Sarah Sheard's Thoughts and Theories

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Economists and Engineers

I used to work for an engineering company whose head was an economist. I had a basic disagreement with him on what we engineers needed to do. He believed we should dress "professionally" (What's professional for an engineer? Jeans and a Dilbert shirt, right? No, he wanted Consultant-professional) and never look like we lacked anything or didn't know something. I strongly believed that, dress up or dress down, we had to focus solely on what value we provided to our customers. Do we have templates that they actually can use, and would these templates actually make their lives easier, and/or their products better? Can we help them implement changes that give them true dollar advantage over their competitors? To me, part of being a good scientist or engineer is knowing exactly what you do know, and what you don't know, and admitting the latter.

I have recently started reading my son's economics textbook (I never took an econ course myself). At one point I realized that there is a fundamental difference between economists (and let's put politicians in here) and engineers (and I'll lump scientists with engineers).

Essentially, economists have the power to affect reality just by saying things. E.g. if Ben Bernanke said at a press conference, "We are entering a depression," then listeners would go withdraw their money from investments to protect their own self-interest, and the economy sure enough would turn into a depression. (Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work the other way...I suppose economists have been so upbeat in their predictions for so long that we tire of them, and don't believe them.) Similarly, politicians who want to be followed need to look followable: dress in expensive clothes, and create an aura of invincibility.

Engineers, of course, cannot change reality by just talking about it, or by seeming to be a certain way. Confidence in what may or may not be true can work to their downfall. The engineers on the Challenger crew were pressured to say that launch was safe, even though many had their doubts. These doubts were downplayed and misinterpreted as "those engineers are always so gloomy." Well guess who was gloomy after the go-ahead for the launch was given. The engineers had done their job. They had put their hands over their ears to screen out distractions such as what people wanted to hear, and had done the cold hard unemotional analysis, and they came up with, Nope. But the implications of believing "nope" had political implications that the bosses could not live with, so they overruled them.

Ideally engineers (and by necessity, scientists) are not swayed by concerns about how their results will be taken. Ideally, and usually, they just go for what is true, and let others worry about how to spin it. Politicians of course cannot allow certain things to be said by people in authority, so President Bush will tell arctic scientists to shut up about global warming if they want to receive more funding.

I am definitely built to be an engineer, not an economist. Subtle I'm not. "Tact" is not my middle name. I feel safe pursuing the truth no matter what it looks like, who says it, or what clothes it wears.



  • Nice post. I found your blog via

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:37 AM  

  • Hi Sarah. I'm enjoying reading your posts. You have a very refreshing approach to what can be some dry material.

    Sadly, even scientists and engineers can try to "create truth" rather than honestly searching for and exposing truth. In fact, it takes a great deal of humility and integrity to do otherwise, particularly in areas where we feel very strongly. It's the emotional content that often throws us over the edge. We begin to say things with a little more forcefulness than our data really supports in order to get the point across. Or, we get a little promotional help from folks with a taller soapbox (like the media.)

    The problem with this, of course, is that those that depend on our analysis for decision making no longer have the un-biased information they require to make good calls. And, after a while, we lose our credibility.

    I can think of many domains where this has occurred, and the results are always sad. I'm an engineer too. I want to contribute to an improved world. I have found that the "the ends justify the means" pit has slippery sides. It takes a determined focus on personal and professional integrity to stay out of it.

    By Anonymous Paul Stoaks, at 3:55 PM  

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