Engineers’ Syndrome

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I’ve noted before my dim view of the way many engineers tend to approach political theorizing. In The Trouble With Libertarian Activism, criticizing one author’s arguments against principle and anarchism, I observed “that many brash young libertarians of the activist flavor who are not all that interested in theory” are “often unfamiliar with the great body of libertarian literature and want to reinvent the wheel from a clean slate”–and that many engineers “take a similar pragmatic, isolated, almost anti-intellectual approach in their views on politics”. I previously suggested that this is because engineers think they are “best and brightest,” and because of the scientism that pervades engineering education, that they mistakenly believes that they can solve social problems by some kind of brute force empirical-practical engineering type solution.

Interestingly, in a column today, computer/tech writer John Dvorak observes:

… Microsoft, once a software company, keeps entering businesses in which it has little or no expertise. Microsoft may be suffering from engineers’ syndrome, something you run into all the time. This is quite amusing, even to engineers, who see it occurring in other engineers but never see it in themselves. … The idea is that once you learn engineering disciplines, you project them onto endeavors other than engineering, since everything you ever do in life is actually some sort of engineering. While there is some modicum of truth to this notion, it’s the leap of faith that pushes the idea into the absurd. What happens with engineers’ syndrome is this: You start believing that since you’re an excellent engineer in one specialty, then you’re a friggin’ genius in everything you do, because it’s all the same, really.

What an excellent observation from Dvorak.Some related comments from two previous posts: Yet More Galambos:

This reinforces what I’ve come to think about Galambos: he adopts the monist, scientistic mentality which Mises showed to be flawed. He is like many engineers I’ve known: most are bright, but nowadays uneducated beyond calculus and applied engineering courses; yet they believe that, because they are the “best and brightest” they can solve social problems by some kind of brute force empirical-practical engineering type solution. The result is almost always embarrassing, totally devoid of any familiarity with philosphy or the relevant literature; it is just a step above the long-winded “I’ve-got-the-world-figured-out” diatribes by frustrated truck drivers who also think they have a system to win the lottery. Galambos was brighter and better read than most engineers, but he could not escape the pseudo-science of scientism into which engineers are immersed; he adopted the idea that we should find a “science” of liberty, with “science” used in the conventional, natural-sciences sense. Kind of a weird combination of California surfer-dude “hey-man” mentality combined with Carl Sagan wide-eyed love for (natrual)-science combined with the engineer’s misplaced confidence in his ability to solve all human problems using engineering techniques.

… Writes Tim Swanson): “So true. All of my roommates have been engineers as have most of my friends. Rather than reading any sort of economics text they simply come up with a “plan” utilizing some sort of top-down approach.”

Libertarian Activism–comments:

Re my comments about engineers: some have gotten their back up about it. I have pointed out to them that I am a (former) engineer as well, and know many of them; and while they are preferable to attorneys, and are good in their jobs, and while libertarian engineers are fine by me, I am not talking not about engineers doing engineering. I am talking about their m.o. when they try to develop political views. (and I speak here of non-libertarian engineers; they think you can do-it-yourself and concoct an entire philosophy by brute force; after all, they are smarter than the liberal arts majors, why do they need to waste time reading them?)

Gary Hunt perceptively commented, however:
Good article! I know what you mean about engineers. I am an architect so I work with them on a regular basis. Their thinking is what many architects describe as linear. In other words, “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line”. However, quite frequently the straight line is not the best solution.

I also disagree with Milsted’s contention that sometmes “the economies of scale” justifies the theft for defense, roads ect…. It appears he has not worked in the real world. My experience has been that public works projects cost significantly more than private ones. In fact I know a contractor who bids on many government projects. His method of bidding is to price it as if it were a private job then double the price. He gets a lot of government work.

Another perceptive comment about engineers from Max Schwing (Karlsruhe):

I understand your point of view and it tends to be coherent with mine about engineers in general, because we have been indoctrinated into approaching problems from a rational and planning point of view. Therefore we tend to think that we can solve anything by applying mechanical principles to them, especially when it comes to political problems or societies at large. I think it is best said that engineers would like to “engineer society” (Brave New World – style ?!). However, I also know engineers who are looking beyond this view on society and are also interested in the “human or social arts” (as they are called in Germany).

But to persuade an engineer of it, you have to take the economics way of doing it, because we are largely more open to such arguments, than we are to general philosophical ones. I am studying mechanical engineering, so I am closest to the future engineers in Germany and despite that Germany is a social-democratic country, those young bright students are divided between the two big socialist parties (CDU and SPD).

Somehow, engineers still think of the world and society as a mechanical device. So, we are somehow struck in the 19th century, when it comes to society. But still there is hope to get them to the liberal side.

3:20 pm on October 24, 2007