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“The” Scientific Method

by Steven Novella, Sep 21 2009

Or – Why are there so many engineers on the list of scientists who doubt Darwin?

At a recent live SGU show (at DragonCon 2009) a questioner asked why it was that so many of the scientists who have added their name to the list of those who doubt Darwin were – and then I cut him off and finished for him – engineers. He was not the first person to make this observation. (You can download the list here: http://www.dissentfromdarwin.org/download.php)

First, on a separate note, this list has been the focus of much ridicule because after years of scouring the globe they have only managed to come up with 700 scientists willing to sign the list. And, whenever they add scientists to the list they boast that the number of scientists dissenting from Darwin is growing, as if the percentage of scientists is growing, and therefore the scientific community is moving away from evolutionary theory (which they tellingly equate with Darwin). No – they just added another buffoon to their list.

Also, I have to point out that the National Center for Science Education, to parody the silliness of this list, launched Project Steve, and have now listed 1,107 scientists named Steve (or some variation of Steve) who support evolution (and of which I am a proud member).

But back to my main point – why so many engineers on the Doubting Darwin list? This could be just confirmation bias. I confess I did not go through the 700 names, count up the engineers, and do statistical analysis, comparing the percentage to the background rate of engineers among scientists. If someone has the time and inclination to do this, please send me the stats and I will happily steal them from you – I mean give you full credit for this important scholarly work.

If it is true that engineers are over-represented on the list, what are we to make of it? (Please ignore my prior recommendations to avoid speculating about the cause of phenomena you have not first verified.) In any case I think there is an underlying principle that may offer insight.

The problem comes from assuming that there is one scientific method, or a limited set of methods by which science is done. I know that referring to “the” scientific method is often nothing but a convenient shorthand, not meant to be an accurate description, but it may also reflect an inherent bias. The reality, rather, is that there is a host of methods that various disciplines use under the broad umbrella of science. As long as you are testing hypotheses against reality, you are probably doing science (not necessarily good science, but science none-the-less).

Most scientific disciplines use a subset of scientific methods, and it is a mistake by the practitioners of any one scientific discipline to assume that they are therefore experts in all of science. I see the folly of this assumption most often when the field of expertise is most distinct from the field of speculation.

For example, I have read astrophysicists comment naively on the practice of medicine; biologists on the collapse of the world trade center on 9/11, and doctors and engineers on the plausibility of evolution – all with embarrassing results. The probability of folly probably increases as the disparity in disciplines increases – which leads to a plausible hypothesis about engineers and evolution.

Engineers (as an engineer recently pointed out to me) are involved with designing systems that behave predictably according to reliable principles and calculations. Engineers are pretty good at predicting, for example, if a bridge with a particular design will collapse under a certain load. This top-down process of design within predictable parameters is probably as far as you can get from the bottom-up evolution of biological systems with all their messy complexity and variation. Evolution is also a hist0rical science – it is about reconstructing what happened in the past, and relies upon inferential methods that the average engineer probably does not need (an exception might be forensic engineers – if that is an actual term…wait, I guess it is – who have to reconstruct why a plane crashed or a building collapsed).

I would also add that a particular scientist does not necessarily understand other sciences – but they may. In my experience many working scientists are also amateur science enthusiasts outside their field of expertise. Their experience as a scientist probably gives them a huge head start in understanding other sciences, but does not give them automatic expertise. Those who understand the distinction, like Carl Sagan for example, can become a true science polymath.

What does all this mean for the average skeptic? We do need to remember to avoid the argument from authority – that a particular claim is likely to be right or wrong because of the credentials of the claimant. However, there is some legitimate authority to be had in the scientific community as the consensus opinion is more likely to have been vetted by logic and evidence and not be quirky or biased. However, only the consensus of appropriate expert opinion is relevant, and the opinion of scientists outside their area of expertise should not be looked upon as carrying any authority.

Further, I think it is critical for skeptics to realize that there is a wide variety of methods used by scientists of differing disciplines. We need to avoid the parochial opinion that classifies sciences as “hard” or “soft”, or artificially limits science to a subset of methods. Such attitudes cause confusion over the real demarcation between science and pseudoscience – confusion happily exploited by deniers and pseudoscientists.

