Think Like An Engineer

Anyone who reads history knows about a lot of decisions that went wrong.  At least half the battles in history, all the kingdoms and empires eventually got something important wrong.  Ditto political parties, religions, ruling classes, family dynasties built on an industry, major industries in geographic regions, …  But knowing that intellectually is a different experience than seeing it happen, and has lead me to a different standard for my leaders, one I intend to be a hardass about imposing strictly upon them.

The event that lead to that understanding is at 5:15 in this video:

Richard Garwin is that physicist stating “they are all wrong”.  So impressive, he designed the Hydrogen Bomb, had top positions his whole career, surely has a comprehensive understanding of nuclear physics and very excellent overview of all of physics and its research.  There can be no more qualified judge in this matter.  We should all have great confidence in the judgment of a man such as this.

Yet Richard Garwin is so very wrong about the reality of Cold Fusion and the integrity and competence of scientists studying Cold Fusion.  No question about that, there are too many Youtube talks by people who are so obviously solid scientists and international conferences at places such as MIT.  I don’t think the researchers can be fooling themselves or each other or any random stranger physicist who watches one.  There is too much evidence, many dozens of published studies pointing to ‘new physics’ and ~1000 papers on possible theories, having accepted the reality of the new phenomena .  Anyone who looks at the evidence, as the scientist did in that video, is convinced by it.

So Garwin has been careful not to look, and Garwin was loud and frequent in his judgment that Cold Fusion is not possible, therefore the evidence cannot exist and all of those people are simply wrong, deluded in some fundamental way.  I think there are books anxious to be written about why and how*, about the fact that buying the political opinions of an entire profession and the energy future of an entire world can be done for a $5B/year budget.

We have all read abut such events in history**, they are so well known that Arthur C. Clarke’s wrote laws covering the situation :

  • First law: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  • Second law: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • Third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Those laws reflect that the oldest and most consistent trick nature plays on us is making the present nearly unnoticably different from the past.  “Yes, be assured that the present situation is just like those in the past in all respects, your understanding is still complete and accurate as nobody has discovered anything new or had any new thoughts on the subject, your question exactly expresses the heart of the problem, and the answer is the same.”

It is easy to write Garvin off as just another elder statesman who lost his judgment, and maybe that is Garvin’s only flaw.  But where are all of his colleagues pointing out the reality of the data and the process of science that makes that the primary reality?  Richard Garwin used his authority to support false ideas and kill an important area of research and the physics profession helped or was silent.  Several of those younger colleagues of Garwin’s rose in the profession following their strong support of Garvin’s position on cold fusion.

If a society is organized so as to produce false judgments on unambiguous physical phenomena, for what can it depend upon itself?

Physics is not an isolated failure, climatologists wrt global warming and the case of decoding the human genome are also cases of politics of funding driving funding via misrepresenting the facts of the science,  of scientists not living up to intellectual and ethical standards of the profession.***

History is presented in the books as “this happened”, “these forces contended”, sometimes “people said these wise things”,  or “such major misjudgments by people on our side are rare, abnormal”.  History’s stance in teaching the young should not that of a failure analysis, but at least should often make the point that “very qualified people, or at least people selected by the system, made these judgments which were, more often than not, fundamentally wrong” and how frequently catastrophe is NOT avoided when it seemingly could easily have been.

Our entire system biases us over-confident in our judgments, winners are reinforced in their confidence throughout their careers, and all suffer greatly when their confidence is misplaced, which is frequent.

We select our leaders for their self-confidence because there is no way to evaluate them for their wise avoidance of catastrophe.  The probability of Black Swans, the effects of which dominate every era, can be estimated in inverse proportion to rarity.  We are flying blind with respect to those rare risks, unknown in size, scope and number, but avoiding catastrophe is the most important thing leaders can do.

That bias to over-confidence eventually drives each of the components of our very complex system into failure.  Inevitably, some combination of those failures produces a catastrophe we should foresee and avoid.

Engineering is a way of not repeating failures.  Engineering is, at base, the careful and systematic application of working science and technology to solutions via systematized thinking.  Engineering schools teach the science and analysis and a bit of the art of solving problems.  We spend the rest of our careers learning the ‘systematized thinking’ disciplines of project management that compensate for the imprecision of our individual minds.

We need to apply engineering thinking to our technologies of governing ourselves.  Avoiding even one minor war or economic collapse would be a win for the engineering approach, as compared to the Karl Rove “we create reality and it is what we, the oligarchy, can convince you it is” hand-waving that is standard in modern leadership.

The engineering discipline required is that of Control Systems.  We know a lot about control systems, e.g. separate sensors from effectors, layer checks for errors, continuous diagnostics on all functions, avoid positive feedback loops, and test prototypes extensively before full-scale implementation.  No system designer would, for example, make a profession so fully in control of the  selection, execution and evaluation of its work as physics is.  That designs in corruption that produces false answers.

A control system engineer might have scaled Congress along with the population and size of government.  Congress’s oversight capacity is proportional to the number of committees it can manage at any time.  When the country was formed, a Congressman represented 30,000 citizens.  It is now 703,000 citizens, 25 times as many.  The bureaucracy has outgrown Congress’s control, and Deep Government and the Oligarchy are the result.

Our political and social systems violate all standards for development and monitoring of control systems, they cannot possibly produce a stable and productive society.

Conservative is positive sum games, as anything else is bad strategy.  Positive sum games require honesty : the profession of physics failed in this case because individuals chose short-term political goals over the values of science.  When you implement a system using fallible human beings, you must be very aware of possible conflicts of interest, the base problem in all human organizations.

