The Skeptical Engineer

I was attending a live podcast of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe ( and one of the questions from the audience asked about the seemingly preponderance of non-critical thinking in the engineering community. Specifically, the questioner was concerned about an engineer who was being used as an expert by some anti-evolutionists.

So how does skepticism and the scientific method fit into the engineering world? I’ll probably revisit this topic in the future since I think it is important to promote critical thinking, but for today let’s just look at the broad picture.

First, we have to recognize that the human brain is fully capable of containing two or more contradictory thoughts at one time. Yes, it causes some cognitive dissonance, but most people can deal with that pretty easily. Especially if the thoughts don’t overlap greatly. For instance, it is easier for an otherwise intelligent, say, businessman, to believe that the 9/11 towers collapse was a government conspiracy than it would be for a structural engineer. Likewise, I’d bet that it is easier for engineers to maintain a faith in a religion than it is for a scientist who spends more time contemplating the workings of the universe than many of us.

So do we need to be skeptical to be good engineers? Maybe not, in the traditional, wide viewpoint of the word. I am sure there are any number of good engineers who also believe the earth was created in six days, about 6000 years ago (I’m not one of them, BTW). With little overlap in the brain, the engineering probably doesn’t suffer too much.

But what concerns me is the underlying fuzzy thinking and the willingness to disregard facts. I understand that one can’t be logical about all things, but I think we should try to apply critical thinking in all aspects of our life, not just in our chosen profession. Otherwise it may start to be difficult to keep a solid wall in the mind between facts and belief.

Why go in that direction, some of you may ask? Because science and engineering work. Despite the Monty Python sketch, you can’t keep a building up on belief alone. Belief may be comforting, but it has nothing to do with the physical world in which we work. The more we practice critical thinking in all parts of our lives, there will be less chance of belief encroaching in our engineering decisions, and the better engineers we’ll be.

What do you think?


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