So if engineers are actually overrepresented as doubters of Darwin (a hypothesis awaiting confirmation or refutation) it likely reflects a generic problem of too narrowly conceptualizing science, rather than anything unique to engineers (by which I mean if you are an engineer – do not e-mail me).

64 Responses to ““The” Scientific Method”

  1. doofus says:

    Doing a quick perusal of the list, my favorite so far is:
    Lowell D. White: Industrial Hygiene Specialist

    What the hell is that?

    • BrerScientist says:

      A industrial hygienist is someone who keeps scientists from poisoning themselves or their coworkers. They do things like decide what kind of protective equipment is required, measure levels of sound, chemicals, etc. in the work environment, etc.

  2. Adam Slagell says:

    I can certainly see some obvious reasons an engineer might like the idea of an “intelligent designer”.

    • Adam Samuels says:

      The watchmaker argument made by the creationists would be a good argument to get the agreement of enigineers.

      Now just need to make all engineers on that list read The Blind Watchmaker!!

  3. teacherninja says:

    Is there a clearinghouse that keeps stats on what we know scientifically and what the scientific consensus is on any given topic? Would it be the NAS or what?

    Thanks.

    • MadScientist says:

      No, you have to put in a huge effort just to stay current in any particular field. Also science is rarely ever about consensus, in fact consensus is an entirely useless and alien notion in many scientific fields; what is important in most cases is that ideas can be tested. Sometimes it is very difficult to come up with a means of testing an idea and in such rare cases you tend to get various camps. An example from physics would be the “light wave” vs. “light particle” groups; that was not an issue to be resolved by consensus, only by testing – but it took a long time for tests to emerge and to convince people that it was ridiculous to imagine that wave behavior and particle-like behavior were mutually exclusive.

      • Max says:

        So now the scientific consensus is that wave behavior and particle-like behavior are not mutually exclusive. Great. Is there a clearinghouse that keeps stats on this stuff?

  4. Adam Samuels says:

    I am an engineer and I do not doubt Darwin….(oh and I’m not called Steve or some variation of Steve!).

    I can see how your explanation; of the top down nature of engineering could influence engineers to doubt evolution by natural selection could be true from discussion amongst colleagues.

    Personally, as the author states above, I see myself as an amateur science enthusiasts outside my field of expertise. I am very interested in, and have read a great deal on the subjects of, Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, String Theory, Cosmology, Evolution, Psychology, Human History etc…

    The fact that I am well read in fields other then engineering allow me to discuss and even explain some of the mechanisms of evolution to colleagues who, very obviously, are not well educated on this subject, based on my discussions it does not surprise me that the list shows high proportion of engineers.

    I sometimes joke to my religious friends that a mechanic is to a doctor as an engineer is to god!

  5. Jeremy Reed says:

    Steve and Adam Samuels,

    Speaking as an engineering Ph.D. student, the reason that engineers may be over-proportionate on the list of evolution deniers has nothing to do with a top-down or bottom-up approach. Understanding both processes is critical to engineering (in fact, we often need a hybrid between the two, which requires feedback). For example, in designing a language recognition system, one might first detect low-level articulation parameters to detect phonemes or syllables to make an inference on the language.

    In truth an engineer is a scientist (at least, at the Ph.D. level) and the one discipline can inform the other. For example, development in speech and music systems has spurred new hypothesis about how our auditory system is structured. It was an engineering philosophy that led to the understanding of a neuron (at least, at the simple Hodgkin-Huxley level). Asking whether you are an engineer or scientist is really just semantics. As I look at the list, I do not see a higher level of engineers or scientists; rather, it appears that it is just a list of people who are (for the most part) not biologists.

    There is also less of a ramification for an engineer to state a dissent from this particular opinion. I recently found out that one of the people used to be an lecturer at Georgia Tech (a school that is on the same level as MIT, Stanford, Michigan, and Illinois). I bet that he has never been questioned by another faculty member about this belief. Few would even know because it outside their area. So the real reason can be boiled down to a couple reasons as to why there might be more engineers:

    1) It’s outside their scope.
    2) No one can criticize their assertions.
    3) Being an engineer (or scientist) does not mean you are good at it. People who go to ITT Tech call themselves engineers and people can get degrees from chiropractics and people will refer to them as learned.

