Science vs. Engineering

Civil engineering professor Henry Petroski makes a useful distinction:

“We will restore science to its rightful place,” President Obama declared in his inaugural address. That certainly sounds like a worthy goal. But frankly, it has me worried. If we want to “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories,” as Obama has decreed, we shouldn’t look to science. What we need is engineering.

To be fair, Obama’s misconception is a common one. Most people who aren’t scientists or engineers seem to think that science and engineering are the same. They’re not. Science seeks to understand the world as it is; only engineering can change it.

That’s not what most high-school teachers or even college professors tell their science students. But the truth is that full scientific understanding isn’t always necessary for technological advancement. Take steam engines: They were pumping water out of mines long before a science of thermodynamics was developed to explain how they worked. The engines were what prompted researchers to look into the nature of steam power in the first place.

This may make me a heretic, but I’ll take the argument a step farther: Science can actually get in the way of technology. In the 19th century, some scientists were convinced that even the largest steamship couldn’t carry enough coal for transatlantic trips. Only when skeptical engineers designed ships that made this supposedly impossible task possible were the naysaying scientists forced to reconsider.

And think about the Wright brothers, who refused to believe that only birds were meant to fly. If Wilbur and Orville had waited for the publication of a sophisticated textbook on aerodynamics, they might never have left their bicycle shop in Dayton for the dunes of Kitty Hawk. Engineering, not science, enabled them to develop propellers that worked in the air the way a ship’s propeller spins through water. . . .

Some of our greatest energy challenges require engineering breakthroughs, not scientific discoveries. The principles that explain how a battery works, for example, are old news. But a lightweight and cost-effective battery pack with enough juice to power a car over long distances remains an elusive goal. . . .

The president and his green team — particularly Energy Secretary Steven Chu — appear to understand the urgency of the world’s energy problems. I’m not so convinced that they accept that science, for all its beauty, is not the best place to seek practical fixes.

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  • Great Article. It seems to me that science doesn’t need necessarily to be restored to its rightful place, but put in its place. Well perhaps not science itself, but a good many who call themselves scientists and think that it has all the answers to all questions.

  • NQB

    I agree with Henry Petroski that engineering is what the energy crisis really needs and that science can even hinder “practical progress.” But let’s not dismiss science and its benefits in the name of engineering and all ITS answers.

    An example that immediately comes to mind is the discovery of the transistor, the basis of all modern computers. This was a scientific discovery made by scientists trying to better understand the nature of semiconductors. Have engineers since improved the transistor from its original form? Thank goodness, yes. But science is what initially “freed” us from lugging around vacuum tubes.

    So while we certainly have to be careful not to elevate science beyond its proper place, we must also recognize that good science is another of God’s gifts and a great benefit to us. In fact, it’s when we forget this that bad science occurs.

  • Dan Kempin

    You might even say that engineering is scientific pragmatism. . .

    An interesting point, considering our previous discussion about the kingdom of the left.

  • Trey

    Science today seems more concerned about “faith” issues by making metaphysical assertions rather than on what is actually observed. Look at the Super Collider in Switzerland. How are they helping the world or even Europe by trying to replicate the big bang?

  • Trey,
    Exactly. Science has its realm, and it is not metaphysics. Unfortunately too many scientists don’t have an adequate knowledge and understanding of the liberal arts, and philosophy to even know when they have passed from science to metaphysics.

  • Like science, engineering can be good, and it can be bad.

    Another way to put it is that engineers can do really stupid things too, such as designing the Chernobyl power plants, building dams that burst, creating the o-rings that blew up the space shuttle, and building massive water projects that destroy ecosystems. Big engineering projects often have disastrous unintended consequences, but they sure are fun to build, and good for the engineers’ egos too.

    Sure, engineers can sometimes build things without a full understanding of how they work. However, solutions to our energy and environmental crises will likely involve both pure science (done for the shear joy of discovery) and applied science (e.g. engineering). Pure science often leads to unexpected applications. Engineers are likely to be able to build bigger, better, more efficient wind turbines without any major scientific breakthroughs, but it is also likely that they will need the help of pure science in order to have the same breakthroughs with solar.

  • Paul E.


