Being Wrong

As an engineer, and a wanna-be scientist, I’m a fan of both disciplines and I’m cognizant of the differences between them. I’m not talking about the educational levels or the organizational differences or the societal pecking order. Rather I think the real difference between them is a matter of perceived and actual risk.

What happens if we are wrong? That question is always in the back of an engineer’s mind. Or if it isn’t, it should be. And I’m not talking about saving your job for the sake of the mortgage bill or getting credit to help out you promotion prospects. No, I’m talking about what happens to people and property if we are wrong. What happens if the designer of that airplane wing was’t diligent in his calculations? What happens if that elevator engineer misses a decimal place? Even what happens if that structural engineer steps a bit too far into unexplored territory and uses new fasteners in that new building?

Some of our leaders here say that we engineers shouldn’t sleep well at night because of these kind of questions. And many of us don’t.

But I wonder what kind of questions keep scientists up at night. If an astronomer or theoretical physicist is wrong, what are the consequences? Is life or limb at risk? I doubt it. Reputation, maybe, and perhaps there is a risk of grant funding, but how many working scientists (outside of the health field) directly affect the general population in terms of risk to their lives?

I’m not trying to take sides here, but rather trying to ponder on how risk affects the thinking of engineers and scientists. I think the risk questions (including economic risk) constrain an engineer’s actions while the lack of the same allows the scientist to venture into the unknown knowing that the consequences of being wrong will not be severe or widespread.

I’m thinking that it must be nice to be in that position. What do you think?


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