Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Nuts and bolts

The Watt steam engine from Wikipedia

Some ideas aren’t to be taken too seriously, but aren’t entirely frivolous either. This is one:-

I’m far from being the only person to be interested in the similarity between science and engineering. I’m thinking of traditional experimental science here, where scientists deal with bits of physical reality they can sample and manipulate. Making new stuff or pulling it apart to see what it’s made of, how it’s put together and whether we can make some more or make it differently.

Chemistry, biology, geology and genetics for example – these sciences seem to be soundly-based and successful. Their theories revolve around practical, testable ideas. How does this turn into that? Does that always happen when I do this to it? Why did my sample turn to brown sludge? Their activities seem to have a practical affinity with testing steel, concrete or combustion processes or any one of a thousand other things engineers do. Even manipulating DNA can be compared to engineering. What is this bit of DNA for? What does that bit do if we re-engineer it by attaching it somewhere else?

Other sciences have weaker links to engineering, being less firmly rooted in testable, material reality. Psychology, sociology, climate science and cosmology for example. Climate science and cosmology are perhaps less obviously members of this non-engineering group until you realise you can’t sample the climate or the cosmos, let alone re-engineer them or make new ones. Experiments are limited because scientists don’t have complete control over their samples or can’t take samples or can’t isolate them from other variables.

In my view this is an interesting enough distinction to group them with psychology and sociology. It isn’t intended to be any kind of pejorative classification – it is intended to highlight well-known practical difficulties and an important link between some sciences and engineering. A link that should perhaps be made stronger, even if it risks puncturing the self-esteem of a few scientists.

Of course these non-engineering sciences use logic, test their theories against events as they occur, make predictions, revise the theories that led to the predictions and so on. But it requires much discipline to avoid speculation, fudged arguments and collusion. Some scientists seem to understand the difficulties inherent in their field, but others obviously don’t: they seem to prefer speculation bolstered by collusion. We should listen to them with caution.

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