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What Do Bridges and Software Tell Us About Philosophy of Engineering?

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One of the challenges in the emergent field of philosophy of engineering is to understand its position relative to philosophy of science. The call for a rigorous experimental methodology that has affected several fields in engineering should not make us equate good experimentation with traditional scientific experimentation. We have reason to believe that the primary role of artifacts and the human factor introduced by their designers affect the nature of experiments in engineering research and differentiate them from the traditional scientific method. We carry out our analysis with a specific focus on Software Engineering, a field in which the level of attention for scientific rigour in experiments has become very high in recent years.
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  What do bridges and software tell us about philosophy of engineering ? Viola Schiaffonati 1  and Mario Verdicchio 2   1 Politecnico di Milano, 2 Università degli Studi di Bergamo, Italy Abstract One of the challenges in the emergent field of philosophy of engineering is to understand its position relative to philosophy of science. The call for a rigorous experimental methodology that has affected several fields in engineering should not make us equate good experimentation with traditional scientific experimentation. We have reason to believe that the primary role of artifacts and the human factor introduced by their designers affect the nature of experiments in engineering research and differentiate them from the traditional scientific method. We carry out our analysis with a specific focus on Software Engineering, a field in which the level of attention for scientific rigour in experiments has become very high in recent years. Introduction Philosophy of engineering is an emergent field of philosophy: the process of es-tablishing its scope and method is still going on. One of the challenges in this endeavor is to understand the position of philoso-phy of engineering relative to philosophy of science, which, in turn, taps into the longstanding debate on the relation between engineering and science, because if some criteria are found that distinguish engineering from science, they might pro-vide some clues on the nature of philosophy of engineering as a discipline. The traditional distinction between science’s “knowing that” and engineering’s “knowing how” has become blurred: for example, scientific theories on the build-ing blocks of physical reality, such as the existence of the Higgs boson, have start-ed calling for more and more complex engineering work to verify them, like build-ing a sub-atomic particle accelerator (Hacking, 1983). Such know-how is at the core of McCarthy’s proposal to distinguish engineer-ing from science (2006). The basic idea is a contrast between the critical evolution  of scientific theories (ranging from complete upheavals, e.g. phlogiston in chemis-try, to localized applications, e.g. Newtonian laws in physics) and a cumulative expansion of a body of engineering knowledge, possibly increased over time, but never re-written. In particular, McCarthy states that while any scientific theory may be rejected, it is not possible that “we might one day wake up to find that the bridges that have been constructed according to older engineering methods have all collapsed (p. 49)”. Yet, many bridges have collapsed in the past, like the Tacoma Narrows bridge in the U.S. state of Washington: the measures against its vertical movements in windy conditions proved ineffective, and its main span collapsed on November 7 th , 1940. The repercussion of this accident was huge, and bridges have been modeled in wind tunnels ever since. If scientific theories and engineering know-how are more and more indistin-guishably intertwined, is it legitimate to equate the abovementioned innovation in the practice of structural engineering with a change of a scientific theory? We think that the answer is no. Firstly, we follow McCarthy in recognizing that there is a significant piece of consolidated knowledge in the field, i.e. statics, which has not been put under dis-cussion by the accident. Secondly and most importantly, such change in the know-how has been intro-duced independently from a relevant scientific knowledge. For years, the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge was considered a typical example of “forced reso-nance” (a match between the frequencies of the wind and the bridge structure), while, more recently, a new explanation has been proposed based on “aeroelastic flutter” (a self-exciting oscillation due to insufficient dissipation of vibrations, Bil-lah and Scanlan 1991). The tests in wind tunnels were not aimed at confirming or refuting candidate theories: they have become consolidated practice because they allowed for the construction of better bridges; hence, they appear to differ, at least in their purpose, from traditional scientific experiments. We take the Tacoma Bridge accident as a starting point for our investigation on the characteristics of engineering research as a discipline. In particular, what hap-pened in the following years with the introduction of experiments in wind tunnels provides us with the perspective we adopt in our analysis: we focus on experi-ments in engineering, and in particular in Software Engineering, because they seem to give us several insights that might help us in our endeavors in philosophy of engineering.  