Canadian Consulting Engineer

A public message

The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers got serious about planning its future direction in November, and as groundwork it asked market researchers Ipsos-Reid to conduct a survey. Part of the res...

January 1, 2002  By Bronwen Ledger

The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers got serious about planning its future direction in November, and as groundwork it asked market researchers Ipsos-Reid to conduct a survey. Part of the researchers’ task was to interview 1,000 members of the public, media and government officials to find out how they looked upon engineers. Since the new organization’s mandate is to become the public face of the engineer among society, it made sense in this way first to discover the lay of the land.

Well it turns out that engineers already command the high ground and hold a great deal of respect and trust. Asked to rate engineers among a set of seven professions, the public placed them third, second only to doctors and nurses. Engineers were ahead of teachers, architects, accountants and lawyers, in that order.

Before everyone goes around patting themselves on the back, however, we should acknowledge that the picture isn’t completely rosy. The problem with engineers’ public image has never been that they are not viewed as trustworthy, but that they so seldom figure within the range of sight. The people surveyed could rarely name one famous engineer, for example. And it is because they are the “invisible” profession that engineers often complain that they are overlooked by those in authority when it comes to making important decisions. In other words, what engineers lack is not trustworthiness, but status and the ability to wield power and influence.

An organization like OSPE could raise the profile of engineers, but it will face two difficulties. First, there’s the message. To get the engineer’s face “out there” in the media, the association has to be free to speak out on important and contentious public issues. That means OSPE must sometimes take a partisan position and thus risk offending its own members.

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Second, there’s the way the message is delivered. OSPE will have to struggle against the tendency of professional organizations to edit and water down their public statements in an attempt to please the many-headed Hydra of their membership. The resulting press releases end up either too bland or too cryptic to generate much interest. Indeed, we’re all caught up in a growing trend to use complex, indeterminate terms. A one-man consultant describes his activity as “knowledge management and information engineering.” I suppose I know what he means, but there’s no way to be sure. The University of Calgary new Centre for Innovative Technologies will have departments devoted to “intelligent technologies,” “natural resource technologies,” and “sustainable infrastructure.” Again, they might be fashionable with academics, but these kinds of vague, catch-all expressions leave people out on the street with a glazed look in their eyes. Professionals are afraid sometimes to use simple words as if they reflect a simplicity of thought and lack of knowledge, when in fact the reverse is true.

In his famous essay, “The Politics of the English Language,” George Orwell said that muddy language betrays muddy logic and thinking, and noted that writers hide behind abstract terms and generalities to disguise their lack of clear purpose. He also argued that one should never use a Latinate, multi-syllable word when a simple Anglo-Saxon form would do. It’s a lesson we should all firmly stamp on our brains if we want to communicate well with the rest of the world.

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