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The Feature Creep

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Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/12/2006 9:40 AM

There is always a conflict between what engineers create and how the public thinks of them. Engineers design and run the nuclear power plants, factories, industrial farms and just about every other "bane to mankind" that exists in their opinion.

Recently someone confronted me with a video clip of an EZ chicken catcher, citing it as an example of engineering cruelty. And it bothered me, a lot.

Basically it is a machine that gathers live chickens and puts them in cages. From an engineering standpoint I think it is a simply amazing design. The rate at which it moves large groups of live chickens around must be a huge cost and times saving for the farms that use it. It doesn't do it gently or pretty, but it is very effective. People want cheap food and machines like this help to keep production costs down.

We create things that do jobs faster, easier, more cost effectively or raise the standard of living for everyone. Is it fair for the people who enjoy the fruits of our labor to question or ethics or morality in the ways that we do it? And how do you handle it when someone says that engineers have an ethical and moral obligation to not create something?

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#1

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/12/2006 9:09 PM

Engineers design and build pretty much everything, so there are bound to be some examples of engineering that people don't like. When was the last time someone walked up to you and said "hey, nice work on that bridge over there, beats swimming to work. Let me buy you a beer".

I put some of the blame on the consumer. If there was no market for this sort of thing you would never be able to build it because no one would buy it.

Also (from my point of view), unlike other disiplines (marketing, I'm looking at you), engineering is very frank, open and transparent. For example - It says quite clearly what it does and how it does it on the data sheet "Model xxxx, designed to kill rodent y by firing bolt propelled by shotgun shell into rodent's brain. refer to diagram aa and lab video of test results, etc". Once it goes thru marketing however, it can look to the customer or end user quite different.

Besides, if it was up to us there wouldn't be any problem with unethical designs, but it isn't for we, like everyone else, are ruled by the accountants, and it is this group of people that say "we will only give you enough money to do part of x some of y and most of z", requiring us to cut corners. Of course there isn't a really large market for over-engineered equipment that virtually lasts forever (did someone mention the auto industry)

As for people that say engineers have an ethical and moral obligation to protect the public, damd right we do. In many cases we are the first and last line of defence for both the public, the company we work for (and the planet in general). For example - If it were up to the accountants, there would BE no maintenance budget ("but it isn't broken, so why do we need to repair it"). How many of us have seen this happen, and watched companies almost go under.

In the end it comes down to us to produce designs that will satisy BOTH our ethical standpoint first and the accountant second.

=========================================================

The ramblings of an engineer working in marketing - Light meets Dark to give a sort of gray area.

=========================================================

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/12/2006 11:22 PM

I was initially horrified, but then I saw they use what look like broom whisks to move them and after they get in the next cage they seem alright, and that lessened my anguish a little. I still hate to see food animals maltreated

Of course, they are all proud they are going to be clergymen, so they tolerate the treatment.

I did not have the heart to tell them the truth about friars

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#3
In reply to #2

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 6:29 AM

Hmmmm public opinion and engineering...

Public opinion canges with the wind... I like the analogy of using computers....

Back in the late 70's if you told Joe public that you were using a computer, they used to think you were really intelligent.

By the mid 80's Joe public was beginning to see more computers but still thought you must go intelligent to use one.

By the late 80s early 90s everybody was seeing computers at work etc... so you were just another computer user, but Hey you must be smart (ish).

By the mid 90's most people had a computer and were playing games on it so all of a sudden you were idling your time away playing games if you worked with a computer...

By the late 90's and early 00's if you were sat at a computer you must be using the internet and visiting porn sites!!

So in Joe public's view in 25 years you have changed from being the intelligent elite to a dirty old man watching porn......

So ask me what the public think and I will tell you I don't give a damn! As its bound to change next week / month / year etc...

