Engineers and woo
| Style over substance|
“”Best answer: Science doesn't have access to truth, engineering does.
|—Anonymous Coward 14535673, Godlike Productions|
“”Man can, without difficulty, combine crack-brained beliefs about the world with a confident mastery of contemporary high technology.
An engineer is a professional trained in the invention, design and construction of various useful items, from roads and bridges to computer software. In other words, engineering puts 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. 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.
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/homeopaths/etc. who can claim masters or doctoral degrees, about 15-20% are engineers, just as in the general populace.
How engineers think
“”The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. Because when they do, they turn into huge assholes.
|—Probably not H. P. Lovecraft|
Engineers are neither scientists nor mathematicians. 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. 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 and mathematics is not always a requirement of the job. Indeed, the mathematical standards adopted by engineers are not always high.
Engineers are measurably more politically conservative than scientists, at least in the United States. A 1972 study 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.
Many prominent figures in the creationism movement are or have been engineers, for example Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research. One hypothesis is that creationists single out their engineers in an attempt to pull off argumentum ad verecundiam, and they don't have many in their ranks who are 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"; these 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.
As with creationists, there is anecdotal evidence of a disproportionate number of terrorists being engineers. In a study of Islamic terrorists, Gambetta and Hertog corrected for demographics (Muslim countries train more engineers) yet still found disproportionate numbers: of 178 college-educated terrorists with known degrees, fully 78 of 178 (43.8%) were engineers, while Islamic Studies (!) came distantly second at 34 of 178 (19.1%). Of note, merely 2.1% of the populations of the countries of origin were engineers. And in fact, among Islamic terrorists trained in the West, nearly 60 percent came from engineering. Gambetta and Hertog write that engineers may fit the tendencies of right-wing extremism — Jonanism (all enemies are one and the same) and splitting (there is only good and evil). To support this, they quote Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ph.D. in transport engineering and one-time president of Iran:
In some discussions I told [those inside Iran pressing for compromise over fears the United States could launch a military strike because of the nuclear standoff with the West]: I am an engineer and I am examining the issue. They do not dare wage war against us and I base this on a double proof […] [First] I tell them: I am an engineer and I am a master in calculation and tabulation. I draw up tables. For hours, I write out different hypotheses. I reject, I reason. I reason with planning and I make a conclusion. They cannot make problems for Iran. [Second] I believe in what God says. God says that those who walk in the path of righteousness will be victorious. What reason can you have for believing God will not keep this promise?
Phil Goetz hypothesised on LessWrong 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. 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.
Another right-wing extremist engineering graduate (aerospace engineering, to be precise), though not a terrorist, is 2016 Austrian Presidential candidate Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, in an interesting example of the horsehoe effect.
Although the main route to power for dictators has been the army or the life of the "professional revolutionary", a number had engineering backgrounds, particularly in communist countries that privileged industry. Pol Pot studied electrical engineering in Paris. Leonid Brezhnev was a metallurgical engineer in the Ukrainian steel industry. Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri was a professor of engineering at the country's Senior War College.
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 (on the order of 200 a day) 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.
- Margaret Thatcher — A chemical engineer who became a polarizing politician.
- 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.
- Dewey Larson (1898-1990) — One of the numerous engineers who thought that he could do physics better than physicists.
- Judy Wood — Former adjunct professor of mechanical engineering at Clemson University. She made a new career out of claiming that the World Trade Center was instantaneously turned to powder by a directed energy weapon. Her motivation was 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.
- Scott Adams — Created Dilbert and has no professional achievements as an engineer per se. He, however, has rarely seen a piece of woo he didn't like and endorsed the dark lord for president.
- Neoreaction — Was founded by a software engineer with too much time on his hands
- Edgar Andrews — Materials scientist of http://whomadegod.org/
- Malcolm Roberts — Somehow became an Australian senator as of 2016. Also known as "Malcolm-Ieuan: Roberts., the living soul", representing a corporate entity called MALCOLM IEUAN ROBERTS".
- Burt Rutan – The legendary aircraft designer gave a rambling and deeply stupid presentation at an aerospace conference attacking not only the legitimacy of global warming science, but the concept of science itself, which he explicitly argues should be replaced with inherently superior engineering methods. Also, after the first successful spaceflight of SpaceShipOne, he gave a victory speech in which he suggested that his success must somehow intimidate NASA.
- Bodie Hodge — Ken Ham's son-in-law, active within Answers in Genesis and in charge of the day-to-day operations at the Creation "Museum".
- Thom Hartmann — Former electrical engineer who sadly promotes various woo on his radio show.
- Why are so many engineers and physicians IDiots?
- An Intelligent Design chime-in on the Salem hypothesis
- New Paper Shows evidence of Salem hypothesis
- Comics (both admittedly about physicists):
- Frustrated by theories about Earth/Universe
- Myers, P. Z. (2006, Feb 22) The Salem hypothesis. Pharyngula.
- Except, of course, when they are also scientists or mathematicians. Professors of engineering do a lot of science, for example.
- Every engineer knows that Dilbert is a documentary.
- Everett Carll Ladd, Jr. and Seymour Martin Lipset The Divided Academy: Professors and Politics
- Patterson, J. W. (1982). An engineer looks at the creationist movement. Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science 89(2), 55-58.
- Build-a-Bomber: Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees? (Benjamin Popper, Slate, 2009-12-29)
- Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, "Engineers of Jihad" (PDF)
- Reason as memetic immune disorder (Phil Goetz, LessWrong, 2009-09-19)
- Engineers and Terrorists Part 2