The context: Engineering and experiments The term ‘engineering’ comes with at least two different meanings: there exists a profession, in which engineers try and solve problems by designing, producing, and testing technological artifacts, and there exists a research activity, in which persons, who have studied engineering and possibly practice or have practiced in the profession, investigate on new and better ways to create such artifacts. The focus of this work is on the latter. This view is very similar to the branch of philosophy of technology called “analytic” by Franssen, Lokhorst and van de Poel (2010), the main focus of which is on technology itself and on its researchers and practitioners, as opposed to the “humanities philosophy of technology”, con-cerned with the various social, cultural, economical consequences of technology in our society. There are several issues tackled by analytic philosophy of technology: the relationship with science, the role of design, the methodology adopted in the discipline, the status of the created artifacts, and the ethics of technology to name a few. For our purposes, we rely on the traditional meaning of ‘engineering’ as the practice of technology, and in our attempt to do some analytic philsophy of engi-neering, we assume a methodological perspective and concetrate on the nature of experiments in engineering research because we consider this topic promising in the task of clarifying the nature of this discipline, espcially with respect to its rela-tion with traditional science. In fact, one of the most significant issues when it comes to engineering research is the relation with scientific research: whenever a result is obtained in engineering, it is legitimate to ask the question whether such result is ‘scientific’ or not. Either possible answer seems to pose interesting prob-lems. If the ‘scientificity’ of a result makes it a legitimate product of engineering re-search, does this mean that engineering research is scientific research? Is then en-gineering a subfield of science? Or is it applied science, as already stated in the past by the likes of Bunge (1966)? Is then philosophy of engineering just a special kind of philosophy of science? On the contrary, to state that engineering research is not scientific sounds det-rimental. If it is not scientific, how can its results be considered reliable? Consider again the Tacoma Bridge accident, and the methodological innovations introduced on the basis of a possibly wrong scientific explanation. They stuck around and went on to become part of standard civil engineering practice even after a new sci-entific hypothesis was introduced to explain what caused the bridge to collapse. What kind of motivations justified such continuation if not scientific ones? In what follows, we will show how a fully-fledged rigour is indeed applied in many experiments in engineering, which can be considered to be derived from the scientific tradition, but that not all the characteristics and the factors that affect and guide research in traditional scientific disciplines can be imported into engineering in a straightforward way.  In particular, among all the various subfields of engineering, although our dis-course took off from massive products of Civil Engineering like bridges, we will focus on Software Engineering and its experiments on how to improve the crea-tion of intangible artifacts like computer programs. We choose this particular field, in which experiments gained a significant role in recent years, as shown be-low. The case of Software Engineering Software Engineering is the subfield of Computer Science aimed at the study and application of techniques for the design, development, operation, and maintenance of software. As any computer system must rely on software, it is clear that Soft-ware Engineering is   a vast discipline that intersects many, if not all, other sub-fields of Computer Science. One reason to consider Software Engineering important for our analysis is that this discipline is a subfield of Computer Science, so that the long-standing debate on the scientific nature of the latter (Tichy 1998, Morrison and Snodgrass 2011) inevitably involves also the former. Such involvement is all but straightforward, as Computer Science is a vast dis-cipline that includes subfields that differ also greatly from each other with respect to subject matter, scope, methodology, and so on, to the extent that the existence of Computer Science as a unitary discipline can be called into question, so that it is not even clear whether general claims made about it can be considered legiti-mate. The reader should refer to Tedre’s thorough overview of the problem (2011). The nature of Computer Science as a discipline lies beyond the scope of this work, but some points made in such debate are particularly important for our analysis of methodology in engineering research. Firstly, several authors considered the scientific nature of Computer Science incompatible with the presence of Software Engineering among its subfields: for instance, Hartmanis (1993), McKee (1995), and Brooks (1996) all shared the view that a synthetic perspective, guiding researchers toward the creation of products rather than the discovery of laws of nature, was clearly showing the engineering (and not scientific) nature of the discipline. While this may be problematic for a so-called ‘science’, it should not have any repercussion on an ‘engineering’; on the contrary, such criticism might be interpreted as a recognition of the primary role played by Software Engineering in the context of Computer Science. If this position seems to draw a divide between the two disciplines, another ar-gument emerged concerning the methodology adopted in the research and, inter-estingly, this time there is no distinction about their scope, and research quality seems to be the only important factor. Tedre himself writes “The most common complaints about the quality of research in computer science revolved around

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