John < /cynical mode >

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#5
In reply to #3

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 10:27 AM

A'men brother

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#21
In reply to #3

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/19/2006 11:20 AM

Say that again but louder!!! The "general pubic (sp. intentional)" is told what to think, how to think and when to stop thinking. They believe whatever voodoo they hear and react accordinally. If you want an interesting read see Stossell's book "Pass the Shovel" or Penn and Teller's "Bulls..t" program on cable. If we were to give credance to what the people think the earth would be flat, advertising would be true, and cats and dogs should be able to vote! Robert Heinlein said it 20 yreas age "Never underestimate the power of human stupidity". Give me a break!!

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#22
In reply to #21

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/19/2006 12:20 PM

Rave On!

I agree, why do we have such a problem with people not thinking for themselves? Are they not able? Too lazzy? Lack a sense of responcability??

What irks me the worst is that here in the US we have a democracy where people vote (or atleast have the right to.) I am beginning to wonder if ANYONE is doing thier homework on who they want to vote for or if they are just sitting back in thier couch and letting the election year BS adds make up thier minds. Citizens of the United States NEED to go educate themselves on what thier representatives are doing; and yes, that requires them to first go find out who is representing them. I'm sorry, I'm getting off topic.

Maybe not, I think (Please no offence OP) that the question should not be "Engineer vs Public," but "Public vs itself." What you are seeing is all fallout, a symptom, from a major lack of responsibility of society as a whole and the desire for "cheap, now, better, faster, easyer, cheaper..." It just can't be that way, nothing comes without a cost; if it's worth working for, you'll have to work for it either now or later. What you said in your post is what happens when the cheaper better faster comes back around to bite in the @$$, society is looking for someone to blame; and you can bet your chewed on @$$ that it won't be the person that buys the things you design so they can have them cheaper, faster, better, easyer....

The question should be, how do we drive enginuity, development, and invention with something better than money and competition? I think the answer lays with the giants who's shoulders we stand on (attempt to refernce a quote from Apollo program.) Leonardo Davinci, Newton, Einstien these men (sorry ladies, I'm not trying to be a pig, just the first few names that came to mind) discovered, questioned, searched and yearned for answeres and knowledge; why? because they liked to learn; advances in technology is what glued them together. Thier advancements and concepts were not "guided," perhaps constrianed is more appropriate, by the sales department.

I guess I shouldn't be nieve, polotics and fame may have played a part in thier lives, but I like to think these guys just loved finding answers to phenomona they saw all around them.

Wow, I gotta stop doing this. Thanks though, sometimes a rant helps even though it gets me all worked up.

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The Feature Creep

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#4
In reply to #1

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 10:03 AM

The only time I had someone buy me a beer for being an engineer was when I meet a service technician for Verizon who had to install one of the CES cards I designed while I was working at Fujitsu. Smiled bought me a beer and said that it was the easiest card to install out of the 30 he had to use on a regular basis.

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#6

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 11:11 AM

Engineering, and it's abstract counterpart; Science, has been responsible for bringing man from a creature that lives in caves and digs roots out of the ground to what we are today. It's also responsible for the rocketing foward of technology we have seen in the past 150 years. If you ask me, the good EXTREMELY outweighs the evil in engineering.

You might ask, how can there even BE evil in engineering? Engineering only makes tools, it is only a means to an end. If you make hammers you can hardly be held responsible if someone else uses them to break people's skulls. For the most part you are right, but there are a couple of quandaries that an engineer can get themselves into.

One is if your tool can ONLY be used to evil ends. If you are making a person-shaped oven, a human specific neurotoxin, or a bomb that can level an entire city you can be pretty sure your tool isn't going to be used for good. Note, however, that the vast majority of "good" tools come from the private sector, while the vast majority of "evil" ones come from the public sector, or government. Which brings me to my second moral quandary.

An engineer or scientist needs to be careful that the resources they use to achieve their ends are morally obtained. If people were forced to pay for your project, or the resources to make it were stolen and you know it then you need to evaluate if your actions are moral or not. For example, the project I am working on right now is paid for in large part by a government defense contract. This means that tax dollars, which are obtained by force from the citizens of a country, are funding my work. However, I believe that it is the proper role for a government to protect its people, and my project will definitely be used to protect them. Thus, I have reckoned my own moral conondrum.

