All professionals recognize arbitrary truths that direct their day-to-day work. Such norms of respect for knowledge are keystones of culture. They become the unspoken and assumed backdrop against which professional discourse takes place. We first pick up these bits of authority through our education and find them reinforced in our interactions with those colleagues who came through the same upbringing.
Engineers are luckier than most because, at least for the simple stuff, we cling to the edge of the sciences. We put our faith in indisputable truth. E = IR, F=MA. The fist problem is that, within the span of a career, even the truths are disputable. Until 1986 we knew that superconductivity couldn’t exist above 30 degrees Kelvin; the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics went to those who established superconductivity at 35 degrees Kelvin. The amount of knowledge doubles in science about every 10 years. But the larger problem is that many claims we hold as truths aren’t truths at all.
Engineering is often a hammer used to reinforce a timeless “truth.” The engineering label gives any claim a sheen of credibility, but it is in fact the self-reinforcing culture of like thinkers that gives these “truths" power.
The old days of software development were grounded in a belief that discipline could generate perfect up-front requirements — a belief that perhaps emerged from the hope that such reasoning could eventually be fully automated, but that good human effort was an adequate substitute in the mean time. Methodology — another one of the truths that was a product of that culture — was held to be enough to achieve success. If we ever failed to deliver, we blamed ourselves and created a notion called a “post-morten” to discover where we had failed to follow the methodology. No one dared question the methodology itself.
As engineers, we are prone to follow method. Have you ever been working on a project and, faced with a design decision, found yourself falling back on one of the rules you were taught, in spite of the fact that you had more than an inkling that the current wisdom might be unwise?
Few truths are absolute; it is in fact unlikely that there is any single static truth in any endeavor. Truth is a process. Strongly typed programming languages are not always good, and weak typing sometimes has its advantages. Context is everything, and experimentation and good dialog are its handmaidens. The biggest problem with the dogmatic engineering mindset, rooted in the supposed truth of the sciences, is that they are context free. Most interesting complex problems of the modern world are highly contextualized. There is a two-edged sword here, as the common wisdom is diluted as much by fads as by myths. Again: experimentation and dialog must prevail.
Progress in day-to-day practice should enjoy more immediacy than Nobel recognition allows. And while peer review is important, common sense and collegiality in your workplace and professional societies can go a long way, particularly when coupled with methodical doubt. The next time your intuition runs up against the standards of truth of your discipline, talk up your idea a bit. Experiment and work against the grain a bit. You don’t have to be a genius to realize these breakthroughs. Hundreds of engineers recognize them every day but, repressed by the industry myths and the leverage they exert through peer pressure, retreat from learning to the misguided rote of alchemy. Great invention happens humbly every day. Don’t let the disproportionate recognition of a select few inventions discourage progress.