Engineering Skepticism

Skeptic, as a word, has had a lot of different definitions and connotations in the past years and most of them become perjorative in the eyes of non-skeptics who seem to equate skeptic with cynic.  The debate over the definition of the word, and who is more deserving to use the word for self-identification, is still going on today.  From my perspective, there are two major camps: the scientific skeptics and the deniers who call themselves skeptics.

The former relies on scientifically received data upon which to base their conclusions.  The latter make conclusions and go in search of data or anomalies  to fit their beliefs.  As you can imagine, I hold with the scientific skeptics and the proven scientific method.

But I think there is another category, or at least I want to create one: engineering skepticism.  And no, this doesn’t lie halfway between the other two.  It is close to SciSkep, but I don’t think it is quite an offshoot of it.  At least not in the approach.  I think of it as the engineering approach to acceptance and rejection.

For example.  As I wrote about earlier on the ADE-651 bomb detector, SciSkep might develop double blind tests, collect data, test the hypotheses behind the machine, etc.  EngSkep would point out the lack of a power source, the cited interference of the operator’s mood on the results, and the implausible operating ranges and would reject the machine immediately.  Not because of testing data, but because of its clear unreliable nature.

Science and Engineering bring home the goods, as Carl Sagan said. Woo doesn’t. I’ll go a little farther and say that science and engineering have to be right, they HAVE to bring home the goods.  Science needs to be right eventually, through a slow process that self-corrects.  Engineering has to be right, right now.  It evolves, but it has to bring home the goods now, not later, and do so without mistake.  Engineering products have to be reliable or they don’t sell or they aren’t safe. And by reliable I mean that it does what it is supposed to do 99.99 percent of the time (or better).  So no decent engineer on a source selection committee would approve the ADE-651.  He wouldn’t have to wait for Science to catch up to know it isn’t reliable enough to consider.

So am I saying that if it works well that is enough for the EngSkeptic?  Well, not really.  Unfortunately, much of the Woo is in the realm of the body and mind and is very prone to subjective thinking.  A person may think that a homeopathic pill cured him, Science can show that it could not, and did not.  EngSkep can’t say anything about it.  On the other hand, I guess we could reject things such as prayer for an amputee – a leg has never grown back so prayers asking for it to do so are demonstratedly unreliable and are not worth doing (mental comfort aside).

So is EngSkep a shortcut to normal SciSkep?  Maybe.  If the first question we ask a suspected Woo topic is, is it reliable? we might be able to save a whole lot of effort of scientific investigation.

Does Astrology produce reliable data? No.  Toss it out.  Do psychics produce reliable predictions?  No.  Don’t listen to them.  Do Ufologists produce reliable evidence of UFOs? No.  Ignore them.  Do ghost hunters and their gadgets reliably produce evidence of ghosts? No.  Reject their methods.

So okay, maybe a shortcut.  And certainly not as rigorous as SciSkep, but do we really have the time to waste doing real Science on real Woo?  Let’s use EngSkep as the first hurdle.  Then, if the Woo passes, let Science take a crack at it.

I think I’ll have more to say about this soon.  What do you think?

Published in: on February 12, 2011 at 6:24 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] couple of my old posts talked about engineering skepticism (here).  I’ve been thinking more about it and came up with the following four tenets of ES.  Post […]

  2. It really depends on which scale you are working on, and I mean financially. The more expensive whatever apparatus you’re working with, the smaller you would like your margin of error to be. Take for a first example the first HOME computers. C’mon, early developers didn’t really expect their products to last too long: would it not crash at start up and, if one could type a text and save it, and do some simple calculations people would buy it, because the market was scarce. And early computers sold as vigorously as their contemporaneous conterparts. Computers that weren’t more than simple prototypes. The same observation applies for the the early videogames, and so on. I still remember tamagochis and similars that wouldn’t last for more than a few weeks. And still they sold and big money was made. So there are engineering projects that do not require such swiss precision to be successful.
    But precision also depends on which time frame you’re intending to work on, and this applies specially to the military: classic examples would be Project Manhattan, since they had the means and personnel to assemble it but the very nature of the war did not allow them the test of time, so they knew they would face a degree of risk. Also the Apollo 11 mission, when they were time constrainted to finish the project before the end of the decade.

    So let’s precipitate ourselves to take conclusions because even though ‘engineering’ may apply to many areas and various different enterprises one must keep in mind that it is still an amazingly broad term. Looking forward to hear from you.

    • let’s NOT precipitate *

      • more on this later

  3. Maybe base your discussions of Engineering Skepticism on a better example than the ADE 651. I’ve only just learned of this device through your blog, and having read the wikipedia entry I’d say you don’t have to be an Engineer to know the ADE 651 is bullshit!

  4. hi!!!

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