One problem is that most engineers do not think about these things (I could be wrong, but I doubt it). I'm pretty sure I'm the only person at my company who has actually sat down and thought about the morality of our actions.

Another is that engineers do not recognize when they are being attacked, not for their evils, but for their good. Either that or they just don't care to aknowledge the attack. For example, the people who decry the plight of those poor, mindless chickens that are swept up and put in cages. These people ignore the masses of thinking, intelligent human beings that can now be fed because of this industrialization. They also ignore the fact that the signboards and ink they use to protest this "evil" would not be possible without the same kind of person, the person of the mind. They create nothing of value, and then use those same valuable tools that WE created to attack us.

Take also for example people who now write editorials about how technology is "driving people apart" and isolating them from family and friends. Technology can't be held responsible for the decisions of individuals or of the prevails moods or attitudes of a culture. If you think that your cell phone and your internet connection are so terribly isolating then DON'T USE THEM and let the rest of us, who see their rational value, continue with our lives.

This might sound a little dire, but it is at least important for us engineers to keep this in the back our minds. These attacks are not limited to a handful of angry housewives and retired social workers. Observe, for example, the enormous and powerful environmentalist lobby. They work continouosly to hold back the progression of science and progress. I challenge any environmentalist to quantify, in any way, the "damage" done to the environment by a car or a factory. I guarantee you that any company worth its salt can find a way to quantify its good. They can also quantify for you the cost to them if you limit their output of cars or gases. These things don't need to be quantified? They don't need to be rationally backed? Then you can justify ANY action merely by pointing to its damage or good to some vauge, nebulous idea like "the environment" or "the will of God" or "the public welfare." Observe that this is how the vast majority of evil comes to be in this world.

It is important for engineers to realize that ours, when morally practiced, is the cause (in both meanings of the word) of Life, and those who attack us is the cause of Death.

(Sorry for the length, but I have a lot to say on this issue, and this isn't even half of it)

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#23
In reply to #6

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

11/05/2006 9:19 PM

The "enormous and powerful environmental lobby". Yes this thread has been so good in covering many facets of the same problem. Currently we have Al Gore touring the world on a campaign, one of his catch cries is "be careful what you lobby for". He is referring to the US auto industry lobbying themselves out of business. Industry and business have lobbied stupidly, granted. The "Green" movement are not exempt from the law of unintended consequences either. Two examples that stick in my craw happened in Queensland, Australia, and both are the result of federal meddling from successive governments, one from each side of the political devide on behalf of city based greenies. Both cases are the shutting down of environmentally sustainable forestry. The sustainable yield methodology was so effective that the two areas (Fraser Island and the Atherton Tableland) were regarded as pristine world heritage after 100 years of logging. I can't claim the architects of the tree mark scheme were all actually engineers, just experts in their field. These men put the future productivity and biodiversity or the regions at the forefront of their plan and it worked. Southern areas eg., NSW, Victoria and Tasmania allow clearfelling and wood chipping, Queensland did not. The sustainable forests are closed, but the clearfelled ones still operate. These forests are a very long way from Sydney and Melbourne, where the votes were sought and where the words "pristine" and "wilderness" had special meaning. The upshot is the massive areas set aside as National Parks and World Heritage are managed with about a little finger joint as opposed to a skeleten crew. Wild (feral) pigs are protected along with all measures of other vermin. The wild pigs are responsible for destroying Cassowary nests to such a degree that the huge flightless bird is almost extinct.

"So having having thought globally and totally stuffed up locally, where is the benefit? "

"Well 450 people lost their jobs at one mill (Peeramon) alone, that's gotta be good."

