Updated: Aug 7
The scientific method and engineering method are two approaches that are frequently used to develop technology and solve real-world problems. While these two methods share some similarities, they have significant differences in their goals, processes, and outcomes.
In the context of public safety, the differences between these two methods can have far-reaching implications for society. In this article, we consider the role that each has on protecting the public from harm and steps that can be taken to improve the responsible use of technology.
Separation of Concerns
The scientific method is a process that involves observing natural phenomena, developing hypotheses, testing those hypotheses through experiments, and drawing conclusions based on the results. The scientific method is primarily focused on understanding the underlying principles of phenomena and uncovering new knowledge. Scientists are responsible for adhering to ethical guidelines and minimizing the risks of their experiments. They are also expected to communicate their findings to the broader scientific community and the public.
On the other hand, the engineering method is focused on using scientific knowledge to solve practical problems and develop new technologies. Engineers use the principles and theories developed by scientists to design, build, and test new products or systems. The engineering method involves a range of activities, including research and development, prototyping, testing, and refining designs. Engineers are responsible for ensuring that their designs are safe, reliable, and effective. They must also consider the ethical and social implications of their designs and take steps to mitigate any potential risks.
Who is Responsible for Public Safety?
Both disciplines are involved in innovation and both are responsible for public safety. However, when it comes to ensuring public safety, the engineering method is seen as the primary protection against public harm. The reason for this is simple:
Engineers are accountable and must answer for the safety of their designs.
This is the duty of all engineers:
Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
When these responsibilities are ignored, engineers are in possible violation of legal and social contracts but also moral imperatives.
As a result, engineers prove the technology first before it is used to solve real-world problems. The pharma and medical device industries provide excellent examples of how this works. Before a new drug or medical device is approved for use by the public, it must undergo rigorous testing and evaluation. This process involves multiple phases of clinical trials, during which the safety and effectiveness of the drug or device are carefully monitored. Only after this testing is complete and the risks and benefits are well understood can the drug or device be made available to the public. This is consistent with the engineering method.
However, we don't seem to be following this approach across all domains particularly those connected with social media and AI. When it comes to those, we seem to be conducting experiments involving the public at scale without concern for public safety, mitigating the harms, or taking responsibility for the results.
As previously mentioned, when it comes to public safety, those using the scientific method must ensure safe experimentation and take necessary precautions. In addition, those using the engineering method are responsible for the safe development and use of technologies in the public arena.
The responsibility for ensuring public safety falls more heavily on engineers, who play a crucial role in the design and development of technology, infrastructure, and products. For this reason, engineering involves testing and evaluating new technologies before they are made available to the public. This is particularly important in fields such as pharma and medical devices. and should be for other fields including social media and AI. Whether the latter is a science experiment gone wild, or an engineering prototype rolled out to the public before it is ready, the violation of ethical obligations is clear.
There is a common belief that technology, particularly information technology, is neutral, and that the responsibility for how people use the technology lies solely with the individuals who use it. However, this view overlooks the fact that technology is created by people who make deliberate decisions about its design, development, and implementation.
In my first year of engineering design we were taught that engineering is never neutral. For example, sometimes it is better to build a better shovel than introduce massive combines to improve agricultural productivity. The former improves productivity while maintaining livelihoods and communities. The other improves productivity but often destroys livelihoods, communities, and most likely the environment as well. Social impacts are necessary design considerations for all who practise engineering.
While experimenting or testing out new technologies where there is the possibility of significant risk to the public may not be illegal in every field it is questionable as it violates ethical obligations to hold the safety, health, and welfare of the public paramount. Some people argue that regulations aren't needed because they can stifle innovation and creativity. However, satisfying safety, social, and sustainability requirements may initially seem like a challenge, but they actually encourage more innovation rather than less.
There may be individuals or companies who believe that they don't need to employ scientists or engineers in order to produce their products or services. This may lead to the belief that they have no professional obligations towards public safety. This view is misguided. Even if a company doesn't employ scientists or engineers, they still have a responsibility to ensure that their products or services are safe for public use if not on legal but ethical grounds.
Ethical Line of Defence
The pursuit of technological advancement often comes at the expense of public well-being, with negative impacts on society and the environment being overlooked or deferred to a later time. The mode of operation can be well stated as:
Play now, pay later
And yes we will all be paying for it later.
While the dilemma between innovation and responsibility is not new there is an immediate cause for concern when it comes to the use of technology in the public arena at the scale, and acceleration we have seen in recent decades.
Governments will in due course enact legislation and design regulations to contend with public risk including those associated with social media, and AI. In the meantime, this should not give free license to scientists or engineers to ignore their ethical responsibilities.
Scientists and engineers should not hide behind a technical shield. They have a duty and responsibility to the public. They must individually and together form an ethical line of defence by:
Taking ownership of all their obligations with respect to legal, regulatory and also ethical responsibilities.
Being transparent concerning the communication of risks when engaging the public.
Speaking up on issues concerning technical and public risk.
Advocating for the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
For those that choose to act responsibly they will face many challenges and pressures to conform not to moral imperatives but to other less noble ones. This kind of compliance is a waste and a tax, not on production, but on the public who will ultimately pay for earlier decisions to tolerate risk – the good with the bad.
We can do better. We must do better.