Arnold Kling  

The Engineering Mindset

PRINT
The Topic du jour... Rojas Bleg...

Diego Gambetta and Stefan Herzog write,


Friedrich von Hayek, in 1952, made a strong case for the peculiarity of the engineering mentality, which in his view is the result of an education which does not train them to understand individuals and their world as the outcome of a social process in which spontaneous behaviours and interactions play a significant part. Rather, it fosters on them a script in which a strict ‘rational’ control of processes plays the key role (1952: 94- 102): this would make them on the one hand less adept at dealing with the confusing causality of the social and political realms and the compromise and circumspection that these entail, and on the other hand inclined to think that societies should operate orderly akin to well-functioning machines...“It is not surprising”, Hayek concluded, “that many of the more active minds among those so trained sooner or later react violently against the deficiencies of their education and develop a passion for imposing on society the order which they are unable to detect by the means with which they are familiar”

The reference is to Hayek's The Counter-revolution in Science. The paper is "Engineers of Jihad," which documents and tries to explain the high proportion of engineers among prominent Islamic radicals.

At a less highly-charged level, Hayek's hypothesis is consistent with what I call MIT economics, which tends to be much more comfortable with top-down, "engineered" economic policy. On Friday, when I spoke at a small session on health care in Philadelphia, one of my panelists commented that I had reverted to the "humanism of Swarthmore" rather than the engineering mindset of MIT.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the pointer.

Just as an aside, I think we are too easily fascinated with attempts to link beliefs to personality. It's sort of like our fascination with causal links between diet and health. A lot of the latter turn out to be bogus on further study. I suspect that a lot of the former do as well.


Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (12 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

I've been making this argument for a while now, that the mechanistic world view (commonly associated with engineers now, but at work in all reductionist-only scientistic thinking) is what has led us to socialisst ideologies. This simplifying world view is incapable of understanding the world in its true and full complexity, and leads people to, well, postmodern neo-Marxism here in the West.

Incidentally, I have read a paper recently that showed that students who go into engineering have the most naive episteomological beliefs. WHat is even more interesting is that while in every otherr field student epistemological beliefs (that is, beliefs about how one learns) become less naive, in engineering they become even more naive (that is, they believe evne more so that one only learns from an authority figure -- which may go even further to helping us understand both the jihadists and many other mechanist-socialists).

Steve Sailer writes:

The French term for it is "professional deformation." Every profession has their biases (including economists, by the way).

M. Hodak writes:

I'm not sure what the empirical research says about this, but most of the libertarians I know have, like me, an engineering background. I know that in my case, that mental discipline enabled me to grasp economic logic much more quickly than my "fuzzy-headed" friends in the humanities. Also, where I studied engineering at least, we learned that margins of safety have to be large precisely because our models represent a necessarily imperfect view of an uncertain world. In other words, our work is largely estimation improved by certain models, and much engineering skill is knowing which models to choose for which task in the humble awareness that each model is only good for a very particular aspect of the world under very well-defined conditions.

One more thing that engineers understand better than most people--failure is not necessarily a sign of bad engineering. If something never fails, it has been over-engineered. The key to good engineering is to design key systems upon which human lives depend so that when they fail, the odds of that failure being catastrophic are vanishingly small. Any idiot with an English degree and a blow-torch can weld enough steel together to build a bridge across a stream. The point of engineering is to safely get across the stream using the least resources. Engineering can be viewed as a fundamentally economical discipline.

Buzzcut writes:

As an engineer, I like systems that I can figure out.

Maybe this translates into other speres of life, outside of engineering.

I like well thought out and documented management systems, like Six Sigma, for example.

Religion? I'm Catholic, and I must say that I prefer parishes and masses that follow the missal. You can read right along. The mass is very structured that way.

Politics? I'm definately drawn to the conservative/ libertarian side, and am someone who thinks that if we could just set the system up right, with the right rewards and whatnot, things would run more smoothly as a society.

And I'm not at all drawn to toughy-feely, left-liberal arguments at all.

But would translate into becoming a suicide bomber? That's a stretch.

I'd put more weight on the argument that engineers are much more common in the developing world. It is a more prestigous profession. People who would go into law in the US go into engineering in the third world.

So it's just a coincidence.

Chris writes:

I've always been surprised by the number of engineers who endorse top-down economic policy. It's plausible that engineers seek intentional designs and system order.

However, I believe that engineers, at a very fundamental level, should be empiricists. As such, I think it should be sufficient to say to an engineer, "Yes, maybe a centrally planned economy seems like it should work, but data from the past century shows that's not the case. Free markets work better. End of story."

I should mention that I am an engineer and when I debate economics with fellow engineers, I always take the route of discussing data. It's also been my experience that such arguments are usually relatively successful. Maybe most engineers just don't know enough macroeconomics.

