Malcolm Gladwell and the Engineers’ Grievance

908 - Hug an Engineer
Hugging engineers is not the actual grievance.

Malcolm Gladwell has a long article in The New Yorker. Superficially, it’s about the man who ran Ford’s recall office during the 1960s and 1970s (at the time of the Pinto debacle). But what it’s really about is something altogether different: how engineers see the world differently.

There is an old joke about an engineer, a priest, and a doctor enjoying a round of golf. Ahead of them is a group playing so slowly and inexpertly that in frustration the three ask the greenkeeper for an explanation. “That’s a group of blind firefighters,” they are told. “They lost their sight saving our clubhouse last year, so we let them play for free.”

The priest says, “I will say a prayer for them tonight.”

The doctor says, “Let me ask my ophthalmologist colleagues if anything can be done for them.”

And the engineer says, “Why can’t they play at night?”

The greenkeeper explains the behavior of the firefighters. The priest empathizes; the doctor offers care. All three address the social context of the situation: the fact that the firefighters’ disability has inadvertently created conflict on the golf course. Only the engineer tries to solve the problem.

Almost all engineering jokes—and there are many—are versions of this belief: that the habits of mind formed by the profession enable engineers to see things differently from the rest of us. “A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. An optimist sees the glass as half full. The engineer sees the glass as twice the size it needs to be.” To the others, the glass is a metaphor. Nonsense, the engineer says. The specifications are off. He doesn’t give free rein to temperament; he assesses the object. These jokes, like many of the jokes people tell about themselves, are grievances. The engineer doesn’t understand why the rest of us can’t make sense of the world the way he does.

Later on, Gladwell talks about the head of the NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) who had just been dragged before Congress (again) to respond to questions about a Honda air-bag crisis (that had essentially zero impact on the safety of drivers on the road) instead of being allowed to continue to focus on the real safety concerns:

We have six hundred [staff at the NHTSA]. To deal with ten thousand people who are dying from drunk driving or ten thousand dying because they didn’t wear a seat belt, or the three thousand dying from distracted driving, or the four thousand dying because they are pedestrians or bicyclists and they are hit by a car.

And so Gladwell repeats his earlier observation: “Engineers have a grievance. They think we should think more like them.” And he adds: “They are not wrong.”

This resonates with me.1 My inclination is to be deeply cynical of anyone who wants to make the world a better place but has only studied in the kinds of disciplines where you never have to take a derivative. As one of my uncles said about his own kids, “They can major in whatever they want at college and math.”

898 - One Does Not Simply Hug An EngineerQuantitative disciplines like math, physics, or computer science are important for a lot of reasons. First, the objective failure you face in quantitative discipline tends more strongly towards teaching humility than the more subjective failure you face in non-quantitative disciplines. Computer scientists know this: their code either compiles or it does not.2 Mathematicians know this: they either proved the theorem or they did not. Physicists and chemists and engineers know this: their equations work out or they do not. Philosophers do not. They may think they do, but errors in philosophy usually have rounded edges thanks to the vagueness of language and sifting criteria of competing paradigms for evaluating arguments. There are, off the top of my head, at least three major conceptions of truth in philosophy, and that kind of ambiguity makes failure fuzzy.

Second, these disciplines are harder. There’s some wiggle room for individual variation, but overall there’s no question that math or physics or computer science are going to ask more out of you than education or English literature. This doesn’t just apply to academic disciplines, by the way. People whose livelihood depends on being able to do difficult things that have objectively observable results well face a lot of the same pressures as academics in objectively-grounded fields.

What does it all add up to? Be skeptical of anyone who says they  know the solution if that person doesn’t first understand what it’s like to not have the solution and be aware that wishing can’t change it. And be skeptical of someone who came by that solution too easily.

Don’t take this too far, folks. But keep it in mind when you’re thinking about controversial political questions and the sources you read to be better informed about them. Don’t automatically ignore everyone who didn’t major in math, but maybe keep an eye out for the folks who have quantitative backgrounds, who cite data, and who don’t claim to have easy or simplistic solutions to major, long-standing social problems.

12 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell and the Engineers’ Grievance”

  1. Sorry, but I can’t agree. By your own example (albeit a joke), the engineer is better able to deal with life’s problems than the doctor (who does, actually, seek a solution). You want an objective lesson in humility? Does the doctor’s patient live, or die?

    As to the “which is harder, engineering or English?,” argument, I will refer that to my friend the Ph.D in physics, who can’t spell.