History read is very different in its affect on your mind compared to history seen.  This case makes it clear that the Status Quo has fatally handicapped itself : their world can’t work, does not work.  To win, we only need to live our values, to out-honest them.  We must hold ourselves and our leaders to that standard.

Conservatives avoid large-scale failures by embracing local changes, treating them as experiments in possible futures.  I see very little conservatism in modern leadership.

Added later : This is the latest Cold Fusion discussionCold Fusion discussion, pretty much as above, updated.

* The DOE’s high-energy physics budgets provided the initial impetus but this affair has Establishment vs middle-class, hinterland class tints.  Also, I would look for some financial ox about to be gored, e.g. municipal and other power company bonds, or major industry that would be hurt, e.g. oil and gas, to account for the media’s echoing the opinion of the few benefactors of the ‘bad science’ judgment, completely independently of any evaluation of the promise.  Science and publishing are supposed to be self-correcting systems.  In this case, they reinforced each other’s errors.  Notice that the media is doing that a lot since it was consolidated.

**I thought them rare, have been astonished at how many I am living through simultaneously.  Other examples of unambiguous evidence that people are careful not to look at are 9-11, gun control, drug control, terrorism, the financial state of our governments, the state of the financial system.

***Craig Venter’s technology for sequencing a genome made a lot of other labs obsolete and with the wrong skill sets, they were going to look bad.  So NIH wouldn’t fund him and he got private backing which annoyed the Mandarins.  You can go through a lot of Human Genome web sites and never see the name ‘Craig Venter’.


15 thoughts on “Think Like An Engineer

  1. Consider that the chaos and ruin caused by buffoons enhances the selling power of the Technocracy that the Rockefeller Trilateral Commission has been constructing from inside the structure since the jimbo carter admin. A Technocracy is a heavy handed collectivist government with no concern for the Liberty of any individuals. It’s a perfect environ for fascist socialism to oppress and enslave.

    Patrick M Wood’s work, “Technocracy Rising” reveals the plan and the efforts to implement a Technocracy in America.


  2. “Anyone who looks at the evidence, as the scientist did in that video, is convinced by it.”

    This is overstating it. It’s one thing to say (as he did, essentially) “there is something going on here that we don’t yet understand.” It’s another thing entirely to say, “this is cold fusion.” There is a lot of wishful thinking in this area.

    It’s not that it is worthless to run experiments in what is going on, to try to find out what is happening. Of course they should do that. But the old media is not satisfied with mere investigation; they want to be the first to blather “Cold Fusion!” to the world, even if that is not what is happening. There are no downsides (except loss of credibility, of which they have little anyway) to their doing so.

    “We need to apply engineering thinking to our technologies of governing ourselves.”

    Hmmm. If past examples of hubris teach us anything, it is that maybe we need to stop trying to “mould the human clay”, as Bastiat put it. I don’t want a techno-elite running the show. They would in the end, be no better than the current financial elite. They are still human, with all the human foibles. That is, if they are not lizard people…

    “Our political and social systems violate all standards for development and monitoring of control systems, they cannot possibly produce a stable and productive society.”

    It’s not the aim to produce a stable and productive society, so why expect them to do so? The political systems are designed to loot society and to maintain the political status quo and to allow the ruling classes to enjoy the exercise of power. A techno-elite would not change this picture.

    The only system I can see for escaping this is the general adoption among the populace of the Panarchy meme. Let socialists be socialists, let conservatives be conservatives, and so forth. That at least has a chance, as we know from the related adoption of religious tolerance.


    1. I just reread this. Your assumption that engineering thinking has to be applied by a techno-elite, and that this would produce a government trying to ‘mold the human clay’ is not one I agree with.

      I never propose centralized systems. We do not have the technology to control open, evolving, complex systems. It is a conceptual oxymoron to even say that.

      You can’t control a system you can’t predict. If you don’t know what your action will produce, the only algorithm possible is successive approximation. That works poorly in large search spaces with dimensions not known.

      So local attempts at optimizations, lots of testing, cautious generalization. There is no other way, however much people would wish it.

      ‘Local attempts at optimization’, of course, depends on the size of your resources. I think, however, that VCs are doing the relevant experiment : VC investments are a range of sizes from angel’s 10s of 1000s through major firms 10s of 1000000s. Some Ph.D. student needs to look at their returns, including measures of the relative efforts to make investments of those sizes.

      In any case, I am not against large projects, some cannot be small. But those should be the latest in a long line of such projects that have incrementally increased in scale, small changes step to step.


  3. Based on the 60 minute piece, I see nothing wrong with what Garwin said. Skepticism is fundamental to science. I admit that he is being stubborn and should investigate with an open mind like the guy CBS paid. Until then, Occam’s razor still holds: the simplest explanation is most likely to be the correct one. A simple error in measurement is more likely than smashing two hydrogen nuclei together and making a helium atom + electricity (at 20°c). If the proponents can’t even get output in a narrow, predictable range every time it is foolish to jump on the bandwagon, especially in a field where reputation is everything. (Which is why the “scientists” who falsified the IPCC data can’t get a job in real science.)
    Also, if the Department of Energy was serious about energy creation and independence from the ME, they would just build thorium reactors and be done with it.


    1. No, Garwin said “couldn’t happen based on known physics” when the evidence clearly said “new physics” and Garwin chose to reject that.

      Not being able to replicate early science is normal, read “Shapin, Stephen; Schaffer, Simon, Leviathan and the Air-Pump” for a famous example, also the DOE review on cold fusion and whether they should fund it.

      Cold Fusion is entirely new physics, appears to be some kind of nuclear catalyst. Read about the problem of Dark Matter and Dark Energy to see how much Physics needs new physics for its very serious problems in cosmology.


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