really do need to trust the experts, rather than listening to the person who screams the loudest at the town hall meeting.

And, to that effect, I would love to see a constitutional amendment that banned proposition/initiative questions. It's just a terrible way to govern.
posted by schmod at 10:02 AM on November 14, 2012


oh and

Here are some of the things that the humanities, and the habits of alertness that they foster, will teach you: that people have different but equally valid perspectives; that the truth is not necessarily hard and precise; that judgments of value cannot be reduced to judgments of fact; that society will never be a smoothly functioning machine.

Karl, is that you?
posted by The Prawn Reproach at 10:06 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Vaguely reminded of the pundits who got their asses kicked by Nate Silver here.
posted by Artw at 10:07 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Say what? Spock isn't even the central figure of the Star Trek imagination, much less that of Science Fiction as a whole

SPOCK ISN'T EVEN AN ENGINEER
posted by elizardbits at 10:09 AM on November 14, 2012 [14 favorites]


Public policy ought to be left to the people who know how to get things done: the scientists and engineers people who think just like me.


I'd give scientists and engineers a little more credit here. This sentiment is hardly limited to that subset of the population.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:10 AM on November 14, 2012


I'm an engineer who used to be in the humanities.

I believe Dow Chemical has a topical cream for that which will clear it right up.

Sure, the humanities folks are right to think that there are multiple correct points of view sometimes.

If the correct POV is 100, many paths of adding 2 numbers will get you to that correct POV. The patent thicket is an example - for every clever "one way" there are other paths that may be better (or worse) and yet will get you to the same spot. (having done some car test drives - why do Ford ABS seem different than everyone elses? Is that an example of 2 paths to the same point - because that was my POV)

ignore touchy-feely subjects and popular opinion

But those things tend to be the Public Relations^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^HPropaganda that gets 'em into office and override whatever logic is there and tickle the reptilian brain.

Their feedback loop is the office - why would they abandon that feedback loop?
posted by rough ashlar at 10:10 AM on November 14, 2012


Also, engineers are apparently overrepresented amongst the ranks of terrorists, militants and the far right.
posted by acb at 10:12 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


SPOCK ISN'T EVEN AN ENGINEER

A science officer who looked through a viewmaster mounted to a table - best I could tell. (some future. Science is tricking the brain that a 2d picture is 3d. )
posted by rough ashlar at 10:13 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Those scientists, what with their belief in objective facts about an objective world - ridiculous! If only they had read the proper things in school, they'd know that all perspectives are equally valid. Because all that matters are people's perspectives and the objective world around us doesn't matter at all!

In all seriousness, it is clearly valuable to be able to understand others' perspectives (and some scientists and engineers are not so great at this), but it is also valuable to be able to understand the world of facts.
posted by ssg at 10:14 AM on November 14, 2012


How come every person in this author's essay is male?

Is Mr. Deresiewicz making a point specifically about male engineers? Or has he forgotten that half the people on the planet are women?

We even have female engineers now. Do they share the same tedious worldview as male engineers?

Perhaps Mr. Deresiewicz should talk to some, and find out. Or at least acknowledge that "I have never spoken to a female engineer on this topic, which is why my article deals solely with the male of the species."

Thanks, William Deresiewicz, for contributing to the ongoing invisibility of women in STEM careers.
posted by ErikaB at 10:17 AM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


Counterpoint:

I'M GONNA WRECK IT
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 10:20 AM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think this comic does a better job of showing the problem.

Engineers are auto-didacts who take complex systems, break them into parts, and optimize them. This is a really useful approach for a lot of things, but not everything. Case in point. Some things cannot be broken down in to their base parts and "fixed" or optimized.
posted by zabuni at 10:20 AM on November 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


Not for nothing does Mr. Spock remain the central figure of the science-fictional imagination.

Say what? Spock isn't even the central figure of the Star Trek imagination, much less that of Science Fiction as a whole...


Whoops, the author meant to say slash-fictional. Simple mistake.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:26 AM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, by setting up a false, us-versus-them dichotomy and automatically considering those that disagree to be fools who have no idea of the real world while not actually understanding anything about them and refusing to admit they may have any sort of point he seems to have hit on the problems this engineer has with politics.
posted by ckape at 10:43 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Please. This is just trolling wrapped up with some flowery prose.
posted by effugas at 10:45 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know which current world leader is an engineer? THAT'S RIGHT
posted by Apocryphon at 10:50 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here are some of the things that the humanities, and the habits of alertness that they foster, will teach you: that people have different but equally valid perspectives; ...
The technologist believes himself possessed of superior wisdom. All he has, in fact, is expertise.

