Week 11 – FUD antenna and the tired activist’s soliloquy

*FUD: See footnote #2

…continuing from the last paragraph of the earlier submission (w_10_bonus_material.doc)1.

…Of course, since it is also subject to the destructive dynamics and politics of group behaviour, the survival of this critical mass (and hence, the movement) depends on its ‘collective character’.

Passive activism and tuning my FUD2 antenna:
The appalling attitude of the agencies involved in the D.C. lead crisis has been very discouraging and has surely promoted a cynical view of the ‘system’. However, the incredible efforts of several individuals who risked their professional reputations to do the right thing gives me hope. As a responsible citizen, I must look beyond my usual duties pertaining to taxes and jury duty and teach myself some ‘passive activism3‘. I can start by overcoming the usual cynicism and lethargy, and truly recognizing the dangers of being too passive, withdrawn into my own world and not participating.

Perhaps I need teach myself to evaluate information critically and watch out for some red flags. I must be on guard to recognize the following manipulative FUD tactics – all of which have been seen in the past few years:

-efforts to ‘muddy the waters’ and attempts to avoid direct responsibility – saying that the situation is too confusing and “we shall never know what really happened”4

-shifting the burden of proof to the other party while a “innocent-until-proven-guilty paradigm for untested chemicals, medicines or technologies (e.g., the vehement denial of the health effects of lead, cigarettes…Smilie: ;)

-propaganda seasoned with half truths (extremely difficult to catch)

-blurring the lines between real (necessary) and opportunistic measures

-appeal to guilt (“If you love your children, you must buy them x”)

– jingoistic appeal to patriotism (“You are not a patriot if you do not support the xyz government policies…”)

-divisive rhetoric (“Allowing everyone to practice their own religion would gradually erode and threaten your right to do so”)

-pushing ‘temporary’ measures that curb citizens’ freedom until a perceived ‘threat’ is averted

To grasp the real picture, I must seek out alternative (especially conflicting) views about any issue. Social media has made it easy to pool similar voices under one umbrella. However, I also agree with Dr. Reiber that social media has perhaps made it easy to distance ourselves from the opinions, beliefs and ideals that do not align with our own. I must therefore:

-look for missing pieces in the experts’ analysis – look for other ‘expert perspectives’

-be slow to accept an opinion/information, look for facts before forming my opinion

-use my own expertise to help fellow members of the public understand the issues.

-and most importantly, keep the issues alive so that any – in Dr. Edwards words- “Orwellian attempts” at denying or rewriting history do not go unchallenged.

I must meet the same standards that I hold my elected officials to. But, maybe it is not entirely reasonable for me, as an individual, to take up the mantle of a watchdog. Perhaps it is indeed someone else’s job. However, keeping the past lessons (both bitter and sweet) alive in my consciousness – remembering the work that was done and the sacrifices made by committed individuals who fought on my behalf – is my responsibility. If I chose to forget those lessons and  sacrifices and start to accept unquestioningly the false, ‘convenient’, rewritten stories that the “experts” dish out, I am guilty of ‘negligence of duty’ towards myself – ‘the public’.

Putting myself in a n00b5 “passive activist’s”  and 1337 expert’s” shoes:
The activist’s soliloquy:
I put in countless hours, fighting tirelessly for what is right. My personal, social and professional lives suffered. My staunchest friends are now my sworn enemies. I am tired and dejected. But I ask for no reward. All I ask is that  they acknowledge their mistakes and stop rewriting reality. I will be judged by history, but let me be judged by one that is true, honest and impartial – not one that has been craftily penned by those who I fought against and not by one that is fondly remembered by those that I fought for. I still ask myself: Does it matter? Did I really make a difference? Was I successful? Tired, disappointed, discouraged, angry – is this what success feels like? And then it shows up – another letter, a sincere email, a thank-you-note, a phone call – another small reminder, that my back-breaking efforts, perhaps as insignificant as chipping away at a mountain with a hammer and a chisel, have improved one human life, saved one endangered bird, spoke the story of one person who was denied a voice. And then, I pick myself up with a tired smile, square my shoulders – and chip away – draft that next newsletter, challenge the endlessly propagating FUD, paint that next slogan, write that next blog entry – all the while, remembering what can be “accomplished by tired and discouraged men [and women] who kept on working6”….  (continued… Next week: In the expert’s shoes)


1 I am still referring to the public as ‘I’ and will also be putting myself in the shoes of the ‘activists’ and experts later in the critique.

