Engineering Superiority

Engineering Superiority 150 150 IEEE Pulse
Author(s): Arthur T. Johnson

The Famous engineer Henry Petroski once wrote about one of his students who asked, “Why do engineering students feel superior to those of us studying in nontechnical fields?” [2]. Petroski answered the question like this: “Engineers are recognized as the creative people who bring us innovations like the smart phone, the personal computer, the Internet, and the World Wide Web, all of which have revolutionized the way we live, work, and play.” He concluded that engineers are considered superior because of their knowledge and creativity. I’m not sure that he came to the correct conclusion.

The technologies that Dr. Petroski chose for example (smart phone, personal computers, the internet, and the World Wide Web) are interesting ones. Each of them is a technology beyond the complete comprehension of those who use them. Sure, smart phone users know the capabilities of their phones, but few people know how those capabilities were incorporated into the phones in the first place. If Dr. Petroski had chosen instead to name more mundane technologies, such as building bridges, designing sewer systems, or improving the drive trains of automobiles, then perhaps the engineers responsible would not have seemed so distinguished.

When I used to have to deal a lot with medical doctors on a professional level, the air of superiority was usually assumed by my medical colleagues. To level the playing field for myself, I chose to use as much engineering jargon, special vocabulary, and modeling techniques as I could to remind my colleagues that I, too, had received an advanced degree in a specialized professional field, the field of engineering. That strategy worked, and my explanations were considered as much by the others as theirs were weighed by me.

Whenever a group develops a specialized vocabulary or means of secret communication, the air of exclusivity descends on them, and they are in a position to flaunt their self-importance. Engineers who exercise this tactic can exchange words with others that only they and a few knowing others can understand. Thus, they do not have to explain their reasonings, and their explanations cannot be easily challenged by the uninitiated. Nobody else would understand anyway. They only have to say that something is true for others to accept it to be true. They have become the high priests of technology.

But this only works for technologies remote to the masses. Those who build buildings or design light switches are not held in such high esteem.

All this is placed into a societal backdrop of celebrity belief. Science and technology have become so remote, and so much outside the common real-life experience of ordinary people, that people must trust others to interpret and present what it is that is true. I have written before that science has moved so much into the realm of specialized measurement and theoretical knowledge that most people cannot judge for themselves whether the described effect is real or not [1]. Therefore, the issue boils down to the question, “Who is it that I choose to believe?” Who is it that I am willing to trust to give me the truth? And the answer to that question has little to do with the real truth. The answer is highly subjective and depends on feelings, appearances, and attitudes.

We had a presidential candidate, who on the campaign trail, said “I know more about [international terrorist group] ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” If a person chooses to believe in that candidate, then his statement, if not believable, is at least acceptable as fact. Michael Douglass, in his role in the movie The American President, said, “Whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, [he] is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.”

Public engagement has recently become based on extrapolating anecdotal information. Anecdotes are usually simple parables easily understood by those who cannot fathom esoterica or ephemera, and so, extrapolation is the most believable means to accept reality. If someone who is trusted asserts something enough times, even if not believed the first time, then the assertion becomes believable; reality is only as truthful as it is believable.

There was once on television an ad by General Electric about a young man who was developing software for smart appliances and visiting his parents. His father offered him a sledgehammer belonging at one time to his grandfather. The young man just sat there. The father concludes, “You can’t pick it up, can you?” The mother came to the young man’s defense, saying, “but he is developing the future.” The father was unimpressed. He understood the hammer, but not what activity the young man was engaged in. The hammer was the stark reality to the father, something concrete and tangible. The software that the young man was developing was esoteric, remote, and hardly understandable, at least in how it worked. The father judged his son by what he could see, not by what the son alone could see.

With all that going on in our society, it is questionable whether creative efforts are the sole reason for engineering smugness. After all, writers, sculptors, and even economists can be creative. What sets modern engineers apart these days is the remoteness of their activities which are not within the understanding of nontechnical people.


  1. A. T. Johnson, “Faith in science,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 68–80, Jan.–Feb. 2014.
  2. H. Petroski, “Feeling superior?” ASEE Prism, vol. 26, no. 1, p. 21, Sep. 2016.