The Karl Popper quote: ‘Piecemeal social engineering resembles physical engineering in regarding the ends as beyond the province of technology.’


The Karl Popper quote: ‘Piecemeal social engineering resembles physical engineering in regarding the ends as beyond the province of technology.’

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Piecemeal refers to only looking at a small part of a larger whole.

Social engineering is the study of how you can influence people on a larger scale than just you talking to your friends.

Physical engineering is the study of designing and building physical objects and machines.

“The ends” means “the goals” or the end results.

“Beyond the province of technology” means that something is out of scope of the technology involved. The technology doesn’t account for it, so it must be decided/determined by someone or something else.

Taken together, it’s saying that people working on small parts of social engineering are similar to people working on specific machines or technologies, in that they are concerned only about their small part and not what that part will do in the grand scheme of things.

As an example, you may work at Raytheon designing guidance systems for missiles. For you, what is important is that your guidance system is accurate and reliable. You’re not thinking about the people this missile will kill because of your guidance system; that’s not part of the technological aspect you’re working on, so it’s not in your scope.

An analog in social engineering might be the pervasiveness of fake news. The people who write/create fake news (not just the recent surge, but back in the days of William Randolph Hearst and yellow-journalism) are interested solely in getting more people to buy/subscribe to their papers so they can make more money. The larger impact of fake news in terms of creating social divisions among the people isn’t necessarily part of their thought process.

Common phrases that would be associated with this are “above my pay-grade” or “just a cog in the machine,” where the speaker is saying that they don’t concern themselves with the bigger picture; that’s for someone else to decide. They just do their own jobs and let fate deal with the rest.

This quote is certainly easier to understand if you include the next sentence.

>Piecemeal social engineering resembles physical engineering in regarding the ends as beyond the province of technology. (All that technology may say about ends is whether or not they are compatible with each other or realizable.)

What Popper is saying here is that, like physical engineering, piecemeal social engineering attacks problems to achieve a goal or several goals (“ends”) in a way that must be guided from some other knowledge.

When an engineer designs a system, he does it because somebody told him that they need a system that does particular things. Maybe somebody noticed that transportation would be easier if people did not have to rely on the physical exertion of horses, who need to be fed and watered and rested. So he hires an engineer to design a system of some sort that will move a wagon without needing a horse. And that engineer then builds an engine that is small enough and light enough to be mounted on a wagon and is reliable enough to be used continuously.

What the engineer did not do is decide why it was a good idea to do what he did. He doesn’t know anything about that. He can’t. Not through scientific investigation, anyway. He can design and build and experiment to accomplish a set of goals in a “better” way, but he has to be told what better means. Everything engineers do is an attempt to optimize a design to accomplish some goal with some set of constraints. They don’t pick what the goals are or what the constraints are.

Similarly, piecemeal social engineering involves intervening in society in some way to make something better, according to a set of goals that was not derived from piecemeal social engineering. You can experiment, for example, to see what the most effective way is to reduce teen pregnancy. You can try abstinence-only education. You can try comprehensive sex education including contraception. You can try mandating abortions for teenagers. You *can* answer the question of what the most effective way to reduce teen pregnancy is. What you can’t answer is whether you really should be reducing teen pregnancy in the first place, or what other societal values might make you dismiss some options out of hand regardless of their efficacy.

his “piecemeal social engineering” is basically his term for democratic change, as opposed to an authoritarian construction of society.

This quote seems to be about Popper’s [Three Worlds](

So it’s a matter of understanding that the emergent properties of any change to society (the ends) are impossible to predict. However physical engineering (ie building a bridge), is all about trying to model the physical world and predict the resulting behavior of the structures. His point from this single sentence is vague without any context.

There is a famous saying, “anyone can build a bridge that stands up, but it takes an engineer to build a bridge that barely stands up.” The act of engineering is to meet required specifications while minimizing cost and time. Technology is how we do that. I guess after all is said and done, though, you have to just try everything out to see what happens.

They are both means trying to achieve an ends far beyond the scope of current technologies, social acceptance.

It’s like trying to invent the iPhone in 1950, or or trying to overturn 100,000 years of tradition in a mere decade.