Autism is on people’s minds, partly because a study that links vaccinations to autism has been shown to be fraudulent. There is debate about what constitutes an “elite”, and Gerard van der Leun links to Ace of Spades, who comments, inter alia,

If people typically heard the beliefs of other inarguable elites, perhaps there wouldn’t be this bias in people’s minds that liberalism represents the beliefs of the smart set. If people heard what engineers had to say, if engineers were on Letterman as much as Brian Friggin’ Williams, perhaps their subconscious notion of the “elite” way of looking at things would change. But they don’t hear from engineers.

Meanwhile my ’89 Reatta sits in the driveway with most of the covers off the dash, waiting for it to get warm enough this morning for me to resume the gremlin hunt. Some kind soul has scanned the service manual and posted it on the Internet, so I do have hope. At the top of my mind on that subject is communication between the front and back of the car, because I’d like to have a gas gauge that works and be able to open the trunk lid without crawling inside and pulling the kidnap bar. Finding the intermittent that causes it to shut down randomly is higher priority but later in the schedule, because tracking down minor issues helps me get familiar with the gestalt of the car and the thinking processes of the engineers who designed it.

Engineering is a matter of details. If you were sitting in the passenger seat of my car (which you can’t right now — it’s full of tools and test gear), just in front of your right knee, covered by upholstery and molded plastic panels, there are four connectors. C200 has 56 places for wires, 30 of them occupied; C204 has 30 “cavities” used by 15 wires; C207 has six holes and four wires; and C210 has eight positions, all occupied. The sections of the wiring harness they connect were made by different people in different places, perhaps in the same room but different benches, perhaps on opposite sides of the world. Engineers had to decide which component went where, what wires had to connect the components, what size and color the wires should be, what type of connectors to use (all four of them are different, made by different companies), which connector pins should be used for which wires, where the connectors should be in the car, which should be installed first at assembly, how much room in that area was necessary for connectors, and a thousand and one other details. They then had to write all that down in a form usable by the assembly workers, so when the line guy at the factory picks up the front-to-rear harness (made in Mexico) and plugs it in to the cross-dash harness (made in Canada) the connectors fit, all the wires connect properly, and the assembly goes into the cavity without too much strain, doesn’t interfere with the warning-chime module (ten wires) or the “climate control” computer (sixteen wires), and is decently covered by the plastic bits.

Then they had to abstract enough of those details to make it possible for techs like me to fix it if it breaks. And that’s neither the simplest place on the car nor the most complex one.

If all that seems trivial to you, it’s because you’ve never had contact with engineers. Each single bit, each step, is in fact fairly trivial — but just in that one area, connecting up fewer than fifty wires resulted in several thousand puzzles, all of which had to be solved quickly enough to get the car on the road in time for the model year and cheaply enough the company could make a little money on it. A wrong decision or failure to communicate the details properly means the thing doesn’t work — which means something worse than starting from scratch, since they not only have to correct the mistake, they have to make sure that old versions of the documentation get expunged from the system in ten or more places, some of which don’t even use the same language as the others.

It all requires a plodding attention to detail totally foreign to people outside the profession. My boss not long ago made some disparaging remark about “anal retentive” engineers. Engineers have to be anal retentive. When airplanes fall out of the sky, bridges fall down, Mars probes fail, or the gas gauge on an ’89 Reatta doesn’t work, it’s because the engineers missed a detail — they weren’t anal retentive enough.

The trouble is that it isn’t interesting to a general audience. Put one of the people who designed that wiring on Letterman or Oprah and viewers switch off in droves, even the other engineers, who may be focused on how to mold the plastic of your cell phone so it snaps together properly, what the proper torque is for the head bolts on a motorcycle engine, or any other of the myriad types of screws it takes to hold a complex industrial civilization together. Holding people’s interest at a party or on a teevee program requires glibness, the ability to communicate in a friendly way. Glibness and engineering are mutually exclusive.

Autistic people are famous for focus, the ability to concentrate so hard on details that they lose the bigger picture. This is exactly the quality needed for an engineer, given engineering managers who can herd those cats — which itself requires a level of focus and concentration above and beyond the “normal”.

It may be that something in the environment causes autism, be it vaccinations, corn sugar in soft drinks, electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and power lines, or something nobody’s noticed up to now. It may equally be that we’re just now noticing it — many of the features of old-fashioned education, particularly the ones now regarded as cruel or indifferent, look a lot like ways to cope with those behavior patterns. What’s certain is that we need those people. Behavioral research ought to concentrate on helping them get along in the larger society and rewarding them for their contributions, not on eliminating the “problem”. If we’re going to have cell phones, nuclear power plants, globe-spanning airplanes, snowplows, and a million million other gadgets large and small to make our lives easier and more rewarding, people who can concentrate on the details of bolt threads, wire sizes, and the proper clearance for snap-fits to assemble coffee makers are necessary.