Sunday, December 9, 2012

What does congress know about engineering -- NOTHING!

The recent drilling platform explosion and subsequent major leak in the Gulf of Mexico is a bad thing, no doubt about that. Stopping the leak and figuring out what happened are challenges for the engineering community and many of its disciplines.

As any engineer knows, the underlying and fundamental cause of a problem, whether large or small, is often several steps down the chain from the apparent problem, and is typically not easily found. First impressions are often wrong, or at best incomplete. True root cause analysis of most problems show the cause was not a single mistake, but a combination of faults, misconceptions, circumstances, and other specific causes.

What aggravates me about the oil spill and similar catastrophes is the large number of instant experts that appear immediately after the occurrence.

I cringed as I watched the congressional hearings into the spill. The lawmakers on both sides lectured with phony fluency and a sanctimonious tone about deep-sea drilling, underwater concrete, safety and shut off valves, and similar complex engineering subjects as if they knew what they were talking about. They may have known the nomenclature, but they lacked any real understanding of the subject. Remember, congress is full of lawyers, not engineers!

I just can’t fathom what these people really know about drilling down on the ocean floor: the incredible pressure, the corrosive affects of salt water, hydraulics, pumps, pipes, and underwater remote-control robotics. This is a sophisticated engineering effort, and should be the subject of engineering peer review and analysis.

The truth is obvious, these congress members know pretty much nothing. What’s worse is that they don’t feel that ignorance should stop them from talking before there is a technical investigation done by technically qualified people representing various reputable organizations. We saw this same rush to judgment by the know-nothings after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1980.

To me, all this is just another manifestation of the sad, ironic reality that engineers have made the incredibly difficult look way too easy. Everyone thinks engineering’s accomplishments are all no big deal and not very hard, so it’s easy to be an expert. This is happening in nearly all engineering and scientific disciplines. The only technical area in which this hasn’t happened to the same extent in medicine.

Can you imagine any member of congress asking a doctor at a hearing, “After you cut through the pericardium layers, why didn’t you insert the stent from the left side, instead of the right?” The questioner would look like a fool. But expounding about deep-sea drilling technology; why that is all OK!

I’d like to know how the medical profession has managed to maintain this well-deserved, hard earned protective aura around its expertise. We could use some of that in the rest of the engineering world.

Now I am not commenting on the required debate about off-shore drilling, energy independence, and renewable energy sources, although – again – I wish we could evaluate those things as engineers and not as politicians. These are policy decisions and the correct realm of government, but I object to these congressional “fact finding” sessions that are not about facts at all.

Certainly the general public has a stake in these discussions, but this rush to judgment and political posturing is not an effective strategy for either the left or the right. Most people feel their minds are made up, and they don’t need the facts. I just wish we would be more sensible and seek out these facts.

The corporations, the environmentalist, the government, they are all jumping to conclusions without a true understanding of what is going on. What can the engineering community do to restore order and logic to such a chaotic process? Journalist, how can you help? Friends, countryman, what can you do?

Engineering is hard, and involves that nasty subject that everyone hates: math. Encourage your local neighborhood engineer. Tell him or her you love them and appreciate them. And write a letter to congress telling them to seek out facts, not photo opportunities and sound bites.

In this age of instant analysis and 24 hour cable news, it is tempting to take immediate action. Certainly swift action is called for to both protect the environment and stop the leak, but long term policy decisions and rule making regarding oil-drilling in coastal areas should be done against a background of facts, not just headlines.

Originally written on May 24, 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment