I’ve mentioned before that my mother was trained as an engineer–architectural, mechanical, and–later–aeronautical. As a result, my childhood was shaped by, among other things, her engineer-brain, which operated across domains usually thought of as engineering (machinery, buildings) and usually thought of as “women’s stuff” (needlework including designing garments, slipcovers, curtains, etc., storage of household things, and cooking.) I don’t have an engineer brain but I saw one in action every day. Engineers don’t just know individual elements (beams, trusses, pipes, pumps) but also *processes*….HOW things work, HOW to accomplish tasks, HOW this cause leads to that effect. They consider it important for people to understand how things work, and how things go wrong, and how to prevent things going wrong. Which is how I learned about things from my mother. Every childish accident was a learning opportunity, and I was guided through an analysis of the failure…announcing in clear childish tones “It was an ACCIDENT! I didn’t MEAN to!” didn’t work because it would be patiently explained to me in detail and I was supposed to be able to spout it back.
My little china pony broke a leg? “How did it break its leg?” “It fell over.” “How did it fall over? Where was it–show me.” (It was on the floor, part of a parade of all my toy horses down the hall, and it fell over because I got up to go to the bathroom and hit it with my toe…) “So…it fell over because you put it where you could hit it with your foot…that’s how it fell over…” Cause & effect were discussed on *everything* that spilled, splashed, fell, dropped, or disappeared. One particular little china pony broke repeatedly until she refused to fix it another time. “You know it’s fragile; you know the glue isn’t that strong. What did you think would happen if you put it in another of your parades?”
One day she came home for lunch to find water on the floor of my room. “How did water get on the floor of your room?” “I made a water mill with my Tinker Toys and the engine out of that toy boat–” “You took the motor out of the BOAT?” “Ye-ess…” “How?” “With your needlenose pliers, because the others were too big–and the thing that holds the batteries.” Sigh. “OK, so you took the engine out, but what about the drive shaft?” “That came out really easily…” Another sigh from my mother. “Let’s see how you built the water mill…oh. Did you look up the shape of the buckets in a water mill?” “Um…no. But I remember what that paddle-wheel steamboat looked like in SHOWBOAT. I thought it would lift the water up and it would fall into the cake pan.” (It overshot the cake pan, which–along with the needlenose pliers–wasn’t among my playthings but her useful things. Also, my willingness and ability to dismantle the toy electric boat was proclaimed risky and potentially dangerous.)
At any rate, I was taught processes, and the analysis of processes, and the reasons for failures of processes (like “not thinking things through” and “not following directions” and “being in too much of a hurry”) and in addition to analyses of my own “accidents” (“There are no accidents; they are all caused!”) I was encouraged to think through the how car, train, and airplane wrecks “happen” and how they can be prevented by more alert and competent operators and mechanics, and how engineers try to design things to be safe but it’s easy to forget a component of use that can result in failure. The processes of cookery, sewing, carpentry, brick-laying, painting a room, painting a picture, maintaining a vehicle or a house…all were demonstrated and discussed (yes, she could build things herself, measuring, sawing, using the right tools with the right fasteners to create tables, cabinets, chairs, the shelter we took to the beach and spent a day or a night in…and she could lay brick and stone, put up drywall, tape and float, lay tile…and make her clothes and mine so they all fit and looked as good or better than ready-made…each task with its own processes that made it come out looking professional. (Meanwhile I was a dud at sewing, annoyed her by making a table for my dolls out of a small piece of wood with four other pieces of wood nailed down through the top, one nail to a leg. “That’s not how tables are built.” But I wanted the table for the dolls, and then used the dolls to enact a story…writer-brain is not engineer-brain much deeper than the surface. I didn’t care that the table wasn’t built right; I cared only that it was a prop for a story I could tell and it would have taken too long, and been distracting, to build the table “right.”
The “How?” question was always there. How does that work? How did that happen? How could it work better? How could that problem be prevented? As I grew up, I found the How? question missing from a lot of discussions where it could shed light and perhaps understanding, or at least a way to find out what was really going on. I also learned that asking “How?” was not popular in many circles. Upon being told that if a little boy pushed a little girl, or pulled her hair, or made a face at her, that meant he liked her…grownups just said that, and if you ask “How is pushing or hitting showing liking? If I push you does that mean I like you?” they might say “Grownups are different” or “That’s just boys” and never dealt with the *way*, the *how” of going from pushing, hitting, pulling hair, insulting….to liking. Why were only boys allowed to hit and punch and trip people up and so on?
