The intersection of our thread on talking with fundamentalists and various threads now active on the Open Anthropology Cooperative, reminded me of Henry Petroski’s classic To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. There, right at the beginning of chapter 4 “Engineering as Hypothesis” (1985:40), I found the following.
Every issue of The Structural Engineer, the official journal of the British Institution of Structural Engineers carries prominently displayed in a box on its contents page this definition of its subject:
Structural engineering is the science and art of designing and making, with economy and elegance, buildings, bridges, frameworks, and other similar structures so that they can safely resist the forces to which they may be subjected.
Since some engineers deny that engineering is either science or art, it is encouraging to see this somewhat official declaration that it is both. And indeed it is, for the conception of a design for a new structure can involve as much a leap of the imagination and as much a synthesis of experience and knowledge as any artist is required to bring to his canvas or paper. And once that design is articulated by the engineer as artist, it must be analyzed by the engineer as scientist in as rigorous an application of the scientific method as any scientist must make.
I now find myself wondering, when we heavy thinkers get caught up in debating whether what we do is art or science, aren’t we ignoring another possibility, i.e., engineering. There is to be sure a nauseous feeling associated with the notion of “social engineering” these days. But at the end of the day, aren’t we still succumbing to the ancient prejudice that people who actually make things are doing something “below” us? Wouldn’t we and our students both be better educated if we got our hands dirty a bit?