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Engineering LibreTexts

6: Understanding (how to investigate on your own)

  • Page ID
    44101
  • For engineering classes you will write essays on a number of subjects. For introduction to engineering the subjects are to be one page essays on a topic that relates to your desired discipline (or ones your thinking about) within engineering. Essays are due once every one or two weeks. The essays are to be about a particular subject, not about the discipline (so about an aspect of transistors, not about electrical engineering).

    Why write essays? For two reasons, one is the simple reason of just practicing your English especially the skills needed for technical writing. The other reason is for you to write something that will help you see what your discipline is all about. For general engineering introduction classes this is the best way for you to learn (that is "teachers only open the door it is up to you to enter them." - Karate class). When doing specific discipline engineering introduction classes found in extremely well-funded schools this might not be necessary, but it doesn't hurt and you still need practice with technical writing in all schools.

    Before we start writing essays though we need to set some groundwork on how to do your investigations. Not only will this benefit you for writing your technical essay but it also will give you a guideline on how to study on your own or even do classes on your own (if for some reason you have difficulty getting into a school).

    Below we give a brief overview of how to reliably do your own investigations of topics. Unfortunately "fake" news/science/information (Yellow journalism - 100 years ago...this is NOT new) can be found anywhere. That being said their are multiple good sources on information (though they can be occasionally wrong, so always verify).

    This is a selection from Astronomy class (substitute Engineering for Science):

    Science Pseudo-Science

    Scientific Journal, peer-reviewed

    Literature is aimed at general public

    Reproducible results, precise description of experiments, many references of previous work

    Results cannot be reproduced consistently, vague results, vague description of experiments, no or very few references OR references that are not relevant but are added to fake legitimacy

    Refers to establish theory

    Ignores established theory with no basis to do so; no physical phenomena or process to back it up with

    Results are the results even if they don't seem to match our beliefs

    Appeals to belief rather than evidence

    Starts as a hypothesis

    • “Proved” with multiple experiments
    • Becomes a theory with a preponderance of evidence (interesting this is a little bit like the law; guilty beyond a reasonable doubt - not 100% no doubt, but reasonable doubt)
    Lacks evidence or spurious evidence (not peer reviewed evidence)
    Not trying to sell something

    Usually selling something: either a product, belief, or philosophy

    So a note on theory: In science, a theory is not like the theory in mathematics where you prove a theory with axioms to produce a theorem. It would be near impossible to prove a science theory with axioms to produce a science theorem. Theories in science are more then the name suggests. They are not hypotheses. The theories of science are proven with a preponderance of evidence1, they are not just ideas that pop from ones head. Unfortunately pseudo-scientists like to use the word "theory" to suggest science is not rigorous, but are just ideas that pop into a scientists head. This is not true. To be clear, theories in science are, as far as present science allows, proven through a preponderance of evidence.

    From the following table you should be able to glean some information on how to tell good information from bad information, but let us get specific with references you are likely to use.

    ¬ How do we trust the information we see on the web or in the "media"? That is how do we know what is accurate or not?
    • The simple answer is "you don't know"
    • We need expert knowledge
    • However there is a method that can be used for anything you wish to know that can ensure a most likely good answer
    ¬ What is the best way to ensure your knowledge is real or good?
    • Need five or more independent references to give you confidence that your information is real or good
      • Independent means that it is not the same repeated claim (which unfortunately is all over the internet)
      • Independent means that your source does not repeat the same idea in the same or very similar words
      • A lot of sources copy from one another so those would not be independent references
    • Even with references there is a chance you still might not be accurate, so a skeptical mind helps a lot...continue to find something that makes sense
      • Imagine someone said that a particular flu only effected people from ages 25 to 35 years old...this doesn't make sense (does it?) since to date flus effect all age groups...this needs to be thoroughly investigated before we accept this reference
    ¬ So we all know (because my teacher says so) that Wikipedia (or other web pages) is not to be trusted, right?
    • Well, not so fast, Wikipedia has made some mistakes and can be a victim of biased points of view, but it also has been very accurate on a number of pages as well
    • Use Wikipedia for your investigations, but always look for independent verification (don't necessarily use the references in Wikipedia)
    • Politically charged items are the most problematic on Wikipedia. Of course they are problematic on other sites as well, so a lot of research is needed if you want to take up a politically charged item. Wikipedia is not a good place to start for those sort of items unless you are very very careful.
    • Note that Wikipedia is somewhat vetted
    ¬ So we all know (because my teacher says so) that the New York Times (or other newspapers or magazines) is to be trusted, right?
    • Well, not so fast, while the Times is normally accurate it has had numerous inaccurate claims and statement over its very long history
    • Use the New York Times for your investigations (though as an engineer you might want to go to more science/engineering type periodicals), but always look for independent verification
    • The traditional media is usually partially vetted so it is preferable to unvetted sources of media
    ¬ So we all know that books are to be trusted, right?
    • Well, not so fast, most books are reviewed and can be very good, but not all books are to be trusted for different reasons
      • Some books are only reviewed for spelling and grammar not content
      • Some books are not reviewed at all (those are the hardest to read)
      • Some books are opinion pieces and aren't meant as a reference book unless you are referencing opinions
    • Use books for your investigations, but always look for independent verification
    • Most books are thoroughly vetted so obviously there is a higher trust factor here, but it is not perfect so independent verification is still required

    Where else can we get information from especially on the internet. Should we get information from the following sources?

