Reflection on Town Meeting

The town hall meeting was definitely an interesting experience and a great way to end the semester in this class.  We had to put ourselves in the shoes of the people we interviewed and present their perspective as we felt they would themselves.  I had the task of presenting what I felt an EPA administrator would bring to the meeting, and as I was talking I was learning a lot about what it must be like to be in the shoes of a government official explaining to people how the air/water/environment in their town gets polluted and how even though it’s the government’s job to protect its people many times it falls short.  I think it’s easy to find excuses for why the problem was not addressed and solved earlier and why it is yet to be solved, but that doesn’t change the fact that chronic exposure to toxins has been happening for years. Dr. Edwards’ address to the crowd at the end of the meeting was also interesting – he said something totally contradictory to what was said earlier by a member of the community with a scientific background and supported a claim that there was no reason for concern of harm from this pollution.  This may have been an exaggeration on his part but it may not be far from what can commonly happen in situations like these.  I wonder, did a town hall meeting like this really go on in Tonawanda and were the residents really told that there was no statistical argument that people were getting sick because of this plant? I enjoyed the exercise at the end where we reflected upon how we would react to this news in the past, present and future.  I think a lot of the educational value of this class is the exposure to a variety of instances of scientific and ethical misconduct and then testing our own morals with events like the town meeting so that in the future when we’re confronted with a moral or ethical dilemma that we know how to recognize and deal with it efficiently and honestly.  I think that what I wrote in the reflection for what reaction I hope to have in 10 years was an example to that effect, that I would ask lots of questions and start discussions among residents about what should be done about the issue and perhaps take action.  I’m not the kind to lead an activism charge for a cause, but I would sure support one that I believe in.


A balancing act

Key words like risk, trust, progress, environmental and public health, and responsibility have been surfacing in my mind a lot as I read the assigned readings and think about politics and economics, science and business, environmental stewardship and societal growth.  Many of the ethical dilemmas and issues we’ve been presented, in my mind, have been a result of a tug-of-war between forces vying for the protection of the public and the environment and those pushing for economic, technological and societal growth.  What seems to be common is that everything has a cost – many famous (or infamous) individuals have used the phrase “in order to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs,” implying that sacrifices must be made if anything is to be gained.  I think we all understand and would agree though that those sacrifices must be ethically decided upon and there are lines which people must not cross legally and morally in order to spur any progress.  History in the form of these case studies, the ethical theories presented, and our own personal moral fiber all guide us to where to draw these lines.  These situations, however, get really sticky really fast because everyone has a different view on where that line is drawn, making for an extremely not-so-black-and-white picture.  Things cannot be cut and dry when every individual involved has a differing moral, spiritual and ethical background and whose EMOTIONS are charged by infinite different experiences.  Environmental stewardship and economic progress must come hand in hand, because we cannot sacrifice either.  Our capitalistic system has at times done us wonders while simultaneously wreaking havoc on the environmental landscape.  I believe the challenge of the current time is to figure out how to reduce negative environmental and public health impacts while not hindering and possibly even spurring economic, scientific and cultural advances.  Education seems key, as does working harder to evaluate the true cost of an action. And this is really referring to general business and scientific practices, not just the ones at risk for ethical mishaps.  I think that a great stress must be placed on proper valuation of natural resources, human elements and long terms effects.  However, I do not want to see our capitalist system more hindered, regulated or constrained more than absolutely necessary.  I think it is part of being an American to participate in the free market, and that private businesses have the right and obligation to do that. Entities like the EPA are often seen as the “bad guys” because they must police businesses but they are necessary because these businesses will not police themselves without an incentive.  So what is the answer?  Where do we compromise?  Does an attitude shift need to take place in this country and around the world, one toward better self-regulation, if that is possible or even a real thing?  Let’s hope and work for an attitude change in tomorrow’s science and business to one that doesn’t take shortcuts, innovates and advances, but embraces environmental stewardship and care of the poor and vulnerable.

Should we blame the government, or blame society? Or should we blame the images on TV? NO! Blame………Canada?

