Applying mathematics without a licence is discouraged in NC

Craig Scarborough had better stay out of North Carolina.  “Scarbs”, if you’re not familiar with the gentleman and his work, is a freelance journalist who covers the technical aspects of Formula One with fantastic rigour, clarity, and depth.  His analyses of the ongoing 2011 launch season are invaluable to those of us who’re trying to figure out just how F1’s top designers mean to do what they’re apparently doing.  Case in point: speculating about blown outer diffuser sections days before Red Bull launched the RB7, which does precisely that.

For most of us glib dilettantes interested observers, that’s the sort of intellectual trick to which we aspire: picking out the holes in the FIA’s technical regs by creative application of brain power.  In North Carolina, that could be seen as practicing engineering without a license:

A citizen in Raleigh, North Carolina presented the city a proposal to install traffic lights near his home. One city official responded by calling for the citizen to be investigated for what basically amounts to doing math without a license.

So.  The city decides not to install traffic lights near David Cox’s house.  Cox goes into the historical data, does some analysis, and presents a rather sophisticated report to the city arguing that those traffic lights would in fact be a pretty good idea.  One of the neat things about math is that it doesn’t care about your credentials: if applied properly, it gives the same results to a computer, a fourth-grader, a civil engineer, a member of a homeowners’ association, or the Queen of fucking England.  (Applying the math properly is of course the key component of the process.)  So if you can walk into a city council meeting with a piece of analysis and walk them through the process to verify that it’s been properly constructed, you have a convincing argument no matter who you are.

Kevin Lacy, chief traffic engineer for the North Carolina DOT, seems to have been convinced.  This is a problem for Lacy, because he evidently doesn’t want to install the traffic lights regardless of whether they’re a good idea.  So Lacy falls back on his good friend the argumentum ad verecundiam — a logical fallacy so old it has three Latin names — and decides that he’s the only one in the council chambers professional enough to calculate traffic loads.

Instead, Lacy called on a state licensing agency, the N.C. Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors, to investigate Cox[…]“When you start applying the principles for trip generation and route assignment, applying judgments from engineering documents and national standards, and making recommendations,” that’s technical work a licensed engineer would do, Lacy said.

Yeah, you know what?  Those principles are in place because they work regardless of who uses them — if of course they’re used properly.  Those national standards are in place (we presume) because they make sense regardless of who references them — if of course they’re interpreted properly.  If Cox’s report committed technical errors, they should be easy for a licensed traffic engineer like Lacy to pick out those errors and show that they invalidate the analysis.  The fact that he hasn’t speaks volumes about both Cox and Lacy.

Lacy said his complaint “was not an accusation” against Cox.

“I’m not trying to hush him up,” Lacy said.

I’ve got some more Latin for you, Lacy: factis non verbis.

3 Responses to “Applying mathematics without a licence is discouraged in NC”

    • February 4, 2011 at 20:00

      I was so gonna make that joke in the original post, but stopped myself. That’ll teach me to avoid the obvious pun. (Also? That’s not even a function!)

      “We can’t get you for drinking and deriving, but we can get you for applying trig substitution in an integral without a license. Step out of the car, sir.”

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