Alternative Engineering

October 1999
by Steven Novella, MD

A new phenomenon is sweeping the country, gaining the attention of both consumers and manufacturers alike. Increasingly disenchanted with the cold metallic world our modern technology is producing, people are beginning to take a close look at more natural alternatives. Collectively called Alternative Engineering (AE), a host of new and old methods are gaining scientific respectability.

Alec Waterston is one such self-styled alternative engineer. He has no degree or formal training in engineering, which he explains is an advantage: “I am not limited in my thinking by mathematics or logic. I do not have to pay homage to the likes of Newton or other western male pedagogues. My complete lack of training frees me to consider unique and innovative solutions to engineering problems, unfettered by the annoying constraints of ‘reality’.”

Alec’s latest project is a design for a 1200 foot non-suspension bridge. He claims the bridge will be able to span this distance without pilons or overhead suspension, and will be supported only by the ancient art of Fung Sui. “This wisdom, which is thousands of years old, is the art of channeling energy through design and form. This energy can be used to support a 1200 foot bridge, or even larger structures.” City planners are intrigued by these designs, as such bridges will cost less than half of those built by conventional designs.

Alec has his critics, however. Anthony Trellis, a professor of engineering at State University, claims that Alec’s designs run contrary to basic principles of physics and material science. An exasperated Trellis commented, “A bridge built based upon Waterston’s designs simply cannot stand. It would be unsafe in the extreme.”

Alec is not perturbed by such criticism, however. “Of course professor Trellis does not like my designs, because they challenge his precious status quo and turn his world upside-down. The protectionism of the old guard, however, is starting to crumble, like one of their obsolete buildings.”

Skeptics have suggested that before we spend millions of taxpayer dollars on such projects, and subject American motorists to the unknown risks of driving over a Waterston bridge, Waterston’s basic principles should at least be tested to see if they work. This is especially true since Waterston’s designs seem to run contrary to conventional wisdom.

“I’m too busy building bridges to jump through some skeptic’s hoops. They will never be satisfied, anyway. The American motorists should be free to decide for themselves if they wish to drive over one of my bridges. I respect their intelligence and ability to make smart decisions for themselves. They don’t need to be told by some bureaucrat, or professor in an ivory tower, which bridges are safe and which are not,” responds Waterston.

Naysayers, like Professor Trellis, however, are quick to disagree. They argue that individuals should not have to be scientists or engineers in order to drive safely over our bridges. Regulations are not designed to limit freedom, but to provide a basic level of safety and protection for the public. This attitude, however, is increasingly being dismissed as overly paternalistic and protective.

Civil engineers are not the only ones to rediscover the ancient wisdom of pre-technological societies. The auto-industry is also catching on. Natural Designs is a new car company based in Kansas. President and CEO, Andy Wiere, received a degree in engineering from Harvard 20 years ago, but then was fired from his teaching position after excessive drug use nearly destroyed his life. Now he has returned with a new company and a new philosophy, which many consumers find appealing.

“What I am advocating is a mixture of the best of modern scientific engineering with the older anti-scientific and superstitious ideas of earlier times,” explains Wiere. “I call this approach Integrative Engineering.”

What has this new approach created? Well, Natural Design’s newest model sedan, the Millennium 2000, does not use air bags, or even seatbelts. “Seatbelts are dangerous, and air bags are kid killers,” complains Wiere. So he has come up with something better. The interior of the Millennium 2000 is coated with a patented psychoactive material, called Natural Safe. “All a driver or passenger has to do is think safe thoughts, and this miraculous material will do the rest. In a crash, the material will gently repel any safe thinking person in the vehicle, leaving them free from injury.”

Consumers are convinced. Not to be outdone, GM and Ford both have started putting Natural Safe coatings in their cars. Amy Zinger, of Arkansas, survived a 40 MPH head on collision in one such vehicle. “I was wearing my seatbelt, and the air bag did deploy, but I know it was the Natural Safe that saved my life.” Motivated by such testimonials, more and more consumers are insisting on only buying cars treated with Natural Safe.

One problem faced by Natural Designs, however, is that outdated safety regulations, such as those requiring seatbelts, do not account for these new integrative designs. Recently, however, this has all changed. Senator Hakem, from Natural Design’s home state of Kansas, has pushed through legislation that will exempt manufacturers that use Alternative or Integrative principles from regulations designed to protect consumers. This was hailed as a great step forward.

Still, hard headed skeptics will not go away. “All I’m asking for is a simple crash test,” exclaimed noted skeptic, Perry DeAngelis. “If the stuff really works, heck, I’ll buy it.” Skeptics have been increasingly calling for such tests, arguing that testing should take place prior to implementation, especially when human lives are at stake.

But Wiere explains why such tests won’t work. “Crash dummies are not people. The psychoactive material will therefore not respond to them. The fact is, these innovative designs cannot be subjected to the same testing and principles as traditional engineering. But consumers who drive our cars feel safer – now how can you argue with that.”

Still, DeAngelis points to recent studies which seem to indicate that drivers of Wiere’s cars are twice as likely to die in a crash as are drivers of conventional vehicles. But Wiere merely scoffs, “What are you going to believe, numbers on a piece of paper, or people?”

Despite the skeptics, Alternative Engineering seems to be here to stay. Wiere has just been named the chairman of the new Department of Integrative Engineering at State University, where he hopes to train the next generation of engineers in his philosophy. Meanwhile, Senator Hakem has pushed through Congress another bill that calls for the creation of an Office of Alternative Engineering. This new office will divert money being wasted on maintaining this country’s infrastructure, and use it to study and promote alternative principles in engineering.

Dr. Novella is an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Yale University School of Medicine and an Associate Editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.

Editor’s Note

I have received many calls and e-mails regarding my article on Alternative Engineering (NEJS, Fall 1999). Most readers were delighted by the cutting humor of the piece, but a few readers were very upset by this alleged new phenomenon, and were also puzzled by the decidedly neutral tone of the article. I was even contacted by a producer from 20/20 who was interested in doing a segment on Alternative Engineering.

In retrospect, I suppose I did not make it clear enough that the article was intended as satire. The goal was to demonstrate the absurdity of Alternative Medicine by applying identical reasoning to a fictitious applied pseudoscience. I believe the piece was very successful in this respect, and is a good representation of the effectiveness of satire. The neutral tone of the piece was intended to be a mockery of how the mainstream press will often cover an absurd claim. By treating such claims as legitimate scientific ideas they fail to put them in their proper perspective, and thereby lend a false sense of legitimacy to nonsense.

However, it is difficult to parody extreme nonsense. We often report in this newsletter on pseudoscientific topics that are very bizarre, with true believers using twisted logic and making outlandish claims. In inventing the pseudoscience of alternative engineering, I apparently was not far off from real pseudosciences that are out there, making it difficult for some readers to tell the difference between a genuine pseudoscience and my humorous parody.

To me, this is a commentary on how bad things have become. There is so much extreme nonsense in our society, much of it accepted by the public at large, that it is difficult to invent a belief so bizarre, so patently absurd that we cannot imagine the belief having its true believers.

It also appears that there is no claim so strange or nonsensical that the media will not report on it in a “neutral” manner. Perhaps Martin Gardner is correct in that ridiculous ideas deserve to be ridiculed.