Monday, April 20, 2009

Alternative Engineering

Engineering, in a broad sense, can be defined as the application of science to solve problems. 

We have all sorts of engineering, mechanical, electrical, software, civil, etc.  Each of these disciplines can be used to solve problems and to keep people safe, to save lives and to perform mission critical applications.  It would be hard to imagine accepting "alternative engineering".  If a company answered a request for quote from a state government by saying that they were using an alternative form of engineering, developed by ancient Chinese engineers, it really couldn't get through the process.  If the company made the claim that all of the engineering firms that normally pitch and win contracts are actually conspiring to keep bridge prices high, and to keep bridges constantly in danger of failing just to perpetuate the need for engineering bridge-building companies, the state government would most likely think of the company as cranks and would throw away their business cards.  But if they believed the company's claims, even a little, they might ask that company for evidence of those claims, and they'd certainly require a pilot study and proof of these better, cheaper bridges before they (the government) would allow their voting constituents to drive their cars on these new bridges.

The same is true for any kind of engineering that is important, like air traffic control software, medical equipment for hospitals, airframe manufacturing, etc, etc, etc.  We demand these engineers, organizations, and companies use the best practices which have been proven by science.  Stepping away from the long-standing traditional, tried-and-true path of building these things happens, but only after the process is thoroughly vetted against the traditional methods with plenty of science and testing behind it. Again, this is for mission critical or life-supporting applications.

Medicine is a kind of engineering in this sense.  It is the application of basic science to solve a life-saving or life-supporting function.  It is certainly more directly critical to those clients who seeks its services.  Why are we so much more willing to accept "alternative medicine" than we are to accept "alternative engineering"?


Josh Gentry said...

At least partly because bridge building is better understood. We mostly build successful bridges. Medicine, while having some fantastic successes, is still much more a shot in the dark.

Matt Dick said...

You're right. It's the same reason why people pray for their comatose aunt to awaken but they don't pray for their uncle's severed leg to regrow. They are both manifestly impossible, but one is more mysterious.

Christian said...

I think also people hear anecdotal accounts of "miracle" cures and healings, and thus hold out hope that the same thing might happen if only the right "alternative" approach is applied.

Conversely, if you were to tell me that a bridge is standing by "some miracle", I would be reluctant to even cross it.

I agree with Josh. Engineering in general is more deterministic than medicine. There is much more wiggle-room in the later.

Anna said...

I believe it is partially because medical attention is much more personal than a bridge. Obviously, if a bridge was built badly that would become very personal, someone might be hurt, and we are right back to medicine.
Also, most people in Western cultures don't give up mainstream medical practices in favor of alternatives. They turn toward the alternatives when Western medicine fails them or if it can't hurt they will supplement mainstream medical practices with alternative practices.
Medicine does fail us. We can't cure cancer. There just isn't a cure out there. When the average non-doctor doesn't want to give up hope they turn to alternatives. When bridges fail us it doesn't have something to do with limitations in the field so we don't need to go looking for alternatives.

JimII said...

"Also, most people in Western cultures don't give up mainstream medical practices in favor of alternatives."

But some people do. Pat & I know people who prefer "wholistic" cures to drugs. I think the deal there is that your headache will probably go away either way, so take eye of newt can often precede your headache going away.

Returning to Anna's main point about people turning away from Western medicine, I know people who have not been helped (or so they say) by drugs for headaches, but have been helped by acupuncture. They don't believe that the technique aligned their 'chi. They do believe that the pain when away.

What do you think, Matt, is this person just crazy?

JimII said...

FYI, crazy is too harsh. I mean, do you think she is wrong. That her headaches went away for some other reason, or that it was coincidence, or whatever.

Doug Haffner said...

The other element that can't be ignored is...TA DA! Money.

Case in point: A group of engineers came up with an idea to drastically improve safety with tablesaws. It revolves around a 2 stage system that both drops the blade into the table and rams a "break" into the blade...stopping it within miliseconds of contacting skin.

They shopped it around to manufacturers...Delta, DeWalt, Jet, Rigid...and all of them said "Well, we'd have to re-tool to add that feature. We don't want to invest in that". This answer came despite legal regulations enacted that say that it's the responsibility of all manufacturers to embrace any significant safety technology that gets developed. Did those companies have to step up and adopt these "alternative" methods? Nope.

The engineers and the lawyers they hired to help ended up creating a whole seperate company to create table saws with the technology built in.

As for the other companies? what if tens of thousands of digits get cut off every year. That's more business for the hospitals, right?

Matt Dick said...

Not "just crazy", but wrong. Wrong in a weird way though, because placebos are an odd confluence of factors. If her pain went away, her pain went away. Pain is subjective. The right way to phrase it is not "acupuncture made her pain go away" but "her belief in acupuncture made her pain go away".