Origin of the term Engineer's Disease?
June 29, 2016 8:05 AM   Subscribe

I've seen the term "engineer's disease" on Metafilter (and used it myself both here and elsewhere) used to describe engineers and other technical folks assuming their technical knowledge of systems (usually computer, mechanical/electrical) gives them expertise in solving other complex issues. Where did the term start? I'd like to be able to give a reference to people when I use the term, but running a search for the term yields either links about autism or about being too creative, neither of which I am looking to talk about.

This question has been bugging me for a while and repeated google searches have led me nowhere. This FPP finally made me post the question.
posted by Hactar to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It certainly doesn't go back before the 1990s. Searching Google Books and restricting it to the 20th century finds one anomalous and irrelevant hit from the 1960s ("The second most serious tree problem in 1969 is 'Engineer's Disease.' The talented and essential designers of our future megapolis should have the obligation to obtain special local approval if tree destruction is in their programs..."); the rest are from the '90s. From 1992: "Revealing the workings of a machine, without disclosing what the machine does, is a classic symptom of engineer's disease." From 1993: "It's the engineer's disease: 'Everybody knows what I know, so I don't need to explain the basics.'" From 1994: "Jim has engineer's disease. Although some good engineers look for alternative ways of doing things, he doesn't. He goes by the book. He serves the infrastructure, not the housing and its residents." From 1996: "this phenomenon is that chronic engineer's disease which might be termed 'creeping improvement sickness'."

Note that none of these involve the current meaning; the earliest I've been able to find a clear example of that is from 2009: "Never mind that it tallies perfectly with all the latest research by scientists like Simon Baron Cohen (that's Borat's uncle) at Cambridge University into autism, extreme male brain syndrome, and what used to be called 'Engineer's disease.'” There are doubtless earlier examples, and you should try doing a Google Books search yourself.
posted by languagehat at 8:23 AM on June 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Here are the earliest uses I could find in the wild:

July 2002, some blog: I also know from my own humbling experiences that just because you know a lot about one thing doesn't mean you know a lot about everything (also known as the "engineer's disease").

November 2003 comment on Crooked Timber (by MeFi's own Martin Wisse?): Engineer’s disease: where just because someone is a (self-proclaimed) expert in field, they think this makes them automatic experts on anything else. Usually people intelligent enough to see through “lies-to-children” explenations, but not intelligent enough to understand there’s more to their new area of expertise than that. For soem reason, engineers are particularly susceptible to it.

January 2004 Slashdot comment with lots of subsequent discussion: Engineer's Disease has claimed another victim. "engineers disease": The delusion because you're ubercompetent in your chosen field, you're automatically an expert on everything else.

I would guess this specific definition of the term arose organically rather than coming from one single source.
posted by otio at 9:24 AM on June 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

Do you mean the Google Books Ngram Viewer, languagehat?


(Sorry, linking stymied by text selection/autocorrect not working together on phone)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:39 AM on June 29, 2016

> Do you mean the Google Books Ngram Viewer, languagehat?

No, I mean searching Google Books. The Ngram viewer is fun but has way too many problems with chronology to be trustworthy on a specific time-sensitive issue like this.
posted by languagehat at 11:30 AM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not quite the exact term "engineer's disease" but close, from Vonnegut's 1952 novel "Player Piano":
"If only it weren't for the people, the goddamned people," said Finnerty, "always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren't for them, earth would be an engineer's paradise."
The entire plot of Player Piano is the effects on society of Engineer's Disease writ-large.
posted by namewithoutwords at 6:46 PM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

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