If that's the case, I strongly recommend a humanities education for Deresiewicz. Because he certainly seems to think that a technological/rational viewpoint is a less valid perspective. I'm sure he won't take his own advice though; he clearly believes himself possessed of superior wisdom. He doesn't even have expertise.



You know which current world leader is an engineer? THAT'S RIGHT

Not the only one. (The new guy, too.) I'm not clear if this helps or hurts the case.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:58 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


You know which other (just about) current world leader is an engineer? Hu Jintao.

In fact, a large proportion of the communist party leaders are engineers. Hu Jintao's successor Xi Jinping is, as is Wen Jiabao. There's also an economics PhD, an economic management degree and more engineers running around in the party leadership.

So engineers aren't just sitting and writing disgruntled blog posts, they're running the world's second biggest economy. And it's working

It's a fairly empty criticism of something the author clearly doesn't understand. Beyond all other points, engineering is simply not a precise science. The idea that engineers are precise and expect things to have one true answer is simply untrue.
posted by leo_r at 11:10 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Regurgitated anti-intellectualism.
posted by fnerg at 11:14 AM on November 14, 2012


And Angela Merkel has a PhD in Quantum Chemsitry... but Margaret Thatcher had a degree in chemistry too.

I'm not sure if this supports or refutes that claim that scientists shouldn't be politicians to tell the truth.
posted by bonehead at 11:17 AM on November 14, 2012


Science fiction, which appeals to the kind of person I’m talking about, and which is usually far more science than fiction—that is, the human complexity of fiction...

Written like someone who hasn't read much science fiction.
posted by brundlefly at 11:29 AM on November 14, 2012


Over-simplifying is always wrong but sometimes useful. Saying 'it's complicated' is always correct but always useless.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:33 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


From the point of view of public policy, saying "it's complicated" is a cop-out or worse, a cover-up. The next comment is too often some variant of "and don't worry your pretty head about it." Then: "Trust us to take care of it."
posted by bonehead at 11:37 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


It expresses itself, with the weary arrogance of the guy who fixes your computer, as a contempt for politics as hopelessly imprecise.

He says with the weary arrogance of the guy who critiques your grammar.
posted by flyingfox at 11:39 AM on November 14, 2012


I think the article is pretty weak sauce, but the issue he alludes to, of getting too focused on the problem-solving process has been commented on many times before. My favorite version is this joke:

During the French Revolution, many citizens were rounded up on trumped-up changes and executed. On one particular day, the guillotine-cart carried the a preacher, a lawyer, and an engineer. Upon arrival, the priest stepped out first, and when the executioner tried to get him into the stocks, he refused to kneel and demanded that a he be allowed to lie on a table instead so that his eyes would be upon heaven when he did. The executioner complied, and when he pulled the rope, the blade came down but stopped, just centimeters from the priest's throat. "It's a miracle," he proclaimed, and the crowd agreed so the priest was set free.

When the lawyer was led to the device, he was also asked to kneel. He objected, "I believe in following precedent, place me face up like the priest." Again the blade stopped on its way down and again the prisoner was set free.

As the engineer approached the guillotine, he was asked, "I suppose you want to go face up, too." The engineer, shrugged, "Why not?" He was then locked into position and as the executioner was about to tug on the rope to release the blade, he yelled, "Wait. I see what your problem is."
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:40 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wonder if he's talking about Norvig here.

I find the essay poorly written (especially in his strange misrepresentation of modern sci-fi), but I do find the encroachment of algorithmic statistical methods in to social science troubling.

Should we have intelligent agents writing our public policy? Can we 'fix' problems by throwing enough data at enough computers? Are mathematical models some how less biased or prone to error than the nebulous theories of traditional social science?

It's a question of whether you think the theories of science can be applied to human constructed systems. I think that it can, to certain degrees, but that there's a distinct arrogance and antipathy towards the softer side of social science, which doesn't seek to answer specific problems, but instead seeks to understand the how and why of the genesis of those problems.
posted by codacorolla at 11:43 AM on November 14, 2012


From the Waggish article:
One obvious conclusion is that engineers tend to like novelists that deal in math and science material, but that does not explain many of the names on this list, notably those that use science in a “soft” form, such as Calvino and Gibson.
Oh, come on. Ten minutes with any Gibson book would solve that question: his books always involve an almost painfully Mary Sue-esque character, generally an engineer of some sort, who the reader gets to watch solve (and create, and solve) problems.