  2. brian lower-

    Sorry, but I can’t agree. By your own example (albeit a joke), the engineer is better able to deal with life’s problems than the doctor (who does, actually, seek a solution). You want an objective lesson in humility? Does the doctor’s patient live, or die?

    OK, so the doc says he’ll talk to his ophthalmologist friends. What, do you think the three blind firefighters haven’t been to an ophthalmologist before? Clearly the doctor, like the priest, is expressing sympathy more than actually engaging in problem-solving. How can you tell? Because only the engineer notices that there isn’t necessarily a problem at all!

    But look, you’re also getting too caught up in a joke and ignoring the actual substance of the argument. Unlike the joke, I’m not contrasting engineers, priests and doctors. I’m contrasting folks who are well-acquainted with hard-edged failure (because they work in demanding fields were the metric for success is objective) with folks who may not be as exposed to failure as frequently or as harshly because they work in fields that are less demanding and where the metric for success is at least partially subjective.

    If you want to argue that doctors fit into the former category: be my guest. I would certainly think that surgeons, at least, quite plausibly fit that role. Beyond that: I just don’t know. I’m much more familiar with English literature, philosophy, physics, computer science, and math than I am with medicine. So, if you took umbrage that I slighted doctors, you missed the point.

    Lastly, I just don’t buy that one physicist with poor spelling says anything about the relative difficulty of physics vs. English literature. I mean, for starters English literature isn’t about spelling. That’s just odd. Your physicist friend may be a terrible speller, but I warrant that’s entirely a matter of apathy rather than a legitimate measure of the relative difficulty of spelling English vs, say, working with partial differential equations.

  3. There’s some truth to this, but I think it’s being taken too far.

    There’s also this engineer joke:

    Jim the engineer’s wife asked him to go to the store to get milk. She also said “if they have eggs, get a dozen.” Jim came home with a dozen gallons of milk. When his wife asked why, he stated “they had eggs.”

    Sometimes the engineering.empirical approach can lead to the exact wrong answer.

    Other times it leads to overconfidence and belief that their empiricism makes them infallible; look at the climate change debate. You have scientists with good, solid data making arguments about specific political solutions that are often economically (or otherwise) disastrous or pointless.

  4. Of course there are disadvantages to engineer think, but it certainly has been a humbling experience. I’m struck by how certain people can be about hard soctal problems when easy engineering problems are so hard to solve and often take more than a few tries to get right.

  5. Interesting that you shoot down the doctor’s suggestion as mere sympathy by pointing out its possibly pointless nature while you appreciate the problem-solving nature of the engineer. What’s the problem here? Oh, that the firefighters are inconveniencing the engineer. So we’ll just take those blind folks and have them play at night. Problem solved! For the engineer. You question the doctor’s suggestion, but the engineer hasn’t solved anyone’s problem but his own. Maybe the firefighters want to spend their night at home with their families or club employees would like to close up and go home before dark. Maybe pushing inconvenient disabled folks out of the way for the sake of the engineer is a little….callous. What is truly superior here? Prayers, medical inquiries/sympathy, or the self-centered “problem-solving” of the engineer? Hmmm.

    I know — It’s a stupid joke, and your post is much deeper than the joke. But I do think it points to a deeper problem. We tend to forget our humanity when we uphold STEM fields as superior to other fields. I do appreciate STEM. It can contribute greatly to the betterment of mankind if, and only if, we can remain humble and refrain from placing ourselves above others, if we can seriously and intelligently collaborate with those outside our fields. We both know this isn’t just a STEM problem — STEM is just the hero of our current culture — but a problem with any group of people convinced of their superiority.

    While I completely agree that the humanities sorely suffer in modern-day universities (bad profs, bad curricula, political motivations, ridiculously easy), I don’t think the true humanities are inferior to or less difficult than STEM. I love classical education, because it is both/and not either/or. We get too wrapped up in the humanities vs. STEM, and we fail to see the necessity of all of them together. Sure, one must eventually pick a life focus and specialize. But once we lose our humility in our own life focus, we lose perspective. We de-value others. We forget that we need a solid, broad background to prevent narrow naval-gazing.

    I know you aren’t arguing this in a black-and-white way, but I do find your post a little smug on the side of STEM majors and professionals. I actually agree with your last two paragraphs, but I don’t know if your conclusion has much to do with engineering, math, or science. I do not find them particularly more perceptive, insightful, or superior in life overall. In their fields, yes, but not overall. You know I have a STEM background from VT; so you can trust my analysis, but be wary of my twin. She has an English degree ;).

  6. I find this post to demonstrate a very limited and narrow view of the world. The assumption seems to be that “solutions” are objective, amoral things that don’t require higher level philosophical thinking. Sadly, the sciences have been used to create some of the most evil “solutions” thanks to the lack of well-formed, moral philosophies. I also have to agree that the doctor actually attempted the most helpful and moral solution. And while it’s just a joke, it’s worth pointing out that a priest’s role isn’t simply “empathy” (and many would have offered to pray and also offered a practical solution, perhaps one not so callous and self-focused as the engineer’s “get out of my way” solution :)).

    I also agree that the classics and STEM are not mutually exclusive. We really need to be trained in both tracks. You could make an equally compelling argument for majoring in “anything and English” (or philosophy). In fact, in recent years employers began to complain about VT engineering grads lacking the critical thinking skills and communication skills they love so much in those silly English majors. :) But what do I know? I’m an English major, and my profs were all yes-men :-P. (By the way, I was accepted into a special math and science high school for the gifted as a teen. Yes, you can be good at both English and STEM fields, and actually still choose to major in English because you see so much value in it. Those people exist. I too did not observe an extra measure of wisdom in those who chose the STEM track… just an extra measure of knowledge in certain technical fields).

  7. I also find it interesting that you are extolling the virtue of learning humility in the STEM disciplines, yet that is a philosophical concept Why does humility matter? That’s not a scientific question with a scientific answer. Just because a person is trained in a field with many concrete right-or-wrong answers does not mean they will develop the virtue of humility well or even know what that really is or why it’s so important. Certainly you’ve met a scientist or two struggling with dangerous levels of pride? You are using philosophy to argue that science is somehow superior to philosophy.

  8. Sarah and LT-

    Here’s one important thing I think you guys are missing: you see this as a STEM or humanities question, but that’s not really what I’m getting at. For me, it’s more of STEM or humanities while in college. And here’s the thing: anyone can pick up a work of great literature on their own at any point in their life and get quite a lot out of it. If you want to get insightful perspectives on it, that’s pretty easy to. Not only can you do that, but in my experience it’s hard to do any other way. Expecting a bunch of 18 year olds to be able to drink deeply from the well of great literature is a little misguided. Some great art is hard to really appreciate until you have had greater life experiences.

    But it’s very, very difficult–perhaps to the point of practical impossibility–for most people to pick up a textbook on calculus and teach themselves what a derivative is without having either the rigor of required assignments or the assistance of a teacher, TAs, and fellow students.

    Taken together, these two facts alone strongly suggest more emphasis on STEM while in school and more emphasis on humanities independently and throughout life. That’s my main point.

    And let me just add a couple of things to that.

    First, I am deeply skeptical of the notion that studying the humanities in college is actually going to broaden anybody’s horizons in any meaningful sense. Have y’all not been paying attention to the various shenanigans surrounding trigger warnings and the like? Here’s just one article form the last few days to underscore my point:

    Classical Mythology Too Triggering for Columbia Students
    Roman and Greek mythology “contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom,” students say.

    So, LT, you talked about “the true humanities” and “classical education,” but those options are not (for the most part) realistically on the table. “True humanities” are not really taught in college today. I’m sure you can probably find a way to get your own kids exposed to some genuine, old-school classics, but that’s not in any way reflective of what I’m criticizing. Seriously, who studies Greek or Latin as a routine part of a humanities or liberal arts education today? Nobody does. Tackling a really complex foreign language and reading literature from another culture and another time in another language would, I think, go a long way toward addressing my concerns. Your math is either right or wrong, well: so are your Latin conjugations. Great! But not only do we not expect kids to learn Greek or Latin these days, we don’t even want them to read the Ovid translated into English because it would risk “marginaliz[ing] student identities.”

    Which brings me to my last point (and this is a response to Sarah). You wrote, “Sadly, the sciences have been used to create some of the most evil “solutions” thanks to the lack of well-formed, moral philosophies,” but that’s pretty much exactly the opposite of the actual history. Charles Darwin was pretty careful to restrict the moral implications of his theories. He was careful to point out, for example, that natural selection isn’t an optimization process, and that therefore there is no sense in which a later species is “more evolved” than an earlier species (in the sense of being in some way superior). Natural selection is, for one thing, a satiation process and not an optimization process (the difference is this: optimization means that when a bear chases you, run as fast as possible; satiation means that when a bear chases you, you just have to run faster than the slowest guy) and for another it only succeeds in adapting organisms to their environment, which is a totally arbitrary target. Despite this fact, however, the term “evolution” has become synonymous with concepts of progress / improvement (which are in no way warranted) and that lead Darwin’s idea to be misappropriated for contexts like social Darwinism, eugenics, and so forth. And if you look at the early history of the 20th century, it wasn’t a bunch of scientists out there campaigning for fascism, eugenics, and racial purity. Nope, folks like Mussolini and later Stalin had the widespread, credulous support of the American intellectuals, which means mostly humanities professors, literary critics, playwrights, journalists, and so forth. The philosophical abominations that led to the worst abuses of science in the 20th century have, by and large, been spurred and rationalized by the philosophies that you get from professional humanities.

    So here’s my position: In an ideal world folks going to college would get a good dose of intellectual history and a smattering of great literature and maybe the requirement to learn a foreign language. Those are all aspects of humanities I think are vitally important. But that ads up to maybe 4 classes + however much language you want to add in.

    But we ought to also expect basic mathematical and scientific literacy out of folks. That means calculus, stats, a hard science (physics, chemistry, biology) and some economics too. If you get a degree from college that lacks those things? You didn’t exactly waste your time, but you did certainly waste an opportunity.

    Basically: I think everyone should get a BS instead of a BA.

  9. Oh, hey, I recently read a article that’s a little relevant to my point about humanities and scientific horror in the 20th century. Consider the story of George Orwell trying to get 1984 published:

    The manuscript then made its way to famed poet T.S. Eliot, who was director of the publishing company Faber and Faber at the time. Eliot wasn’t big on it, either — he sent Orwell a detailed letter explaining why he thought Animal Farm had totally missed the head of the ideological nail, admitting that the novella was very well-written but that Orwell was being a bit too hard on poor old Stalin, who maybe perhaps wasn’t so bad of a guy after all, you know? Eliot wrote:

    “After all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore are the best qualified to run the farm — in fact there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.”

    Thus, T. S. Eliot. He was, according to Wikipedia: “an essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic, and “one of the twentieth century’s major poets”” Notably: not a scientist. His attitude was entirely typical. He’s not an outlier.

    On the other hand, consider Feynman, an uncultured barbarian and physicist who constantly talks about how he never understood what was being said by philosophers or other intellectuals and yet concludes his autobiography with a long essay dedicated to the principle of epistemic humility. He wrote, for example:

    We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.

    He didn’t pick that up from philosphy classes (which he hated) or great literature (in which he apparently had little interest) but from the hard work of doing science. And his approach, too, is pretty typical. Consider Thomas Kuhn as another example, who was a philosopher but also a physicist.

    Look, I’m not saying that you can’t be humble if you’re an English professor. My dad is an English professor, and he’s also my hero and a model to me of intellectual integrity and has been my whole life. There are exceptions. And obviously there are arrogant physicists who do not learn the lessons of failure well enough.

    I’m just saying that our society is already far, far too heavily influenced by intellectuals with backgrounds in the humanities, and that a little corrective via calculus could do some good.

  10. Nathaniel,

    I liked your comments I found them thoughtful. I think your right on for people going to college should be going for a BS vs a BA.

    Makes me think that perhaps the government could corral more people into STEM fields by providing more financial benefits to people in STEM fields and less to those not in STEM fields.

  11. Well, I was talking about STEM vs. humanities in college as well. I am well aware of the sad state of humanities in colleges today. That’s why I said they sorely suffer. I would not encourage my kids to get a humanities degree in the vast majority of colleges out there. Sad, but true. But I’m not abandoning them either. There are great classics options out there, and I have been keeping tabs on them precisely for that reason.

    We agree on a lot, but we are almost the opposite in other educational opinions. Here’s my educational philosophy:

    Kids would benefit the most from a classical education (which includes humanities and STEM) in K-12. They need both. They need the moral and logical foundations. It is not wasted on them. It is a baseline — You spend your entire life pondering the big things and growing in character. You spend your entire life honing communication. You are absolutely right that you will get different life lessons from classics as a 30-something than as an 18-year-old, but you will be further ahead in the process if you have a foundation. My kids go to a classical school, and it is about as cheap as you get, a fraction of what taxpayers pay per child in public education. Many states in the West also have classical charter schools.

