During @kgostic’s talk, I asked how CFA was thinking about what distinguishes their “more engineered” mindset from whatever it is infectious disease modeling for public health currently is. I also qualified my question by saying that what it sounded like they are using the term to mean is “production” as opposed to “benchtop”. (aside: I should emphasize that I do take seriously the caveat about not speaking on behalf of USG, HHS, CDC, or CFA - I understand that the answer during the talk is not the official position of any of those entities)
@samabbott goaded me into opining on the topic, so I’ll try to summarize my position here, and hopefully folks will find that interesting and clear enough to argue with.
I’ve already done a very short summary of my position via the post title. To rephrase in complete sentences: I think Math, Science, and Engineering are different activities - and that difference manifests in usefully different institutions and practices around those activities. I also think that benchtop vs production is a different axis. I’m going to define all of those words for the purpose of this argument; feel free to @ me that those definitions are nonsense.
First, the M-S-E category is distinguished by their fundamental questions:
- Math: what do the rules mean?
- Science: what are the rules?
- Engineering: what do we do with these rules?
Or put into activity terms, Mathematicians might try to answer “what does this set of rules for differentiation mean for the relationship between postion, velocity, acceleration, jerk, ad infinitum?” while Scientists pursue “Is Impetus or Energy a better model of projectile motion?” and Engineers “How can I hit that target with enough rounds, as quickly and cheaply as possible?”
These different motivating tasks lead to different institutions around the disciplines and their practictioners, despite the fact that all three groups have a lot of surface overlap in language and tools. There’s no such thing as mathematics license, while there is a professional engineers license - if you’re cutting corners in math, your result is just wrong, but a poorly engineered design can kill people. Scientists are taught to get the best possible measurement, engineers the best practical one. And so on.
I posit that we can find example after example of how those three groups view a problem in different ways, traceable to those fundamentally different telos informing how they have been taught to work, what to value, the incentives they experience and on and on. And when I say view in different ways - I don’t just mean “approach differently”, I mean “define differently”.
Despite my assertion that the talk implied mostly the mindset that Engineering == better Science – i.e. that its production vs benchtop distinction – I do think there were points that acknowledged some of these deep distinctions. Most notably, the accuracy versus timeliness point. But the were others that hinted at not yet shifting into the engineering mindset - e.g. the notion that we need to aggressively propogate all the CIs. Engineers frequently use point estimates, just not the central ones! A first pass, engineering mindset calculation uses whatever tolerance boundary is worst for the outcome you’re seeking to avoid. Even using tolerances on parts that are mutually-exclusively bad - dealing with that sort of thing is a second pass version of the calculation, if the first doesn’t get the job done.
On to defining Benchtop vs Production: something that works on the proverbial benchtop entails a lot of handwork and is generally quite sensitive to … well, everything, and most particularly “who” is doing the work. Something that’s Production can be turned out within tolerance (n.b. that doesn’t mean identically) by most anyone under pretty mean conditions – that means a simple-to-follow recipe, but often with tools that are very robust (to chew through user and material input flaws).
But that distinction has nothing to with whether an activity is fundamentally a scientific one (what are the rules?) or an engineering one (what do we do?). Now that said: science does generally lean “benchtop” and engineering generally leans “production”, but that tendency is downstream of the fundamental distinctions between the disciplines, not itself one of the fundamental characteristics.
That seems like enough opening rant - return salvos, please!