There's nothing quite like coming face-to-face with the authors of the papers you've been reading. On Wednesday, I was sitting in the hall of FIE minding my own business (and the conference schedule) when Robin swept me into a nearby room and introduced me to Louis Bucciarelli. Before I could recover enough from the abrupt transition to phrase coherent questions about his book, Engineering Philosophy, which we had read excerpts from in my History & Philosophy of Engineering Education class, Billy Koen, author of Discussion of the Method, began to speak. I was blinking. These guys sounded an awful lot like their books.

Koen is an emeritus -- which is to say, retired -- professor, and he cut a poised figure in a dark suit and bold tie, with a forward lean and a melodic lilt in his voice as he spoke. He was eloquent, with a long list of credentials and some fascinating references and framings, and perhaps several years ago I would have allowed myself to be carried along by that and the fluency of his talk, but I found myself uneasy nodding along to "Engineering Method: What it is; What it isn't." I couldn't put my finger on it during the actual talk, so I sat down with the papers the talk had been based on afterwards to try and figure it out.

Koen's main definition of "the engineering method" has been revised a bit since the 2003 publication of his book. The current version:

The engineering method is the use of state-of-the-art heuristics to create the best change in an uncertain situation within the available resources.

In response to a complainant who offered that a horse gambler was also "using state-of-the-art heuristics to create the best change in an uncertain situation within the available resources," Koen's reply is effectively "ah, but those are horse gambling heuristics; we mean engineering heuristics." ("Debunking Contemporary Myths Concerning Engineering" by Billy Koen, to appear in the Springer series Philosophy and Engineering: Reflections on Practice, Principles, and Process.) And what are engineering heuristics? Heuristics engineers use!

Um. Circular definition is circular?

The gooblewhacker method is the use of state-of-the-art gooblewhacker heuristics as defined and practiced by gooblewhackers.

Might as well just say a more-to-the-point version, which is that the concept of "engineering" is socially constructed. It's not that I think that the definition of engineering method in terms of heuristics is vacuous; it's that I'm trying to see okay, sure, but what's all the fuss about? Engineers have and use and transmit rules-of-thumb for dealing with the world "our way," just like every other discipline does. Great. Done. Moving on?

The remainder of the presentation (and the "Debunking Contemporary Myths Concerning Engineering" paper) is based on... well, let's take a look. Of the 31 citations in the paper:

  • 6 are self-references (Koen citing himself)
  • 6 are history/travel/science TV shows or the websites of those shows
  • 5 are Wikipedia entries
  • 5 are other online encyclopedias and dictionaries

...and arguments like this.

The moderator reaches down and picks up a broken piece of the pipe and stays in a truly astounded voice: "This is a 4500 year old sewerage bath water collection pot chard." And then somewhat later in a voice over, "...showing the extraordinary skills in engineering and planning." On this evidence alone, surely we should admit there were engineers in ancient India.

Maybe there were engineers in ancient India. Maybe not. We can discuss the criteria used for determining whether an ancient work should be counted as engineering. But I don't think "television announcer said so" counts as a valid criterion, regardless of how truly astonished their voice was when they said it.

Other evidence admitted:

  • The History Channel documentary was titled "Engineering an Empire: Egypt."
  • Dr. Kent Weeks (in the above documentary) uses the word "engineering" to describe the work of the ancient Egyptians.
  • Dr. Zahi Hawass (also in the same documentary) says the egyptians were "the pepole who invented engineering."
  • Dr. Hawass has expressed this sentiment in "numerous documentaries produced by a wide variety of organizations."
  • A Wikipedia article claims that "Engineering has been an aspect of life since the beginnings of human existence."

Historical documentaries are interesting, but they don't automatically make for watertight arguments. We (well, Koen) are the ones labeling these feats as "engineering" after the fact, because we want to "claim" it with our flag. I get the feeling that Koen is trying to pass subjective opinion off as indisputable fact by crowding citations into the paper (something I wouldn't even let a first-year student get away with). If "proof by historical figure" counts, then I should be able to publish a bunch of statements now, go become famous, and leave a time capsule with instructions to my intellectual descendants 100 years hence to cite specific statements in my papers as "proof" that what I said was true. I don't think anyone would let me get away with that, though.

I don't think Koen's wrong. I just don't necessarily think he's right; he's using these stories and quotes and thoughts to build an image of engineering that he wants to have, but if "engineering" is socially constructed, then other constructions must be admitted as well -- which you can't do if you claim your view as indisputable fact.

It's appropriate to characterize a social construct as tending to encompass certain areas and practices and people at a given point in time; it's not that it should mean what it does, or will mean what it does forever, but that we tend to associate the term with some things (process! technology! middle-class white males!) more than others (bread! clouds! indigenous Australian tribe elders!)

And here I falter and halt; the paper left no room for discourse, and I have used my (flagging and sleep-deprived) energies in an awkward attempt to create a small one. It doesn't help that I can't link to the actual paper here (it's not online) and I do not know how to deal with this without violating copyright and Fair Use laws.

Where have I stumbled? Where would a stronger person have continued the critique?