Our Obsession with Science

Jan 20, 2016

For some reason, our society is obsessed with science. In fact, any domain that wants to have some respect nowadays, needs to append “science” at the end of its name. Computing science. Social science. Behavioral science. Climate science. Economical science. Food Science. You can even get a degree in Dance science. The good news is that once we’ll append science to every human endeavor, we’ll be able to drop it again.

Thus, no wonder that Matt Damon in The Martian gets declares that he’s going to “science” his way out of the red planet… And even Neil deGrasse Tyson likes that.

Now don’t get me wrong. Science is an important aspect of society and a powerful tool to use. But we should stop putting it above everything else. Too often I hear the dismissive observation: “bah, that’s only engineering”. So here’s the catch. It’s not “only” engineering. It’s ENGINEERING. What I mean is that not only science without engineering can’t exist, but rather, for most of the human advances, it was the other way around. Henry Petroski, professor at Duke:

Throughout history, a full scientific understanding has been neither necessary, nor sufficient for great technological advances. The era of the steam engine, notably, was well into its second century before a fully formed science of thermodynamics had been developed. […] Had Marconi believed his physicist contemporaries, he would have “known” that wireless telegraphy signals could not be sent across the ocean around the earth curvature.

So why the obsessive fascination with science? There are probably many reasons, but one that comes to my mind right now is our individualism. We live in a society which is highly individualistic. We find thus very attractive the simplistic story of the scientist, who alone fights with disease and unveils the secrets of the universe. Just as we admire sportive, the singer, the startup creator. Zuckerberg, Shakira, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Serena Williams are much more enticing to us as story protagonists than the team who was working on the Boeing 747 wing design. Or the people at the Xerox PARC who invented the Ethernet.

However, we should remember that without the team work of the engineers at Xerox PARC we would have not heard of any of the other ones. (Book recommendation: Dealers of Lighting by Hitzik)

I guess I’m thinking about my software engineering course that’s starting soon. And about my software engineering research, which evidently has to be scientific if I am to get grants. Because after all, grants are the fundament of a career in science.

Update: A few weeks ago, after writing this rant I attended a meeting of the SE research community in the Netherlands and could not stop smiling when one of the speakers said this:

“I never went into the University wanting to become a scientist. I wanted to be an engineer. To construct systems”. (Jan Frisco Groote)