Learning Ignorance: Engineers and the World

Mike links to Chris Lee‘s latest piece on Ars Technica, which discusses the problem that Mike terms ‘engineer-itis’, which is:

the belief in many engineers and apparently some physicists that they are world-class experts in any field, or would be if they thought about it for 10 minutes… I don’t really have any clear idea why engineers tend to be the most anti-science and anti-knowledge of the educated professions.

It’s a good thing that Lee is a physicist, because in the arena of inter-discipline mudslinging, an intra-discipline source-quote is like a lovely big umbrella. You might have to swing it about a bit, but it keeps you protected. It’s too bad he doesn’t have an engineer co-author.

The primary reason Lee cites for this attitude is the perceived hierarchy between disciplines. Physicists and engineers use specialised skills — that is, skills not taught at school, nor accessible by those taught at school. Therefore, there’s an aura of intellectual exoticism and mystique about their discipline, the impression that its pearly gates open only for a special few. (Indeed, this mystique is a large part of the charm of even terribly irrational science fiction. They’re the sneaky back-door entries into realms we’re convinced we’d never be let into. Despite the dissuasion of Dan Brown’s writing, it was this ignorant fascination that carried me through Digital Fortress.)

Mike, on the other hand, speculates about form. Engineering, he says, is structured around quantitatively resolvable questions, all of which have definite answers. Being trained for this environment makes it difficult for most engineers to deal with the unpredictable behaviour of multiple interactive variables in the real world (some say economists suffer from the same affliction, without the benefit of the same causes).

What Lee and Mike leave out — and what I think is the most important aspect of this dismissive, know-it-all, pro-ignorance conservative attitude — is the demography of, and grooming for, these disciplines. I assume this is because things are very different in the US. In India, however, a BTech — Bachelor’s degree in Technology — is the consolidated epitome of everything a young man desires, and his family desires for him. It brings permanent employment in a thriving sector, sponsored work-trips to the developed world (industry term: ‘on sites’), and excellent romantic/marital eligibility. Therefore no sacrifice is too much, and no work too hard, for that ultimate inclusion into the Engineer Club.

NOTE: Thanks to gender thingummies and the deep desire not to starve in an ambush-economy, India also produces an enormous number of female engineers, but their presence hasn’t made the slightest dint in the masculine aspirational narrative of Engineering in India.

The path to a BTech starts when one is fourteen, and in Class 9. The child has two years to prepare for his first Board exams (O-levels) and do so dazzlingly well in them that even the best schools wouldn’t be able to refuse him the Science track for his Plus Twos. Plus Twos are the two final years of school, devoted to prepping for the second and final Board exams (A-levels). The Science track would allow a student to take advanced Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and either Computer Programming or Biology, plus two compulsory languages. Almost all students have after-school private tuitions in all these subjects, because schools cannot be depended upon to do the teaching thing. During this period, they also have to study separately for the competitive entrance exams to engineering colleges and medical schools, and plenty of students study for and take both, because they want their careers to be ‘safe’. Sleep is negotiable, free time non-existent, and social lives conducted between tuition classes and via text.

All this culminates into a clockwork boost in urban tourism after the Class 12 Board exams (A levels), as flocks of children and their parents do the nation-wide entrance-exam circuit. After that, successful students are piled into gender-segregated boarding colleges for four years. Those lucky — or unlucky — enough to have made it to colleges within commuting distance continue to live at home, reproducing the cramming pattern of the last four years, but with more going out, late-blooming, girlfriends, sneaky-porn, cigarettes and alcohol.

The problem with this picture, ironically, is its success. For many bright — or hard-working — boys from geographical and social peripheries, a BTech is an excellent way of accessing both greater social capital and urban modernity, although in this case, only in its economic and consumerist avatar. Because one thing that the masculinity and rigour of this discipline helps maintain is a strong authoritarian patriarchal culture amongst most of its graduates. Post graduation, this is reinforced by the arranged marriage market, where engineers with corporate jobs or in PhD programmes are prime matrimonial products (the straitened means of PhD students are compensated by their location in the lands of plenty).