    As a civil engineer who designs dams and other water projects, I will tell you that is always the contractor’s fault, not the engineer’s 🙂

  • And the contractor will find someone to blame too, such as the government. And the current government can blame the previous government, which will blame circumstances out of their control.

    What the engineers need to do is hire a geologist. (I’m unemployed) 🙂

  • I think he is over critical – but then he is an engineer 🙂 , and I’m a geologist, which means we generally don’t like each other to start with…. But in the common parlance, people don’t always understand the differences.

    When it comes to experiments in physics (and other sciences), or “bluesky” projects (like the Apollo program), we don’t always see the benefit/damage to humanity immediately. The Apollo program greatly improved the world of computing. Thus these programs, such as the Hadron collider, have their place, but they should be carefully managed, with an eye on the cost, as well as the ethics. Plus, they remain a “nice to have”.

  • NQB

    Trey or Bror @3 and 4:
    As a physics student, I am apparently subject to the very problem you described: I don’t see where scientists have crossed from science to metaphysics. At least, not in your example of the LHC.

    As I understand it, the LHC is supposed to produce conditions similar to the first few moments after the purported big bang, but this is because at that point, matter had not yet condensed into the form we know now. Though the universe was governed by very different laws in those moments, those laws still implicitly define our world today. To me, this appears to be a scientific endeavor, though most people may not see any application.

    And what sort of application might there be? Well, I don’t pretend to know much about these things, but it seems to me that a greater understanding of quantum effects could be a direct result of the LHC. And considering that quantum computation may very well be the future of computing, the LHC could give us very practical information.

    I don’t think there is much “metaphysical motivation” in the LHC, and therefore, it still lies within science. I don’t deny that it may have metaphysical implications, but that can’t be attributed directly to the scientists.

  • Don S

    I like the distinction that Kevin N makes between “pure science” and “applied science”. Both are necessary. The problems we currently have are rooted in “agendized” science, however. “Pure science” historically operates in the physical world, choosing to exclude the possibility of supernatural influences. That is fine when you are operating in the physical realm, engaging in the science of observation. This is because God has set in place a set of physical laws which He is content to allow to govern our world, except for very occasional miracles. However, this presumption causes serious distortions when you extrapolate it backwards in time, beyond the observable realm, to the origins of the universe, making assumptions that these same physical laws have always operated the same way and refusing to allow for the possiblity of a supernatural Creator. It causes further distortions when you observe a short term trend in climate, for example, hypothesize as to its cause, extrapolate that hypothesis centuries into the future via computer modeling, then report the resultant data as an absolute certainty.

    Applied science can also be agendized, based on politics or contract. The shuttle o-ring was certainly a flawed design in 1986, though it had successfully lauched a multitude of shuttles in 5 years, in that it could not handle cold weather. But, Thiokol knew about the problem and had warned NASA not to launch in conditions where the O-ring could be at a temperature below 40 degrees F. This usually wasn’t a problem in Florida, but on this particular January day in 1986 the temperature was well below 40 degrees. NASA politicians chose to launch anyway, because of previous delays. Similarly, the early 20th Century CA water projects were political in nature. The engineers weren’t asked to mitigate for environmental damage, so they didn’t. Is that the fault of the engineers, or the politicians?

  • “Agendized Science”: I like that!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    This is a very fun post to follow, Veith. Thanks! I’m just verbally appreciating it. Now I’ll sit back and listen to the rest of this discussion.

  • NQB

    Sure, agendized science is bad science. Until we like the agenda…
    Ken Ham says he’s looking at science through the lens of the Bible, but how is that different than admitting to any other agenda? But I think a lot of creationists would uphold this as the greatest science being done. I’m a creationist, but I don’t find Ham’s science that compelling.

