What Engineers Get Wrong

Mr. Money Mustache, a former engineer and Longmont, Colorado-based blogger, has struck a chord with his retire early gospel. To the tune of about 800,000 separate vistors and 3.5 million page views a month. A large part of his appeal is his directness about people’s tendency to waste money unnecessarily.

I like his thesis that community is far more fulfilling than material pursuits, but dislike the groupthink his followers often display.

His advice is to get a good paying job (easier written than done) and then work for 10-15 years saving half of what you earn. Then, when you have $500k or so saved up, quit work and spend time doing whatever you find most meaningful. For him that’s blogging, carpentry, and spending time with family and friends. $500k is far less than nearly every other retirement “expert” recommends saving. MMM believes everyone can do what his family does, live quite comfortably on about $25k a year.

Their house is paid off and they have one inexpensive car that they rarely use. Instead, they bicycle almost everywhere. His most recent post was titled “Bicycling: The Safest Form of Transportation”. That post has generated over 360 comments, many which consisted of a mathematical back and forth, some challenging his use of statistics, others defending him.

In reply to one commenter, he shouted, “You can’t disagree with the math by listing four pieces of anecdotal evidence!” And then, at the end of the of the same reply added what might be the engineers’ motto, “Calculations and spreadsheets for everything.”

These aren’t just the words of one widely read blogger, they succinctly articulate the central message of a wide range of policy makers that see data analysis as a panacea for nearly all of society’s ills. That belief, “calculations and spreadsheets for everything,” is what informs the emphasis upon STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and math—at the expense of the the humanities, the arts, and foreign languages.

I can’t help but wonder if MMM only interacts with other engineers with the exact same “calculations and spreadsheet” worldview. Mind boggling that someone as smart as him believes that any spreadsheet might make someone less afraid to ride their bike across a major metropolitan area. As if phobias are rational and can simply be argued away with math. If that was true, people wouldn’t see psychologists, they’d see mathematicians. “Let’s see, you’re afraid of flying in airplanes. Take a look at this spreadsheet then.”

Engineers think people are rational. If that were true, people would change their favorite Starbucks order based on their new calorie charts and every investor would always buy low and sell high. A more realistic counter motto is “Subjective emotions for everything”. Few people study calculations and spreadsheets when making friends, love, or decisions about how to get to and from work. They do it based upon a messy, unscientific, imperfect combination of intuition, feel, and emotion.

That’s what engineers get wrong.

The Link Between Walking or Biking to School and Concentration

My seventeen year-old supper nanny of a daughter babysits for a Mormon family up the street. They have six children, the oldest in fifth grade. When she got home from their house Saturday night, she excitedly announced that number seven is on the way. The coolest thing about this constantly expanding brood is that they walk, or scoot, or cycle to school during the week and walk to church on Sundays. Whatever the Pacific Northwest weather. They’re quite a spectacle, all dressed up, scattered up and down the sidewalk. School is two miles round-trip, church almost four. Early elementary children walking four miles to and from church, someone call Social Services.

Probably without knowing it, our Mormon neighbors are onto something. Sarah Goodyear recently reported on the results of a 2012 Danish study that found that kids who cycled or walked to school, rather than traveling by car or public transportation, performed measurably better on tasks demanding concentration, such as solving puzzles, and that the effects lasted for up to four hours after they got to school.

The study was part of a Danish project that looked at the links between concentration, diet, and exercise. Researchers were surprised that the effect of exercise was greater than that of diet. According to one:

“The results showed that having breakfast and lunch has an impact, but not very much compared to having exercised. As a third-grade pupil, if you exercise and bike to school, your ability to concentrate increases to the equivalent of someone half a year further in their studies.”

Goodyear writes the process of getting yourself from point A to point B has cognitive effects that researchers do not yet fully understand.

Another research conclusion jives with my experience:

“We learn through our head and by moving. Something happens within the body when we move, and this allows us to be better equipped afterwards to work on the cognitive side.”

Here’s the problem though. Goodyear:

“Nationally, as of 2009, only 13 percent of kids in the United States walked or biked to school, down from 50 percent in 1969.”

Her related questions:

“But if more parents realized that packing the kids into the back seat actually affects their ability to learn, would they change their ways? Advocate for building schools in more walkable locations? Demand improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure? Or simply make the time and effort required to get to the kids to school under their own steam, accompanying them if need be?”

And the excellent concluding paragraph:

“Many parents pay for test prep and after-school enrichment programs to make their kids more academically competitive, and go to great lengths to schedule time for those activities. Imagine if they invested those resources instead in something as simple as helping their children to travel safely from home to school on foot or by bike, arriving ready to learn.”

Public policy questions always involve challenging trade-offs. This particular one seems like a rare exception. School transportation costs make it difficult for districts to commit adequate resources to teachers’ professional development, students with special needs, better curriculum materials, and building improvements. If schools districts started requiring students that live within a mile or two of their school to walk or cycle, the savings could be used for those other priorities, teachers would accomplish even more as a result of increased student concentration, students would be healthier (and their adult chaperones), roads would be less congested, and the environmental impact of school travel would be greatly reduced.

Win. Win. Win. Win. Win.

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