"Timber, that's right the wooden stuff, where does that come from? "

"Oh don't worry some comes from exotic pine plantations, but most is imported. You don't need the high quality Queensland timbers, Malaysia and Indonesia will supply rainforest timbers from their illegal forestry plots in Papua New Guinea and Borneo."

"Don't you worry about about the wholesale destruction of the world's rainforests, Orangutans and wildlife?"

"Oh well, they won't listen to us, they say stupid people who throw away perfectly good industries wouldn't know. Anyway, companies keep importing the timber and people keep using it. They shouldn't you know. We are not to blame."

A small question. Many respondents to this thread are first generation off the farm (me too). Where is the practicality going to come from now that the few remaining farmers are obligated to produce more and more for an ever diminishing return, all the while needing to send their offspring into other pursuits?

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#7

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 11:36 AM

Well BRodda, I have to say that I'm not comfortable with the way that machine handles critters. I also must say that if you were to see the rest of the operation you wouldn't be that impressed iether, meaning the chicken chatcher probably isn't the worst thing there. As an addition things like this are not exclusive to chicken farms.

Perhaps a little perspective on my opinion might be appropriate, I grew up on a farm with dairy cows. I am 26 and still live and work on that farm,(when I'm not playing design engineer at work) although we no longer milk cows we have a small herd of beef and work a couple horses. We raise a couple hogs each year... No chicken's, I hate them, they stink and crap everywhere. I've butchered steers, cull cows, pigs, and assorted small game and white tail. I don't like the killing part, but the rest doesn't bother me. I prefir treat the animals as nice as possible, keep life easy for them, and care for them; that is one of the jobs God gave us to do. That doesn't mean I've never hit a milk cow for beeing a knot head. I ask you to think alittle bit, these are 1400 pound creatures that when mad at one another, can throw one of its own a few feet with just a toss of its correctly placed head. Moreover these animals are our lively hood, wrecking them makes no sence. Large scale operations may be different, but one should ask, by do we have these large scale operations that have to run so cheap?


Did that person have a 99cent chicken strip basket in thier hand when they ragged on you about this machine? Consumers need a slap in the face and a swift kick in the @$$. We have become a society of "I want it now, cheap and easy." Then we go cry about our job at the factory being shiped over seas. I admit, I'm a hypocrit myself, I own stuff that was bought cheap... but I avoid it as much as possible, and most importantly I try to be an educated consumer and actually do a little work instead of just sitting back and letting adds and propiganda fill my head and influence my decisions. I do my own thinking and get sick of listening to others cry when they blindley go buy $50 TVs, $89 DVD players and $1 lunches and then they see the fallout from these actions and blame it on others. I'm getting all worked up, time to quit before I get kicked out of the CR4 forum. I'm gonna go work on a head shute for my new corral.

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The Feature Creep

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#8
In reply to #7

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 11:45 AM

My brothers and I are the first generation of both sides of my family that are not dairy farmers for something like 6 generations and I grew up on a farm too. I remember being 7 and helping my grandfather strap on a mechanical milker to the cows. I was even a member of 4H, but I raised ducks and chickens (yes they do stink). We still have horses.

And no the person who showed me the video was a vegan, it would have been much easier to laugh at them if they had some nuggets in their hand. Personally the machine doesn't bother me as much as the person saying that my profession was guilty of all the bad things in life, but I think he would have been happy if we jsut returned to caveman times of gathering.

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#9
In reply to #8

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 12:07 PM

Well, after somedays at work seeing the wasteful things that companies do in the face of competition and all the other crap that muddies the waters, I think I could live on berrys, hog snouts (mushrooms) and harpooned venison. At least then neighbors whatched out for each other (even placed neighbors' needs above thier own), instead of only themselves. Unless you were in a canabalistic tribe....

