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Re: [ontolog-forum] Data Models v. Ontologies (again)

To: <edbark@xxxxxxxx>, "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "Obrst, Leo J." <lobrst@xxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sun, 25 May 2008 16:04:46 -0400
Message-id: <9F771CF826DE9A42B548A08D90EDEA80032715EE@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
I am late to this discussion, but will make one observation.     (01)

Ed, I think you are putting too much distance between theory and
engineering. Typically engineering applies "working theories" to solve
problems. You might call these lessons learned, established design
practices, problem-solving craft. I call them nascent, na´ve theories.
Are these scientific theories? Well, kind of, at least the beginnings
of them. They are generalizations meant to apply to portions of the
world. Observations can be one-off perceptions, but typically they
begin to be put together, generalized, etc. I am not a carpenter, but
by the time I finished building my first "chicken tractor" (a movable
chicken coop without a floor) with only a general recipe to go by and
experimentation, I was much more proficient, and had a better "theory"
about building chicken tractors and probably about building similar
things out of wood, wire, fiberglass panels, etc. Could I "scale" that
knowledge upward and build something much more complex: probably not. I
see "little theories" all over the place, and think that people live
their lives largely by these little theories.     (02)

Perhaps a better distinction (I fear raising this as just another
distraction or endless thread) is a theory as "descriptive" vs.
"explanatory". To my mind, theories are descriptive. When they can be
rooted in other theories or bridged to other theories, or those
descriptions are shown to follow from certain minimal principles and
rules, then they move toward being explanatory (one wants to say
"causative" theories. Predictability by itself is a red-herring, since
I can predict many things without knowing/caring about the underlying
explanation/cause.    (03)

When I hear very polar views of theory (sometimes called the
rationalist position, or top-down, abstract, neat, etc.) vs. practice
(sometimes called the empiricist position, or bottom-up, concrete,
scruffy, etc.), I think that there is ideology at play. Either a miffed
"theoretician" or a wounded "engineer", who has either been slapped
around for not having enough of the other (theory, practicability), or
having too much of the one, or who sees curricula, promotions,
recognition, acclaim, etc., going the wrong way. And these things vary
by culture or micro-culture. Like an introvert in an extrovert world.    (04)

Leo    (05)

Dr. Leo Obrst       The MITRE Corporation, Information Semantics 
lobrst@xxxxxxxxx    Information Discovery & Understanding, Command and
Control Center
Voice: 703-983-6770 7515 Colshire Drive, M/S H305 
Fax: 703-983-1379   McLean, VA 22102-7508, USA     (06)

-----Original Message-----
From: ontolog-forum-bounces@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
[mailto:ontolog-forum-bounces@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx] On Behalf Of Ed
Sent: Friday, May 23, 2008 5:45 PM
To: [ontolog-forum]
Subject: Re: [ontolog-forum] Data Models v. Ontologies (again)    (07)

jayanosy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx wrote:    (08)

>  I was shocked by the statement that engineers don't need theory. If 
> one looks at the practicing journals of todays engineers there are an    (09)

> astounding number of applications of theoretical principles from many    (010)

> disciplines that an engineer will use to experiment with alternative 
> design models.     (011)

Well, John, that comes of looking only at today's journals.  You see
"engineering" as mature mechanical or electrical engineering at the
of the 21st century.  I suspect you would have seen it differently at
the turn of the 20th.  Think of  Edison and Tesla.  And the examples I
chose were civil engineering thousands of years before Isaac Newton and
Friedrich Eiffel.    (012)

"Engineering" can be done without much in the line of theory, because
has been.  From a logic standpoint, one counterexample disproves Len's
contention, and one can find hundreds of them.    (013)

The point at issue is not whether engineering benefits from theory when
the theory is available, nor whether engineering disciplines should
incorporate useful available theories.  No one disputes that.    (014)

The issue Len raised is whether "real engineering" can be done when the
ideally supporting theory is not available.  Len contends that
engineering" is currently impossible because there is inadequate
supporting theory.  And my position is that historically, engineering
practitioners observed what worked and evolved a discipline and
based on those observations.  They came later to apply theories that
explained those observations.  And all I claim is that in software
engineering we are still in the first stage, as electrical engineering
was in 1890.    (015)

Everything you say is correct, but (IMO) irrelevant to the issue,
this:    (016)

>  If the theories for development or 
> application of technology to create systems are not adequate to
explain or 
> predict performance to design selections that I would say that one
> follow historical best practices and rules of thumb, and various
> may have different skills in these practices, this still is not 
> engineering but again some sort of ad-hoc development with highly 
> unpredictable results.    (017)

And yet, from 1300 to 1600, hundreds of massive cathedrals were built
all over Europe by the Guilds of Masons using the same design
with several interesting variants.  And most of them still stand, as
designed.  So I dispute the idea that it was "ad hoc development with
highly unpredictable results".  The Master Builders knew How; they just
didn't know Why.  The theory of statics, and the supporting
wasn't actually promulgated until the latter half of the 17th century.    (018)

Now, it is true that Edison's work of 1880-1895 was of exactly that
type: ad-hoc development with highly unpredictable results.  So I
suppose he wasn't "doing engineering" -- he was inventing a new
engineering domain.  And it is said of the Wright Brothers that their
approach was extremely careful and incorporated what little theory was
known and involved hundreds of detailed experiments, and they are
therefore credited with creating the aeronautical engineering
discipline.  But there were also guys like Lee de Forest who were
tinkerers and not engineers.  So where does one draw the line?  Surely
they are not all carpenters.    (019)

And software engineers are not the only modern examples.  Think of
controlled nuclear reaction and cryogenics and nanotechnologies and
laser technologies and tunneling microscopy.  There was in each case
some applicable theory, but all the early devices were based on
experiment and observation.  Now it is true that these areas benefit
from 100-200 years of background science, but the specific domains did
not have complete theories, and they didn't really have a large body of
observations.  And in at least two of those areas there is still
conflicting theory.  And yet, we developed related engineering
disciplines.  (Well, nanotech is still in its infancy.)    (020)

I agree that most software engineers don't deserve the title
  We need to create a branch of "real engineering" that is engineering
of software machines, and replace the current claptrap of
engineering-free academic programs and professional designations for
tinkerers and artisans in the area.  Otherwise, we will never get
reliable products, or useful ontologies.    (021)

I just don't see getting hung up on theory as the discriminator.
Computer Science programs require a number of theory courses and a
number of pragmatic courses, but most graduates are not ready to be
engineers.  What is missing is Engineering 101 -- understanding the
engineering process, and acceptance of engineering discipline.    (022)

-Ed    (023)

Edward J. Barkmeyer                        Email: edbark@xxxxxxxx
National Institute of Standards & Technology
Manufacturing Systems Integration Division
100 Bureau Drive, Stop 8263                Tel: +1 301-975-3528
Gaithersburg, MD 20899-8263                FAX: +1 301-975-4694    (024)

"The opinions expressed above do not reflect consensus of NIST,
  and have not been reviewed by any Government authority."    (025)

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