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Subsumed by Science?

The notion that technology is a mere subset of science pervades the media and our culture.

“Technology Is to Science as Female Is to Male.”

This title caught my eye as I leafed through a recent issue of Technology & Culture, the journal of the Society for the History of Technology. Ruth Schwartz Cowan had chosen the theme for her presidential address-partly in jest but mostly in earnest-and if her goal was to startle and attract attention, in my case she certainly succeeded.

Parts of the speech I read with cautious interest. I stress the word cautious, because when it comes to the subtleties of feminist theory, I am not totally at ease. But what I understood to be the main point of the essay struck me with great force. This is the “subsumption thesis,” the idea that the most significant aspects of technology have been subsumed under the discipline of science. It follows that if science includes technology (as “man” is sometimes said to include “woman”), it is, by implication, a larger and more important topic.

One might say that this is merely a matter of semantics; but the fact is that words have tremendous force and implication. For example, some upholders of academic tradition scorn “women’s studies” on the grounds that women are merely a subset of “mankind.” A similar belittlement of engineering is implied each time the profession is called “applied science.” The consequences in public image and, yes, in dollars-grants, salaries, and the like-are only too real.

To Cowan-who is a historian as well as a feminist-this concept is doubly irksome. In academe the study of technology was long viewed as merely a part of the history of science, and a not very important part at that. For decades, efforts to get leaders of the History of Science Society to pay more attention to the history of technology were unavailing. Rather than suffer continuing condescension, several technology specialists in 1957 decided to form a society of their own.

As it is with the historians, so it is with the practitioners. Engineers have long struggled to show that they constitute a learned profession, entitled to be treated as independent and equal partners with the community of scientists. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was established by congressional charter in 1863; the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) not until 1964. But even the creation of the NAE, important as that was, did not signal anything like true parity in authority and prestige.

Hardly a day goes by in which I am not reminded of the biases and misconceptions that prevail. National Public Radio airs an excellent weekly program devoted to science and engineering; they call it “Science Friday.” I am a trustee of a wonderful museum of science and technology that bears what I consider an improperly abbreviated name: the New York Hall of Science. The New York Times publishes a special section every Tuesday covering many of the latest developments in science and technology. They call it “Science Times.” This section recently carried an article on the “Shrinking Transistor” in which the word “scientist” appeared repeatedly, “engineer” not once. An accompanying photo of Jack Kilby, one of the most prominent engineers of our era, identifies him merely as “the first to carve multiple transistors onto a single wafer of semiconductive material.” The first what?

Among engineers, such slights give rise to frustration verging on paranoia; but at least, having read Ruth Cowan’s essay, I can now assess our problem more accurately than before. Engineers are not merely being ignored, insulted, or subjected to unfair prejudice. We are being subsumed.

The feminist analogy is helpful: Just as women should be considered equal partners with men in the human enterprise, engineering deserves respect and attention equal to that accorded science. But if carried too far, the analogy begins to confuse instead of clarify. Even the most biased historian cannot claim that technology began as part of science, as woman is sometimes conceived to have come from Adam’s rib. Engineering was an established craft for centuries before the dawning of modern science. Even today, engineers agree that intuition, practical experience, and artistic sensibility are at least as important to their work as is the application of scientific theory.

As Cowan reaches the end of her essay, she suggests that we might solve our problem by concentrating on the ways in which science and technology are “similar, connected, united.” But while this approach may help ensure equality of the sexes, it will not work as well for science and engineering, where the differences are at least as significant as the similarities. Einstein, with no practical end in view, sought to learn the ultimate nature of the far-flung universe; the Roeblings designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge to help people keep in closer touch-commercial as well as social-with their neighbors.

In his book The End of Science, John Horgan claims that while scientists loftily seek what is True, engineers merely seek what is Good. He means this as a put-down for engineering, but I take it as a compliment. I don’t mind being challenged to defend what I do. I just don’t want to be-what was that word again?-oh, yes-subsumed.

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