"Alternative Engineering": A Postmodern Parable
Stephen Novella, M.D.
Note: The people named in this story are fictitious,
but the dangers of applied pseudoscience are real.
but the dangers of applied pseudoscience are real.
A new phenomenon is sweeping the country, gaining the attention of both consumers and manufacturers alike. Increasingly disenchanted with the cold metallic world of modern technology, people are looking closely at more natural alternatives. Collectively called Alternative Engineering ("Alt Eng"), a host of new and old methods are gaining scientific and journalistic respectability.
Alec Waterstone is one such self-styled alternative engineer. He has no degree or formal training in engineering, which, he explains, is an advantage: "My thinking is not limited by mathematics, logic, or any stodgy old mechanistic paradigm. I do not have to pay homage to the likes of Newton or other Western male pedagogues. My complete lack of training frees me to consider unique and innovative solutions to engineering problems, unfettered by the annoying constraints of "reality."
Alec's latest project is a design for a 1200-foot non-suspension bridge. He claims the bridge will be able to span this distance without pylons or overhead suspension, and will be supported only by the ancient art of Feng Shui. "This wisdom, which is thousands of years old, is the art of channeling energy through design and form. This energy can be used to support a 1200-foot bridge, or even larger structures." City planners are intrigued by these designs, because such bridges will cost less than half as much as conventionally designed bridges.
Alec is also quick to point out that ancient Chinese documents reveal absolutely no accounts of collapsing suspension bridges. His technique's safety record is, he argues, unparalleled. "How else would it have survived all these years if it didn't work?
Anthony Trellis, a professor of engineering at State-of-the Art University, claims that Alec's designs run contrary to basic principles of physics and materials science. An exasperated Trellis commented, "A bridge based upon Waterstone's designs simply could not stand. It would be unsafe in the extreme."
But Alec is not perturbed by such criticism. "Of course professor Trellis does not like my designs, because they challenge his precious status quo and turn his world upside-down. But the protectionism of the old guard is starting to crumble, like one of their obsolete buildings," he retorted at a recent symposium for progressive thinkers who agreed that those who fail to jump on the bandwagon will be left behind. His talk to a standing-room-only crowd also accused the American Society of Civil Engineers, the steel industry, and other "vested interests" of trying to suppress his views.
Skeptics have suggested that before we spend millions of taxpayer dollars on such projects, and subject American motorists to the unknown risks of driving over a Waterstone bridge, Waterstone's basic principles should at least be tested to see whether they work. This is especially true since his designs seem to run contrary to conventional wisdom. But Waterstone responds:
I"m too busy designing bridges to jump through some skeptic's hoops. They will never be satisfied, anyway. The American motorists should be free to decide for themselves if they wish to drive over one of my bridges. I respect their intelligence and ability to make smart decisions for themselves. They don't need to be told by some bureaucrat, or professor in an ivory tower, which bridges are safe and which are not.
Professor Trellis and other naysayers argue that individuals should not have to be scientists or engineers in order to drive safely over our bridges. Regulations are not designed to limit freedom, but to provide a basic level of safety and protection for the public. This attitude, however, is increasingly being dismissed as overly paternalistic and protective.
Civil engineers are not the only ones gravitating toward the ancient wisdom of pre-technological societies. The auto industry is also catching on. Natural Designs is a new car company based in Kansas. Its president and CEO, Andy Wily, received a degree in engineering from Harvard 20 years ago, but was fired from his subsequent teaching position after excessive drug use nearly destroyed his life. Now he has returned with a new company and a new philosophy that many consumers find appealing.
"I am advocating a mixture of the best of modern scientific engineering with the antiscientific and superstitious ideas of earlier times," explains Wily. "I call this approach Integrative Engineering."
What has this new approach created? Natural Design's newest model sedan, the Millennium 2000, does not use air bags, or even seatbelts. "Seat belts are dangerous, and air bags are kid-killers," complains Wily. So he has come up with something better. The interior of the Millennium 2000 is coated with a patented psychoactive material, called Natural Safe. "All a driver or passenger has to do is think safe thoughts, and this miraculous material will do the rest. In a crash, the material will gently repel any safe thinking person in the vehicle, leaving them free from injury," Wily asserts.
When skeptics point to deaths or disability for Millennium 2000 passengers, Wily replies that the passengers clearly weren't thinking as "safely" as they should have been. "Besides," he adds, "the Millennium 2000 only goes 50 miles per hour on a good day with a happy wind behind it. If the motorists who were killed had been driving something developed by the International Automaker's Cartel like a Ford or Chevy, they'd have been traveling much faster with an even greater chance of death. When Ford quits murdering thousands of people a year on our highways, then their complaints about us will look like something besides protecting market share. In fact, we have a study right here that shows that if everyone quit driving tomorrow, the death rate would go down in America! Until we can convince the American people of the millions killed needlessly by modern 'automotive science', Natural Safe remains the safest choice."
Many consumers are convinced. Not to be outdone, GM and Ford both have started putting Natural Safe coatings in their cars. Amy Zinger, of Arkansas, survived a 40 mph head-on collision in one such vehicle. "I was wearing my seat belt, and the air bag did deploy, but I know it was the Natural Safe that saved my life," she asserted recently. "Besides," she points out, "If it didn't work, they wouldn't be allowed to sell it." Motivated by such testimonials, more and more consumers are insisting on only buying cars treated with Natural Safe.
One problem faced by Natural Designs, however, is that outdated safety regulations, such as those requiring seatbelts, do not account for these new integrative designs. Recently, however, this has all changed. Senator Hackem, from Natural Design's home state of Iowa, has pushed through legislation that will exempt manufacturers that use Alternative or Integrative principles from regulations designed to protect consumers. This was hailed as a great step forward.
Still, hard-headed skeptics will not go away. "All I'm asking for is a simple crash test" exclaimed noted skeptic, Perry DeAngelis. "If the stuff really works, heck, I'll buy it." Skeptics have been increasingly calling for such tests, arguing that testing should take place before implementation, especially when human lives are at stake.
But Wily explains why such tests won't work. "Crash dummies are not people. The psychoactive material will therefore not respond to them. The fact is, these innovative designs cannot be subjected to the same testing and principles as traditional engineering. But consumers who drive our cars feel safer. How can you argue with that."
Still, DeAngelis points to recent studies which seem to indicate that drivers of Wily's cars are twice as likely to die in a crash as are drivers of conventional vehicles. But Wily merely scoffs, "What are you going to believe, numbers on a piece of paper, or people?"
Despite the skeptics, Alternative Engineering seems here to stay. Wily has just been named chairman of the new Integrative Engineering Department at Zones University, where he hopes to train the next generation of engineers in his philosophy. Meanwhile, Senator Hackem has pushed through Congress a bill to create Center for Alternative Engineering. This new office will divert money being wasted on maintaining this country's infrastructure and use it to study and promote alternative principles in engineering.
Finally, in what is characterized as a landmark coup in the making, the Canadian College of Rainbow-Coloured Integrative Engineering -- after spending more than 100 years as a scientific pariah -- is finalizing negotiations to become part prestigious Dork University. Despite howls of dismay from Dork's math and science faculty and several Nobel laureates, Dork's Senate has pushed onward with its plans for affiliation. The $25 million dollars that the Integrative Engineers have promised to give the University has not, according to Dork's President, influenced the deal. The president characterized critics of Integrative Engineering as "crybabies" who espouse "long disproven misinformation" about Alternative Engineering.
Dr. Novella is an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Yale University School of Medicine and an Associate Editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.