    • Max says:

      The question is why more engineers than scientists doubt Darwinian evolution. A trait that applies equally to both engineers and scientists doesn’t answer the question.

      “It’s outside their scope.”

      It’s also outside the scope of scienses like Physics, Astronomy, and Geology.

      “Being an engineer (or scientist) does not mean you are good at it.”

      Do bad engineers outnumber bad scientists?

      • Jeremy Reed says:

        I’m not sure that there are more engineers that are deniers than scientists. A list such as this is hardly a decent survey.

        Further, when I say “scope” I am not just referring to subject matter. There is also a difference between being involved in research (e.g., academia) and simply practicing (e.g., design bridges).

        In the same light, one can look at medical doctors. There are those that complete their training and then do the minimum requirements to keep certification. Some are quacks. Unlike physics, chemistry, and biology, there is a much more lucrative market for people who only possess a Bachelors. If you have only a bachelor’s in physics, you are looking at about $10,000-15,000 less than if you have only a bachelor’s in computer, electrical, or mechanical engineering.

        The same is true in the medical community. I bet, if you polled a lot of non-academic doctors, you’d be amazed at the proportion of evolution deniers.

      • Max says:

        The Darwin-doubting MDs must serve as professors of medicine. The rest must hold PhDs, but don’t have to be involved in academia.

  6. Dan says:

    My wife is an engineer, and in one of the (Canadian) Agriculture Engineering newsletters that she receives there was a letter from an engineer saying evolution was “just a theory”, and it’s all wrong, etc., etc., by an engineer. This was in a newsletter that addresses engineering and academic issues and standards. Why would someone feel that this opinion (probably coming from someone who never even took biology classes in school) was relevant to engineering? What’s worse is why the editors would run a letter that obviously makes the engineering society (and school) a laughing stock. The answer is because they feel entitled, by their training in a completely separate area. The same applies to MD’s, chiropracters, etc.

  7. Dan says:

    “a generic problem of too narrowly conceptualizing science, rather than anything unique to engineers”

    I have an alternative hypothesis, and it is based on pretty solid facts: most engineers are barely exposed to actual science during their training, let alone receiving science training, or even the philosophy of science. In many universities, an engineering student can’t even get credit for sciences such as biology, especially the higher-level courses that would actually be science and not a general introduction for non-specialists.

    • Jeremy Reed says:

      That is not true – at least from any ABET accredited school. At a minimum, any ABET accredited program must have at least a year of training in science, including experimental experience. For example, at my school, you must take two semesters of physics, one semester of chemistry and one science elective (biology, environmental, more chem/physics). In addition, any engineering discipline must be exposed to science and mathematics. For example, a common electrical engineering elective is thermodynamics (required for other engineering disciplines). If your program does not require these, at a minimum, then it’s not an accredited engineering program.

      • Crox says:

        Our resent ABET accreditation visit only required Chem and two semesters of Physics with labs for each (I never had Bio, unfortunately). Either way splitting hairs, I don’t think one semester of entry level science courses exactly makes us experts in the field. Beyond that undergraduate engineering programs are becoming more technical and geared directly toward industry requirements almost like trade schools (sorry to tell you), not theoretical sciences. Say what you will, it is a vastly different sort of thinking and many working engineers probably have little interaction with “the” scientific process.

      • I teach philosophy at one of the big technological universities. I spend a lot of my working life helping engineering students meet their ABET-mandated ethics requirement. I’ve talked to any number of them about their reasons for becoming engineers. For a few, engineering is part of the broader fabric of scientific understanding. For many, though, it seems to be a way to get a secure, prestigious job and make lots of money while solving the kinds of technical puzzles that appeal to them. My impression is that they are being trained for a profession that has a fairly narrow conception of itself and a culture that fosters a kind of microscopic vision. Sometimes, it seems it’s all I can do to get them to admit that they will be working with actual people, which will entail some ethical responsibility on their part.

        (And if there’s a list somewhere of Philosophers for Darwin, could I be on it? Would it help?)

  8. miller says:

    Another proposed contributing factor: Engineers tend to be more politically conservative than scientists in general. I’m not going to judge their politics, but it does mean that they are more likely to trust conservative sources, who are more likely to doubt evolution. Thus, engineers are just a little more likely to doubt evolution.