Why is this pattern of voluntary self-repression worrying? It is worrying is because my culture grants immense social and intellectual capital to male BTech graduates, without equipping them with tools to comprehend or analyse the political, cultural or economic realities we live in. They’re highly trained in one very specialised area, at the cost of almost all others. Anecdata: nearly all of the many engineers I know consume culture through mainstream films, prime-time news shows, and bestseller book lists (the latest text inspiring collective BTech and MBA orgasms is The Secret, by Rhonda Bryne). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but those are also excellent tools for manipulating public opinion. It is telling that Anna Hazare’s overtly-patriotic moral authoritarianism was supported in many engineering campuses and opposed in many social science centres, frequently on the same campus. Incidentally, these campuses are also, like many boarding schools for boys, centres of homophobia, casual misogyny (‘ragging’ new female *and* male students far too often become sexual assault and rape), cheerleaders for desi libertarianism — which is deeply ironic, since our best engineering colleges are state-supported — and support-bases for aggressive, social-media-propagated, go-get-’em patriotism.

In many ways, the BTech grads’ grooming is in perfect sync with Hazare and his ilk’s arrogance, sourced from a complete inability to access different points of view. Boys who have been coddled and plied and pampered pre-entrance — and this is a dominant majority of BTech aspirants, because they carry the dreams and expectations of their entire families on their shoulders — showered with approval and envy through college, and praised far and wide after landing a MNC job or a PhD position in the US, are not equipped to handle dissent, or the possibility of ignorance. And what better way to brandish denial than dismiss and mock those that one doesn’t understand, especially if it threatens the dismantle the comfortable reality one has slaved since one’s teenage for?

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32 comments

  1. The Indian engineering culture may indeed accentuate the effect, for the reasons that you’ve so well noted. Even without this cultural pressure, though, male engineers the world over (well, okay, UK, US and India, these are my sample populations) are uniquely capable of talking out of their arses as though they were experts on any imaginable topic. (Sometimes the female engineer across the room points out to them that they are talking out their arses. Usually they don’t hear her, though, because they are too busy talking out their arses.) During my years teaching at MIT I became very appreciative of MIT’s unique culture, but also very grateful that the world isn’t run by engineers – for they reduce any problem, even a problem founded essentially on human emotion, feeling, and social cognition, to an affair of rule-based computations, as though people could be operated by pulleys, levers and punched cards.

    Why is it the *male* engineers in particular? See http://www.mattababy.org/~belmonte/Publications/Papers/10_Normative_Cognitive_Variation/

  2. I agree that most engineers are politically unaware, and do not appreciate the nuances of social issues. But isn’t that something people in the humanities are by definition supposed to be better at? Of course I understand that you’re talking about the tendency of engineers to talk pretentiously about things that they are not experts in, and I essentially agree with you.
    Also, “‘ragging’ new female students frequently become sexual assault and rape”, really? where? that sounds too extreme to me. Most engineers, at least in the iits, are awkward around women. ‘Misogyny’ is a fair criticism, but ‘rape’?

    • The IITS, as you are well aware, form the tiny top minority of the engineering entrants each year. The rape — in some instances not legally so, because they were not penetrative — have happened to people I know in Durgapur, in my third year at Jadavpur, at Haldia while we were at school, and to a boy I don’t know at Shibpur.

        • Do you know, I misremember most things, but I think we once had a conversation about some of your more… macho classmates. We went over the whole “grooming for success in an authoritarian set up”, and you very obligingly nodded right along. This was way back in the Neolithic when we actually talked 🙂

          • i _am_ obliging, but wait… we talked?

            (seriously, though, your points are certainly relevant, and largely true for engineers, in my view. However, the mindset that seeks to “dismiss and mock those that one doesn’t understand, especially if it threatens the dismantle the comfortable reality one has slaved since one’s teenage for” is certainly not limited to engineers. I realize that your point is larger than the tiny chunk I picked out, and that my statement digresses from the fact that it’s relevant to engineers)

          • I would absolutely, hands-down, agree that the quoted attitude is not limited to engineers. If only such intolerance and sense of entitlement was limited to the course structure of certain disciplines, world peace would be wrought by a Syllabus Committee. Too bad, isn’t it?