  • NQB,
    let me set the table straight if I may on my opinions which I don’t know I have adequately expressed thus far.
    1. I have no problem with science. Or experimentation in any form. Including trying to “reproduce the big bang.”
    2. I do have a problem when the Big bang is assumed and is a given.
    3. I tend to agree with you as far as Ken Ham is concerned. Though I do sometimes find him entertaining.
    4. I have a problem when scientists expect me to believe them because they are scientists when they tell me how old the earth is. etc. I keep on wondering whey the universe and earth are getting older by billions of years in the same amount of time I am aging by only a year. Last year I learned the Grand Canyon is 17 million years older (or some such ridiculous number)than previously thought. And I applaud scientist for admitting being wrong. I don’t applaud them for being so dogmatic before hand especially when it comes to the education of our children. And in the back of my head I always have this question. Why is it every time they are wrong the earth or whatever ends up being older and not younger? It may be just coincidence, but pardon me for being skeptical.
    5. I have a problem when “scientists” dogmatically claim that God does not exits because they can’t see him in a microscope.
    Admittedly I am a layman when it comes to science. I don’t even know if I am that. My interest has not always been piqued there. But sometimes it seems they are trying to answer questions I see know way of science, observation and experimentation, being able to answer. So we get theoretical posits of a “Big Bang” that seem to be nothing more than grasping at straws for an explanation of the beginning of the world that to me do not seem any more scientific than “And God said.” Yet the one is deemed scientific and the other not for the mere reason that the one admits a God.

  • kerner

    I wish somebody would restore the sciences of biology and genetics to their proper places. Then maybe the humanity of the unborn would be legally recognised.

  • Trey (@4), “How are they helping the world or even Europe by trying to replicate the big bang?” is an engineering question about a scientific undertaking. It doesn’t really make sense, and it makes the same mistake as identified in the article.

    Of course, this is all semantics, which has its value, but I do wonder if there aren’t two types of engineering here. One goes by the definition of “applied science” — that is, taking the formerly (seemingly) useless knowledge gained for knowledge’s sake by scientists and using it to solve a problem. Another is more along the lines of “inventing” — making something to solve a problem, but without necessarily understanding the principles involved. The former proceeds from science as a base, while the latter sort of proceeds ex nihilo, if you will, though both are engineering.

    Kerner (@16), while I certainly agree with your ends, I’m not sure that science will ever be the tool to define “humanity”. And if science is that end, then we certainly already have the tools to define it; and yet people ignore the humanity of the unborn, anyhow. Which means that science, again, isn’t the solution.

  • Bror (@15), while I certainly agree with you about your conclusions (because ours are informed from outside the scientific realm), I’m not sure I can agree with your apparent disdain for scientists’ constantly changing their numbers and conclusions. That, after all, is how science works, and everyone discussing science would do well to remember it, be they dogmatic athiests or ardent creationists.

    Science doesn’t say “this is the unchangeable truth” about anything. Anyone who says so has probably crossed over to religion. Science instead says that this is the best model they have or the best understanding of this that they have. And that model or understanding are subject to revision pending further data or ideas. That’s usually assumed in most discussions, but occasionally people forget that.

    Of course, you can take this notion to ridiculous extremes, questioning whether gravity will work when you get out of bed or if the sun will get up tomorrow — if so, keep in mind those models are very well supported by the data, and there’s not too much debate about them.

    But when scientists change their minds or new data comes out, that’s not evidence of science’s failure, but rather its success.

  • Don S

    NQB @ 14: I agree with you. Ken Ham is engaging in agendized science, because he is starting with a hypothesis that the Bible is true. However, it doesn’t bother me because he admits his bias. His purpose is to provide evidence that scientists can reasonably disagree about the data that they can observe, and can develop equally plausible hypotheses based upon their observations, overlaid with their biases. His is a defensive battle, attempting to provide a non-theological alternative to evolutionary theory.

    If evolutionary scientists were equally willing to admit their biases, I wouldn’t have a problem with them either. They should admit that their theories are based on their view of the scientific evidence available, after that evidence has been overlaid with their underlying assumptions (generally, that there was no Creator God).

  • kerner


    (sigh) I know you’re right. People will see the unborn as subhuman because they want to, and because they find it in their self interest to do so.

    Still, it can’t hurt to make the argument. Maybe a few will see the inconsistancy.

  • NQB

    Bror (@15), thanks for clearing all that up. In fact, it looks like we really don’t disagree about anything!

    An interesting note, however, is that a lot of scientists actually seem to recognize their dogmatism. Or rather, they know they are working under assumptions and that those assumptions dictate the questions they ask and the answers they find. Unfortunately, they then proceed to only give the public the “answers” and dogmatically insist on the correctness. In a way, they shoot themselves in the foot by doing that, but in general, it seems to work out quite well for them as our society’s obsession with science demonstrates.

