If engineers ran the world

Our anonymous blogger ponders the benefits of an engineer’s approach to information 

We are living in strange times where, out in the wider world, misinformation focusing on details taken out of context regularly shares space with lies and outright deceit.

I suspect that if engineers ran the world it would be a little more dull but altogether better.

By contrast it is the role of the engineer to take a holistic approach and to be scrupulous in the application of information, particularly with regard to its accuracy and validity. In fact, I suspect that if engineers ran the world it would be a little more dull but altogether better.

The current shenanigans in the halls of power, ably aided and abetted by the mainstream media, serves as a reminder of just how careful we have to be.

Even without any Machiavellian intent, it is all too easy to fool ourselves into interpreting information to support our own biased views. I am sure we have all been in the situation where testing of a new product has resulted in ambiguous results.

In particular I remember my work on an Advanced Airflow Widget, required to improve performance under load. Due to cost and time limitations we were restricted as to what we could do. I tried a demon tweak inspired by the inimitable Mr Bernoulli and it seemed to work, so I ran a number of tests which gave a repeatable improvement / deterioration. I gathered the great and the good for a demonstration but for some reason the results on this occasion proved to be less clear cut. As my superiors were getting a tad rattled by the fast disappearing timeline this avenue of investigation was resolutely brought to a halt.

Personally I would say they chose a path that ignored previous evidence because they were selectively only basing their decision on the one demonstration. I suspect they would say that I was wilfully seeing a pattern in what, with additional testing, would prove to be a temporary bias to an essentially random process.

Of course, standing back and taking a wider view, it could be argued that the problem was actually not building enough time into the project to develop the technology required to meet the challenging goals – or even just that unreasonable goals had been set in the first place.

I was reminded of all this recently by a journalistic piece about a new electric car. Much was made of this latest whispering-chariot’s range, speed and recharge time. Still lauded as an environmental saviour, this particular example demonstrated a specification that truly does make it a viable alternative to petrol cars.

“What though”, I thought, “of the battery? What of the sourcing of the raw materials, its predicted service life and disposal?” Until these problems are seriously tackled it is not a solution to our eco-worries, it is just a different problem. Even in areas that we engineers take a lead, it would appear that we still need to beware of spin and obfuscation.