Monday, March 15, 2010

Epistemology for Dummies, or, Where Do Engineers Come From?

My wife edits the breast cancer website, and every so often she feels obliged to take down scurrilous rumors by running them to their source and shining the light of day on them. The one she's working on right now says that bras cause breast cancer. Turns out that an anthropologist and his wife published a book in 1995 saying just that, but apparently basing it on nothing more than some hazy suspicions about restraining lymph and breast cancer rates in industrial societies (in which women tend to wear bras more). Judging by the fact that this couple now lives on sixty-some acres in Hawaii, a lot of people must have bought the book.

This is an example of the type of thinking that cannot help you build a bridge, or design a computer, or develop a cure for cancer that will work. It begins from a feeling or a desire, even, rather than from scientifically gleaned data. If bras cause breast cancer, then there's something you can do to avoid it: don't wear a bra! Wouldn't it be nice if it were that simple? And evidently, at least some readers of the book seem to think it is.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with how we know things. There are many ways of knowing, and I am not here to tell you that the scientific way—which means gathering carefully marshalled data, doing highly controlled experiments, and constructing theories based on reliable premises, all of this being a lot of tedious, difficult work—is the only way we can know things. But for certain questions, such as "do bras cause breast cancer?" the scientific way has proved itself to be better than the path taken by the aforementioned authors. I'm not sure what they did has a name, but let's call it the wish-fulfillment way. I'm also not sure that what they get out of it is knowledge—I'd prefer to call it a story. But it's a story that a lot of people want to hear.

If I were the kind of person who indulged myself in telling similar stories, there's a story I'd like to tell, and one that feels right to me. After doing or teaching engineering for some thirty-odd years, it seems to me that the kind of person who is good at engineering comes from a certain kind of background. This background includes, typically, a solid family structure (if possible, being raised by the person's biological father and mother), a culture in which few material things are taken for granted and actions are valued above words, and an atmosphere in which complex mental achievements are honored and praised. Up to the 1960s, these descriptions applied to most of the U. S., especially outside large coastal cities. But as average incomes rose and the culture changed significantly, this type of background became relatively rare.

Outside the States, however, especially in places where opportunities for higher education were strictly limited and highly competitive, these conditions still prevailed, or at least they did until recently. We are currently interviewing candidates for faculty openings in my engineering school. I haven't done a scientific study of the question, but I estimate that no more than 10% of the applicants were born in the U. S. A. All the rest are immigrants. I have no problem with this, because it's great for the immigrants and shows once again that America is the land of opportunity. But all the same, it's a curious phenomenon, and in my more pessimistic moments I want to explain it with the conclusion of this little story.

What if the blessings of modern technology and engineering lead inevitably after a generation or so to a population of individuals who are incapable of doing engineering? Instead, you get the kind of folks who will buy and believe a fuzzy-headed book about bras causing breast cancer. These kinds of people can still sell things. They can get retail jobs, or factory jobs (if there are any factories left), or they can even become good artists or politicians (especially politicians). But if on some fundamental level, they don't believe in the external, objective, stubborn, don't-care-what-you-think-but-that's-the-way-it-is-anyway reality that engineers have to deal with, they will not even consider engineering as a career, no matter how much money the National Science Foundation or anybody else spends on science, technology, engineering, and math education enhancement. And anyway, they wouldn't be any good at it if they tried.

In this dismal fantasy, the only reason we haven't run out of engineers yet is that we can still find people who are the products of cultures which haven't yet enjoyed the fruits of technology long enough to quit producing young men and women who can be engineers. But given enough time, and the spread of high-tech prosperity into enough places, we may run out.

There, that's my story that I don't exactly wish were true, but have often suspected of being true. Is it true? If I weren't an engineer, I might go out and write a fuzzy-headed wish-fulfillment-type book claiming that it is, and aimed at getting people all worked up about how bad it is and what we should do about it. But being an engineer, I know that it would take probably millions of dollars' worth of statistical, sociological, and longitudinal-study research even to come close to guessing about the truth of this idea. I have neither the support nor the skills to contemplate such research, so my story will have to just remain what it is—a story. The only way I can imagine finding out it's true without doing a lot of research is to let time pass and see what happens. By that time I will probably not be around to find out. But if it does happen, remember—you read it here first.

Sources: Pretty soon you should be able to read about bras and breast cancer at

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