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Assessing A Profession or a Professional Conclusion: Matters of Fact, Matters of Opinion, Matters of Judgment

To effectively assess thinking within a discipline, it is important to become proficient in distinguishing three kinds of questions:

  1. Those for which it is possible to achieve a definite, verifiable answer;

  2. Those for which all answers are matters of personal preference;

  3. Those for which reasoned judgment is essential and wherein proposed, conflicting, and reasonable answers must be evaluated to determine which are stronger and which weaker, as responses to the question.

The first and third kinds of questions - matters of fact and matters of judgment - are most important to distinguish in evaluating professions and the questions they take up.

This being so, it is very important, when assessing professionals, to have some sense of the nature of the "discipline" underlying the profession and the manner in which that discipline is typically used as well as the way is being used in a given case. For example, there are many questions answered by engineers - chemical, electrical, hydraulic, marine, and mechanical - which have definitive answers obtained by inserting objective data into established formulas based on mathematics or physics. For example, if a mechanical engineer needs to figure out the power developed in the cylinder of a reciprocating engine, he simply divides the foot pounds of work performed by the piston in one minute by 33,000. His data include the mean effective pressure (in pounds per square inch), the length of stroke of the piston (in feet), the area of the piston (in square inches), and the number of working strokes per minute. There are literally hundreds of thousands of questions engineers are called upon to answer which have definite answers. These answers can be calculated by established procedures based on physical science and mathematics. The probability of error in such questions is low. There is an established method for verifying the accuracy of the answer.

Of course, we should recognize and remember that not everyone working on an engineering project is an engineer, not every engineer is doing engineering, and not every question raised in engineering is a question with a definite answer. We should be alert to the misuse of the term "engineering" in such expressions as management engineering, sales engineering, and business engineering - where the authoritative sound of the word is used to hide practices lacking the scientific and mathematical basis of 'engineering' in its proper use.

Let us take the example of engineering a little further. Even though engineering is based on science and mathematics, it does not follow that all of its questions have definite answers. There are many engineering questions that for best settlement, require wit, ingenuity, judgment, and practical experience. For example, most engineering projects involve a sequence of planning, design, creation, and economical operation of a process that entails building a structure. This process as a whole commonly involves many questions of judgment, in addition to many questions of fact. The answers to questions become most definite the more specialized and limited they are. So when specifications are set for a particular part required, and those specifications are fulfilled by the production of that part, there is typically a high degree of scientific accuracy and precision delivered by the engineer or engineers in question. This does not mean a mistake cannot happen, but it does mean that a mistake is rare and can be verified as such.

However, engineering projects often involve large public expenditures and/or have significant environmental and economic implications. The public interest may be deeply involved. However, with the injection of politics and vested interest, objectivity often suffers a severe blow. Press releases, public relations campaigns, and other professional "spin doctors" whose skills are those of rhetoric, public relations, and propaganda shape the flow of information to the public. Their services are often for sale to the highest bidder. Such professionals are adept at fostering public impressions and views. They do this not principally by evidence and argumentation, but through understanding the psychology of the public: its impatience with complexity, its susceptibility to fear and suggestiveness, and its general impressibility.

Consider the field of hydraulic engineering. The field itself is based on physical laws governing water and other liquids. But water of sufficient quality and quantity is essential to human well being. There is often, therefore, a great deal of money involved in gaining access to water. The result is that major money interests are often importantly involved. The well being of people is also at stake. How water projects are conceived and carried out becomes a matter that goes far beyond questions of engineering.

Of course, when people with vested interests are involved, they cannot be trusted to represent the facts in a fair and objective manner. Someone must argue for the public interest, and that argument must be given sufficient attention in the media to affect public view. Of course, what the media covers and how they cover it depends on persons whose thinking is often based on "media" considerations in the first place. We cannot assume that media pundits are excellent thinkers or are dispassionate judges of the public interest.