2 FUD = Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt – a marketing tactic originally used (and criticized) in the computer hardware industry, although I find increasing number of parallels of FUD in all walks of life. In the DC-lead-crisis episode, the tactic used by the authorities seems to be the opposite of FUD – a sort of rampant disinformation tactic to lull the citizens into a dangerously false sense of safety – surely more insidious than blatant FUD.

3 This is becoming increasingly easier in today’s ‘blogger culture’. Surely encouraging.

4 e.g., the rhetoric offered by the agencies regarding the health effects after exposure to elevated lead concentrations from 2001-2004. Or Ronald Louis Ziegler’s quote regarding the Watergate during the Nixon administration: “If my answers sound confusing, I think they are confusing because the questions are confusing and the situation is confusing.”, Or Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns, unknown unknowns’ speech.

5 Cool-quotient enhancement opportunity: n00b = newbie, 1337 = “l-e-e-t” (i.e., elite) Smilie: :)

6 Reference to the quote: “Many of the great achievements of the world were accomplished by tired and discouraged men who kept on working.”

Posted in Ethicsposts

Week 10 (b – unofficial submission) – Citizen Responsibility: Self-sacrifice and Critical Mass

[I wanted to wrap up the ‘3-part series’ on Corporate Citizenship, Freedom of Information and Citizen Responsibility, before week 11’s critique. What follows is my take on what my responsibilities are as a member of the public. To ensure that I do not unwittingly dissociate myself from the public at any point while articulating my thoughts during this write-up, I will refer to the public as ‘I’1.

Also, this was submitted much later than the usual deadline. So I request the grader(s)/ TA(s)/ instructors not to consider this for grading/evaluation. The half-baked write-up submitted on 25th Oct, 2011 at 3:43 pm is the ‘official submission’. Most of my thoughts on citizen responsibility were triggered during and after the presentation by Dr. Reiber and I just wanted to get them on paper before tackling week 11’s critique.]  

I am usually characterized differently from a paternalist expert’s view and a civil rights activist’s perspective as follows:

However, neither of these views say clearly why I am viewed that way, nor do they specify, in absolute terms, what my responsibilities are.

Self-sacrifice and Critical Mass:
Citizen responsibility is almost impossible to capture and bottle into a single definition. However, the actions that stem from this responsibility are similar to those of an anticipatory, feed-forward control system where I (the public) elect the officials (also members of the public2), (passively) monitor and assesses their functioning, am expected to follow the law, while also keeping an eye on the lawmakers. Usually, I lose track of the ‘monitoring’, ‘assessing’ and ‘keeping an eye on’ part of my responsibility (i.e., the ‘watchdog’ aspect of it ) until significant damage is done, and only then do I take to the streets. Clear negligence of this responsibility can occur due to my lethargy, apathy, cynicism and a learned (even practiced) powerlessness. When I blame agencies for their ‘not-my-job’ attitude, I sometimes am guilty of it myself3.

As mentioned earlier, there is an element of self-sacrifice in carrying out this responsibility. Perhaps this is how the self-sacrifice is initiated: An idea, a realization mildly tingles the mind, causes one to toss and turn and lose a little sleep. The person can shrug it off and forget about it it or can let the idea establish roots, become obsessed with it and let it lead him or her to wherever it desires. Most rational, sensible people shrug it off and ‘get on with their lives’; a few ‘creatively maladjusted’4 individuals however are powerless against the idea, which grabs hold of them and robs them of their sleep and peace of mind. They mobilize. Others are drawn either by a shared interest or even passing curiosity. That nucleus of passionate people, committed to the idea grows until it reaches a critical mass. That frail, fledgling idea is now a full-blown movement that can shake the very foundations of an establishment. What is required now is to sustain that critical mass into which elements are constantly added and removed. Any such movement for the ‘greater good’ begins with the ‘selfish’ actions of the few individuals who cannot rest when an idea beckons.

Such self-sacrifice always takes its toll on one’s personal and social life, not to mention the loved ones who can feel neglected. It is unreasonable, downright selfish and callous, to expect that the movement will be sustained by the few who started it. The critical mass that keeps a movement alive will always be in a state of flux, ever-changing – with veterans giving way to new blood. What is required is that I periodically stand up and say “Friend, you should rest. I’ll keep watch tonight.”

This idea of a critical mass also applies to the functioning of governments agencies and corporations. Surely not everyone in the CDC, the EPA or the DC WASA was willing to let the public be misinformed and harmed? Some employees in these agencies must have had reservations about the agencies’ actions, and may even have ‘politely’ dissented. (Of course, the less-than-polite dissenters were fired.) My complaint is aimed against those that watched wrongdoing and kept mum, believing that “I am just one person, what difference can I make make?”