    • Jeremy Reed says:

      There is no evidence to support this claim. Also, beliefs about the role of government has little to do understanding of science (e.g., Michael Shermer).

      • Max says:

        A Pew poll found that 41% of scientists don’t believe in a higher power, and 81% lean Democrat. Do you think the numbers are that high for engineers, or do you think it has little to do with doubting evolution?

        http://people-press.org/report/?pageid=1549

      • Jeremy Reed says:

        It’s possible. Further, define scientist. I am a scientist as are all engineers with a Ph.D. We form hypothesis, conduct experiments, and report our results in a peer-reviewed format.

        Further, that is irrelevant. Belief in a higher power is not incompatible with understanding and agreeing with evolution. I could easily see engineers being largely liberal. Hell, I’m in Georgia and it’s probably 50-50. If it’s 50-50 in the Bible Belt, what do you think it is at MIT?

  9. Brian M says:

    If the “argument from design” holds sway with the engineers, it should actually disgust them. I can see them saying “how did an engineer fail this badly!? He should be stripped of his professional designation immediately!”.

    • Max says:

      I know a Creationist who’s worked on Artificial Intelligence for decades and says we’re not even close to matching the capabilities of a brain and never will be.

  10. Mchl says:

    I am an engineer and I think Darwin was wrong… about some aspects of his otherwise pretty solid theory. ;)

    I’ve been exposed to a lot of biology science as a kid due to both parents being M.Ds. I must try to sound my colleagues to check what do they think about evolution.

    Another thought: I wonder if there are other issues on which for example biologists are more doubtful than engineers… Moon landing hoax perhaps?

  11. Max says:

    However, only the consensus of appropriate expert opinion is relevant, and the opinion of scientists outside their area of expertise should not be looked upon as carrying any authority.

    Sometimes, an “outsider” can notice things that the echo chamber of insiders miss, like the economist who discovered that psychologists researching cognitive dissonance may have fallen for the equivalent of a Monty Hall problem.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/science/08tier.html

  12. Max says:

    an exception might be forensic engineers who have to reconstruct why a plane crashed or a building collapsed

    Nobody gets the design right on the first try, so every engineer has to reconstruct why his design didn’t work as intended.

  13. Thomas Nickledock says:

    I have a simpler explanation. Lots of engineers (not all of them, but I’ve known quite some who got their degree and fit the following description) know just how to pass tests, do some manipulations on equations, plug some numbers in, and that’s it. They were never taught to follow any kind of scientific method at all, and never needed to, so the whole question of whether particular subclasses of scientific method are less pro-Darwinian may not even arise.
    Of course, I must hasten to add that if you read this, you should take good care to not believe a word of it, because my sample size is small and it’s all anecdotal anyway. But I’d still like to see a study where people are forced to apply the scientific method to a problem outside of their domain and see how well they fare.
    I have a hunch the mathematicians will do worst, because I know some who believe in homoeopathy, another who is afraid of magnetron-ovens, and so on… maybe it’s because maths doesn’t need input from reality. But please reread my disclaimer.

  14. Mike K says:

    As a proud engineer and ardent skeptic, I am happy to see others who object to this slander against my profession. Anecdotally among the dozen engineers I know well enough to discuss creationism, none would be so foolish as to cross the Steves.

    A good engineer should know that the equations and methods he or she applies, no matter how reliable or accurate they may be, are nothing more than models we use to simplify our understanding of physical reality so that we can use the consequences of that reality to our advantage. As an engineer, at least in my field of chemical/pharma engineering, biases in data and the limitations of knowledge have real world effects ($ and lives) in a much more immediate way than for a laboratory scientist.

    Steve, I think you are dead wrong on this specific point: in my experience, historical reconstruction based on limited and messy data is a process that engineers engage in every day. You may be 99.99% sure that a bridge will stay up for 50 years, but the really interesting part is figuring out why it fell (and most disciplines have nowhere near that kind of reliability, so you have to do detective work like that all the time).

