OceanGate’s recent mishap is a stark reminder of why we need to really dig into our engineering basics. It’s too common to see people gloss over these vital basics, instead placing too much faith in a name or company’s reputation.
This isn’t just an engineering issue, it’s everywhere. Let me give you my two cents on why we should put facts and clear thinking before any fancy social status or prestige.
My run-ins with social status distractions
When I ask a question about a piece of engineering, I want a straightforward, fact-based response. But what I sometimes get is:
Well, I don’t know, but Vladimir – who’s a seasoned engineer with 30 years of experience and a PhD from MIT – says the design’s okay!
And bam, most folks would assume that someone like Vladimir can’t make a mistake. Normally, they’d be spot-on. But trouble starts brewing when Vlad does drop the ball and can’t quite talk his way out of it. OceanGate fell into the same pit. They played up their ties with high-profile companies and hyped up their experienced engineers, but sidestepped the hard questions. An OceanGate spokesperson said:
The state-of-the-art vessel, designed and engineered by OceanGate Inc. in collaboration [with] experts from NASA, Boeing and the University of Washington, made its subsea debut in 2018.
Turns out, that was a bit of a stretch. After the underwater implosion, both Boeing and NASA set the record straight:
Boeing was not a partner on the Titan and did not design or build it.
NASA did not conduct testing and manufacturing via its workforce or facilities, which was done elsewhere by OceanGate.
Besides outright lying, the lesson here is that even smart folks can make stupid mistakes. Yep, I said it. Often, we conflate a person’s past wins with their present actions, which can lead to problems.
OceanGate cleverly name-dropped and flaunted its perceived experience to hush any design doubters. Whether they did this deliberately to win public trust or not, it doesn’t really matter when their work isn’t anchored in solid science and engineering.
Diversion tactics used in other industries
I’m a major biology and physiology geek. I’m always nose-deep in a book or scientific paper about these topics. The endocrine system is one topic that really grabs my attention, and I’ve collected a ton of knowledge about it in my spare time. It’s also close to my heart since I have several friends and family members with Type 1 diabetes.
Because of my knowledge, my diabetic buddies and family often want me to join their doctor’s appointments. I help them understand the medical mumbo-jumbo they’re bombarded with. Most of the time, I end up having what I think of as a laid-back chat with the endocrinologist, weighing the pros and cons of their views and advice on diabetes. There are so many grey areas when it comes to treatment and how different factors can affect the human body.
But rather than answering my questions or debating my ideas with solid facts, they sometimes wave their med school diplomas in the air and boast about their years of experience. It almost feels like they think I’m belittling their worth as doctors by questioning their thoughts. It’s pretty funny when you think about it. An autoimmune disease like diabetes doesn’t care about a doctor’s accomplishments when it comes to treatment. A wrong idea stays wrong, no matter how many Ivy League degrees prop it up.
This sort of arrogance can do harm, but more than that, it clearly shows someone is lacking the knowledge and might be wrestling with some deep-seated insecurities. In simple terms, don’t act like this!
The pursuit of logical truth
Look, the info we get from engineers, scientists, doctors, and the like doesn’t come from some sacred source that only spews out hard facts. They’re all humans with their own blind spots and knowledge gaps. We once thought the Earth was the center of the universe, right? We’ve all got things to learn.
Now, I’m not saying you should grill every expert you come across, because that could hold back progress and even hurt people. But if something doesn’t seem right to you, speak up. Don’t be blinded by credentials or years of experience. Instead, look for clear, logical answers to your questions.
Take OceanGate, for example. The choice of submarine construction and carbon fiber materials raised some eyebrows. The junction between the titanium and carbon fiber was a weak link, and no one really knew how the carbon fiber would behave under the deep-sea pressures where the Titanic rests.
Some insiders and outsiders flagged the risks of bonding titanium to carbon fiber, but their concerns were shrugged off as innovation. Some saw through OceanGate’s bullshit, but others bought it because, well, OceanGate is the expert…
If more folks had spoken up, who knows, maybe five lives wouldn’t have been lost. We often forget that nature doesn’t play by our rules and doesn’t give two shits about our fancy titles.
Advice for engineers
Use sound logic in your work and always put safety first, as the engineering code of ethics tells us. When I design, my primary goal is to make sure the end product is safe and works as it should. And even with nearly 20 years of experience and my own engineering business, I never take shortcuts thinking I’m the smartest in the room. Being an engineer, after all, is just a fancy tag that says we’ve read a bunch of books and passed some exams. That’s all.
Try to look at each real-world problem objectively and don’t be swayed by who’s offering a solution. Stick to science and proven engineering practices.
Over the years, I’ve seen engineering slip-ups big and small from just about every well-known company out there. Not surprising, really, since companies are made of people, and people aren’t perfect.
Here are nine nuggets of wisdom to keep in mind:
- Stay humble, but don’t be afraid to stand your ground when it comes to design decisions you know are right based on facts.
- Always be open to learning more. It’ll only make you more creative and maybe even turn you into a 10x engineer.
- Don’t use your credentials or past achievements to persuade others. Stick to the facts.
- Your design tools should always be solid science, best practices, and practical thinking.
- Your credentials just give you a louder voice. Use it wisely.
- Realize that you can be wrong, no matter who you are or what you’ve achieved.
- Don’t be easily swayed or intimidated by someone’s credentials or accomplishments.
- Regardless of your background, there’s a vast sea of information at your fingertips thanks to the internet and books. There’s no excuse not to learn or stay ignorant on a topic.
- Universities don’t have a monopoly on knowledge anymore. In this digital age, information is accessible to everyone. Take advantage of it.
The OceanGate incident is a grim reminder that unchecked arrogance and skin-deep quality control can be a recipe for disaster when the engineering isn’t up to snuff. In this age of information at our fingertips, there’s no excuse for taking someone’s word for it if you have doubts.
In the world of engineering, ego needs to take a backseat and open communication must always be encouraged. If there’s a disagreement, keep the conversation going, no matter who gets their feathers ruffled.
The OceanGate disaster is a stark reminder that ideas alone are worth nothing. Solid engineering is way more important than most people realize. And remember, rules and regulations are there for a reason; we can’t just ignore them on a whim.
What’s your take on the OceanGate incident? Do you notice people often follow professionals without question?
Featured Image Photo Credit: Ant Rozetsky
SUBSCRIBE TO ENGINEER CALCS NEWSLETTER
Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry and to discuss various science, philosophy, and engineering-related topics, aiming to make people think. To read more about him, click here.