[This makes me think about ’employee loyalty’ in a different light. As an employee, I want my organization to be the best at what it does, fulfilling it’s obligations not only to its shareholders, but also to the society. Doesn’t organizational loyalty dictate that I speak up when the powers that be are steering my organization down the wrong path on the ethical terrain? The evolution of an organization does not depend solely on it’s leadership. The employees play a significant (albeit often overlooked) role in shaping the organization’s ‘character’ too.]

Of course, since it is also subject to the destructive dynamics and politics of group behaviour, the survival of this critical mass (and hence, the movement) depends on its ‘collective character’…[continued… Next week: red flags, FUD, n00b, 1337 and more nerd talk…]


1 This is in response to a question asked in the weekly critique feedback: In the context of this class, do I identify myself with the experts or the public? In any context, I view myself as a member of the public first and only later as a member of the scientific community and so far never as an expert. I hope to hang on to that view until I retire (or until they declare me senile, which ever happens first).

2 a fact that they (and I) seem to forget quickly after an election.

3 Anticipatory response to the argument “But is it the public’s job to monitor the administration? Haven’t we elected the officials to do just that?” – My answer: True. But the system of electing a government and leaving the country to them until the next election was established long back . Several new players and forces have come into play since then. The stakes have changed and I (the public) cannot expect the government function perfectly if left to itself on auto-pilot. Moreover, if I value my rights and freedom, I cannot afford to be passive and agnostic about the actions of my representatives in the government.

4 Reference to the quote “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”

Posted in Ethicsposts

Week 10 (a) – Googling with care

…continued from week 9. Catching up from the last paragraph…

Freedom of information comes with it’s own set of responsibilities. With increasing ease of access to information, we must carefully evaluate the ‘source’ of the the information besides the information itself. It is incumbent upon ourselves (i.e., the public) to glean the truth from the incessant stream of information that we are constantly subjected to. Moreover, we must also seek out sources and voices that do not align/agree with our own views and perceptions. The platform of information is changing right underneath our feet – Google is no longer just a noun, news media is a serious 24-hour business, the speed of accessing information is faster than the human capacity to digest, process and reflect upon it, information is accessed by millions but managed by a handful, truth is tweaked, embellished, ornamented – belted out at increasingly higher decibels and displayed in brighter, sharper and crisper images – with subtlety and nuance rapidly becoming a lost art. Under this constant deluge of information, we must steel ourselves and not be desensitized to the smaller, weaker and marginalized voices and learn (no, relearn) to distinguish propaganda from truth.

Which brings us to the following questions: How do we access information? How should we access information? Who should we believe? The internet is my primary source of information. I love the internet1. I believe it has the potential to transform our lives for the better. But over the last few years, I have become increasingly wary of the information that I receive and the information providers who I depend on. With the print media moving into the cyberspace, the internet is going to be our primary (possibly, the only) medium through which we access information. While this puts information right at our finger tips, it is also extremely dangerous if we blindly believe that what we have on the screen of laptops or smartphones is an accurate, unbiased, ‘unfiltered’ depiction of truth. The ease of access to information brings and added responsibility to seek out multiple sources so that we do not miss the full picture. We cannot afford to passively accept the information without questioning the filtering mechanisms (human or algorithmic) at work. We no longer search for information, we google it. Personalized news feeds e-newspapers give us all the information that we are interested in, but what about the information we might miss out on?

As conscientious readers, we should not only devour information that we want (icecream information), but also expose ourselves to information that we need (brocolli information). As readers, we should not let an algorithm decide what is relevant. And as users, we must have the means to control this filtering mechanism. This issue started bothering me when my Google News feed promptly informed me the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, but had no mention of suicide bomber attacks in Pakistan a few months later. I started googling about algorithmic filtering done by Google (the irony of it was lost on me then) and other search engines and found some disturbing trends. Ever since, I have been trying multiple search engines and have followed this issue closely. Eli Pariser’s2 timely book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You hits the nail on the head. He implores programmers to embed ethics into these algorithms. I do not believe that is possible, because unlike the static programming codes (of say, version x), in the ever-shifting plane of ethics, the issues are seldom static – they are in a constant state of flux.

A note on our guest speaker Dr. Lewis’s talk and citizen responsibility:

The immediate emotional impact was that of cynicism towards the ‘system’, tinged with a hope that that if we keep chipping away, we will make a dent, create a momentum and propel the issue towards a tipping point. His talk reaffirmed something that I had trouble articulating before: There is a significant component of self-sacrifice associated with fighting for our beliefs, which requires individuals to go above and beyond the call of duty. Perhaps it is also important to ask oneself: Is this worth fighting for? But before we rationalize and talk ourselves out of a fight in the ‘ethical arena’ by asking “Why me?”, let’s also ask “Why not me?” and “If not me, then who else?”