    My kids do learn Latin and Greek. They learn ancient Greek at home, because the Internet is a wonderful thing. We can now get children’s curricula for very low prices on almost anything. It’s pretty darn accessible if you care about it. Most people don’t care about it, though. And, like I said earlier, classical schools include the quadrivium, which is arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry. That is generally replaced these days with mathematics, hard sciences, and music. But we must learn the building blocks of the English language and Western thought (Latin, Greek, grammar, logic, rhetoric) just as much as we must learn the building blocks of the natural universe (math and science).

    As far as college, I am assuming this ideal classical baseline for a moment. I have a carefully tailored approach to college for my kids. Finances always underscore this, because I will be of little help likely. If my child is interested in grad school, I would recommend an undergrad degree based on that. For example, if they are fairly certain about medicine, I would recommend a classics degree. (Crazy, but true!) If law, I would recommend a BS. If they are interested in undergrad, but not grad school, I would steer them toward a more professional undergad major, like nursing. If not interested in college at all, I would steer them toward a trade and tailor that advice based on talents and goals. (Supporting a family means they would likely want a higher-paying, higher-skill trade.) I would recommend a BS for some paths, a classics degree for others, and possibly neither of those under different circumstances. For me, college is not about a prolonged childhood or extended vacation as it seems to have become these days. They need strategy and goals.

    What’s my point? I think it is really short-sighted to say that everyone should get a BS. I think you miss a major point of education when you put the classics off to free time and hobbies as an adult.

    I know that Darwin never intended for his science to be used in the horror stories of our century, but STEM folks are just not immune from philosophical error or even grave negative influence. If anything, their pride can more easily blind them. I encountered so many scientists and professors at VT and NAU who would rant (wrongly) about population control and religion and philosophy during class. Despite their fantastic STEM education, they were blinded by their philosophical leanings, interpretations, and errors. The worst part is that people were more likely to buy into their beliefs, because they were trusted scientists. They hold status and respect. They are “impartial”. We are all prone to those temptations. More science or math doesn’t appear to create morally superior or even more impartial people, in my opinion. I don’t trust scientists, engineers, or mathematicians any more than I trust other people. I’m going to take anyone’s background into consideration when they speak, but they don’t get extra points from me over a STEM background. It just might change how I question their statements.

    Back to K-12: I know most kids do not get a classical baseline anymore. There has been a resurgence in this model, even in public charter schools, and I would like to encourage the resurgence. But as far as my college advice to the average kid in America, I would also probably advise them to go into something more technical. The average public school hasn’t prepared them for anything else. Many students at VT couldn’t even write in complete sentences. Their school systems failed them, and a traditional classical degree would not be a good fit for them, especially if grad school was not on the horizon, while the humanities in most universities are a waste of time. In that, I agree with you.

  12. Yes, to clarify, I am not talking about your typical humanities department. I was actually privileged to encounter a fantastic set of English professors in college, but that’s not the case at many universities. Nor was I saying you can’t learn humility as a scientist… it would be just as silly of me to argue that you have to be an intellectual immersed in the study of philosophy to become humble as it is for you to argue that science is the superior place to learn humility. The virtues aren’t limited to any one field or group of human beings – it’s not even limited to religious people who make pursing virtue a life goal. But a nuanced and advanced discussion about the nature of humility, it’s value and importance and even the healthiest expressions of it don’t belong to science, but to philosophy and theology. There are many today who would argue in favor of all sorts of atrocities in the name of science (and who would cast off any notion that humility is important) because of their faulty philosophies and one of the best ways to counter those arguments is with a better grasp of philosophy…. because that’s where the problem originates.

    I also agree with LT that those in STEM fields can be additionally blinded by a false sense of objectivity… science has its limits and even its biases. What I am seeing here is a hint of the worship of the scientific study… it’s a common modern tendency to place too much faith – yes, I used a religious term on purpose – in science and technology. And to treat scientists and engineers as somehow above the falleness of man. Unfortunately, just as we all can encounter and hone virtue in just about any area of life, we are all capable of evil too. STEM won’t save us. Studying science, math and technology are worthy pursuits that yes, can offer opportunities to better society and grow in virtue. The humanities, when done well, are also worthy pursuits that can offer opportunities to better society and grow in virtue. We could spend decades swapping anecdotal stories of how either track resulted in good in a particular person.

    This discussion alone shows the need to marry philosophy, ethics and the humanities with STEM… we couldn’t even have this discussion without some grasp of all of these.

    As a side note… I work in a scientific field now. It’s very disheartening to see how often science is used to harm. The problems are complex, and from what I’ve observed, we need both science and a change in philosophy to turn the tide. Making advances in one area and not the other have not been very fruitful.

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