    ¬ Twitter?
    • No this is utterly unvetted and should not be used at all
    • This is meant for people to say what is on their mind even if it is nonsense
    • Science and Engineering doesn't do nonsense (unless it is off duty relaxing joking manner) and never on papers
    • Conclusion: "Fake News or Yellow Journalism"
    ¬ Instagram?
    • No this is utterly unvetted and should not be used at all
    • This is meant for people to show you what is on their minds even if it is nonsense
    • Science and Engineering doesn't do nonsense (unless it is off duty relaxing joking manner) and never on papers
    • Conclusion: "Fake New or Yellow Journalism"
    ¬ Facebook?
    • No this is utterly unvetted and should not be used at all
    • This is meant for you to keep in contacts with your personal friends, relatives, and favorite celebrities...
    • Conclusion: There is no news on this platform, so don't use it as a news source at ALL
    ¬ Any other social network?
    • No these are utterly unvetted and should not be used at all
    • Social network are not news organization, not science organizations, not engineering organizations, etc., just a bunch of people (good or bad) that hang out together
    • Totally unvetted sources should be ignored as far as facts or "news" is concerned
    • Reason: bias (in all directions)

    Know that we have a method of understanding how to investigate ideas, lets look at some web sites you might go to do some investigation that are not Wikipedia. Most of these magazines should be in your library (where paper books are).


    Magazines of interest (vetted/engineering):


    Magazines of interest (vetted/science):

    • Science News -- Layperson magazine on science and engineering: This is for anyone who is reasonably educated and is published biweekly (used to be weekly, but with the advent of a website it was felt weekly was too much). Started in 1922 as Science News Letters. This is a small operation by news standards but is a better source of science then most newspapers.
    • Scientific American -- Science oriented, but occasionally has engineering articles
    • Astronomy
    • Sky and Telescope
    • Astronomy Now
    • Discover
    • National Geographic
    • Nature Physics -- Physics is one of the basic sciences along with Chemistry (while this particular Nature is rather new, Nature itself started in 1869)
    • Nature Chemistry -- Chemistry is one of the basic sciences along with Physics
    • Nature Geoscience -- Might be of interest to petroleum engineers as well as scientists
    • Royal Society Open Science -- contains science and engineering (while this Royal Society publication is rather new, the Royal Society's "Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society" was started in 1665 and was interestingly similar to the original Science News mentioned above)
    • Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest -- Technical Journal for APL

    Web sites that are better vetted then most:

    • Scholarpedia -- Like Wikipedia (with much less) but peer reviewed
    • ScienceWorld -- Eric Weisstein's Scienceworld (sponsored by Wolfram Research - the "Mathematica" dudes)
    • MathWorld -- Eric Weisstein's Mathworld
    • How's it Made -- A TV show that has sometimes has very interesting stories on engineering processes...this has enough detail that it can be used as a reference and this show has run for 19 years (there are others in this class of TV show that are good as well like How Do They Do That?, Extreme Engineering, Impossible Engineering, Modern Marvels, How Did They Build That?, Strip the City, etc.)

    Next let us discuss how you should write a paper. This begins with the classic English class refrain: Introduction, Body, Conclusion. This applies to engineering and science papers as well, the only difference is that their should be more seriousness to how the papers are written. No bells and whistles just the facts in your essays.

    • Introduction
      • Give an overview of what you are going to present
      • Make in "short and sweet"
      • For a one or two page essay do not do broad subjects, do specific subjects
    • Body
      • This is the "meat" of the paper
      • Defend your statements
    • Conclusion
      • Summarize what you have presented
      • Don't present substantially new material that needs to be defended

    Standard English writing ideas still apply

    • No clichés
      • It is raining cats and dogs...so where are the cats and dogs all over the roads???
      • Only time will tell...so what will it tell us???
      • Once we read between the lines...so where are the words that you see between the lines???...show it.
      • In this day and age,...you mean now??? Why do you even need to say this???
    • No trite statements or hackneyed statements
    • No run on sentences
    • Paragraphs should normally have at least three sentences unless there is some special reason
    • No run on paragraphs...10 sentences or more in a paragraph likely can be split up
    • Make sure you have verb agreement and verb/noun agreement
    • Don't use words you don't understand, just say it like you would normally say it...fanciness not needed
    • If the sentence is awkward, rewrite it to be simple...simple is always better (example from famous playwriter: "To be or not to be")
    • Do not use quotes for something you don't understand; either understand it and write it in your own words or don't include it in your essay
    • Better yet don't use quotes at all
    • Since you all have word processors - CHECK your spelling (if something weird is going on make sure you are set to American English if you are in America and writing in English) - if you are lucky you might even be able to CHECK your grammar.

    So lets see some essays!


    1Like in criminal law when you are found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (usually through a preponderance of evidence or a preponderance of circumstantial evidence). Note you are not found guild beyond any doubt. We all have doubt. Even in science we are never glued completely to an idea if evidence is suggesting something else. Though it is hard to dislodge a scientific theory unless there is a preponderance of evidence.