Thursday, September 6, 2012

Extremes in Engineering and Politics

As I watch the election season unfold in America, I am constantly stunned at how far to one side each party and their supporters are and seemingly must be.  It is, by and large, Republicans to the right, Democrats to the left, and no middle ground in sight.  When we categorize ourselves as one of these two extremes, we may enjoy the apparent sense of community that comes from it.  After some time, we begin to identify with one extreme.  However, as a whole, such categorization has the net effect of polarizing a nation.

In the twenty-first century, it seems that so many of us are unimpressed by an optimized solution.  There is nothing sexy about a calculated compromise.  On YouTube, it is the biggest this and the fastest that which tend to garner millions of views.  We simply are not interested in anything average.

I think that politicians ought to replace their segragating rhetoric with a middle of the road approach.  But the fault lies not only with them.  The voting population must recognize the value of a moderate approach.  Why do we tend not to award those who are steady and balanced?  Is it related to our fascination with outlandish personalities like those of the Kardashians?

Engineering may not be sexy to the public, but I think that our leaders would serve us better if they handled problems and even addressed the public more like engineers.

Engineers are rarely asked to design the fastest car or the tallest building.  More often than not, what is needed is multifaceted.  The car should meet certain conditions, but its mass minimized and its fuel efficiency maximized.  The optimal solution is rarely extreme; it is neither left nor right.  Optimal solutions are rarely shocking; they are somewhere in the middle.

That being said, you cannot be half pregnant.  Leaders do need to assert their positions on certain issues for which there is no middle ground.  When it comes to abortion or capital punishment, for example, one cannot be partially supportive.  Still, it is unfortunate that every democrat and republican seemingly must stand on opposing sides on every such issue.  Such scripted narratives dilute politics by trapping our leaders into corners.

For an engineer, there is nothing more frustrating than an over-constrained system.  Such a system has no satisfactory solution.  Politicians must deal with such situations on a regular basis.  If they stick to their one-sided views, they cannot progress, and problems go unsolved.  What is needed is more compromise: a solution that does not satisfy everyone is better than no solution at all.

The third and final area to lay blame (after the politicians and the voters) is reserved for the media.  Like voters, they too are drawn to extremes, sensationalizing all issues that might serve as polarizing and contraversial. 

Modern civilized societies should consider leaning closer to the center.  After some time, we may even learn to identify with it, bland as it may be.


Having said all of this, I feel compelled to insert my views on this upcoming American election, as a Canadian watching it unfold from the sidelines.  While both parties are extreme, the Republicans are also dishonest at worst and disingenuous at best.  With their Fox media team, they seek to get elected at whatever cost. 

Despite their best efforts to make President Obama's first term a nightmare, they did not succeed in fully destroying their country.   Republicans in congress have conducted themselves unprofessionally to say the least.  For four years, they have attempted to prevent any kind of progress from taking place.  They have done so to the detriment of their country, and now they wish to be awarded.

The Republican party proudly proclaims that they will not let facts shape their campaign.  As a scientist who sees value in truth, I take offense to this notion.  If I were an American - one who identified with either party -  I would vote for Obama on these grounds alone.

But, alas, I am a Canadian who resides in Quebec, a province that just elected a separatist government.  As irrational as American politics are, they appear reasonable next to what takes place where I live.           

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