Citizen responsibility:
If this were an each-man-for-himself, post apocalyptic world, I wouldn’t bother talking about any form of responsibility that is not self-serving. But in a civilized world, we, as citizens, have a shared, social (and maybe, even personal) responsibility to stand up and fight for what we believe is right. Science cannot be self-correcting when there are unchecked forces that muffle and cripple the truth and when the equation of right and wrong is no longer balanced… [to be continued next week…]

1 I cannot even begin to explain how amazing it is feels to a boy in third world country – hunched over a Pentium III processor powered desktop, with a snail-paced dial-up connection (in 2006!) – to be able to get a glimpse of the world through the internet. I am focusing on the internet because the public too uses it as the primary source of information. When we think of freedom of information and right to know, we must also consider the sources and the channels of information.

2 I strongly urge the reader to check out Pariser’s book and TED talk (which barely scratches the surface) http://www.thefilterbubble.com/ted-talk. And while you are at it, pleasealso visit www.duckduckgo.com (a search engine), click on the hyperlink ‘bubble’ for examples of algorithmic filtering. Further, if you want to lose a few nights’ sleep, check out the information about tracking (under the link ‘track’ on Duckduckgo’s website).

Posted in Ethicsposts

Week 9 – Prologue to Freedom of Information

… Continued from week 8

In this week’s critique we continue our discussion on the three interrelated issues pertaining to professional ethics – corporate responsibility, freedom of information and citizen responsibility. The two book chapters in the reading assignments were especially pertinent to an in-depth look at freedom of information, while Dr. Edwards report added several key pieces of into the D.C.-lead-poisoning jigsaw.

In the book chapter ‘Trust and Reliability’, Harris et al. discuss the importance of full disclosure and highlight the impacts of deception in academic and non-academic settings. I completely agree with the the authors’ view that even failure to “seek out the truth” is a form of dishonesty (which the CDC is surely guilty of, given their reluctance to re-investigate the discrepancies between DOH’s data and their public message). The authorities stance against informing the public of the elevated lead concentrations and their brazen self-congratulation for preventing public paranoia and panic is an example of a flawed exercise of utilitarianism. But I wonder if this egregious deception has really resulted in the erosion of public trust and weakening of the ‘infrastructure of engineering’, that the authors caution against. (While I’m not an anarchist, I truly hope that the system does eventually implode and collapse, for I believe that it’s broken beyond repair. It will be messy, chaotic and downright unpleasant, but our best best is not to revamp but to revolutionize and rebuild this infrastructure.) I also second their view that seemingly innocuous tiny ‘dishonesties’ as students during the cocooned and protected life on campus can snowball into more glaring examples of the same later in the ‘real world’, where the the harm done is manifold.

As engineers, we are constantly ushering forth new technologies. Therefore, we must realize that public trust is especially important for the acceptance of any new technology – a point clearly made by Resnik. The author also mentions the very important distinction between the different types of ‘publics’ that one might encounter as an expert. The author provides a very pertinent example of the conflicting priorities, expectations and actions of terminally ill patients (who would seek quick implementation of new medical procedures and medicines) and public health advocates and scientists (who favour rigorous testing before implementing a new medicine). In the same article, I couldn’t help wondering about the wording of the sentence:

“The mission of the NIH Public Trust Initiative (PTI) is to enable the public to
understand and to have full confidence in the research that NIH conducts and
supports across the country and throughout the world”

Is the public so utterly incapable of grasping the NIH’s research, that it requires ‘enabling’? Moreover, the NIH’s assumption that understanding the research being conducted will automatically bolster “full confidence” and result in the unquestioning acceptance of their research, seems presumptuous.

The attitude of the authorities towards the public is clearly seen in Dr. Edwards cogent argument on the D.C. lead poisoning issues. His narrative raised some new questions in my head, regarding the following grey areas – both in the issue itself as well as the quirks of human character:

1. Carol Schwartz’s statement (August 7, 2004):
“….there is no real data out there to see the correlation. So we really do believe, by the enormous amounts of blood testing that we are doing related on this lead in the water issue, we are doing a public service not only for the District of Columbia, but for the United States of America and probably even the World on this issue….”
Did she accept the CDC’s ‘findings’ so quickly because what they said was what she ‘wanted to hear’? