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Tying the Hands of Engineers: The Decline of Judgment

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Ingenuity is an integral aspect of engineering. In fact, "ingenuity" and "engineering" are linked etymologically. However, it seems to me the latitude for engineers to inject imagination and creativity into their work has been steadily diminishing. Why is this happening? Greek philosophers recognized three distinct knowledge categories:"epistime," knowing that something is the case; "techne," knowing how to achieve a predefined outcome; and "phronesis," knowing how to act in a contextually sensitive, appropriate way.

The first survives today in terms like "epistemic" (of or having to do with knowledge) and "epistemology" (the study of knowledge), while the second is familiar as the root of "technical," "technique" and "technology." But the third has not found its way into English at all, which is consistent with the cultural trend of increasingly embracing theoretical knowledge and technical rationality—i.e., science and technology—while downplaying practical judgment.

SCHMIDT
David Edward Tabachnick chronicles this long-term development in his 2013 book, "The Great Reversal: How We Let Technology Take Control of the Planet." He reviews some great texts of political philosophy to show how, "instead of good judgment guiding technical knowledge, technical knowledge comes to guide judgment, turning the ancient virtue of phronesis into a subordinate of a larger scientific project to perfect humanity." He concludes by discussing prospects for a "phronesis revival," noting that the chief obstacle is that "[w]e have handed over our decision-making procedures to a range of technical experts, specialists and managers and thus have left few, if any, sources for relearning the practice of the virtue."

Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe make much the same point in their 2010 book, "Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing." They apply recent insights from psychology and cognitive science to validate the importance of phronesis, drawing examples primarily from doctors, lawyers and teachers. Pressure to focus on health-care costs (rather than quality), client advocacy (rather than justice) and standardized test scores (rather than education) have had an adverse effect. Rules and incentives have become ubiquitous, reducing or even eliminating opportunities for the exercise of discretion, which is essential to the development of good judgment.

Too Prescriptive

In our industry, this is primarily evident in the proliferation of federal, state and local regulations that increasingly govern our day-to-day activities. As a structural engineer, I am especially familiar with the constantly growing size and complexity of the codes and standards I am required to follow. Compare the current editions of IBC, ASCE 7, ACI 318 and the AISC Steel Construction Manual with their much slimmer predecessors from 10, 20 or 50 years ago. I find it hard to believe loads and materials have really changed that much over the past few decades. Instead, I consider this to be the result of a well meaning but misguided attempt to legislate design outcomes by providing an increasingly elaborate set of instructions.

In most cases, the sincere motivation behind such detailed procedures is to improve the accuracy and reliability of engineering calculations and thus the safety of the built environment. However, a (presumably unintended) consequence is that engineers are now effectively constrained to adhere strictly to the "letter of the law," because doing otherwise almost certainly would increase their liability exposure should something go wrong. After all, courts typically calibrate standards of care to what other competent engineers would ordinarily do in similar circumstances—exactly what today's codes and standards purport to spell out.

Is there a viable alternative? The emergence of "performance-based" approaches, particularly for addressing structural behavior during an earthquake, suggests one possible way forward. Legally binding provisions could set basic objectives and fundamental principles, with an appended commentary stipulating specific methods that are "deemed to comply." This would enable engineers to make more of their technical decisions on a project-by-project basis, restoring the proper role of practical judgment and serving as a model for all of society. 

Jon A. Schmidt, PE, SECB, is an associate structural engineer at Burns & McDonnell, an engineer-contractor in Kansas City, Mo. He can be emailed at jschmid@burnsmcd.com.

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