    Of course, the same thing can be true of theology. And I’m thankful that people can tell me what’s true with basic, condensed reasons appealing to what I already know rather than a full-blown exegetical analysis. But if I ever ask for a more careful explanation, I’ll be wary if I simply hear, ‘Because it’s theology! I’m a theologian, so of course I’m right!’ I’m sure a lot of theologians are jealous of that luxury scientists seem to enjoy…

  • “But when scientists change their minds or new data comes out, that’s not evidence of science’s failure, but rather its success.”
    In most cases I would agree with you tODD. But it seems to me that in some cases it is just science repeating mistakes on a grander scale so as to continue believing in the unquestionable fact of evolution. Gould finally figured out Darwinism doesn’t work. But he holds on to the conclusion and comes up with punctuated equilibrium to explain it. Yet his theory seems to have even more problems. So as each year passes the world gets older by the billions, and no one ever stops to question the assumptions behind the math. Panspermia, and theories for the beginning of life involving crystals and extraterrestrial ejaculation are posited as scientific, but a man professes his belief in God and is told that he can’t be a serious scientist if he so believes in that.

  • Bror:

    The Earth isn’t getting older by billions of years; just one year older each year, like you and I (but somehow my wife isn’t aging as fast as me).

    Geologists’ estimates of the age of the Earth has held steady at around 4.5 billion years for a number of decades. There has been fine tuning on that number, as well as on the age of the different time units (Cambrian, Ordovician…), but not radical revisions. The math works, and the assumptions are firmly grounded in physics and chemistry.

    There has been a lot of discussion in the past year about the timing of the inception of the downcutting of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, but that doesn’t bother me. It is not an example of bewildered scientists who can’t get their story straight; it is just the historical scientific method (as opposed to the experimental scientific method) at work. None of these squabbles cause any reason to doubt the basic story of the history of the Grand Canyon (at least in my mind).

  • john

    An interesting essay in the New York Times on how science is political but not in the way you may think.
    This article was published in a web magazine I can heartily recommend.

  • WebMonk

    Even people who are very strongly of the opinion that science is to be applied and is otherwise of dubious value should still support those “pure science” endeavors like the LHC. Perhaps they won’t want to support them as much, but they still ought to support them.

    While it is unlikely to know the results of “pure science” ahead of time with certainty, and even less likely to know what applications it may generate, history is replete with examples of pure science being put to practical use, though not necessarily immediately.

    Most all the discoveries of electricity and radiation were “pure science” in their day and it wasn’t until we started making things like electric engines, x-ray machines, CAT scans, and stuff that people started seeing the benefits.

    Just based on history, strongly “application” oriented people ought to still support things like the LHC. In 30 years we might be doing completely non-invasive, remote brain surgery based on things discovered about primary physical laws.

    Here’s something of “pure science” that I suspect will help move toward extracting energy from “quantum” energy sources, and will most certainly be of incredible use in nano technology. The origination of this concept is rooted in theoretical quantum physics which at the time of origination seemed as close to useless as could be.

  • Don S

    John @ 24:

    Interesting article indeed. This statement from the article: “It (Science) requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter.”

    Nature is the final arbiter? Kind of hard to square with the Bible being the ultimate source of Truth, don’t you think? Biblically, God’s general revelation, revealed through nature, is subsidiary to His Revealed Word, is it not?

  • Re: Don S (#26)

    Is general revelation subsidiary to special revelation, or complementary? I prefer to take the “All truth is God’s truth” approach. If there appears to be a conflict between science and scripture, either we don’t understand science correctly, or we don’t understand scripture correctly. In the end, when we understand both correctly, there will be no conflict.

  • For some good scientist (in this case geologist) vs. engineer stories, click here.

  • Don S

    Kevin @ 27: I don’t disagree that, were we to perfectly understand nature and Scripture, there would be no conflict. Unfortunately, given our limited, fallible abilities, we are not capable of perfect understanding. We are also incapable of perfect observation. For this reason, when there is apparent conflict between scientific theory and teachings of the Bible, I will go with the Bible every time. I don’t think there is any question that general revelation is subsidiary to special revelation — the purpose of general revelation is to point us toward an attitude of seeking God. The purpose of special revelation is to detail the plan of salvation, through Christ, to those who have been drawn to Him.

