1660238331618 Rhinehart

Advancing the industry: Let sleeping dogmas lie?

June 30, 2020
Challenge the status quo, but don't undermine your career in the process

The old adage says, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” If the territorial defense or the competition doesn't see you, it won’t attack you. It's best for your career to not stir up old animosity or foment new controversy.

On the other hand, challenging established ways is how we advance.

Scientists used to believe in the aether, a massless, viscous-less something that pervaded all space, and permitted the propagation of electromagnetic waves (light), in a similar way that air conveys sound waves. Maybe it was not massless and inviscid, but the density and viscosity were too small for instruments to detect. Nevertheless, based on this magical, hypothesized substance, Maxwell derived his equations for propagation of electromagnetic waves, which were fully functional for designing radio transmitters and receivers, generators, motors and many other inventions.

In the early 20th century, Einstein saw an alternate mechanism when he interpreted the Michaelson-Morley experiments, and many years later the scientific community widely accepted Einstein’s interpretation. For awhile, Einstein was persecuted for subverting the minds of the world with his hoax. It's not that Maxwell’s peers were inept or in error. They were trying to understand Nature, and the aether model seemed to work. Maxwell’s equations remain fully functional today for many engineering purposes.

The caloric theory of heat is also about a magical fluid-like substance that flowed from hot material into cold material when bodies are contacted. With this concept, one can model the flow of “caloric” with partial differential equations. However, we now consider heat to be thermal energy—vibrations of molecules—and that energy diffuses because hot molecules (wildly vibrating molecules) bump into less-hot neighbor molecules, giving them energy (making them hotter), while the hot ones become cooler by losing of energy. There's no substance that flows, but the differential equations for caloric flow are still the fundamental way we model diffusion of heat. It's not that the great scientists of the 1700’s were inept, it's just that our understanding of the details of Nature have progressed.

Even in Galileo’s time, the most learned thought the Sun revolved around the Earth, and that the Earth was flat. Galileo was convicted for being "vehemently suspect of heresy” because he claimed the Earth rotated around the Sun. About a century earlier (~1540), Copernicus revealed his defense of the heliocentric universe. Columbus’ bold spherical Earth concept was tested in 1492. Until the scientific revolution, both the elite and the populace knew the flat Earth and geocentric models were true.

Human history has many such stories. Prior to understanding molecules, experts thought that matter (such as water) was a continuum. Up until the Renaissance, they though garbage piles spontaneously generated rats. Before Pasteur’s discovery of microbes, they thought diseases of the body were due to spirits.

We've not outgrown dogmas

We've held many strong views that came out of primitive understandings. Dogmas are creeds, beliefs and canons accepted as truths, and the established folks have grounded their reputations and careers in those dogmas. My industrial and academic career encountered several instances.

In one, the accepted practice was to arithmetically average a particular quality metric when fluids are blended. However, using a simple material balance, I calculated that they should be using a harmonic mean (adding reciprocals like resistors in parallel). They told me, “It's the way you average, and all the experts have accepted it. Who do you think you are, junior.” Notice it was not a question they asked me! In trying to change that legacy to the right way, I did not make friends.

In another project, our statistical folks showed us how to model using a power series. Data indicated we needed up to cubic powers of about 5 variables, leading to a model that had about 40 coefficients. The managers several levels above me all agreed we needed to do the expensive trials to generate the data, and reveal the knowledge needed to improve our products. I saw an opportunity to combine variables into dimensionless groups, and created a model with only four coefficients. It fit the data very well, showing that we didn't need the extensive trials. This, of course, embarrassed many experts who had their careers invested in the traditional power series. They did not become my friends.

Finally, the academic experts, of much higher stature than me, told me in a public forum that nonlinear models can't be used for control. And, when I showed the data that demonstrated they were wrong, I did not make friends. Then, when it became their turn to review my proposals for funding, they remained not my friends.

Aroused dogmas can bite back

The experts’ opinions are shaped by their background, their particular skills, the data they see and their environments (religious, political and economic). Often, what was accepted as best practice in the pre-computer past, is so entrenched that it continues to be accepted as best practice. If an erroneous cause-and-effect mechanism or model seems to be functional, use it. Why should a company suffer the costs of management-of-change for a different model? Why should you suffer the consequences of offending the experts? Why “rock the boat?”

Well, I think we should use our best understanding of legitimate techniques. If you see it, others will also. And the organization that makes the transition will have the competitive advantage.

I’d suggest a twist on the sleeping-dogs adage: “Don’t let sleeping dogmas lie.” The new generation of technologists will have new data, better precision and new analysis techniques. Most likely, the new employee seeking to understand, will realize the old way wasn't exactly right. When you discover something better, or more valid, or more appropriate, pursue it. Better models, understanding and methods improve our decision-making functionality.

But then again, if you wake up sleeping dogmas they tend to bite you. Don’t undermine your career by telling all the company experts that they're wrong. Perhaps find one expert who has the political clout, who can understand and agree with your idea, and let him or her tell the others in a way the others can accept.

Live up to your potential, but don’t undermine your career. Let the bigs help you wake up the sleeping dogmas.

About the author: R. Russell Rhinehart
About the Author

R. Russell Rhinehart | Columnist

Russ Rhinehart started his career in the process industry. After 13 years and rising to engineering supervision, he transitioned to a 31-year academic career. Now “retired," he returns to coaching professionals through books, articles, short courses, and postings to his website at www.r3eda.com.

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