“Let’s not make this into a Science Project”

This is a phrase I’ve heard with increasing frequency in my career as an optical engineer, usually coming from the mouth of a manager with an engineering background. The context is typically either the beginning of an investigation into the cause of a significant anomaly, or near the completion of the development of a new technique of manufacture or verification testing. My reaction has always been one of disgust, followed by confusion. The phrase is used almost as an apology, as the real intent of the manager is actually to do some limited experimentation, but is used to indicate that a strong limit is to be set on the extent of the experiments. My confusion stems from not at all understanding what the manager means by the term “science project”, and why such a person would be using “science” as a derogatory term. I now believe I have an answer to my confusion.

Engineering is the practical application of scientific knowledge to produce material items of value for Man’s use. Engineering presumes the existence of science, and each engineering field relies upon the existence of one or more fields of science containing an understanding of the phenomena which the engineers will create and control to Man’s advantage. Most engineers have a respect for the science upon which their careers rely, though most would admit to either not having the depth of knowledge, or the interest, in pursuing a scientific career.

What would cause an engineer to have a disinterest in science? One aspect of the difference typically between an engineer and a scientist is the level of education completed. The term “scientist” almost always applies only to individuals who have obtained a doctorate; most engineers are not doctorates. Although the resulting inequality in academic background can cause arrogance on the part of the scientist, and a latent envy in the engineer, I do not think this is the primary source of the engineer’s disinterest in most cases.

Rather, there appears to be a prevalent attitude that scientists are overly “theoretical”, and are therefore somehow removed from the “practical” concerns of the engineer. Rephrasing this, engineers may see scientists as Rationalists whose analytical constructions do not fully apply to the “real world”. Scientists may conversely see engineers as Pragmatists who fail to fully understand the science underlying their empirical experimentation and tinkerings. (Of course, I am speaking in gross generalizations here – not all scientists and engineers relate in this manner – but I do believe this is the general trend).

And so, what we see here is yet another manifestation of the analytic / synthetic dichotomy originally promoted by Kant. The engineer who has implicitly accepted the division of knowledge along these lines sees Science (and more fervently scientists) as impractical, and believes only in what he can observe through experiment. Analysis is generally rejected as insufficient “proof” (truth obtained by reason alone can contain no knowledge of “things-in-themselves”), and the engineer seeks confirmation in direct experience. However, he then faces the problem of empirical uncertainty (truth obtained by observation alone can never be certain). Experimentation can never be sufficient to establish certainty – there always seems to be another test that could be (should be?) done.

It is the engineering manager that needs to confront and solve this apparent paradox. The epistemology he has come to accept creates the paradox – he fails to see the certainty that comes (and can only come) from a proper union of the use of theory and experiment – the use of the Scientific Method. What is needed in this situation is precisely a “science project”, because only a project based in Scientific Method can lead to an understanding of the phenomenon under consideration, and can avoid an infinite progression of meaningless experimentation. Instead of declaring this need, the manager makes an irrational appeal to limit the effort arbitarily. Far too often, the results are at best exuberantlywasteful, and at worst insufficiently misleading.

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