    A bad engineer thinks that the perfect design can fix anything, a good engineer understands that his solutions are usually barely adequate for the problem at hand, are arrived at in an iterative, explorative process that is contingent on the available resources and existing infrastructure, and that they are not the only way it can be done (shades of evolution, anyone?). The humble engineer will recognize that the important part in that process is not the person doing the designing, but the quality of the process itself of generating ideas and testing against the benchmark of reality. A lot of clever new engineering methods actively try to take advantage of the bottom-up, unpredictable, massively parallel process that most rational engineers can recognize as the engine driving evolution.

    So with only a post-hoc, anecdotal argument to counter another, I eagerly await a more qualitative analysis of the correlation between engineers and ID.

  15. Max says:

    Engineers are pretty good at predicting, for example, if a bridge with a particular design will collapse under a certain load.

    Engineers aren’t that good at predicting, for example, if a drug with a particular design will cause certain side effects. So they do extensive testing, trace any problems back to the design, and try to improve the design. When it comes to drugs it’s science, but when it comes to bridges it’s not?

    That said, engineers built the pyramids back when science left something to be desired.

  16. Max says:

    Engineers are pretty good at predicting, for example, if a bridge with a particular design will collapse under a certain load.

    Engineers aren’t that good at predicting, for example, if a drug with a particular design will cause certain side effects. So they do extensive testing, trace any problems back to the design, and try to improve the design. When it comes to drugs it’s science, but when it comes to bridges it’s not?

    That said, engineers built the pyramids back when science left something to be desired.

  17. tmac57 says:

    Interestingly, I found only nine, Steve/Stephens on the list.

  18. geek says:

    I counted over 115 engineers (I excluded Bio Engineering). I have converted the list into an OpenOffice spreadsheet as I couldn’t find one available anywhere. I’ll send it to Steve Novella if he wants it.

    • miller says:

      What would be great is if you could compare this to the proportion of engineers in the Steve list.

      • Max says:

        The Steves must “have a Ph.D. in biology, geology, paleontology, or a related scientific field.” Although some have just an M.D.

    • Max says:

      Only 115 out of 700? I counted over 110 people with “biology” in the title, including microbiology. Can we call this myth busted?

  19. Steve says:

    As a Steve, engineer, and believer in science (evolution included) I wonder if you can get any statistically significant information from a sample of 115 out of 1.5 Million engineers. (A quick google search find there were 1.5 Million engineers in the US in 2006). With that small a sample I wouldn’t care to make any kind of generalization about engineers belief in evolution. Unless it is to say the vast majority of engineers believe in evolution or at least if they don’t believe they can’t be bothered to sign that list.

  20. Dionigi says:

    Being an engineer does not require one to be aquainted with evolution and does not mean that one is built with an enquiring mind to seek the truth or recognise when you are being fed rubbish

  21. Max says:

    The position that the Darwin-doubters accepted is actually pretty weak:
    “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

    It’s not exactly Creationism. In fact, as Ken Miller pointed out about a similar statement, it ought to apply to any science. Careful examination of the evidence for ANY theory should be encouraged. But I doubt that this is what the signatories had in mind.

  22. Kevin says:

    Max wrote:

    “Careful examination of the evidence for ANY theory should be encouraged.”

    I agree with this totally, with one small caveat Max. I don’t think as Skeptics/Scientists, we should spend the time carefully examining every theory/claim that has no scientific method or study behind it. That would simply be a waste of time.

    However, I would like to see the Skeptical movement focus more on scientifically refuting published research and current experiments. That means we need to pick our battles wisely and become intimately familiar with current “woo woo” research studies. Then we need to engage the “woo woo” researchers and be prepared for a point by point scientific debate.

    Unfortuantely, I dont see a lot of this approach lately. In my opinon, there appears to be more philosophizing than anything else. I am a Skeptic at heart, but I am concerned with some of the Skeptical effort as of late. See my long winded rant here if you like: http://skepticblog.org/2009/08/25/everbodys-an-expert/

    Regards,

    Kevin

  23. Coridyn says:

    The Daylight Atheism blog has a simple breakdown and analysis of the DI’s petition members:

    http://www.daylightatheism.org/2009/05/cfac-steve-statistics.html

    It compares it to the list of scientists in Project Steve and includes a description (and source code) explaining how the numbers were calculated.

    • Max says:

      Excellent. Here are the ratios of the Darwin-doubters to Steves, by discipline, ranked by ratio.

