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Bronze-level articleEngineers and woo

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Best answer: Science doesn't have access to truth, engineering does.
—Anonymous Coward 14535673, Godlike Productions[1]

An engineer is a professional trained in engineering: the design and construction of devices or other works. They put science into practice, designing the stuff that makes civilization.

Most engineers are as sensible and reasonable as anyone, but engineers as a group have a noted tendency to pontificate on things well outside their area of expertise, to the point of actual fallacy. This phenomenon is so prevalent that users of talk.origins have come up with the Salem Hypothesis, which predicts that any creationist claiming scientific expertise or advanced degrees is likely to be an engineer.[2] Of course, this does not mean that engineers are likely to be creationists.

The phenomenon also applies to some fields of computer science, such as software engineering, which are more applied mathematics than science.

Quantitative evidence of this is lacking, but it has been noted on the internet frequently.


[edit] Null hypothesis

The null hypothesis is that engineers are approximately as prone to woo as other people of comparable educational level. If the null hypothesis is true, it should be expected that among the creationists who can claim advanced degrees (other than theology), the majority are engineers. This is because the majority of people with advanced degrees are engineers or can be described as engineers. This article should not be understood as promoting non-null hypothesis without providing adequate evidence. The very essence of the woo is promotion of non-justified hypotheses that were not derived from empirical data, but instead constructed upon the sort of argumentation that can easily go wrong due to many outside factors.

[edit] How engineers think

Engineers are not scientists nor are they mathematicians.[3] They are engineers. Every other field of knowledge is interesting insofar as it is useful raw material for engineering. Engineers care about results in the real world, and get these results; other people are observably utterly delusional about technology and probably shouldn't be allowed near scissors.[4] This breeds a certain arrogance.

The vast majority of engineers are perfectly reasonable and are fans of science and mathematics, even though those fields are not what they do. But respecting science is not always a requirement of the job.

[edit] Religious conservatism

Engineers are measurably more politically conservative than scientists, at least in the United States. A 1972 study[5] showed professors of engineering describing themselves as "deeply religious" and "strongly conservative" more than those in any other field. Applying the same analysis to data gathered in 1984 found 46% of male American engineers describing themselves as both conservative and religious, compared with 22% of scientists.

Explanations for this are limited.

[edit] Creationism

Many prominent figures in the creationism movement are or have been engineers, for example Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research.[6] One hypothesis is that creationists single out their engineers in an attempt to pull off argumentum ad verecundiam, and they haven't many in their ranks more reputable than an engineer.

When petitions have been sent out that say "these scientists reject evolution", the majority aren't qualified biologists or cosmologists but are from completely unrelated professions, such as engineers, medical doctors or even veterinary surgeons (Creation Ministries International's List of scientists alive today who accept the biblical account of creation is a good example). Importantly, this isn't exactly a courtier's reply, and it certainly isn't "elitism"; there are people who you'd expect to have studied the evidence in great detail and thus are expected have more intellectual clout on a subject, knowing what the latest research is and knowing how the theory actually works, rather than a simplified version taken from blogs and bad popular science books. People wouldn't argue that someone with no formal law training is as qualified as a lawyer to make a prosecution or defence, right? Similarly, you'd expect anyone with a valid comment on evolution to have formal biology training.

It bears mentioning that engineering largely concerns itself with stuff that happened during the last decade. Therefore, an engineer won't trip over his conceptions about the age of the earth in the same way a geologist or astrophysicist would. Also, in engineering everything is designed and the designer can be tracked down, giving the engineering student less opportunity to blurt Goddidit at an inopportune moment. These facts combine to let more creationists in engineering actually complete their degrees.

[edit] Terrorism

As with creationists, there is anecdotal evidence of a disproportionate number of terrorists being engineers.[7] In one paper that did the numbers nearly 60 percent of Islamic terrorists (even those raised in the West) had engineering backgrounds,[8] and even corrected for demographics, the numbers are disproportionate.

Phil Goetz hypothesised on LessWrong[9] that these engineers failed to compartmentalise irrational religious memes, and took the dangerous and stupid bits of their religions entirely seriously rather than treating them with the casual hypocrisy most people do.[10] Alternately, it could mean that engineers are especially recruited by terrorist organizations for useful skills, more fundamentalist children wanting to be engineers rather than scientists, or a variety of other explanations.

[edit] Engineers out of their depth in other ways

  • Ray Kurzweil: Being a brilliant computer scientist means all other fields, particularly biology, can be treated as subtopics of computer science. He also claims that nutritional supplements and "alkaline water" do something useful.
  • Mohamed El Naschie: An engineer who believes he knows much more about mathematics than most mere mathematicians.
  • Eric S. Raymond: His knowledge of and work in software engineering remains quite good. His batshit insane wingnuttery, not so much.
  • Richard Hoover: Wrote the meteorite bacteria paper for the Journal of Cosmology.
  • Far too many youthful Ayn Rand casualties, like Petr Beckmann.
  • The leadership of China: China is currently run not by revolutionaries or politicians, but by technocrats. They seem to be attempting to solve everything like an engineering problem (more force here, more repression there, and we will have a harmonious society!) and, although they have good sense enough not to ignore the laws of economics, they are still somewhat incapable of understanding the full complexity of the social tensions within their country.[11]
  • Dewey Larson (1898-1990): One of the numerous engineers who think they can do physics better than physicists.
  • Judy Wood Former adjunct professor of mech. eng. at Clemson. Made a new career out of claiming that the World Trade Center was instantaneously turned to powder by a directed energy weapon. Motivation: An honest search for truth. Oh, I almost forgot -- Wood also stood to make many millions of dollars if her Qui tam lawsuit had succeeded.
  • Neoreaction was founded by a software engineer with too much time on his hands

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Frustrated by theories about Earth/Universe
  2. Myers, P. Z. (2006, Feb 22) The Salem hypothesis. Pharyngula.
  3. Except, of course, when they are also scientists or mathematicians. Professors of engineering do a lot of science, for example.
  4. Every engineer knows that Dilbert is a documentary.
  5. Everett Carll Ladd, Jr. and Seymour Martin Lipset The Divided Academy: Professors and Politics
  6. Patterson, J. W. (1982). An engineer looks at the creationist movement. Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science 89(2), 55-58.
  7. Build-a-Bomber: Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees? (Benjamin Popper, Slate, 2009-12-29)
  8. Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, "Engineers of Jihad" (PDF)
  9. Reason as memetic immune disorder (Phil Goetz, LessWrong, 2009-09-19)
  10. "Have you ever sat down and read this thing? Technically we're not allowed to go to the bathroom."
  11. Engineers and Terrorists Part 2
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