Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Scienceandtechnology, or, Engineers Rule!

There was a time when I thought of one entity: scienceandtechnology. This entity was all mathy and computery, and that differentiated it from, say, the humanities, which were not and are not at all mathy and computery.

In fact, I’m sure many people believe in this scienceandtechnology thingy.

So it came as something of a shock to realize that, no, scienceandtechnology is not one thing. It is two, science on the one hand, and technology on the other. Yes, they’re both mathy and computery, but they’re otherwise quite different.

And the difference is important, not simply for engineers and scientists, but for those of us in the human sciences who are trying to advance our knowledge of the human mind, human society, and human culture. Perhaps as a crude start, engineering is to rhetoric as science is to interpretation.

Science is about analyzing and describing to arrive at theories and models of how things work. The end result of a course of scientific work is an account of how some phenomenon can be explained within a given framework of laws and models. Such frameworks are likely elegant and compact. Newton, for example, had three laws of motion, not 57.

Engineering is quite different. Engineers use laws and models to analyze situations so that they can design a device to perform a certain task. The output of a course of engineering work is the description of that device and plans for its construction. To have any value those plans must specify something that can be constructed with known materials using known methods.

Thus when I was on the faculty at the Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute I learned that the engineering curriculum had a design stem, a series of course required of all engineers devoted specifically to design. That is, it was not assumed that engineering graduates would somehow magically figure out how to design buildable stuff once they’d graduated and taken jobs in the “real” world. They were taught, given practice in, designing and building things.

Science isn’t like that. Scientists may design experiments, but that’s mostly a matter of logic, not of constructing something piece by piece by piece, and forth, for 10s, 100s, or 1000s or more pieces. And yes, scientists may construct apparatus. To the extent they are doing that, they are acting as engineers. For that matter, engineers will make observations and conduct tests as part of their design work. And so they will, on occasion, act as scientists. But the overall objectives and methods, the envelope, if you will, of a scientific enterprise is different from that of an engineering enterprise.

Why does this matter to the human sciences? Because we deal with complex heterogeneous systems of many parts, systems where design and function are crucial. Thinking about such systems requires a mentality that, if anything, partakes more of engineering than of science. Perhaps that’s why Bruno Latour talks of compositionism, for composition implies design and construction. The FAQ at his website notes that he’s taught engineers for twenty years.

If we in the human sciences are going to ape our techno-savvy colleagues—not necessarily a good thing, but not necessarily bad either—perhaps we should pay more attention to engineers than scientists. Their problems are more like the problems of writers, musicians, artists, or even politicians and bureaucrats. They have more to teach us than do scientists. We don't need humanists who secretly wish they were scientists. We need humanists who openly aspire to engineering.

ADDENDUM: See this recent column by Mark Changizi.

9 comments:

  1. I have also argued that any technological application is a kind of experiment, or a kind of test of the underlying science -- and sometimes reveal weaknesses in the science -- and that experimental attempts to test scientific theories always require technology and often require the development of new technology.

    It also seems that in most scientific fields thye experimentalists and field workers rank lower than the theorists and methodologists. My belief is that this is a sort of resurgence of scholasticism, or whatever you want to call it, and a more or less unmixed evil, and that the dominance of theory was a major factor in the recent massive and terribly consequential failure of economic science. (And ideology and the bad sense easily can be sneaked into theory.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well, you know, engineering is so blue collar whereas science is, if not white collar, white lab coat (as opposed to the blue coveralls of the engineer).

    Computer 'science' makes a hash of this as much of computer science is software engineering, as for hardware engineering, ship it off to the engineering school.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've worked really hard to push back against this conception of science in my own work. It seems to me that this is science as it is viewed by people in the humanities, not science as it is understood by scientists. Thus, in my work with the scientists at the IceCube observatory in Antarctica who are investigating neutrinos, I discovered that they do not draw a distinction between science as pure theory construction and engineering in this way. Rather, for them the engineering is central to what they do and plays a key role in how the theory subsequently develops. I think us humanities types, especially philosophers of science, tend to get this impression of the sciences because we read the finished products of scientific research (articles, reports, popular science books, etc.) where scientific practice and engineering work withdraw from view. We thus get the sense that these things are constructed ex nihilo. I think one of the things that led me to this way of thinking was my experience in the psychoanalytic clinic where my work with patients gave me insight into both how psychoanalytic theory gets constructed and how the practice is central to that theory.

    If you haven't come across them already, the place to go for an alternative view of science along these lines is the work of people like Andrew Pickering (especially The Mangle of Practice), Isabelle Stengers, and, of course, Bruno Latour (especially Pandora's Hope and Science in Action).

    ReplyDelete
  4. We thus get the sense that these things are constructed ex nihilo.

    But I never implied any such thing. As I've indicated, what I'm concerned about is the overall "envelope" of the enterprise, and your sentence before that one pretty much concedes my point about science:

    I think us humanities types, especially philosophers of science, tend to get this impression of the sciences because we read the finished products of scientific research (articles, reports, popular science books, etc.) where scientific practice and engineering work withdraw from view.

    The messiness of actual practice and the engineering CAN withdraw from view because they are logically and conceptually subordinate to that final product. But if the engineering were to withdraw from the engineer's final work product, well, there wouldn't be any work product at all. Whether you're a scientist or an engineer there's likely to be a lot of bricolage on the way to the final work product. But those final products are quite different in character, and that's what I was getting at in the post.

    Now, something like a weather model that's run in computer simulation, that's a scientific artifact that may well be much like an engineering design. And those cognitive science simulations of mental processes, they feel like engineering. Lots of heterogeneous parts constructed into assemblies and subassemblies to a depth of three or more.

    ReplyDelete
  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMoKcsN8wM8&feature=player_embedded#!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Not sure what it has to do with this post, but, yes, it's a wonderful little film.

    ReplyDelete
  7. graffiti like life is without a why
    glad you liked it.
    -dmf

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Bill,

    It sounds like we're close to being on the same page so that's good. You write:

    "The messiness of actual practice and the engineering CAN withdraw from view because they are logically and conceptually subordinate to that final product. But if the engineering were to withdraw from the engineer's final work product, well, there wouldn't be any work product at all. Whether you're a scientist or an engineer there's likely to be a lot of bricolage on the way to the final work product. But those final products are quite different in character, and that's what I was getting at in the post."

    Yes, I agree, the products are quite different. For me the significance of this point relates to issues that scientists themselves wouldn't be really concerned with or bothered by but has everything to do with how questions of epistemology are posed and a set of (rather snotty) attitudes I believe philosophers of science and knowledge adopt with respect to other disciplines. Truth seems mysterious to us because we only look at those finished products and because don't look at the process (incidentally, this attitude towards practice in philosophy already started in Plato's Meno with the derogatory treatment of the servant boy... it's only his "conclusions" that matter, not the physical activity (labor) by which he arrives at them). I've outlined my views on these matters in the following posts among many others. They might give you a sense of what I'm getting at and why I'm resistant to taking a hardline distinction between science and engineering:

    http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2009/08/04/re-circulating-reference/

    http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/material-practice-knowledge-and-degrees-of-adequation/

    ReplyDelete
  9. Truth seems mysterious to us because we only look at those finished products and because don't look at the process ...

    Yes.

    A "hardline" distinction between science and engineering? No. But definitely a distinction. And I want to START there, and only then back off.

    ReplyDelete