      Biology: 0.28
      Geology: 0.51
      Physics: 0.73
      Medicine: 0.90
      Chemistry: 1.5
      Mathematics: 1.7
      Engineering: 2.3
      Other: 0.70
      ————
      Total: 0.70

      As expected, Biology is at the top, Engineering is at the bottom.

      And I suspect that their parser counts Chemical Engineering as Chemistry.
      http://www.daylightatheism.org/files/dilistparser.pl

      • Max says:

        Their category “Geology” is more like Geoscience, because they stuck Geoscience and other sciences into it.

  24. Todd says:

    What I don’t understand is why is OK to break out the sciences by field, but lump all the engineers in one group. Biologists, physicists, geologists are all scientists. To be realistic you’d have to compare all scientists to all engineers, or break the engineers by area of expertise mechanical, electrical, civil, etc.

    What I find most disturbing about the list is the number of times the word professor appears. Why are there so many educators on the list?

    • Max says:

      Creationists claim that “scientists” doubt Darwinian evolution, so it’s interesting to see how many people on their list really are scientists and what scientific fields they’re in.

      When I group Biology, Geoscience, Physics, and Chemistry as Science, the ratio of Darwin-doubters to Steves is 0.52, which is much lower than the 2.3 for Engineering.

  25. Andrew says:

    Maybe there are just more Engineers in the world than other types of Scientists.

    • Max says:

      That’s why my analysis above takes the ratio of Darwin-doubters to Steves in each discipline, rather than taking the ratio of Engineers to Scientists.
      In other words, for every scientist who doubts Darwin, there are two scientists on the list of Steves.
      Yet, it’s the reverse for engineers: for every engineer on the list of Steves, there are over two engineers who doubt Darwin.

      • Todd says:

        To become a NCSE Steve you need a Ph.D or MD. The other list isn’t quite so selective (http://ncseweb.org/taking-action/want-to-be-ncse-steve) The vast majority of engineers don’t have Ph.D’s. The lower percentage of engineers on Project Steve is most likely a result of education requirements, not belief systems. The bar is just set a little too high for us poor engineers.

      • Max says:

        Both lists are selective.

        http://www.dissentfromdarwin.org/faq.php

        “Signers of the Scientific Dissent From Darwinism must either hold a Ph.D. in a scientific field such as biology, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, computer science, or one of the other natural sciences; or they must hold an M.D. and serve as a professor of medicine.”

      • Max says:

        Actually, according to the eligibility requirements, there shouldn’t be any engineers or medical doctors in the list of Steves.
        “Do you have a Ph.D. in biology, geology, paleontology, or a related scientific field?”

        Evidently, it’s not strictly enforced, but it may discourage engineers and medical doctors from signing up.

      • Todd says:

        I parsed the NCSE Steve list. Of the 1111 Steve’s, 33 did not explicitly have a (Ph.D) Doctor of Philosophy listed by their name. About 3%. The doubter list is not quite so complete. I counted over 33 non-Ph.Ds before getting past the second page. The Project Steve makes a terrific point about how ridiculous the doubter list is. For me it’s difficult to draw any conclusions other than that. How was Project Steve marketed? There may not have been much of an attempt to present this to the engineering community.

  26. Max says:

    Two of the four quotes on their website are actually expressing doubt about abiogenesis, not Darwinian evolution.

    http://www.dissentfromdarwin.org/scientists/

  27. Brian says:

    This (possible) bias might be a specific example of knowing just enough to be dangerous. As you go along in your undergraduate education, you learn a lot of basic technical things, and a handful of really advanced stuff. An engineer, with this education, might think about the challenges evolution gives you, recognize enormous complexity (because you are trained to see that stuff), but maybe you don’t think about the subtleties of selective pressure (because this is something you may have never had a chance to play with – as all engineers love to “play” with stuff) so you may decide that it is simply too advanced and the odds are too far stacked against it.

    So, you do in fact think critically and “mathy” about the topic, but disagree with its conclusions due to not seeing a path to the end product.

