Obviously, #NotAllEngineers are terrible allies. I'm talking about a broader issue of our conditioning as engineers to be skeptical of subjectivity, and how that affects our ability to understand discrimination.

Software engineers are accustomed to solving software problems. A computer will do exactly what code tells it to do, so if there's a bug, it's because the computer is being instructed incorrectly. To fix a bug, engineers usually try to pinpoint its source by coming up with a series of diagnostic questions to help figure out the issue. For example, if a bug prevents YouTube from playing sound, an engineer might try to determine: Is the audio being downloaded? Is it being processed correctly? Is it being sent to the speakers?

Engineers can get concrete answers in the realm of computing. We can definitively answer a question by simply checking whether or not the data exists. If we’re not sure why an application is behaving a certain way, engineers prefer staying accurately uncertain ("I'm not sure if the audio data downloaded"), rather than proceeding based on unproven assumptions. The rationale? You solve problems faster by being 100% sure about what you consider to be true and untrue.

This line of reasoning, which strongly favors uncertainty over assumption, is common to all scientific thought—not just engineering. For example, hypothesis testing is a technique used heavily in science to make conclusions about the world. For this, you come up with a "p-value," which is basically a number that tells you how likely the phenomenon you observed was just a random coincidence. If you can’t produce a reasonably low p-value (i.e. it’s not likely a coincidence), you conclude nothing, and the result is "insufficient evidence."

I suspect this is what prompts scientists and engineers to demand proof upon hearing stories of discrimination. How can anyone make conclusions without basing them in undeniable truths, or at least truths bounded by a p-value?

Fair point, but there’s one problem: It's impossible to prove any instance of discrimination.


No matter how sexist or racist a person seems to be, there's no way to rigorously prove it. We don’t have a blueprint for the human brain’s inner workings (at least not yet). We can't get a computer printout of the exact line of thinking that prompted someone to say something ignorant and hurtful. We have no way of truly knowing a person's motivations behind their actions.

As a result, "Are you sure it was sexism?" is a pointless question because the answer is always the same: No, I’m not sure. I can’t be sure. It’s impossible to be sure.

Engineers solve technical problems at work every day, so it's tempting for us to solve all of life's problems using the same approach. But it's ridiculous to apply engineering techniques to social problems, where it's impossible to get the evidence we would normally demand to solve them. We need a different approach.