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.

20 thoughts on “What Engineers Get Wrong

  1. Engineers are problem solvers. To lump all engineers with MMM is like lumping together all educators because some believe kids should be grouped together based on ability.

  2. Say that a number of people decided that not only did they want to live near a nuclear reactor, but that they feel safer if the core is unshielded and open to the air so that they can see if anything is wrong. Now obviously you can point at radiation medicine and point out that it is much more dangerous to everyone in the area if they can look at radioactive material and see it glow than if it is encased in lead and concrete and water. Certainly someone can say that their mother had her cancer cured by radiation therapy. By the reasoning which asserts inherent value to opinions though, the feelings of the people around mean that these reactors should obviously be unshielded and out in the open near population centers to preserve the safety of the residents.

    That is the core to the car/bike safety debate. One side has “feelings” and “common sense” and “I know someone who..”, and the other side has stacks of statistical data.

    “Feelings” should not trump actual data when it comes to keeping people safe and healthy. If a thing has no effect but makes you feel better, then meh, do that thing if you must. If a thing actively endangers you and other peoples’ lives, then your “feelings” to the contrary aren’t a justification, but a problem to be solved through some means. (Engineers aren’t very good at solving these problems. Social scientists, architects, artists, and psychologists of various sorts are needed for that.)

    That an engineer sees things through an engineering lens is no surprise, and may characterise how they justify problems, but it does not make them any less right.

    • Thanks JZ. I’m not interested in winning or losing an argument with engineers about the importance of data. The question I’m interested in is how do we explain most people’s behavior. And my point is that most of the time intuition/emotions/feelings are more influential than statistics. You’re taking a stand different than MMM though because you use the phrase “should not” versus his cannot. It’s fine to argue people should be more analytical and objective, but in my humble opinion, it will be to no avail.

      • You say you’re not interested in winning or losing an argument, but all your post does is make an argument. If you really think people won’t be swayed by analytics then why not offer up something that will sway them? Then we could ask if your post was more or less compelling than MMMs and have some positive debate.

        I for one found his stats compelling. I had a minor bike accident a few weeks ago and was left a little shaken up (but no serious injuries). Then a man in my area got physically attacked while riding home from work. I was starting to think that maybe biking was dangerous and maybe I should not bike so much but reading the stats that MMM had posted helped me get my head back to reality where biking is in fact very safe.

      • Nice email name Matt. I contend your about face is the exception to the rule. People are most influenced by stories of people like them and also by their own lived experience. But please understand I’m on the side of cycling versus driving. I just think in the long run MMM’s stories will prove more influential than his statistical analyses. His post today creates a nice balance so that it’s not either/or, numbers or stories. but both/and.

      • Right; MMM is an engineer by training; his career has been focused on making him a bit more Vulcan and to run the numbers on everything. Engineers rip out their hair at peoples real decision making because that’s their job
        I’m not an engineer, i’m a social scientist. I know people are going to make stupid decisions, and it’s my job to find ways to trick them into making less cruddy decisions.

        The statistics here are a warrant for behavior change. We have a lot of people doing something dangerous, claiming that the safer alternative is “too dangerous”. Just restating the warrant can help change minds, and for someone who thinks logically, that can be enough.

        More effective is for people to see more people on bikes talking about being safe and riding safely. Also, getting people to get out of their cars and ride places now and then so that they can have a personal narrative of traveling other than in a car to choose from next time the car is a bad option for some reason. (This is a major reason why “bike to work” type days are so important.)

        Alas, that can be a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, and it’s hard to do over a blog page. Can’t really model anything well over text, and you get some really strange counterarguments if you try.

  3. “As if phobias are rational and can simply be argued away with math. If that was true, people wouldn’t see psychologists,”

    While math doesn’t dispel phobias psychologists will often use logic (sometimes based on stats) in order to point out inconsistencies in the phobia.

  4. I actually was swayed by MMM’s argument. Having grown up in the country biking around town scared me, and I was under the impression it was in fact more dangerous than driving. Seeing that it’s not is very reassuring and gives me more confidence. I think while it’s true that much of the population is more easily persuaded through anecdotal evidence and emotional appeal, much of the population is like MMM and actively trying to make rational decisions. And surely even for the emotional types, logic plays some role, even if smaller.

    • Individuals no doubt have different orientations—some more analytical, some more emotional, but every individual exhibits both types of thinking at different times.

  5. Engineer here! Contrary to the popular stereotypes you promoted, we don’t think solely in numbers and we’re not emotionless Vulcans. We are people. People who are acutely aware that no matter what you know, if you can’t effectively communicate it, it doesn’t matter. People who design products around the ways other people misuse and abuse them, rather that how they ‘should’ be used. Essentially, we use reality to inform decisions, otherwise known as critical reasoning.