  28. AaronSTL says:

    I work in the architecture and engineering field as a computer aided drafting (CAD) manager in the midwest.  I’ve had a few experiences with evolution denying engineers.  I’ve heard the “if it looks engineered it must be engineered” argument.  To me it seems the error of this argument is that components of an engineered system don’t have the affinity towards each other that is found between the chemical components of DNA.  Another argument I’ve hear is a building could never self assemble.  Again, the same error applies but to a certain extent buildings do self assemble.  They’re called caves.  In my experience in the field I actually see things that are analogous to evolutionary ideas like exaptation, for instance.  When existing spaces get renovated (evolve) existing wires, pipes, ducts, walls, etc get reused for new systems. Whole spaces themselves even change function.  Recently I saw a building which had an elevator that, at one floor, opened to a platform that was 10 feet above the rest of the floor.  The platform was removed because they needed the floor space and the elevator was abandoned.  The doors to the elevator, which can still be seen 10 feet above the floor, were left in place because they would cost too much to remove and infill and since the elevator shaft was smoked and fire proof the doors exceded the rest of the wall’s fire rating.  So even those doors had no function for the elevator system therere were selection pressures that caused them to be exadapted into part of the wall!

  29. Max says:

    As engineers design more things with genetic algorithms, maybe they’ll appreciate the bottom-up approach.

  30. tc2ge says:

    I’m a brazillian civil engineer and there is two aspects to be explored here. First, as some already pointed out, engineers are not required to know science, but technics to solve problems. They are pratical problem solvers which usually use time proven procedures to accomplish their tasks. Exceptions are those that have a M.Sc. or a Ph.D. degree which are required to have some understanding on research methods and produce a scientific like thesis usually with data collection and statistical analysis.

    The second point in the disscussion is that the list provided is not, and should not be taken as, a sample as some did. It is just a list. We don’t know to how many engineers was given the opportunity to sign the list and refused. Nor we know if a ramdom sampling procedure was used. A sample would provide us with how many engineers were “interviewed” and then divide them as supporters and deniers. With those proportions of the interviewed sample, we could estimate the propotion of deniers in the engineer population with some degree of certainty (or error). Providing us only with the number of denier engineers in a group of unknown size, we can say nothing about the engineer population.

    Another kind analisys on the list that would give us some insight on how it grows is to try to stabilish how those people relate to each other. Do they share some kind of bond? If someone just doesn’t care about evolution, but some acquaintece ask to sign a list that one ponders there is no harm or importance, wouldn’t one do that for some kind of sympathy for one’s coleague or just for fun?

    Although, I consider that engineers, assuming what they learn during their engineering courses(I mean the traditional ones, as civil, mechanical, eletrical and some others that do not deal with biology), are not qualified to talk about evolution, I hardly can believe that an engineer would assume any kind ID when the biological organisms are so complicated and bad designed. An engineer deals with eficient uses of materials and energy, and also with assesing the correct properties of each building piece for its actual use, as size, strength, etc. These are qualities that organisms and organs lack and the end result which we observe around, like bad design and useless parts, could only be explained by a trial and error procedure like mutation and natural selection, and never by a all-powerfull and omniscient engineer.

  31. David T. says:

    I was at DragonCon and this question got me thinking – I wrote a short blog entry about it over at (http://badengineering.wordpress.com/2009/09/08/the-skeptical-engineer/) – and the comments here raised a few points with me. First, we certainly don’t have the right data to corroborate Steve Novella’s observation, nor will we get it from those selective lists.

    Second, there are varying levels of engineering competence, just like in science. You can get by using the cookbook approach and not need to understand either the scientific or engineering method, but you will never be a good engineer that way. On the other hand, excellent engineers have the imagination and the smarts to understand and use these methods in their engineering field. Granted we don’t try to falsify hypotheses, but we do try to falsify (or find fault) in design as part of the design/build process. So some of us do understand the scientific method and can understand and readily embrace theories like evolution and natural selection.

    Finally, I think that if that ratio is true, it may be simply because the typical engineer doesn’t spend their career contemplating those bigger questions of how the world works. Therefore there won’t be a lot of cognitive dissonance building up in engineers as there might be in, say, biologists who try to retain their anti-evolution views (for whatever reason).

    I guess what I am trying to say that it is simply easier for the typical engineer to fall into and retain their anti-evolution stance than a scientist since the engineer doesn’t see or think about the issue daily.

    All that being said, my anecdotal experience is that most engineers are pretty neutral on the subject.