His latest, Reamde, is fairly described as "competence porn,"* and I think there's a lot of that in his other books as well. There's a certain pleasure in watching someone who's really good at something do that thing—cf. professional sports—even if it's in fiction. And if it's in fiction, then you can make them really, really good at it, and create all sorts of situations where they get to demonstrate their competency and superiority to mere mundanes.

I'm not denigrating Stephenson's work (I'm a fan) but I don't think there's a huge amount of mystery in why it's popular with people of a technical bent.

* Props for this very descriptive term, at least in connection with Reamde. It also turned up in the MeFi discussion of the book, which is where I ran across it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:44 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


This article is like having a bad experience (X) with profession (Y), and then saying "Man, why are all Ys so X?"

In other words, it's fucking stupid.
posted by Evernix at 11:49 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


And even if it were true that Spock is central in that way – the author is missing the entire point of the character, which is clearly intended to highlight the limitations of the reification of rationalism. Over and over again, Spock comes up against problems that can't be solved through acting logically.

Not to mention that the most robot-like logical people in the Star Trek universe are the Borg, who are the bad guys!

The actual engineers in the various Star Trek series are:
- A Scotsman who certainly seems to have a very flexible definition of time. Can you accuse Mr. Scott of having an absolutist view of reality when he consistently gets ten hour repairs done in two hours?
- A man who can change the way he sees the world at the touch of a button. Is someone who can see in the ultraviolet or the infra-red and who has never had sight unmediated by a machine going to believe that there is such a thing as an absolute reality?
- Deep Space 9 didn't really have an engineering officer, but Jadzia Dax and Miles O'Brian comes closest. Jadzia Dax is a symbiotic organism and the Dax component was previously part of another symbiotic pair with a humanoid male friend of Capt. Sisko. O'Brian is more of a technician than an engineer and probably has the views closest to the goofy stereotype in the article. Of course, as someone who served a life sentence in a virtual prison he's probably got a rough-spun but instinctive sense that the world is not a simple binary place.
- The engineer in Voyager is a volatile bi-species outcast with complicated and divided loyalties who fights in an obviously unwinnable guerilla war for what are basically spiritual reasons that she doesn't even herself share. Not exactly an ultra-logical type.
- I've never watched Enterprise, but the first two paragraphs of the wikipedia article about their chief engineer are about his rashness, illogical behaviour and his relationship with a Vulcan science officer.

but Margaret Thatcher had a degree in chemistry too.

Margaret Thatcher was an early backer of the regulatory process that led to the Montreal Protocol for phasing out ozone layer damaging chemicals and an early believer in the global warming effects of carbon dioxide emissions.
posted by atrazine at 11:49 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I guess I'm one of the engineers he's talking about. (I'm female though) And yeah, I think more engineers should be in charge.

What's an engineer's job? To solve a problem given constraints, and develop an optimum solution that works in as many cases as possible.

What's a lawyer's job? To win an argument. Sometimes even if they disagree with what they're arguing for; it's just about the winning.

What's a businessperson's job? To maximize stockholder value through whatever means are (hopefully legally) necessary.

Why do we prefer lawyers and MBAs instead of engineers again?

Disclaimer: some of my best friends are lawyers and MBAs.
posted by olinerd at 12:06 PM on November 14, 2012 [16 favorites]


but Margaret Thatcher had a degree in chemistry too.

Margaret Thatcher was an early backer of the regulatory process that led to the Montreal Protocol for phasing out ozone layer damaging chemicals and an early believer in the global warming effects of carbon dioxide emissions.


She also developed a method for making ice cream horrid.
posted by Artw at 12:07 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


This article is like having a bad experience (X) with profession (Y), and then saying "Man, why are all Ys so X?"

He doesn't even manage to actually come up with any converte problems that the supposedly overinfluentual engineers are causing, except maybe being interested in things he isn't.

Next time he takes his computer to get fixed I hope they piss in it.
posted by Artw at 12:10 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


...and the religionist's job is to claim that all of the problems are not bugs but instead features and insist that things will improve once a person is dead, provided the proper behavioral and financial conditions are met while alive.
posted by Renoroc at 12:22 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


His latest, Reamde, is fairly described as "competence porn,"

gibson != stephenson
posted by MangyCarface at 12:33 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I was reading that description of Gibson and having a really hard time connecting it with what I've read. Stephenson? Yeah. I can see that.
posted by brundlefly at 12:36 PM on November 14, 2012


I like it when olinerd swoops in and nails it.
posted by Mapes at 12:36 PM on November 14, 2012


A writer who has a new idea can state it and support it with evidence, regardless of topic.