Consider the Panama Canal. As an engineering project, it was a great achievement. However, the political machinations that proceeded and accompanied it, together with the corruption and death that it entailed, were horrendous. In the process, President Teddy Roosevelt, in effect, stole the necessary land from Columbia and conspired in the creation of a new country, Panama. The mass media in the U.S. presented the facts of the case as the government represented those facts. The public was not in a position to know what was going on behind the scenes.

A similar tale of bribery, corruption, and theft of public lands accompanied great engineering projects of the last half of the 19th Century in the U.S. - the building of canals and railroads. For excellent documentation of this history, consult especially Gustavus Myers' excellent book, History of the Great American Fortunes (1908).

Engineering, then, is a science and an art. Many of its questions have definite, demonstrable answers. But both the context for the use of engineering, and the consequences for human good and ill, are not simple matters of science or math. They connect with politics, economics, vested interests, and environmental values and concerns. The broad issues generated are often complex matters of judgment. They require special scrutiny on the part of anyone with the ability to think critically. And the position of engineering, as a field, is parallel to those of other scientifically based disciplines.

Medicine, for example, like engineering, is both a science and an art. Many of its questions have definite, demonstrable answers. But very often, internal politics bulks large, often larger than in engineering. We can see this in examining its history. Consider:

When Edward Jenner hit upon the notion of a smallpox vaccine in 1797, the Royal Society of London scolded him for risking his reputation on something 'so much at variance with established knowledge, and withal so incredible.' When the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis figured out that physicians' unwashed hands were causing fatal infections among new mothers at the University of Vienna in the 1850s, he lost his own position there. (Newsweek, Nov. 27, 2000)

Similarly, in our day, the medical field is highly resistant to the notion that viruses and bacteria play a large part in heart disease, cancer, and other modern plagues - despite growing evidence that they do (Ewald, 2000). According to biologist Ewald, when Barry Marshall first reported his findings on the infectious cause of ulcers in 1983, his peers ignored the discovery until seven years later when it was highlighted in a magazine.

The complexity of modern medicine, including the extent of its ignorance, is just now being recognized by some. Some important medical problems are documented in a book entitled Clinical Epidemiology: A Basic Science for Clinical Medicine (Sackett, Haynes, & Tuigwell, 1985), with emphasis on the use of clinical diagnostic strategies, the selection of diagnostic tests, and the interpretation of diagnostic data. Systematic problems are documented. At the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Ann Kerwin, Maryls Witte, and Charles Witte (1995) have founded the Curriculum on Medical Ignorance. This program fosters the idea that it is only through knowledge of our ignorance that we can learn, and that learning itself presupposes ignorance. Through the program students are encouraged to "question, ponder, revise, create, discover, and learn how to learn."

Ivan Illich (1976), in his classic book, Medical Nemesis, assembles a mass of evidence from authoritative medical sources to support the thesis that: "The medical establishment has become a major threat to health. The disabling impact of professional control over medicine has reached the proportions of an epidemic."

Research in medicine has principally been controlled by those who deeply believe the orthodox theories of health and disease. Research based on new theories has always faced opposition from the status quo. Resistance to new theories is not typically a product of any principle of science itself, but rather of the power of the personal ego of individuals, the pressure to conform to the group, and vested interest. Science is not the only thing that influences the minds of doctors and other medical practitioners. For example, though much of the progress toward the eradication of disease has emerged as a result of preventative public health measures, only a small portion of research and medical expenditure has gone toward prevention of disease. Doctors are trained with the implicit view that medicine plays its role best by "curing" diseases rather than preventing them. Diagnostics and treatment, not public policy and prevention, are the guiding motifs. What is more, doctors are not usually paid for patients who don't get sick, but rather for those that do.

What, then, are we implying? Not only the obvious, but also the not so obvious. Obviously, we must be on the outlook for egocentrism, socio-centrism, and self-deception inappropriately influencing professions. The following is less obvious:

  • that we should carefully distinguish questions of fact from questions of judgment;

  • that we should especially scrutinize the influence of politics, economics, and media spin doctors on the presentation of "facts."

  • that we should always distinguish public interest from special and vested interests.

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