engineering a debate

Steven was previously mulling about a change in his comments policy, and today just pulled a post because it (apparently) triggered some rather heated debate. I’ve noticed that Steven in particular tends to attract a lot of this sort of comment abuse – perhaps a better term for it is “signal saturation” because unlike spam or trolls, this isn’t a noise problem, it’s too much signal.

One thing I’ve noticed is that these incidents always tend to occur in the context of an engineering discussion. Whether it’s the scalability of solar energy or the relative merits of liquid vs solid fuel for rockets, it always boils down to numbers. In contrast to engineers, we scientists tend to have less of an attention span, ending up on wild tangents rather than being able to focus on one topic long enough to disagree on fine details such as these. I wonder if these predilections are hard-wired into our career profiles.

At any rate, it’s because I don’t have people crawling over every word I post with rebuttals and counter-factuals that keeps my blogging fun. If I were in Steven’s shoes, I’d probably close comments entirely. As it is, I am thankful that my comment threads are pretty tame and invariably filled with interesting things and perspectives rather than nitpicking galore.

4 thoughts on “engineering a debate”

  1. 2 points to add…

    1) I have noticed during my ongoing career as an engineer, that the following adage is true beyond mere words: “Arguing with an engineer is like mud wrestling with a pig… Everyone gets dirty and the pig enjoys it.” (or however you want to run that one out, there are almost 30 variations.)

    2) When I play D&D with my friends are also engineers… never before have I seen such a wanton display of rules lawyering. If there is any loophole, mistype, or unintended combination, we find it… then argue about it for at least an hour. We’ll even argue over things we agree about. It is almost sad in a way. Fun, but sad.

    Oh, and finally… on the “…I don’t have people crawling over every word I post…” Oh yes, you do. The engineers are out there and we’re watching. Closely.


    Never forget…


    /whisper …we’re watching…

  2. One reason engineers are concerned about critical details is that unlike scientists, engineers have to be right. When we foul up, people can die.

    I’m not kidding about that comment: there are a lot of scientists who spend years or even decades looking for something only to conclude that it doesn’t exist. But if you knew the answer before you started, you wouldn’t need to do the research. The body of science is the result of all that research, including all the time spent following blind alleys.

    But with engineering, we don’t have the luxury of following blind alleys, and when a bridge falls and people are killed, we can’t say, “sorry about that.” Engineering by its nature is brutally pragmatic, and anyone who’s worked as an engineer for long enough becomes brutal about their pragmatism.

    Unfortunately, that can become a more general habit, and tends to add to the myth that engineers have poor social skills. (Which, it must be said, is true anyway for a lot of them.)

  3. actually, I never saw the thread, I didnt even know to whom Steven was referring. I’m deliberately generalizing, because I think its a pattern – maybe Steven feels more put-upon than the average blogger, and hence is more sensitive to vigorous nitpicking than most, because of how long he’s been doing this – but what intrigues me is the specificity of the topics on which this kind of thing occurs. I suppose theres an analogue in fandom (Picard vs Kirk! Chizu vs Sugar!) but thats more of a difference in opinion; these technical arguments tend to be more quantitative.

    Steven, I agree that the engineers have to actually get it right – its not always life or death, for example the guys who are actually building the LHC have to worry about asting taxpayers’ money and of coursebear the burden of the future of particle physics on their heads, an engineering mistake there would cost humanity itself.

    I dont think that theres a clear delineation between scientists and engineers either, theres more of a continuum, with the best scientists knowing the engineering basics and the best engineers with a firm grasp of theory, and these two groups act as intermediators between their more specialized brethren. In my field, MRI, all of us doing science are also pretty much required to know the basic engineering in principle of the system, because many times it is we scientists who need to exploit the engineering limitations to do the science – for example, engineers try to create a sweet spot of field homogeneity, and then scientists used those same coils that maintain that homogeineity to deliberately introduce inhomogeneities that can be read for new information. Its a delicate dance, and we stray into each others’ territory all the time.

    Still, despite the real-world overlap in job descriptions, there definitely is a difference in mentality and approach to issues. And that, I think, is at teh root of the debates that you find yourself embroiled in.

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