Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 431:
FIRST PERSON

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 431.

Today, we set out to speak objectively. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A peculiar mischief is abroad in the land of science and engineering. It is a mischief born from the noblest of intentions. For decades it has spread like winter flu, far beyond the technical journals that gave it birth. The intention is a craving to stand like blindfolded lady justice -- pure, objective, and aloof.

To do this, we write about our work without ever speaking in the first person. We try to let fact speak for itself. Instead of saying, "I solved the equation and got y = log x," we write "The solution of the equation is y = log x." We turn our actions into facts that are untouched by human hands.

We certainly should try to do that. But my own person is not so easily erased. I think another engineer -- I'll call him Hoople -- is wrong. I'm not objective about Hoople at all, but I must appear to be. So I write, "It is believed that Hoople is incorrect." That's a cheap shot. I express my thoughts without taking responsibility for them. I seem to be reporting general disapproval of Hoople. In the unholy name of objectivity, I make it sound as though the whole profession thinks he's a fool.

That sort of thing spreads. Now radio and TV journalists are doing it. I cringe every time I hear, "It is expected that Congress will pass the bill." Who expects that! -- the announcer, the democrats, a high official? Maybe it's the soy sauce lobby?

So instead of objectivity, we get obfuscation. If our work really occurred in objective isolation, we could write about it that way. But people are present. They think and they act. If we don't represent human intervention accurately, we're dishonest. Then we really lose objectivity.

The things we make tell the world what we are. Real objectivity means admitting our actions and our thoughts as long as they're part the story. Instead, the language of technology and commerce is filled with things like this:

A new reactor is described. Its features are thought to be superior to those of the Hoople reactor.
I haven't eliminated my id here. I've hidden it in a box, and there it's grown large. If I really spoke objectively, I'd say,
I've tried to improve Hoople's reactor. I'll describe my design. Then you can judge it.
These are much more than questions of style. They're matters of honesty and directness. "If you're ashamed of it, don't do it," the old saying goes. In practice, that means doing things we can talk about directly and using language that admits what we've done. When we speak in language that's clean and translucent, then objectivity takes care of itself.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)





The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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