I was given the privilege of talking with Judith Enck, EPA Region 2 Administrator for our stakeholder interviews.  The dialogue back and forth was really pleasant and flowed well, and it was nice to “hear it from the horse’s mouth” in terms of how the EPA goes about their business, its plusses and minuses, and how it is trying to improve.  Overall it gave me a good feeling that the Region 2 office of the EPA is being run well – her resume also helps, mentioning that she’s had a lot of experience in dealing with environmental issues at the state and federal level and she has worked in a “governmental watchdog group,” which sounded like a really interesting role for someone who then transitioned to positions of authority in the government.  I asked her about this, how those interests coincide, and in doing so I was looking for her to say something like, “I am working for the government but really I’m infiltrating it because now that I’m on this inside I know what it really does wrong and can fix it from the inside.”  Instead she just offhandedly mentioned that she was approaching the same problems but from different angles, with different freedoms and powers.  Working for the government can give one access to a lot of information and power but is also limiting in terms of what you can do or say.  On the other hand, working for a “scrappy little non-profit with no money,” as she puts it, gives one the freedom to do and say lots of things that government employees cannot but makes it harder to access information or make large scale changes.  In any event, this government official came off to me as legitimate, hardworking and devoted to honestly solving the environmental issues we face.

However, I seem to be a skeptic of all government officials now due to what we’ve experienced in this class in terms of unethical conduct with regards to public health.  I guess I’ve been so bogged down by the wrongs that have been committed that I have either failed to notice or forgotten if we’ve seen a whole lot of ethically sound decisions by government officials presiding over environmental and public health issues.  Can we assume that all instances of government oversight of these issues are conducted properly unless there has been widespread publicity on misconduct?  That 50% of these instances are?  How skeptical should we be, and how much blame must rest on their shoulders for these mishaps?  Is there a system we can develop to help check on our governmental officials that will involve professional scientists and engineers to aid the activists?  Is there such a thing as an activist engineer that’s not a whistleblower who can be funded and protected?  That’d be an interesting job….  I suppose that’s the engineer in me, trying to find solutions to these problems.

An interesting point that Mrs. Enck made was about citizen science and environmental justice.  I won’t go a whole lot into these because I’ll save that for the Town Meeting in a few weeks, but her ideas for these programs are encouraging because it shows that someone in authority in a federal organization can think outside the box and be open to new ideas and ways for addressing environmental and public health problems.  If more of our government officials can buck the status quo and implement new ideas, perhaps that is a good sign that our government is working to really address these problems.

Spock for President 2016

Reading “The Honest Broker” this week shed some good light on the number of ways a scientist can go about sharing information about an issue.  What intrigued me the most was the relationship between the honest broker for policy alternatives and the issue advocate.   The former seems to me like a scientist who gathers data supporting a view on a particular issue and then proposes his or her argument as the sole solution to the problem.  The latter seems more appropriate and legitimate – analyzing all perspectives of an issue from a scientific standpoint and then proposing all findings for a complete presentation of the issue.  The former would seem more attractive to a politician, or a scientist who has been charged with generating an argument for a certain political standpoint.  But I think to be an honest broker in these situations is the best course of action and one which I try to take when I need to make a decision or formulate an opinion.  We have the ability as a society to scientifically analyze issues and then communicate the findings, so why do we instead rely on sound bites and campaign ads without communicating the scientific arguments?  It would be really interesting to get into the heads of those in power in this country and beyond to see how they make decisions, how informed they really are, and whose advice they take in order to make informed decisions.  One would hope that our leaders think through a decision as much as possible before they make it and try to educate themselves on all aspects of the scientific arguments presented.  But that’s akin to asking a politician to not be a politician, and I doubt that’s particularly reasonable.

What would it be like if a scientist or engineer, who had a stellar record of being an honest broker for policy alternatives, were suddenly thrust into a position like the presidency? I’ve often wondered what it would be like for a pure, lifetime engineer, with no experience in politics whatsoever, were put into a leadership position and asked to make decisions.  Personally, as a self-proclaimed moderate and Christian, I would want to know each and every aspect of an issue or decision presented to me before I was to make a decision.  Realistically that may not be possible, mostly because proper data gathering, treatment and presentation takes time, and time is often a luxury leaders do not have.  But, would an engineer who is initially uncorrupted by politics (like the military commander Maximus in Gladiator) and has an exemplary moral/ethical record do a better job than a lifetime politician?  I look forward to your responses!

Ask not what your country can do for you….

I try to not judge people, but I once took a Myers-Brigg personality test and one of my letters came up “J” for “judging” as opposed to “P” for “perceiving.”  Oh well, guess it’s an uphill battle for me.

When I have the upper hand in that battle, however, I usually succeed in putting myself (the judger) in the other person’s (the judgee’s) shoes and gain their perspective.  When I can control my judgmental self, not get too hot-headed and see things objectively, I feel I can gain a lot of knowledge and insight which will then lead to a better ability to properly assess, or “judge,” a situation.  Maybe the person that passes me on the street with tons of piercings, tattoos and dark clothes had a rough upbringing or poor role models.  Maybe there are endless facts about a situation that I can never know, therefore making any judgement I pass based on incomplete knowledge.  Maybe there’s an excuse or explanation for all inequities in this world that can be traced back along a cascade of misguided causes and effects.  I try to not go in with guns blazing and instead give people the benefit of the doubt for as long as I can until it’s been proven to me that they knowingly have done wrong and are in need of penance, somewhat reflecting the code of the American justice system, “innocent until proven guilty.”

What I’m getting at here is that I try to look at these issues presented in class objectively and give those involved the benefit of the doubt until I’ve thoroughly investigated their stories and can then adequately assess the situation.  I hesitate to point fingers and scandalize someone before I know their whole story, mostly because I would hate to pass the wrong judgment on someone, making the fact that I’m judging even worse, and I don’t like looking foolish (who does?).  I know that it’s easy for those who know the stories already to emit a vibe reflecting their attitudes toward the responsible parties, but even when I hear a story knowing some background information I like to keep a level head, ask questions, and listen.  I’ve developed this approach because I think it’s fair and objective, which is how I think one needs to behave when passing judgment.

This idea of fairness is the last thing I’ll mention here.  We’ve been reading and discussing a lot about governmental officials doing, or not doing, their jobs of serving and protecting the American people, and yesterday I enjoyed the privilege of having a conversation with one.  One of my main questions was about the relationship among the governmental organizations, the general public, and the industries that run the economy.  The case in point was the TCC case where the EPA had to crack down on TCC at the urging of local residents.  The thing is, the EPA is required by law to be a fair and unbiased investigator of TCC and their alleged crimes.  Their only bias is the protection of public and environmental health, but the company has the right (deservedly) to due process and is permitted to exercise that right.  The laws must be structured this way so that a company who is behaving ethically can defend its actions, just like an innocent defendant in a court case (again, being innocent until proven guilty).  A lot of flak is shoveled at the EPA because of its slowness to act, but the resources necessary (time, money, authority) to adequately investigate is often not enough for our governmental servants to move as fast as we would like.  Therefore, I err on the side of cutting those who are responsible for investigations like in the TCC case some slack.  I don’t like passing judgment until I know all the facts (which may never be entirely known – we are dealing with people here and people lie, make mistakes and have biases), and instead of passing that judgment at all it would probably be a better use of my time to investigate further and even help with the cause.  As I said in an earlier post, voting is the minimal civil service we’re all called to do.  If we feel passionate about something, we should educate ourselves as much as possible and from that platform help in doing what’s necessary to right any wrong that may have occurred.  I’ll end with the line from JFK’s inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”  We are all called to be servants, because when we can all serve each other we can call benefit.

We’ll make it out together

This week’s reading from Street Science by Jason Corburn was focused on defining “local knowledge,” how it’s different from professional knowledge, and how the two combined give a more full view of an environmental issue than either do alone.  A few case studies were described, including air pollution causing asthma in Harlem’s youth, the AIDS epidemic and the subsequent development of antiretroviral drugs, and the effect of pesticide usage on British farms.  In each case, regular citizens who were the primary witnesses to the issue were able to either provide the scientific community with information and collaborate with them, or conduct their own studies and work to solve their problem independently.

What I took from this reading was that each method of approaching an environmental issue, whether it be in the lab or on the streets, is important and essential for the appropriate diagnosis and treatment of the problem.  It seems to be nearly if not entirely impossible to collect all the information about an issue, transport it to a lab, analyze it, and come up with conclusions.  Scientific approaches are incredibly useful for simulating environmental conditions and measuring samples, but there frequently if not perpetually exists other conditions that cannot be analyzed in a lab and/or are beyond the power of the researcher to investigate: case in point, the youth or Harlem assembling a small army to sample, or legal stipulations placed on the testing of antiretroviral drugs.  As scientists, we must remember these factors and rely on the public to educate us on what is happening on the ground in the environment.

That being said, the coin has two sides.  The public also must realize its need for the scientific approach to things and how the generation of legitimate, usable results relies heavily on the completion of good science.  This does not mean that the public must submit to the final analysis and conclusions of the scientific community.  There may be among the public individuals who step up and become scientists (if they are not already) and follow the scientific method to generate reliable results.  It is in fact probably better that a member of the community learns what it means to conduct research soundly, so that that knowledge can therefore be relayed to that person’s peers among the laity.

Which brings me to my final point: communication is key, as is humility, openness, objectivity and empathy.  This seems like a set of very different values, but I feel they are all necessary for people of very different backgrounds and who are coming from very different sides of an issue to communicate, collaborate and generate results efficiently.  It is possible in every situation to attain the best possible outcome, whatever it may be, and the aspects listed above are part of a list not completed here that are necessary to achieve that end.  I believe it takes humility and empathy from the scientist, objectivity and openness from the public and an effort to communicate from all parties involved to make this happen.

Engineer make mistake, bridge fall down

Reading about the Challenger explosion this week, I couldn’t help but think of a professor I had in my undergraduate program that wouldn’t give partial credit on homework or exams.  He was of Chinese origin and, believe me when I say I mean no offense when I mime his accent as I type, when students protested he said “When lawyer makes mistake, he talk his way out of it.  When doctor makes mistake, he has malpractice insurance.  But when engineer make mistake BRIDGE FALL DOWN and LOT OF PEOPLE DIE!!!  No partial credit!”  It was quite intense and sticks in my brain until this day but there is truth in it.  Engineers design buildings, trains, bridges, implantable organs, cars and the like that have the potential to harm great numbers of people.  In the story of Robert Lund and the Challenger shuttle, the lives of seven people (and not to mention billions of dollars) were put to risk and lost because an engineer balked at standing up to his superiors and asserting that safety was priority.

We’ve been hearing and reading a lot in class about higher-ups in important roles making unethical decisions that cause death and destruction along with public unrest and untold consequences.  These men and women have acted irresponsibly, their mistakes have been unveiled for all to see and they have been asked to explain and accept the consequences of their actions.  It is easy to condemn these people, is it not?  It is easy for us to shake our heads at them and show our frustration, disappointment and anger for their shortcomings.  But can we put ourselves in their positions?  Can we place ourselves in their shoes on the days when they made those decisions with the knowledge they had and see how they could have made the decisions they did?  Are we so quick to judge, to put all of the blame on their shoulders and condemn them before knowing the whole story?  I am not suggesting that these people who acted unethically do no deserve to be punished for their actions.  I’m simply asserting that these people are ordinary men and women who were put into extraordinary situations and called upon to make really hard decisions.  They failed to make the right decision and should be treated accordingly as per our laws.  But I am hesitant to condemn or judge without knowing the whole story, a story which might never be entirely known and would nonetheless take lots of time and resources to unravel.  I understand that the victims in these situations – the Challenger astronauts, the DC children with elevated BLL’s, the residents of Tonawanda, NY – are those who need our deepest sympathies, but pointing a finger in disgust is not something I’m ready to do just yet and not sure I’d ever be ready to do.  People make mistakes and this class is aimed at studying those mistakes in the hopes that we as engineers will not repeat them and act differently when it is our turn to be tested.  But reading the story about the Challenger makes me wonder, how many times have unethical decisions been made and no detrimental effect was seen?  And how many times has the ethical path been chosen only to avail in harm and suffering?  I’m excited to hear everyone’s thoughts on the matter!

Head full of doubt, heart full of promise

On Whistleblowers/Organized Thoughtlessness:

There are a number of discouraging points brought about by this reading.  To preface, this author is a lowly graduate student, making enough to sustain his simple life but provide him with the intellectual freedom of academia, who is most likely morally overconfident as outlined by our TED talk video.  I like to think that my moral compass is directed in such a way that were I given a position of power that I would conduct myself and my “subjects” in a fashion that would reflect a strong moral code and uncompromising values.  So what discourages me as I read this essay is that those who recognize moral complacency and try to do something about it, the “whistleblowers” who are willing to sacrifice themselves to uphold ethical values and “do the right thing,” are rarely rewarded and frequently punished for their actions.  The case in point here is the engineer at a airplane brake pad testing facility that goes to the FBI with information about fraudulently conducted brake tests.  He gets fired while his bosses who were responsible for the infractions get promotions.  This seems like an egregious injustice that could go on daily in today’s world, and it was done only “to deliver the brake on time.”

This situation is an example the author uses to outline a feudal-like system where the bosses are the lords and the employees the serfs.  The power at hand is not the company for which one works but rather who has the authority to fire, one’s boss.  Democracy and equality does not seem to be present, and in order to provide justice for these wrongdoings the serfs must traverse a dangerous and tedious labyrinth of red tape and perhaps perils that could threaten livelihoods.  The way this “organization” is set up seems backwards especially in our American society and one would hope that extreme cases like this do not occur as frequently as we would fear.

This story and reflection calls me to ask myself, can someone who is a “whistleblower” or has the ability to be one ever be put into a position of power?  Will that power corrupt him/her?  Will his/her moral compass be negatively affected by that power?  Is it inevitable that “power corrupts?”  Here is my moral overconfidence coming through – would I be corrupted if I were put into a position of power?  Would I hold to my morals and values during times of adversity, or would I forget them only to come to a painful realization when it is too late and regret all the decisions I’ve made in the matter?

I am a person of faith, a person of prayer.  So that is how my discouragement is eliminated, by the hope and trust not only in myself but in God working through me.  I hope and pray that if and when I am faced with these moral and ethical dilemmas my faith and prayer will be the first resource I go to for aid.  From my own experience and those I have seen and read, it is much safer to trust in God than it is to trust in man.

Decide what to be and go be it.

There are two things I’d like to blog about this week.  First would be one of the reading assignments, “Why Science cannot be Value-Free – Understanding the Rationality and Responsibility of Science” by Agnieszka Lekka-Kowalik.  From what I can gather, it is an attempt to rationalize the argument that no scientific endeavor can be completed without values and in fact that all science is value laden.  I see this argument as reasonable, mostly due to the fact that there are humans behind the science they are completing.  Humans have emotions, bosses, customers, etc. – basically other forces coercing their work besides the desire to produce true, meaningful results from their investigations.  However, my reaction to this extremist view is that there are degrees of “value laden-ness” that can be applied to science.  In other words, all research and science cannot be lumped into the category of being permeated and governed by a scientist’s values and morals.  I believe some science can be done completely independent of those coercing influences listed above and in my mind this published work is a call to all scientists, a challenge, to complete their work as objectively as possible, avoiding conflicts of interest and letting the data and facts govern.  That being said, I appreciated how the author included Plato’s insight: “those most capable of healing are also those most capable of harming” which brings me back to my Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility.”  The more widespread and effectual our work is, the greater responsibility we have to ensure that work is done morally, ethically, and with the least harm/greatest good.  When those factors come into play, our values are further tested and outside forces have a greater chance of influencing our decisions.  In conclusion, I slightly disagree with the author because I believe some science can be completed totally objectively.  I feel that I have to as a scientist who would feel less of one if he did not conduct himself morally.  I feel challenged to conduct research entirely objectively, and if one “decides what to be and goes and becomes it” then he or she with enough drive can accomplish his/her goals.  I do see the merit of this thought process when the stakes are higher and forces beyond our control test our values.


I’ve also been reading this week out of our semester reading, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”  I’ve been through the first sixty pages and have enjoyed it very much thus far.  I’ve been introduced to Henrietta and her family, her past, and her present as her cells live on and her family searches for answers.  I’m beginning to see ethical dilemmas are looming as the story progresses, and I’m also putting myself in the shoes of the author, watching the story unfold as she switches to her first-person investigation of Henrietta’s life and legacy.  What has become the very interesting thus far are the ways doctors and scientists during segregation treated African Americans.  Some saw blacks as test subjects while others more as equals.  The biggest question looming in my mind, which may be cleared up by future discussions in the book and beyond, is how do we treat an ethical issue that happened 60 years ago that 60 years ago was not an ethical issue yet had implications for the present?  Henrietta’s cells weren’t collected unethically by 1950’s standards and in the scientific community of the day sharing those cells seemed a natural way to spread the science and the excitement thereof.   And is there even an ethical dilemma now?  Should Henrietta’s family be compensated for the use of her cells, and should her cells even be used?  I think these are all important questions that are likely to be discussed as the book progresses.  What I know now is that if my cells could potentially help cure some diseases, generate research jobs and further our knowledge of a species, I’d gladly give them right now (as long as my health wasn’t compromised to a great extent).  I would hope that my family would understand and if compensation were available for myself or them, that would be great.  However, I would donate them like I would donate my organs should I not need them anymore without any desire for compensation.  And from what I’ve learned from Henrietta, she may not have minded either.