Do Engineers Fear the Known More Than the Unknown?

They say that we fear what we don’t understand, but I wonder whether engineers have this flip-flopped, as many of us seem to fear what we do understand.

On a recent high-volume consumer product, we were faced with the task of detecting insertion of a user’s magnetic key. The mechanical team proposed their best solution: a simple contact switch. The electrical team proposed their best solution: using induced current in a sense coil. Curiously, each group thought the other group’s solution was the better choice.

When shopping for a high-security lock recently, I had the choice between electronic and classic dial-type combination solutions. The market has overwhelmingly moved to the keypad electronic solution, but my gut told me I should go with the mechanical solution as it would be more reliable. After much Google-research, it was clear that my gut was wrong and that the electronic locks are just as reliable, if not more so, than the mechanical ones. Still, that electronic option made my innards nervous.

As engineers, do we fear what we know, rather than what we don’t know?

Perhaps as engineers, we spend our lives optimizing the world around us, and as such we look around and see all the ways something can go awry. And especially in our own domain, we can see all those dastardly second and third-order effects that in some tiny corner case will result in product melt-down, whereas we’re blissfully ignorant of those issues outside of our domain, so it’s all daisies and ladybugs rather than doom and gloom.

This is the true test of an engineer’s mettle – when one has to put aside one’s fears and look at the facts and figures to pick the right answer. Trust your instruments, and let objective science (or Excel) be your guide.

P.S. I bought the electronic lock, and we picked the sense coil, but my gut is still nervous. Maybe I’ll get a back-up lock with a key…

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