Armchair Engineers

I just got back from representing my state structural engineering association at the National Council of Structural Engineering Associations 2017 Summit. Besides the normal business side of being a representative in an organization, and getting to learn about new products from vendors at the accompanying trade show, there were also lots of great educational sessions on things like blast design, progressive collapse, wind and seismic design, and even design of wood skyscrapers. A little slice of “nerdvana”. We even got to hear a keynote presentation from 2 of the engineers involved in the repairs to the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument after a 2011 earthquake damaged those two masonry structures. It made for a very busy but fun week. But one thing I was reminded of repeatedly that is worth noting here is that there really is no perfect design. What do I mean by that? Let’s work through that today.

We can arrive at an optimum design, but as long as there are conflicting parameters, there can never be an actual design that maximizes everything we want to maximize (like strength or flexibility) and simultaneously minimizes everything we want to minimize (like weight or cost). We have to pick and choose, and so any designed item will always fall short of perfection in one aspect or another. And this isn’t just a structural engineering issue. The session that most brought this point home was an extended session looking at the recent publication of ASCE 7-16, the “Minimum Design Loads & Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structures”. I know, we can’t even design a short name for our standards, but long names aside, that book is an integral part of most of our structural design. Changes there have major impacts on our daily work. A gripe from many engineers, myself included, has been the ever-increasing size and complexity of the overall building code, and this portion in particular. In fact, the growth from one volume into two this version was a particular incentive for a meeting to discuss on a national level the direction this was going. But as the committee chairman pointed out, we have 3 main goals – safety of structures designed to the standard, economy of structures so designed, and simplicity of applying the provisions of the standard – but you can only achieve two out those three! We certainly don’t want to  have a simple code that allows for cheap buildings at the expense of life safety. But do you make a standard that is simple and extremely conservative, that makes buildings too expensive to actually build? As it turns out, we engineers have tended to emphasize the third way: safety and economy at the expense of design simplicity. Hence, the now 800 page, 2-volume standard that is just one of an entire shelf of standards with which structural engineers are expected to be familiar. And let’s not forget all the revisions to each one of those each code cycle. So while information overload and lack of transparency are problematic, design simplicity is one of those competing parameters that just ends up having to take a lower priority.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Christianity? Well, there are some “armchair engineers” out there that like to try to say that nature testifies against the existence of God because it is evidence of “bad design” which an all-knowing and all-powerful Creator wouldn’t use. And just like the “armchair quarterbacks” out there, so insistent on what play the real quarterback should’ve executed, these skeptics are great at second-guessing God, but pretty bad at proposing better alternatives. Like armchair quarterbacks, they can criticize what’s currently in play, and sometimes throw out some quick, “obviously better” alternative, but they come up sorely lacking when the pros and cons of each option are subjected to a careful, rigorous analysis. Just like me, I could gripe about the new 2016 design standard, but sitting in a room with the chance to actually vote for how I would like to see the standard changed for the 2022 edition, I found myself reluctantly accepting of the current version. When it came to actually fleshing out what any proposed changes might entail, I found myself a lot more understanding of the ASCE 7 committee’s final version of the current standard that I had complained about before. Alternatives that seemed so much better couched in  vague terms like “less complicated”, “clearer”, and “more practical” ended up having unintended consequences that I liked less than the current book when it came to working out the real effects of those ill-defined wishes. It reminds me of what’s been said about God’s choices: “If God would concede me His omnipotence for 24 hours, you would see how many changes I would make in the world. But if He gave me His wisdom too, I would leave things as they are.”[1]

Can I always explain how God’s design is the best choice? No – I am all too aware of my limitations in knowledge. But I can easily see cases in daily life where, not seeing the big picture, I would make ultimately worse choices trying to fix what I initially perceived to be a bad choice. Then I am reminded all the more why we should always approach God with humility. It seems the drive-by allegations by skeptics of bad design in nature  are highly suspect given our very limited human perspective, especially when we do investigate certain cases and find them to be astonishingly well-designed. So I would encourage my skeptical readers to approach the possibility of design in nature pointing to God with at least as much humility and openness as we engineers (try to) give our colleagues when critiquing their designs. After all, we often don’t know all the reasons behind the decisions with which we disagree, and learning those reasons often puts our criticism to rest.

[1] J.M.L. Monsabre, source unknown.

Leave a Reply