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Engineers’ Syndrome

From LRC Blog

Engineers’ Syndrome

Posted by Stephan Kinsella on October 24, 2007 03:20 PM

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.

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  • KH April 11, 2014, 12:26 pm

    I’m an engineer, but I had not heard the term “engineer’s syndrome” before. I can’t believe I agree with John Dvorak on something, since he’s often so full of crap, but yeah, that quote from him sounds quite accurate. Since college, I could never reconcile how all my engineering classmates could lean so far to the left politically. I figured it was just that everyone’s young and stupid in college, but seriously, we’re supposed to be the logical type, I thought: it should be obvious that that all of these state-based solutions to everything don’t work on the logical basis that the state has no profit incentive to make them work.

    Well, having been out in the real world for a few years in a senior position in a small engineering firm, I think I’ve noticed a few things. First and foremost, engineering school teaches you almost nothing. It doesn’t teach any practical engineering concepts, just complicated theory which you almost never use in the real world. But if you can get through engineering school, because they make it so difficult and obtuse, you feel this smug sense that you can do anything. My experience in hiring dozens of them is that they know nothing and expect everything from the world when they come out of school. They were good at school, and that has nothing to do with the real world. It’s nearly impossible to get young engineers to do anything useful nowadays, because they know nothing, but think they know everything and don’t need to learn any more. I’ve probably learned 100 times more stuff (useful stuff) since I got OUT of school, compared to when I was in it. Working closely in the business aspects of a small company has also helped to give that much bigger picture that engineers need to have but few do or even think they need to have.

    Most of my classmates were going on to graduate school, so they could probably enter back into academia or something. Again, it’s avoidance (intentional or naive, it doesn’t matter) of the real world where engineering, which involves tough decisions, actually happens. Seriously, a Masters in Engineering has almost zero practical utility in a real engineering environment. It might get you a better salary (for no good reason), and it in all likelihood is a detriment to you because it keeps you out of real-world problem-solving situations for another two years.

    The engineers I’ve met, however, who either own their own businesses or at least work some place where they have to consider costs (the essential other half of being an engineer that they don’t teach you in school) have universally been conservative, libertarian, right-leaning, anti-state, you get the point in their political beliefs. If you don’t come to quickly realize that you know very little in both engineering and life, despite your B.S., M.S., or Ph.D, you’re doing it wrong. And really, if you don’t have to actually look at the costs of things and realize that the only reason you have a job is that your company has made unique and difficult decisions for itself in order to try to turn a profit (something governments have no incentive to do), then, yeah you’ll be in a little wonderland where you think you think you and entities like the state can solve everything if you just “engineer” it enough. Experienced engineers should know that taking the simplest path to a solution is often the best one. In the real world in general, the simplest, most effective path to a solution virtually NEVER goes through a government office.

  • Vanmind April 28, 2014, 4:23 pm

    Great stuff, thanks. An analogous insecurity is NIH: Not Invented Here.

    There are always shoulders beneath. Og made a pointed stick long before Atlas ever shrugged.

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