    So, do you agree or disagree with the statement that “nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter”?

  • DonS (#28):

    I certainly would not say that nature is the “final arbiter” because I don’t believe that science has priority over scripture. They are both true. If they are both true, I don’t have to say that one is above the other. They do, however, have different purposes.

    I agree completely that the purpose of general revelation is to point us to the Creator, but that it cannot do so in the same way that scripture does. Nature cannot point me to Christ as the substitutionary atonement for my sins; only scripture can do that.

    I won’t say that scripture has priority over science because I believe that they are both true, and so assignment of priority is unnecessary. The danger of saying that scripture takes priority over science is that we can become blind to our misunderstandings of scripture, and then force science to fit those misunderstandings. This has led to errors in the past, such as geocentrism. It leads to errors in the present, such as Flood geology, which I don’t think works at all.

  • I guess one more thing I should have said is that our fallibility applies to our understandings of scripture as much as to our understandings of nature, and that we should be humble in both areas.

  • Don S

    Kevin: I appreciate your spirit and the humility you evidence in your responses. And I agree that we all inevitably harbor misunderstandings about certain aspects of Scripture, just as we inevitably misinterpret scientific observations — we are fallible humans. We see all of those differing Scriptural interpretations played out in vigorous discussions on this very blog 🙂

    I guess I don’t find the establishment scientific community to be very “humble” about their observations in the fields of human/earth origin. They seem pretty doctrinaire and certain, to the point where they refuse to consider or permit our children to consider other viewpoints. The same seems to be true in the field of climate change. No dissent is seriously considered, no matter how credible the dissenter. And a growing number of climate change dissenters are preeminent in the field.

    Moreover, the Scriptures seem pretty straightforward concerning origin. The burden, I believe, is clearly heavily on the scientific community to credibly counter the explicit and literal account of Scripture concerning 6 day creation and the forming of adult man from the dust of the earth by the loving hand and breath of almighty God. That is a heavy burden, and the evidence is far less than overwhelming.

    There wasn’t any legitimate Scriptural basis for geocentrism, at least that I can see. Nor is there, really, for flood geology. I believe the flood occurred, and that it was worldwide, because God, in His Word, says that it did, and was. I believe that flood geology is a possible explanation for some of the geological features and fossil records we see today. But the theory of flood geology is not based on Scripture, and may or may not be accurate.

  • Thanks, DonS, for your gracious comments.

    Regarding the fallibility of our understanding of scriptures:

    “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” — 2 Peter 3:15-16 ESV

    “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” — Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1

    Luther has a great quote along these same lines in the introduction to his commentary on Genesis, but I don’t have a copy, and I couldn’t find it online. Something about the foolishness of many of the interpretations of Genesis he had read (and he might have put me in that same category).

  • Don S

    Thank you, as well, Kevin. This is a good discussion.

    I think sometimes we make Scripture harder than it is. When it is dealing with theological issues, it can be difficult to interpret. But when it is giving an historical account, I think the default needs to be to assume its true and take it literally, absent a compelling reason to believe the account is a parable, or otherwise allegorical. I don’t think the Genesis account falls in that category, but I guess that is where we differ.

  • S K

    “I think sometimes we make Scripture harder than it is. When it is dealing with theological issues, it can be difficult to interpret. But when it is giving an historical account, I think the default needs to be to assume its true and take it literally, absent a compelling reason to believe the account is a parable, or otherwise allegorical. I don’t think the Genesis account falls in that category, but I guess that is where we differ.”

    Why, why should we begin with assuming scripture is true? Do we have any reason for upholding scripture as a way of interpreting truth? Has this type of rational ever achieved any greater understanding of nature?

    Any way to adress the original post, I think it is undeniable that it has been the blue-sky science of today that became the engineering bread and butter of tommorow. if you think a particular strand of research does not seem to you like to bring about a revolutionary application in anytime in the near or distant future, then there are chances that you are right. Though there are also chances that you are wrong. The question is can we afford to pick and choose what to study and what not when we could potentially be missing out on a potential revolution?