  3. Firstly, As a man who nearly went to an Engineering school only to veer off to a social science department and thereby “slip off” the ladder of social respectability as many of his (male) peers have earned at this age, I find this amusing and brimming with a lot of insight about the state of the society. So thank you for writing this one.

    Secondly, i find it intriguing how the moral economy justifies such an education (often at huge expenses in the pvt colleges with little academic standards as the Mckinsey report once told us) being one that makes a person self reliant and resilient when in fact, the perspectival frames are absent about the inequality that helps them purchase such an education. The interesting intersection of caste and class( their parents’ origin and source of income being the old brahminical srevice class of the Nehruvian era) helps this notion of the it industry being a fair game chug along.

    Thirdly, the narratives of gender is very important in the articulation of urban modernity. the middle class femininity is construed upon respectability in work place – demure, pliant and generally conservative in dressing (many IT companies have Saree days to show off the Indian ethos of the employees) as well as voicing opinions. Right from the engineering college days,most girls are socialised to understand that they are interlopers here. and the hegemony is a scattered one from then on – based on the need to be flexible and competent at workplace as well as fulfilling gender roles at home(after all we want a wife with traditional values but modern outlook, no?).

    Lastly, these all come down to the question of narrative expounded both at the colleges and the broader everyday society as is articulated by Priyanka. The need of the homogenizing, money spinning rubric is you precisely preclude any kind of ideological posturing – especially one that might question the production process itself. In a deeper sense it is question of making that particular ecology survive. but what worries me is the all encompassing form it is acquiring every passing day where it is becoming almost impossible for us to question it’s constituency without being blamed as a heretic towards the India grows story?

  4. They probably feel they produce practical work with quantifiable results while the rest of us lotus eaters float on gossamer clouds of fancy. And you forgot to mention the legal profession. That’s another dehydrated bunch.

  5. “Mike, on the other hand, speculates about form.Being trained for this environment makes it difficult for most engineers to deal with the unpredictable behaviour….” – This is nonsense. Engineering, math and physics deal with quantifiable and measurable variables, true – but so does social science. And engineering and mathematics deal plenty with uncertainty, in a far more intellectually rigorous way than most other disciplines – including, unfortunately economics.

  6. I wouldn’t know about the ways in which engineering deals with qualitative social variables, Swati — which is what Mike was talking about — because I’ve never seen the inside of an engineering classroom. And I think we’re doing a disservice to Mathematics and Bachelor’s level engineering a disservice my clubbing them together — ‘pure’ Mathematics has, I think, a far broader scope than its contribution to engineering. It’s almost poetic, sometimes.

    But I find it very disheartening that the engineers responding here, on this note’s FB shares and on my original blog post all agree that the Indian engineering syllabus completely excludes everything not pertaining to the proforma of a corporate/industry job. Very little intellectual growth or satisfaction can be derived from their curricula, unless the students make personal efforts. Such stunted delivery of education — which many humanities departments in India can also be easily accused of — is very disappointing.

    There’s a far greater potential for all-round development in our students that we completely dismiss, and churn out intellectually shallow people, incapable of much individual thought.

    • The way I read Mike, it seems he was implying that engineering and physics deal poorly with uncertainty (unpredictable behaviour) which, holy mother of Heisenberg Principle, is such a load of tosh. Also, I though the discussion was around the discipline of engineering per se, not just those with just a bachelors in engineering. If the latter, I agree with the substance of what you’re saying and have nothing more to add.

  7. […] Despite knowing several ‘perfectly normal engineering peeps’, as a sociologist friend puts it, I found myself agreeing with several of Lee’s general ideas. What I missed, however, was the homegrown perspective. Given the ubiquity of Indian engineers (and science-faculty folks) everywhere, I thought, time was ripe for a brief history of “Why They Are Like This, Only”. So, predictably, I wrote it. […]

  8. Engineering is best explained by comics:

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/?db=comics&id=1797
    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1883
    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1879

    And finally,
    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1677#comic

    Even in its purest form, engineering as a subject deals with pragmatics and awesomatics. Semantics takes a significant backseat in engineering, which yields itself well to ‘making a living and having a good life’ in today’s context.