And I found that many people said things that made no sense, if you thought about “how?” and never mentioned how these impossible, nonsensical things could work. Teachers spanked kids (mostly boys) back then, assuming that it took violent force and pain to “make them be good.” But it was the same boys that were spanked repeatedly, daily, and got meaner and meaner on the playground. How did that work? To me, it looked like “the more harsh punishment, the less good” that kid was. Every bully I knew had been spanked, whipped, beaten at home, as well as at school, without making them any better, any less likely to start fights, pick on younger kids, etc. They bragged to each other about how much pain they could ‘take.’ Some adults argued that leaving kids hungry would teach them to study harder, or teach their parents to make more money…though the usual result of a child being seriously hungry was a kid who couldn’t concentrate in class, was depressed, had no energy for play, could only be miserable. How was daily, constant, stomach-knotting hunger supposed to lead to working harder? The people who believed in the “hungry kids will learn to work” theory never asked “How would that work, what are the steps in the process of turning hunger into energy?” The lack of ‘How?” left a big blank hole in the middle of what others thought were logical arguments and explanations. And most people seemed not to notice. Not to notice and not to understand when someone (I learned fairly quickly not to be that person) asked it.
About the only “how” questions you hear in politics are “How will that be paid for?” which is a reasonable question…but only if the followup to the answer really connects. Far more often political proposals and argument stop short of inquiring about the “How?” all the way from the idea to the reality. Entire political philosophies are based on “How-less” incomplete logical chains of cause and effect. Does having a firearm or three in reach make someone more polite, less likely to shoot someone…by the evidence, no. And how could that work, if there were evidence in favor? Yet some people are convinced that if everyone walked around carrying guns, all would be peaceful. Neighbors being scared of each others’ guns would do it…only it doesn’t. Workers who can’t make enough for food, housing, utilities, will magically be able to save enough to cover any medical needs…so keeping wages low keeps workers working steadily for their employer…only it doesn’t. How can someone paid too little to afford decent housing, food, heat and lights also afford medical insurance that covers their family’s needs? They can’t. So they live in bad housing, consume only the cheapest (inadequate) food, take on additional work…and get predictably sick, which they have to ignore because they don’t have any sick leave or any medical care. Assumptions about those being harmed–that for instance someone who breaks any law or local rule *deserves* police brutality, that police murder is justified by having a record of past misdeeds, when the harshest defined punishment is a fine, or even a short jail sentence…leaves out the “How?” question of how killing for nonviolent “crimes” teaches the “criminal” anything or teaches the public “respect” for the police. The person’s dead. And fear is not respect. The assumption that workers are “lazy” or that they “don’t care” about their children when the children don’t do well in school never delves into the “How?” of how poverty makes people lazy, how someone working two or three jobs to be able to feed their family can be considered “lazy,” and “not caring” about their children.
Looking at problems (however defined) with an engineer-brain–at least as far as considering all the “how” questions that arise, and making a fair attempt to consider the evidence and answer them–might well lead to better proposals, ideas more practical than “find the pure, flawless unicorn and elect that one” or “any flaw is a total flaw and deserves total piling on in social media.” Because we know where ignoring the “how,” exalting the “pure,” and total pile-ons based on the supposed purity that a flaw ruins forever gets us. Here. Now. Still arguing about proposals that are obviously (if you look at the How?) doomed to fail, and ignoring the possible tweaks that might make them work better, if not perfectly.
As just one instance of that last, take the assumption of trickle-down-economics that lowering taxes will create jobs. Corporations will spend the savings on expanding and hiring more people, sometimes even raising salaries. They don’t, actually. Time and again they’ve taken the tax break, fired a bunch of people, and moved production out of the US (citing greedy workers.) But is there a way to combine a tax break with a control element that doesn’t allow that escape? Sure: write it into the tax law. The tax break could be contingent on demonstrated creation of new jobs in this country. Full time jobs with the appropriate salaries and benefits. No new jobs, teensy tiny tax break. Increasing executive salaries w/o creating more entry level and early-career jobs? No tax break. Closing facilities and firing bunches of people, no tax break at all and in fact a tax *increase*. Tax break received matched to the additional jobs created. Why hasn’t Congress thought of that? Some have, but it’s always been ditched. Of course the corporations don’t want it that way, and they tell “their” Congresscritters that the amount of support in the next election will depend on the individual voting the right way…but it could be done.
Engineer brain is a practical brain. I’m a writer-brain who spend years writing in totally imagined settings with people I made up…but I grew up under the control of an engineer and even writer-brain can learn about the “how” of things.