    In this example, if you actually read the article, you’ll note that it’s not a spreadsheet. Instead, it’s a story of discovery – of why something you might think to be true is not. Thrown in are a liberal amount of arguments that are emotionally appealing and backed up by data – be healthier! live longer! Save the World! Any engineer worth his or her salt has to be capable of explaining not only what something is but also why it matters. We don’t presume that the plain old rational facts are all that is needed, but we do use that as a base. That article was a very good example.

    As for STEM education, which seems as though it’s the issue behind this article and your stereotyping of engineers as automatons, I must disagree. The arts have been generally eviscerated, particularly in the past few years, which is a shame, but the fault of $$$ problems, not STEM. Humanities, however, still reign supreme, which is part of why a campaign in favor of STEM is needed. For example, to graduate high school in NY, the state requires 4 years of English and 4 of social studies, but only 3 of math and science. A student can easily graduate without exposure to physics or calculus, the two STEM topics which most describe our world and lead students into engineering.

    Since you don’t seem to be aware, the other part of why promoting STEM is critical is not to bring down humanities, it’s that we in America are about to be in a collective pile of deep shit when all the engineers from the post-Sputnik STEM surge retire. There are an excess of people within 5-10 years of retirement in the engineering field, who will take their knowledge and experience with them when they go. Even if we doubled the number of engineers graduating, it might not be enough. Politicians see it as a geo-political threat, that China might leverage their massive focus on STEM to leapfrog us technologically or economically. Personally, I worry more about the lost knowledge, the understanding gained from experience that the replacements haven’t had the time to get yet. Who knows what that will cost? So please, stop the engineer-bashing. We need a hell of a lot more people who could do, to want to do it. And they don’t need to think in math.

  6. “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.”

    What country do you live in? Policy makers using data analysis to cure society’s ills? For every no child left behind (I am an engineer and believe that policy is noble but highly misguided and near impossible to acheive) there is a rash of decisions made on gut feeling or the current opinion of the masses. Data analysis doesn’t set policy, getting reelected sets policy and the last I checked, Americans weren’t known for their logical decision making processes. The focus on STEM is because there has been a drop off in those subjects, not because we are trying to turn ourselves into Vulcans.

  7. Hi pressingPause ,

    MMM’s mention directed me to your website and I think you made a very valid point in this article. I am an engineer too, a very analytical one at that, but pure statistics will not ever convince me to ditch my car for a bike. I understand the benefits, I am just not willing to take the plunge, yet!

    I am glad MMM mentioned you because I really dig your writing style. Hope to visit more often!

  8. That’s funny.
    I just thought about if hypothetically I had a fear of flying and went to see a psychologist about it. Going through my feelings, upbringing etc probably wouldn’t help. But if someone brought out some spreadsheets detailing good solid data on crash rates etc, I would probably say “well I can’t argue with that – flying it is!”

    Guess that’s why I’m an engineer.

    As a counter argument, what would be your position on someone who used emotive techniques, and maybe some music and nice video footage of cycling (or any activity), to convince people that it was safe when the statistic and data show otherwise. I just couldn’t agree with any approach to challenge established thinking without providing evidence.

    • Thanks Jay. MMM, in his cycling post on which I commented, argued that stats show cycling is much safer than most people assume. So I’m not sure how to respond to your hypothetical. If you’re asking if I support emotional trickery, the answer would be no. My argument is simple, most people’s fears aren’t entirely rational.

  9. Just wanted to add that i am am engineer. I spend 80% of my time explaining to people that they are wasting time/money following the course of action they are currently on. A year later they yell at me for all the money they wasted by not doing x, whereupon i dig up the 10 emails I sent them indicating that they should do x. If you don’t have the mind set to logically evaluate the problems you encounter in life you probably won’t.

    That being said money is not the end end all of life. Do what makes you happy.

  10. People are almost entirely irrational and the few logical decisions they do make use incorrect data. This is why the world is so screwed up.

    Thinking like an engineer is useful if you really want to solve a practical problem.

    If you want to retire efficiently the MMM approach is effective.

    It’s up to you to decide if you actually want to follow the plan he has laid out.

    I have a motorcycle. I love to ride motorcycles. I figured out all the costs associated with it and that bike means I’ll be working 1 extra year before I can retire. I’m okay with that. It’s not the most efficient way to retire, but I’m not trying to retire as fast as possible at all costs. On the other hand if I liked very expensive motorcycles and that meant working an extra 10 years before I could retire I’d get rid of them because the cost of that choice was too high.

    You can replace motorcycles in my example with opera, travelling, buying paintings, fancy shoes, etc…

    The important thing about the engineer’s perspective is taking a moment to understand the impact of your decisions on your life. Your emotions/desires/feelings can then come into play as you decide what to do.

    If you don’t use this approach [as most people don’t] than the next best thing is to at least admit to yourself you are making choices emotionally and that you have no clear idea what the outcome will be.

    The worst approach is to make decisions emotionally without real data and lying to yourself that in fact your decisions are logical/sensible. The reality is you would have no way to know.

    — Vik

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