  9. Long, long ago, Jules Verne imagined a car propelled by compressed air, requiring very little energy and producing no emissions. Nothing happened, of course, because Jules Verne was an idea man and a novelist. Decades later, also in France, an engineer (inspired by Verne) asked himself the question, “Could I build something like this that was viable?” And he did. And India is being considered as one of the first countries where this “air car” will be mass-produced.

    I guess the real question here is: does IIT produce people who can think like this guy in France?

  10. Go to YouTube and type in “air car” for more details. Many of the videos are old: the project is now much further along.

  11. Let me tell you a stroy about 2 brothers – one was naturally brilliant – did well in studies , went to engg school , landed a cushy job with an MNC , changed his job, got a management degree from IIT KGP ,joined PWC Global and flits in and out of India at the drop of a hat . The other was seriously bad at his studies , failed his school leaving exams, passed them the next year and to keep him out of any mischief was put into the Govt Art college as a safe option while the erst of the family moaned and grumbled . This guy is now featured as one of Bengal’s best young artists and ironically the extended family dropped him like a hot brick is so proud of him now. Strange .

  12. I was once told by an engineer that any quantity worth quantifying can’t be quantified. But again, this person was much more than an engineer. I’m an engineer (at least half-an-engineer), and I usually do “engineering things”. However, every day, I get a sense of how important it is for me to be a designer, an anthropologist, a social scientist, an ethnographer. Unfortunately no one taught me that in engineering school (not that it is required for each and every engineer).

  13. ‎”A prominent research scientist of Indian origin at my own university — himself educated at IIT Delhi — described the whole IIT experience as one of “de-education,” in the sense that students focus narrowly on preproffessional skills and are discouraged from learning independent research techniques. Moreover, he emphasized,this narrowing begins far earlier. Since entrance to the IITs is by nationwide competitive examination, the victorious students are from towns all over the country. Most have been raised to think that getting a good job is the main aim of education. The idea that people should learn things that prepare them to be active, thoughtful citizens is an idea that has “never crossed their path.”” — from Martha Nussbaum’s “Not for Profit – Why Democracy needs the Humanities”.

  14. What’s even more depressing is that the IITs are at least thinking about ways to address this situation. For most of the other engineering colleges out there, churning out hundreds of thousands of graduates every year, it’s all about the percentage of graduates who get a job at the end, and nothing else.

  15. That’s their pitch all right. “Our graduates are recruited *even before they finish their degrees*!!! Come to us!” But oh well. Chakrir jonyo jekhane manush ghoti-baato bikro kore deye sheikhane “higher intellectual aspirations of education” bola ta hoyto aektu unrealistic. Elitist even.

  16. Agreed – prothom-e to khete pabey, tar pore onno kichu :). One cannot blame parents for pushing their kids for engineering/medicine, etc. That’s the safest option. However, at the same time, there’s ample scope for enabling learners to be literate (as opposed to “letterate” – as Seymour Papert puts it). I’m still puzzled why school-kids are forced to specialize so early (class 9). For us scientist-engineer types, the only exposure that we got to the humanities was self driven, and this is also true for humanists when it comes to ideas from science. Each discipline comes with its own set of powerful ideas, and if we even look through the lens of material success, it is becoming increasingly reliant on being able to bring ideas from seemingly disparate fields together.

