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Contrarianism of the Ostracized Engineer

One of the mysteries that haunts my wife — Junko Yoshida, editor of EE Times — is why engineers, as a rule, tend to be so politically conservative.

As an amateur political scientist and lifelong know-it-all, I tell her that this tendency is partly explained by ethnicity, income, and gender. America's conservative party, the Republicans, are overwhelmingly white and traditionally wealthier than the average bear. They also get more votes from men than women. This description — affluent white male — tends to cover most engineers.

But this is a pretty rough thumbnail. Although engineers tend to lean Republican, they're also scientists. This is why my wife assumed — reasonably — that even if engineers were otherwise conservative, they would dissent from the virulent anti-science movement that has emerged on America's right wing. But they don't dissent.

Judging from their correspondence, most engineers are skeptical of climatologists whose body of evidence on the human role in climate change seems overwhelming. Similarly, many engineers are dubious of most environmental science, and they seem to prefer Old Testament literalism to the daring curiosity of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, and generations of paleontologists, anthropologists, geneticists, and others who have expanded human knowledge of evolution.

Engineer, Nerd, Liberal

But I think I know why engineers seem alienated from disciplines so close to their own. The explanation lies in my hometown and the choices made by two high school friends, Vern and Victor (not their real names). The hometown is a Midwest university city, where the campus is vast and mostly beautiful. The one section that isn't so pretty is a flat stretch on the far side of the railroad tracks, where they keep the School of Engineering.

Vern was valedictorian of his class, gifted in math, chemistry, and physics. But he also wrote poetry, read philosophy, and pontificated passionately about the fragile ecosystem of the American prairie. When he entered the university, he faced Yogi Berra's fork in the road. Would he climb the hill beside the lake and study humanities, or would he trudge into the dusty valley and sign up at the School of Engineering?

Vern had never been “cool” in high school. But he attained instant cool when he decided to get a degree in English, among the hippies and tree-huggers up on the hill. Meanwhile, Vern's classmate, Victor, chose engineering. He grew more and more conservative as his college years progressed. Victor — like Vern — didn't take any political science courses, nor did he pay much heed to politics at all. He didn't even read Ayn Rand. But he gradually styled his politics on those of Vern's — not in imitation, but in opposition.

He resented the self-styled “intellectuals” on the hill, who were supposedly immersed in Schopenhauer and Loren Eiseley but — Victor perceived — were mostly smoking dope, advancing the sexual revolution, sunbathing on the lakefront, and occasionally joining an anti-war demonstration and running wild in the streets. So he decided that whatever they were for, he was against, and vice-versa.

Victor's sense was that, if all this laziness, looseness, and looniness was what it took to be an intellectual, then he — who was pre-emptively blackballed from the club anyhow — would go the other way. Hence, largely out of a contrarianism fueled by his outsider status, Victor tapped into a persistent strain in American culture that historian Richard Hofstadter has traced back to the Salem witch trials. Hofstadter's book is entitled Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

There might also be a movie. But I'm not sure the shoe fits. As a self-styled intellectual, I could never bring myself to watch Revenge of the Nerds .

21 comments on “Contrarianism of the Ostracized Engineer

  1. Eldredge
    April 30, 2012

    To begin with, I'm not sure I accept the premise that engineers are more politcally consevative than the general population. There certainly are elements on the left of the politcal spectrum that would like to promote the idea that consevatives are generally less educated, and therefore more easliy duped into believing in unscientifically based concepts and ideas. But if statistics bear out the premise, then so be it.

    I think that engineers do tend to be skeptical in general of conclusions that are not wholly supported by the available data. Anyone who has performed design of experiments to define the critical variables controlling a process knows that if one important variable is left out the the analysis, intentionally or accidently, the resulting conclusions can seem correct, but in truth be wildly in error under the right conditions. If such ommissions can occur in the study of fairly well understood manufacturing process scenerios, how much more often do they occur in much more complicated systems such as those found in nature, climatology, and environmental sciences?

     

  2. Taimoor Zubar
    April 30, 2012

    Interesting post, David. Great to see some lighter aspects of engineering becoming part of this blog. Don't you think the conservatism in an engineer comes from the fact that all their lives they are taught not to accept anything on the face value and to always base their decisions on complete facts and figures rather than opinions and ideas?

  3. bolaji ojo
    April 30, 2012

    Eldredge, It may surprise you to know that some research indicate engineers are not less religious than the rest of the American population, for instance. They may be devoted to facts, analysis and empirical research but they also seem to be willing to accept that some things can't be placed under a microscope and so may not be easily explained.

     

  4. bolaji ojo
    April 30, 2012

    David, What's the latest info on Vern and Victor? I am curious if you have kept in touch with the two and how they are faring today? I am curious also if they changed their beliefs over the years and swapped positions or ended up in the same position they both started out in as friends.

  5. Eldredge
    May 1, 2012

    @ bolaji – I don't disagree with you. I was questioning the premise that engineers are inherently more conservative than the general population, but didn't intend to infer religious implications, although that could be an interesting discussion.

       Regarding engineers' skepticism, I was really thinking in more concrete terms regarding how things/processes work, addressing why engineers might be more skeptical of climate change, environmetnal science, and other fields that rely heavily on statistical data.

