Reading about the Flint charges

Any time there is a major story on Flint, I find myself checking the Detroit newspapers to see the local coverage.  The Free Press had a story on just how rare the charges are:

There first thing that I found surprising that the charges aren’t linked to the lead in the water, but to the related problems that led to a Legionnaire’s Disease case that was a result of water treatment issues.

The main point of the article, however, was that officials being prosecuted for endangering public health is very rare, while prosecutions for corruption are fairly normal.  Yet both are fundamentally failures to live up to public trust.

Perhaps it’s a little easier to make the line to pressing charges when the case is “He or she took a suitcase full of cash,” than it is to make the case with “He  or she knew this was serious and didn’t make the phone call they should have made.”

Or is there something else at work here?  As a scientist, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea of criminalizing a mistake in professional judgement.  The scientific community was deeply upset by the prosecution of geologists for “failing” to state the dangers of the after-shock of an earthquake in Italy a few years ago.

Do we artificially extend the protection we should give to scientific judgement to cover moral judgement?  This seems to me to be linked to why this is considered unusual .


Is forming the public as “other” part of professional identity?

Ian Welsh and Brian Wynne’s article “Science, Scientism and Imaginaries of Publics in the UK: Passive Objects, Incipient Threats” raises many questions about how scientists, engineers, and other professionals respond to public opinion.  What I found interesting was how implicit the assumption seemed to be that the public was an “other” to scientific experts.   There were different models of how scientists viewed the public, but there did not seem to be a model where scientists viewed themselves as part of a public in decision-making.   Welsh and Wynne assume that expertise always creates a boundary.

This becomes puzzling when one appreciates that scientists presumably drink the same water, and breath the same air, as the general public.   On the other hand, as an engineer working on commercial aircraft, I have seen this first hand.  We flew on the same aircraft as the general public, with all of the same hassles.  On one hand, we did have some of the knowledge that the public did not have.  We knew, for instance, that an aircraft actually gets more fresh air per person than most buildings do- but we also knew why the aircraft could still be uncomfortable.  Yet the response was often to be dismissive of any suggestion that flying was not as comfortable as it could be.

  • And this was when we were very much “like” our fellow travelers, since both Boeing engineers and air travelers are middle-class  What happens when the public is not middle-class college graduates?   What happens when experts have educational, economic, racial, and religious backgrounds that are different from the people their expertise represents?   Is this gap even bridgeable?