All Points

Mr. Fix-It


The engineering mentality

By William Deresiewicz

November 11, 2012



There is an attitude towards politics that seems to belong especially to scientists, and even more, to engineers. You pick up whiffs of it on the discussion threads, in the blog posts and talks. It expresses itself, with the weary arrogance of the guy who fixes your computer, as a contempt for politics as hopelessly imprecise. The answers are obvious, the implication goes, or at least the route to them is. Public policy ought to be left to the people who know how to get things done: the scientists and engineers.

You can understand these feelings, to a certain extent. Scientists deal with hard facts and precise measurements. Engineers must get things right. The lump is either cancerous or not; the building either stands up or it doesn’t. The endless fuzzy muddle of public life is going to seem despicable to people who are used to pursuing their ends with clarity and rigor.

But society isn’t a building. Its parts are people, not struts or circuits. That is why a humanistic education is far more useful to the policymaker (and by extension, the citizen) than a technical one. Here are some of the things that the humanities, and the habits of alertness that they foster, will teach you: that people have different but equally valid perspectives; that the truth is not necessarily hard and precise; that judgments of value cannot be reduced to judgments of fact; that society will never be a smoothly functioning machine.

Science fiction, which appeals to the kind of person I’m talking about, and which is usually far more science than fiction—that is, the human complexity of fiction—tends to give us engineered societies that are way too orderly to be plausible as manifestations of human nature. Perhaps that is why our scientific visions often involve the transcendence of human nature. We either become machines, perfectly rational actors, or are replaced by them. Not for nothing does Mr. Spock remain the central figure of the science-fictional imagination.

I wrote a post a couple of months ago critiquing the idea that we are heading towards a multiplanetary civilization. One of the dissenting comments said, “humans have a lot to gain by exploring other places once we solve problems on Earth.” Yes—once we solve those pesky little problems. It is characteristic of the engineering mentality—whose representatives are so often male and so often adolescent, in spirit if not in age—to suppose that our fundamental problems are resolvable. The technologist believes himself possessed of superior wisdom. All he has, in fact, is expertise. Wisdom is not to be found on a slide rule; its formula is experience plus reflection. Politics is the management of human affairs, the never-ending calibration of interests, vanities, and corruptions. It depends on knowing, not how things work, but how people do.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.

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