The conventional view of science is that it is the process of observing, hypothesizing, testing, confirming or rejecting, and adopting the hypothesis that explains the observed phenomenon. Wikipedia starts it explanation of the scientific process thus:

Scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena and acquiring new knowledge, as well as for correcting and integrating previous knowledge. It is based on gathering observable, empirical, measurable evidence, subject to the principles of reasoning[1].

The question that detains us in this article is: does technology and engineering proceed by an analogous process? The question plagues me because I am involved in a law suite where the plaintiff claims that the record of the hypothesizing preceding the testing and confirmation is evidence of negligence: more, they claim that magazine articles and conference proceedings from ages ago that include valid questions about the dangers of a particular engineering procedure constitute proof positive of negligence in that those old people failed to do what we think today should be done.

Let me explain further by way of an example not connected to the law suite. In the very old literature we can readily find many statements that indicate that some theorists were wondering about the role of the gods in causing storms. I cried through a performance of an old Greek play in which Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to the god of weather to secure fair wind to Troy. Today he would turn to the Weather Channel and have a brandy if he needed to wait for the weather system seen by satellites to pass. How much hypothesizing and data collection and collation and thesis rejection and confirmation has gone between these two events? Even poor old Verdi fell pray to the story of Idomeneo and his promise to sacrifice the next person he saw to Neptune for being saved from a bad storm—the next person he saw turned out to be his son, and at least we have a good opera as a result.

The point is that neither a Greek play nor an opera constitute proof of negligence by a modern protagonist whose life is ruined by bad weather. Or of patricide, matricide, fratricide, or child-murder.

OK, so this is a bad example. But have you ever taken a look at some of the literature from the sixties and seventies written by prescient environmentalists? Like opera and movies of yore most of the concerns were bad, off track, and best forgotten. Like opera and movies of yore, some of the concerns have proven to be good. Does failure in the old days (the sixties and seventies) to act on every concern (bad or good) constitute present day negligence? I suspect not. In fact, I believe and opine (what a wonderfully terse word) that it does not.

Just as science proceeds in theory and most often in practice via a stately and/or chaotic parade of observation, hypothesis, testing, and confirmation/rejection, so does technology and so does engineering. This is not profound or surprising. After all technology is merely applied science, and engineering is the art of applying technology to human needs.

We should be proud, not ashamed, of those speculations and frequently incorrect concerns (hypotheses) we now read in old engineering journals and conference proceedings. We should be proud to be the heirs of professionals who had the courage to go on record with their untested ideas and concerns. We should seek to emulate them, not excoriate them. And we should resist every attempt by lawyers to use the old, brave soles as whips to chastise us and “prove” that we and the practitioners of times past are negligent because they demanded testing, data, and confirmation of the hypothesis before they acted. Even if today as a result of their endeavors, we know who was right and who was wrong.