A writer who objects to a someone else's stated opinion can point to specific errors or areas of disagreement.

This essay boils down to making unsupported claims about what other people think. It's a strawman and a troll of the first order. It invites you to identify with a group, and tells you that members of that group's worldview is wrong wrong wrong.

Well, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

Engineers, scientists, and SF nerds, I wouldn't exert the effort to be offended or offer a counterpoint here. Save your outrage for a serious challenge.

weary arrogance

From the comments:
Bonus points for complaining about weary arrogance, with the very same.
Additional bonus points:
Here are some of the things that the humanities, and the habits of alertness that they foster, will teach you: that people have different but equally valid perspectives . . .
. . . says the guy arguing that other people's perspective is not valid.
 
posted by Herodios at 12:39 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


If engineering was all about "hard science and precise measurements", we'd have already replaced ourselves with robots.

This guy sounds like he's confusing engineers with engineering students--callow youth who roam university campuses in leather-jacketed herds and chant silly songs about how it's great to drink beer and solve Calculus problems.
posted by cardboard at 12:54 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


SKINNER: "Oh excellent, not only are the trains now running on time, they're running on metric time."
posted by 445supermag at 12:59 PM on November 14, 2012


I love the fact that we engineers have made the world so perfectly that other people think they are in charge.
posted by scruss at 1:44 PM on November 14, 2012


I suppose it's also probably worth mentioning that very, very few of the engineers I know (mechanical engineering) have even the remotest interest in scifi. In my experience (obviously completely subjective), scifi fans are fairly broadly distributed across academia.
posted by leo_r at 1:53 PM on November 14, 2012


Margaret Thatcher was an early backer of the regulatory process that led to the Montreal Protocol for phasing out ozone layer damaging chemicals and an early believer in the global warming effects of carbon dioxide emissions.

But on economic grounds, her government only supported replacing CFCs after after what was then the UK's biggest company, ICI, came up with a more profitable alternative. Pretty much why the US, Germany and France got on board also.
posted by biffa at 1:54 PM on November 14, 2012


gibson != stephenson

Whoops, you're right, although in my defense he also talks about Stephenson in the same breath.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:10 PM on November 14, 2012


But on economic grounds, her government only supported replacing CFCs after after what was then the UK's biggest company, ICI, came up with a more profitable alternative. Pretty much why the US, Germany and France got on board also.

Be that as it may, she was convinced on the scientific case fairly early on. The economic case is a different matter, especially as this is Thatcher we're talking about. At least this meant that policy could be debated from a shared understanding of reality.

I'll happily debate people who think that the economic case for a particular way of dealing with global warming is not there - even with people who don't think we should do anything to prevent it. They're wrong, and I can either prove it to them or at least reduce our difference of opinion to an unreconcilable axiom in our respective worldviews. What I won't do is discuss with people who actually don't believe that climate change is happening - they're not just wrong, they're deluded and delusion doesn't respond to reason the way simple error does.
posted by atrazine at 2:38 PM on November 14, 2012


The article comes across as really unintellectual, and yet I must agree with him despite his blatant incorrectness. He is basically railing against scientism or technocracy (in their modern incarnations), and following his rhetoric, sometimes it does take Mr. Obvious Philosopher to point this out. It only seems insulting because the message is coming from an outsider, but the general concern is clear and should indeed be made part of the discourse.

Very likely the majority of STEM folks do risk a narrow view of the world, and it comes out of the very specialized job description. If you (like me) are a STEM person frequenting a site like MetaFilter, we are already somewhat exceptional to that category that the author is worried about.
posted by polymodus at 3:04 PM on November 14, 2012


Condescending self-righteousness in 5 poorly written paragraphs.
posted by Argyle at 3:12 PM on November 14, 2012


What's an engineer's job? To solve a problem given constraints, and develop an optimum solution that works in as many cases as possible.

