Culture Magazine

Scienceandtechnology, Or, Engineers Rule!

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I'm thinking about method these days, and whatever method I've got is more like engineering than science, so I'm bumping this to the top of the queue.
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.

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