  17. You mentioned that BTechs often have this tunnel vision for which they don’t have the right picture or viewpoint about the other stuff in the world, and hence their reaction to issues in those fields are often wrong, misinformed, and betray their superior attitude.
    Even if we could pardon them for that, there’s something else I feel is the matter which is a lot more serious. Let’s look at how much of their own stuff they know. It’s plain knowledge that much of the engineering crowd being harvested in India has money as the motivation, not the engineering knowledge itself. Most of them have to sit down and think, right before their college admission, which engineering stream they want to go in, and that’s not counting the thousands who only choose a stream because of their marks/their girlfriend wants to go there. For the ones who do spare the time to choose, I don’t believe the different engineering branches are so closely interrelated that you could do an ‘eeny meeny mynie moe’ over what engineering you want to do for your life. And that’s perhaps because the engineering is not the important thing here. The only thing common with all these streams is the prospective pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and if that is the motivation, I believe all of them should shut the **** up right there before yielding to any superiority itch that crawls up their stomach in social interactions.
    I’m not saying any of this is wrong. There’s no reason everyone has to be equally motivated. But rest that superiority. I even wrote an angry blog post about this.
    I don’t know how much this kind of thing goes on in science. I don’t see much in my college, but then I have met people who are super snob and reek deliberately of an annoying geekiness. My friends say I am one of them, slightly. I really hope not. But yes, I’ve met people far more annoying than me (you have to work to get there) who spew technical geek stuff to any audience which they evaluate cannot catch on to their game. I love crashing those parties.
    Lastly, I am profusely sorry about one aspect of this comment: I have generalized. Most people are nice people, science, arts or engineering. Most people won’t do this annoying superior stuff. And many who do, do it out of a conformist spirit that is imbibed unconsciously in any community. It’s human.

    • Shonkho, first up, the link to your post isn’t working. I’m really keen on reading it, so please try again?

      Also, I agree that the desperation for “getting into engineering” is not remotely an expression of inclination for many, many ‘BTech types’. They’re merely seventeen, or eighteen, and desperate to scramble onto a path they can comfortably follow for the rest of their lives. (The same applies to those who cram for the civil service exams right from the first year of college). And the rate of adherence to stereotypes is so high in this particular area that I don’t think you need to apologise at all.

      However, upon reconsidering the situation from these boys’ points of view (I’ll leave girls out for now, because in the generations I speak of, including my own, tech. was almost exclusively a male domain. It still largely is), I think a crucial factor we’ve missed is the resentment these young men feel about the lives they’ve been forced to pick. The stress of the prep, which often begins as early as Class 8, to the stress of keeping one’s nose to the grind for four years, the stress of living in gender-segregated suburban campuses at the peak of one’s, well, youth, to the pressure to land that plushy MNC jobs — it adds up to a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, a sense of being hard-done by. The sense of entitlement is almost a compensatory reaction, and frustration/anger is an easy gateway to prejudice and biases.

      Let me tell you a story that describes the mentality we’re both trying to describe in a nutshell. A good friend of mine went off to these isolated engineering campuses a few years back. On a holiday home, we went out for lunch. The restaurant was full of bright young things. This, for some reason, really irked my buddy. “Seriously, all these girls and girly boys, all dressing up and watching movies and hanging out at malls”, he said to me, “where the fuck do they get the *time*, man? Like, right now? I’d either be in class or cramming for a test, or passed out from an all-night boozathon”. Then, he appeared to rally a bit. “But you know,” he said, “they may think they’ve got it made now, but, as we say back at the hostel, but come back in a few years and we’ll see who’s *finally* won”. This thought seemed to cheer him up considerably. Towards the end of our meal, he confided in me that the “girly boys”, who thought themselves so cool, wouldn’t be able to hold onto most of the ‘artsy’ girls either. The girls would float over to the tech-folk once they “get settled”, because “in real life, all this guitar and rock and roll doesn’t really matter”.

      The non-tech kids — if that was what they were — had no idea such an aggressive competition against them was on. They continued to be chirpy and loud and giggly, and generally get on my nerves.

      In conclusion, I think the old cliche holds true: People happy with what they’re doing tend to be more relaxed, less aggressive, less doubtful of the validity of their lives’ work, and consequently more open-minded, interesting, and generally nicer to be around.

      • I wanted to say some bad stuff about your conclusion (last paragraph), that it is very narrow and prejudiced or something, and then I realized you’re talking against people who aren’t happy with what they’re doing, and that’s a perfectly okay prejudice 🙂
        The last time I linked with an HTML ‘a’ tag, which I guess messes up in WP comments and doesn’t work out right. I’ll just put the url here this time:
        http://1lifeisallwegot.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/engineer-jokes/
        But yeah, it’s all venting and little substance. Funnily though, this is by far the most read post on my blog. According to the stats, people search for engineer jokes and are led here. Hard luck, mates.

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