Well, that's an engineer's answer. Another answer might be that engineers are there to inspire pride and enthusiasm in the younger generation. Or to further the glory of the nation/mankind. Or to develop instruments of fantastical destruction. That engineers tend to reduce all these entirely different goals to something like "solve problems given constraints", and in fact when pressed will contend that none of this has anything to do with "engineering" is part of the reason why engineers aren't in charge.
posted by deo rei at 4:38 PM on November 14, 2012


It's also why they are actually competent at their job.
posted by Zalzidrax at 5:31 PM on November 14, 2012


Again the broader issue is that our world increasingly finds itself dominated by technology, while there is comparatively limited education or deep thinking going on about the ethics or philosophy of technology. There are STEM researchers and academics who look into this, or at least have some self-awareness about it, but I think it's safe to say such people are a minority (and some amongst those probably denigrated for simply being "interdisciplinary"). The OP's article is blunt (and his language rhetorically jarring), but his point is well taken.
posted by polymodus at 5:39 PM on November 14, 2012


What's a lawyer's job? To win an argument. Sometimes even if they disagree with what they're arguing for; it's just about the winning.

Talk about your oversimplifications. You have no idea what real lawyers actually do. Even if you restrict yourself to litigators, this is still an incorrect statement. It's not like Law & Order.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:04 PM on November 14, 2012


Riffing on Hayek is no way to go through life, son.
posted by jet_silver at 8:28 PM on November 14, 2012


It's also why they are actually competent at their job.

Why yes, if you limit your job to the easy bits - the bits that can be solved - it's hard not to succeed.
posted by deo rei at 9:58 PM on November 14, 2012


Damn you engineers for doing those "easy" things instead of engaging in what's the grown up equivalent Of a really pissy Wikipedia fight. You could be making the world so much better if you changed your focus to ...??????????...
posted by Artw at 3:11 AM on November 15, 2012


The whole essay: not even wrong.
posted by disconnect at 8:34 AM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


namewithoutwords: Say what? Spock isn't even the central figure of the Star Trek imagination, much less that of Science Fiction as a whole...
Speak for yourself, non-nerd.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:14 AM on November 15, 2012


In fact, a large proportion of the communist party leaders are engineers.

That's just because it's the closest modern equivalent to the scholar-gentry.
posted by Apocryphon at 2:03 PM on November 15, 2012


I think this is a poor article on an interesting subject.

I started out with a Physics B.Sc. and a Masters in Computer Science, but in recent years I've become more interested in economics, history, sociology and politics. I do think it's true that there's a STEM mindset which tends to hamper people from science and engineering backgrounds when they start getting into other subjects.

First, there is, or was, a pervasive disrespect within the STEM subjects for academics who study the social sciences or humanities. Economists and sociologists are regarded as so un-rigorous or biased that their entire fields are worthless. As a result, huge bodies of immensely helpful work from these fields gets ignored in favour of intuitive assumptions and arguments from first principles.

Second, there are assumptions certain habits of thinking in the STEM subjects which work there, but aren't necessarily useful elsewhere. I think these include

1. Systems are governed by a small number of universal, inviolable principles.
2. These principles are more important than large bodies of data.
3. Important things can be measured.
4. Systems can generally be created from scratch, they don't have to be adapted from other systems.

For example, let's say you're considering building a bridge. What's important there is calculating the loads, stresses, weights, material strengths and so on. It's not so important to look at ten thousand other existing bridges and how often different types of bridge have collapsed. You don't usually need to think about whether there's an existing bridge which has to be converted into the new bridge without interrupting the traffic going over it.

But in other subjects, you don't have a small number of inviolable principles to work with. There might be general tendencies, but they are subject to exceptions and can break down. If an authority issues a rule, people may disobey the rule, or find ways to violate the intent while sticking to the letter of it.

So when STEM people start looking at other subjects, they still use their habits and say things like this.

"Just like the Roman Empire, America will..." But history doesn't follow inevitable rules.

"Universal healthcare is unaffordable because..." Most of the developed world does afford it, but the STEM mindset doesn't like looking at messy real-world data when there are principles to apply.

"We wouldn't have this silly government policy if we just had an STV electoral system..." Yes, but it's pretty hard to change the whole political system for one policy.

"Teachers need to be paid by results..." But how do you measure those results without Goodhart's and Campbell's Laws coming into play, e.g. if teachers improve test results by expelling the dumbest kids and dropping hints to the others.

Overall, if you're looking at the social science fields like economics or society, it's better to start with the data. Look at what's been tried, what's worked, what hasn't worked. If you're proposing a solution to some problem, you need to think in advance about how and whether you can measure it and enforce it; how you can transition to it; the ways people will resist it.

If you don't do that: if you're just thinking from first principles and assuming everyone will instantly cooperate, your proposal is probably just a waste of time.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 5:45 AM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


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