Analog Angle Article

When engineering meets Congress, ignorant grandstanding is the outcome

The recent drilling-platform explosion, oil-well blowout, and subsequent major leak in the Gulf of Mexico is a nasty thing, no doubt about it. Plugging it, stopping it, and figuring out what really happened are all challenges for the engineering community and many of its disciplines. As any engineer knows, the underlying, fundamental cause of a problem—whether small or large—is often several steps down the chain from the apparent problem, is not easily found, and first impressions are often plain wrong or very incomplete. In fact, the root source of most problems turn out not to be from a single mistake, but a combination of faults, misconceptions, circumstances, and specifics.

What really aggravates me about situations such as this oil spill, and in other similar catastrophes, is the large number of instant experts it creates. I cringed as I watched the first Congressional hearings into the spill. Congressmen and Congresswomen lectured with phony fluency (and a sanctimonious tone) about deep-sea drilling, underwater concrete, safety and shutoff valves, and similar complex engineering subjects as if they knew what they were talking about. They may have known the words, but they had no idea what they were saying, I have no doubt about that.

All I could think was “what the heck do these folks know about drilling miles down on the ocean floor? And about dealing with the incredible water pressure, salt water in general, hydraulics, pumps and pipes, geological formations and upsets, underwater remote-control robotics, and the many other issues and challenges that come into play in such an endeavor, or any other sophisticated engineering effort?

The answer, in a word, is obvious: they know pretty muchnothing . What's worse is that they don't feel that ignorance should preclude them from talking until there is an initial technical investigation, done by some technically qualified people (from various reputable organizations). (We saw this same rush to judgment by the know-nothings after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986.)

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 it's all no big deal and not very hard, so it's easy to be an expert, see “Opinion: For engineers, no good deed goes unpunished”. It's happened in nearly all engineering and scientific disciplines.

The only technical area in which this hasn't happened to the same extent is medicine. Can you see any Congressman asking a doctor at a hearing, “after you cut through the pericardial layers, why didn’t you insert the stent from the left side, instead of the right side?” or a similar question? The questioner would look like a fool, for sure. But expounding about deep-sea drilling technology? Why, that's 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 sure could use some of it in the engineering world.♦

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