  6. David Benjamin
    May 1, 2012

    Bola:

    As for Vern & Victor. Vern has been a close friend all these years. He's retired after a career as administrator of the nursing program at the same university where he went to school. He's co-author of probably the foremost book on “natural landscaping,” the use of wild native vegetation to landscape around the home. Victor is more of a mystery. I hear of him now and then, but haven't followed his postgraduate life. I'll investigate. By the way, Vern is a politically engaged liberal. Victor, reputedly, is — at least according to my thesis — a typically conservative engineer.

    Benjamin

  7. mario8a
    May 1, 2012

    Generally Vern & Victor exist in every generation and at the end are successful in their iwn way, mostly following trends they decide to beleive, however at some point in time is it possible that one Vern becomes a Victor? Or the other way around? Society needs both.

  8. Ariella
    May 1, 2012

    @mario8a Yes, society does need different types of people to play the various roles that have to be filled. But some typs are more popular than others.

  9. Barbara Jorgensen
    May 2, 2012

    Great blog. I've actually found engineers have a wide range of political beliefs and maybe it is just the company I keep, but those that read and comment on the EBN/EETimes pages tend to lean a bit more to the left.  Some of the “nerds” I went to school with that have entered the tech industry, in fact, are refreshingly liberal. I have discovered on the business side of things, in talking with CEOs, I have to be more careful in assuming they share my rather liberal leanings, though.

  10. Eldredge
    May 2, 2012

    @Areilla – lol! Now that there's a label for the disease, what is the cure?

  11. Eldredge
    May 2, 2012

    @ Barbara – I agree, and I guess that is what I was trying to say in my first post. Personally, I tend to be more on the conservative side (unrefreshing so, I guess! lol!) But I don't think that is statistically correllated to the profession I have chosen. And like you, I have observed a broad spectrum of politcal opinions with in the profession.

  12. Barbara Jorgensen
    May 3, 2012

    @Eldredge: Right on! The choice of career should have nothing to do with your philosophy, although I find we tend to gravitate toward like-minded people, if not professions. Conservatism, BTW, can also be refeshing 🙂 I make myself listen to a conservative talk radio show here in Boston just to make sure I am not completely out of touch with other points of view. I draw the line at FOX TV, though…

  13. Ariella
    May 3, 2012

    @Eldredge It's a disease a lot of people would do well to catch, as engineers are very much in demand now. That should be some consolation to all those who felt socially ostracized. 

  14. chipmonk
    May 4, 2012

    Engineers have to be conservative at work, not even an English major would like to have the Bridge crash under her ! The same goes for Doctors too. In general, Engineers hold in poor regard those who try to make up for dearth of data, logic and hard mathematics by emotional blackmail and political manipulation. Thus the scepticism, if any, about Global Warming.

  15. Ariella
    May 4, 2012

    @chipmonk We doctors of English learn to appreciate engineering, especially when we teach engineering students at NJIT in writing across the curriculum projects that include readings on what causes bridges to collapse.

  16. Ariella
    May 4, 2012

    Now here's a pic for engineering pride that has garnered nearly 1000 shares and over 1000 pluses on Google+:

    There is a note of irony, though. Think about #3 for a moment.

  17. William K.
    May 5, 2012

    What has happened is that there has not been as much money in engineering as in the other things that some people do for money. Presently, we engineers work in areas that are sometimes regulated quite intensely, which renders them less profitable. 

    Engineers tend to appear conservative because we mostly demand information before making choices, and we tend to think logically, and make decisions based on more than emotions. And because we often consider the secondary impact of our choices, they are in fact, more conservative. The sad fact is that avoiding irrational behavior does make us tend to fit in more poorly.

    In addition, making choices based on an understanding of the real physics of an activity instead of just emotions or “what everybody else thinks”, we do seem to be out of place.

  18. Eldredge
    May 5, 2012

    @Ariella,

      True, and at least it is treatable, and not terminal!

  19. garyk
    June 12, 2012

    I've worked at several companys and the problem with Engineers is that they don't make decisions, they will argue/discuss either side, black or white usually alot of gray area. We've all heard the Engineering jokes. Two Engineers walking down the hall way, and a SIGN said wet floor! So they did.

  20. bolaji ojo
    June 12, 2012

    Ariella, I, being a journalist, would like Newton to tell me why I should write 4 in between 5. The engineer just went ahead and figured out how to do it. Bravo!

    But, somebody still has to figure out the utility of the exercise. Aha! That's where the cerebral but only half-baked engineer (Steve Jobs) comes in.

  21. bolaji ojo
    June 12, 2012

    Garyk, Engineers get to make certain decisions; just not the one central to their future. Imagine this scenario. The electronics engineer designs the product and decides which parts should go on the board. He/she turns it over to the purchasing guys who look at the board and chuck out all the parts the engineer designed into it in favor of cheaper alternatives from their favorite suppliers (not the suppliers the engineer bought the samples from).

    Then purchasing turns the bill of materials/components over to the contract manufacturer specified by the CFO (who doesn't even know engineers exist) and the products are made in China where the engineer has never been and most likely will never visit because he/she is already designing the next winning product and (1) has forgotten about what he previously designed that's winning in the market and (2) has been forgotten by the sales/marketing/executive team being applauded for the great product.

    20 years later, the engineer tells his grandchildren how he helped in desigining that great product or solved that great engineering riddle that resolved a major technology crisis. By then, though, the great product has been swept into the historical bin of great products. Anybody remember the Motorola Startac? It was released in 1996 and wowed the market. You'll be able to find references to it on Google, where (if it doesn't fall into the history trap too) you'll be able to find historical references to the iPhone in another 15 years.

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