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#13
In reply to #8

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 5:53 PM

"the person... was a vegan... saying that my profession was guilty of all the bad things in life"[/p]

How hypocritical is that? It would be impossible to live a vegan life without many of the advances made possible by engineers. Synthetics and machines perform many essential functions that in the past would be accomplished using animals or animal parts. Try to imagine a 1820's frontier vegan trying to keep warm without animal skins, surviving the winter without hunting, even knitting cotton clothes without bone needles. Even today, people that claim to be vegans can only do so because they are ignorant of the animal content in the things they use everyday. They are ignorant of the science and engineering it takes to use animal byproducts in adhesives, food processing, medicine, and medical research, synthetics, lubricants.

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#10

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 1:03 PM

The cost of a perfect world is beyond our reach. Very few of those that oppose, are willing to walk to the protest or wear sandals made of birch bark rather than leather as they protest cruelty to animals. I am not saying none are willing to practice what they preach. Those that do have my admiration.

Wherever you are at this particular moment, look around you and count the number of items you see that rely on the petrochemical industry for their manufacture. How many are we willing to do without? Public transit? Great idea, when will they bring the commuter train to within 50 km of my house? Alternate energy, wind farms, solar. Fine, but don't block my view. Free range chickens? There are over 300 million of us in North America, thats a lot of range.

Politicians and activists will never fix the worlds problems, only the engineer who is constantly fiddling and fixing and asking "how can I make this better, faster, stronger, more efficient" etc.

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#11
In reply to #10

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 1:57 PM

Good points.

I too admire those who are successfull at practicing what they preach; it is not a simple thing to do. I can't even get it right, I have an old over powered under economized 4wd truck. But I had to park it and get a piece of crap car that gets 32MPG to drive to work. Which may sound like a step in the right direction? not really I drive 35 stink'n miles to work and back every day! Why? Because I want to live on my farm, not in town. Still a hypocrit, if I was really concerned about petro consumption and emmisions I would move closer to work. I like clean air, I try to do my part, I keep lights, radios, TV, computer turned off when not using, turn the thermostat up in the sumer and down in the winter... Sounds like maybe I'm doing good here too? No according to many, I burn wood for heating my home. Why, because it is actually economical for me (don't argue about all the hidden costs) and I like the independance that comes along with it along with other reasons. Now I do try to maintain an ideal burn rate to reduce hydrocarbon emmissions.

My problem is while I'm making this better, faster, stronger, more efficient; I wonder what for? So the mindless consumer can have a cheaper video game? Why bother making a cell phone last for a decent time span, the teenage owner is going to want a new one in a year. So the engineers at cellphone manufactures are told to design cell phones that look cute, but wind up in a recycling bin (at best) in a year. Again, I hope we don't get side trackd on recycling consumer electronics; I'm just trying to make a point. Same thing with tooling!! WOW a tool for hundres of thousands of dollars and hard work that a skilled toolmaker should be taking great satisfaction in will make a couple hundred plastic cell phone backs, or faces and then be destroyed in a year because heaven forbid we sell the same phone for two years! Automotive industry? lets not go there. Sorry, here I am ranting again.

I just need to find a simple job to get some income and save engineering for a hobby, that way hopefully life doesn't ruin it for me. Actually I'm working on a project with an automated stove that uses multiple stages of catalytic converters and heat exchangers to maximize fuel efficiency and minimize unburnt emissions.

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#14
In reply to #11

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 11:48 PM

It is far too easy to see only the ugly, murder and dissaster sell newspapers, not good news.

On Monday morning when we drive to work, instead of seeing the smoke pouring from the stack, lets look instead at the stack. See the scrubbers? How about that bag house for dust collection? Notice the leaching ponds returning water to the harbour that is actually cleaner now than when we took it out for our cooling process. For every evil of engineering thrust in our face, I could easily point to hundreds that have solved major problems and have made our lives much better. Returning to the dark ages to "Save Mother Earth" will never happen, the general public won't have it. Kyoto won't do it either, although if redistribution of wealth with one large governing body overseeing the transfer and getting quite wealthy in the process is the goal, well then that goal can be achieved.

Profit is the great motivator. Those scrubbers, bag houses and leach ponds make money for the companies using them. They may have been put in place to satisfy a regulation originally, but it doesn't take long to find the hidden resources as byproduct.

We aren't hunter/gatherers, we are engineers. We invent, design and refine to put bread on the table. If Joe and Jane consumer want to be pigs and blame me, fine. At least my family will eat. While they are pointing their pudgy fingers, I will be finding better and cheaper ways of recovering industrial resources that were once waste.

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#12

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 4:20 PM

This machine is a very good equipment,is a very good idea.When I starded to watch this video ,I havenĀ“t a good impression about this,then I understand for what this equipement was planned...The engineering exists for this...for good solutions !

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#15

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/13/2006 11:56 PM

A partial quote;

"engineers have an ethical and moral obligation to not create something"

Not create something? How absurd! How can I unthink an idea?

A hammer can be used to build something up or smash it down, lets build better hammers and leave their possibly harmful uses to the law makers and philosophers.

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#16
In reply to #15

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/14/2006 11:31 AM

I think that's very dangerous thinking merkelerk. Everybody, engineer and government official alike, needs philosophy.

"A hammer can be used to build something up or smash it down, lets build better hammers and leave their possibly harmful uses to the law makers and philosophers."

I don't know if you read what I wrote before in this forum, but I addressed that point directly. I even used the same hammer example.

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#17
In reply to #16

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/14/2006 1:28 PM

I agree with merkelerk, once an idea has formed in your head you can't dismiss or discard it....

and even if you could, think of the number of things in this world which are spin offs of something maybe sinister...

Non-stick cooking pans from an idea to engineer a better surface for a war plane.. (I think?)

there are many other examples where a brilliant engineering solution has come about from a design for warfare or for a better killing machine etc...

Whose to say in the first place that its wrong to have an idea and create something from it?

You can think of an idea or a solution to something, but you can't unthink an idea...

I believe the hammer analogy is a perfect example, similar to a chain saw and so many other implements going back to a gun for protection and a knife for general purpose use...

John.

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#18
In reply to #17

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/14/2006 1:32 PM

You could even extend the argument to the design of the nuclear bomb....

Rocketman, if Oppenheimmer's team hadn't desinged the A bomb would the world be a safer place?

The German's weren't far behind with their version of the same toy!

And if the A bomb had been undesigned (is there such a word?) would we have gone on to design nuclear power plants etc...?

John.

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#19
In reply to #17

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/14/2006 1:54 PM

Some people seem to be able to dismiss them. You are right though, if a person is intellectualy honest with themselves then it is impossible for them to evade an idea that forms in their head.

I'm not saying that an engineer should make some kind of crazy attempt to remove ideas from their head, I'm saying that they should think about the moral consequences of acting on those ideas before they do so. I don't think enough engineers do.

You bring up teflon, it was actually discovered while trying to make a new kind of refridgerant. You bring up the threat of a German atom bomb, we continued the Manhattan project long after Germany had been soundly defeated.

I'm not saying that nothing good ever came out of an invention intended to harm people, but I will say that if an engineer is working on a chemical designed to shut down a human pituatary gland and their moral reasoning is that "sometimes good things come out of things like this" they should check their premises. Chances are they are performing the same mental evasion you think is impossible.

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Location: Dunstable, England
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#20
In reply to #19

Re: Engineering vs. Public Opinion

10/14/2006 3:46 PM

Hmmmmmmm food for thought...

I remember working on anti-tank missile design in the late 70's and it was frustrating as one team of engineers worked on designing a missile to penetrate and 'neutralise' armour that another team were improving against our missiles daily!!!

That's the main reason I left that company as it seemed rather a pointless race of engineer against engineer...

All I was trying to say in my last post was that who should be trusted to say "no forget this idea" or to say "Yes let's develop this idea"....?

It has to be left up to the engineer ... or has it??

(definitely not the accountants in charge of a business!!)

John.

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