  32. Zack says:

    Last night I spent time fixing my third door handle on my truck when I realized something very interesting. Some idiot had decided that the best handle for opening my big heavy metal door was a small plastic piece not suitable to open my child’s toy box. I would like to know who came up with this idea. Maybe one of these engineers who isn’t Darwin happy found themselves with other things to do than to make an appropriate part that would last the lifetime of my vehicle, but wait, they might have been onto something:
    1) Let’s make a crappy part that will have to be fixed in the near future.
    2) When it does break it will be off warranty.
    1+2=3
    3) We’re going to make some cash with this faulty design.
    In a world that is filled with inventors and design geniuses, we are continually trying to argue against the world around us being “designed”.
    So the “engineers” who design things are throwing Darwin’s claims out the window as they should. Any person who has taken the time to draw up a plan for something comes to a conclusion that we as humans are not random creatures who have just made it through millions of years of evolutionary process. Someone a long time ago started with a blank slate, an empty pad, nothing to draw inspiration from, and “designed”.
    We are a generation of people who are looking at Science with a skeptical eye and saying, “we want something more!” Something that will cure the problems within my soul. All the claims from science deal with the physical evolution of us as human beings, but aren’t we a lot more than just flesh and blood. Are we to deny the inward man that so fits within the very flesh and blood?
    I guess I’m out of my mind, I’m irrational, so call me crazy, but Mr. Darwin, I reject your theory, and beg and plead to tell me how my soul evolved, where did I come from, not the physical me, but me.

    • Max says:

      Do chimpanzees have souls, in your opinion?

    • mikekoz68 says:

      Yes you seem very irrational, not sure if you’re out of your mind or crazy just yet. You’re right about one thing-we are not creatures who made it through millions of years of evolution–it took Billions! 3 Billion+ years, one cannot even fathom such a long period of time but the proof if overwhelming. As far as your “soul” goes I can’t tell you where something that is imaginary came from-this makes no sense and perhaps you are crazy, can you show me this soul or prove its existence? Thought not. You are a product of your brain which if damaged would drastically alter your personality and by extension – you. Its an amazing thing that took 3 billion years why do you have to make stuff up to understand it?

    • tmac57 says:

      “Someone a long time ago started with a blank slate, an empty pad, nothing to draw inspiration from, and “designed”.”
      And did someone before that decide to design the designer? I mean, if we, as complex as we are, are the result of some designer’s work, isn’t that designer even more complex than we are? Doesn’t that argue for a designer for the designer, and so on and so on ad infinitum?

  33. SicPreFix says:

    Zack said:

    “… Mr. Darwin, I reject your theory, and beg and plead to tell me how my soul evolved, where did I come from, not the physical me, but me.”

    Mr Darwin cannot tell you how your soul evolved for two rather important reasons:

    1. Mr. Darwin is dead and long passed mouldering in his grave (and I rather doubt even Sylvia Browne could contact him at this point).
    2. There is almost certainly no such thing as a soul (in the sense you are referring to).

    But, back to the point….

    Zack, I suspect that your plea is utterly disingenuous.Nonetheless, if you are serious, then there are thousands of places where you can find out quite precisely where “you” came from, not only the physical you, but the “you” you that you are speaking of.

    However, as a true believer who rejects science you will almost certainly never accept the simple facts of your self-perceived origin.

    What evidence would it take to prove to you that the you, whose origin you wish to discover, is the result of the physical you, your brain, your brain and body chemistry, and the ability that gives you to both self-perceive, and to self-define?

  34. Rob says:

    Steve,

    Fantastic post!

    There are multiple scientific methods, and to master any one of them requires years of diligent effort. Even then, a lot of crappy stuff gets published, and it takes years for the hulking beast to move forward. Just as an example close to home for our field of medicine, only now are we finally starting to witness robust critique of fMRI and the essential slaughter of its sacred cows.

    It constantly amazes me to witness the astonishing hubris of my fellow skeptics who believe they can so easily independently verify or abolish a complex claim with their good ol’ Critical Thinking, Logical Fallacies Kit, and Careful Examination of the Data.

    Skeptics need to be a little more dispassionately meta-skeptical in my view: “Gee, what makes me think I have any special ability to assess this claim?”

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