Troy Camplin writes:

Well, not all of us fuzzy-thinking humanities people are Leftists any more than all engineers are obsessed with authority. But neither does the exception negate the rule. There are psychosocial stages people go through, and it seems to go in a authoritative-libertarian-authoritiative-libertarian cycle, though we also see an increase in ability to understand complexity as we move up as well. This is linked to the fact that we cycle through group-thinking to individualistic-thinking as well. Too many humanities people nowadays are neo-marxist postmodernist collectivists. That's why you don't see the kind of art, literature, or philosophy come out anymore that we saw from the Renaissance to just after WWII. There are exceptions, just as there were exceptions during the otherwise not-very-interesting Medieval period of Europe (another time of mostly collectivist thinking). We'll see it again when we move out of the postmodern mindset.

Richard Schweitzer writes:

Surprising that no one seems to consider the basics of any conversion of information into knowlege ( in any of its aspects), in terms of perceptions of "relations."

Most knowledege is ultimately derived by perceptions of the relationships between bits of information. Those perceptions are further affected by the the particularities of the perceptions of the information in the first instance. See, The Sensory Order (Hayek).

In a very general sense, those whose perceptions focus on the the relationships among "things," physical forces, and factors find their place in Engineering, certain "Sciences, " and in the "making and repairing of things."

Another focus of perceptions is on the relationships of "forces" and of the factors that appear related to the generation of the forces. That is actually more similar to the first, above, than is generally recognized.

There remains the huge universe(s) of other forms of relationships, interactions, transfers of information, for which there is no single discipline; though in many social orders, it falls in the purview of Law to deal with the impacts on human life.

Reading Qtub, one may be led to observe the emphasis on concern to understand the relationship of "forces," divorced from any other aspect or forms of perceiving relationships. That in turn affects the perceptions of information, through a process of "selection."

R. Richard Schweitzer
s24rrs@aol.com

Heather writes:

As an engineer, I have to say that I question his assumption of causality between education and ideology. My thought on the matter is that a person who fundamentally enjoys a "right" answer, will be drawn to engineering, and in particular a person with a low enjoyment of interaction with others. From observation, engineering has a larger number of socially inept people than most fields. This would most likely result in a larger number of people who want to boil down social behavior into "right" and "wrong" with little room for nuance.

In short, a person dooesn't become radical because he is an engineer, he is already radical and chooses to become an engineer because it best suits him.

Rational Observer writes:

Troy,

First of all, it’s epistemological, not “episteomological.” Secondly, you blatantly contradict yourself with what you say here and what you claim over at zatavu. You claim here that the mechanistic world view leads to postmodern style thinking, but over at your blog you state that the opposite of this is true, that the extreme side of the “less naive epistemological beliefs” leads to postmodern style thinking.

Also, you claim that engineers have a simplistic world view, but you give no evidence of this. Your assertions about epistemology only pertain to what one accepts as sources of knowledge, but this has nothing to do with the views one has concerning the complexity of the world.

Maybe you should rethink your arguments and base them logically consistent premises. From everything I’ve seen you people in the humanities have difficulty doing that, but just this once give it a try.

TGGP writes:

Stephan Kinsella made the same point about Hayek and engineers here, and I disagreed with him, but unfortunately can't find the page I commented at and showed him data on the opinions of academic faculty by subject.

Razib has had some good posts on the subject.

David writes:

You can obtain a free copy of Hayek's book at this Web address:

http://www.archive.org/details/counterrevolutio030197mbp

Troy Camplin writes:

Well, the first one is clearly a typpo. These things happen in these kinds of forums.

Now, to address the actual issue, what I said is not inconsistent. One can have less naive epistemological beliefs and still believe in a mechanistic world view -- up to a point. The postmodernists accept the mechanistic world view as a description of the physical world as described by science. But while engineering types stop there, postmodernists go on to accept any other view of the world as equally valid (well, they claim to anyway). The success and acceptance of the mechanistic world view resulted in an acceptance of determinism by scientists, and the development of reomantic/idealist philosophies by artists and many philosophers in order to make room for freedom in opposition to the un-free world the mechanistic world view shows us. Kant posited this as a distinc noumenal and phenomenal world. Hegel sought to show how the two would eventually become unified with dialectics -- and Marx took Hegels dialectics, eliminated the philosophical idealism (but not the political idealism, of course, which is a different kind of thing), and posited dialectical materialism, bringing us back to the mechanistic world view, since Marx saw history itself as mechanistic and deterministic (we especially saw the mechanistic elements in the USSR). The postmodernists are all neo-Marxist-neo-fascists (they created a dialectical unification of the two) and are fundamentally egalitarian. They don't deny he mechanistic world view in the least.

Now, the fact of the matter is that accepting or not accepting a mechanistic world view has nothing to do with having more or less naive epistemological beliefs. Someone with more naive beliefs believes all knowledge comes from an authority -- as someone pointed out, that authority can be a book. As epistemological beliefs become less and less naieve, you move into a understanding that knowledge can come from more and more sources. This results into a development into postmodern epistemology, where it is blieves that any source is legitimate. Fortunately, this is not the most advanced epistemological belief, as the next one involves an understanding that many different sources can be valid, but that some are bette rthan others, and there may even be several that are best. Still, there is an acknowledgement that knowledge is not completely certain (except in the simplest kinds of knowledge, like mathematics), and that what we know can change, though that doesn't mean, as the pomos think, that all beliefs are equally valid.

So, as you can see, there was no contradiction in the least. What I said were corrolaries.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top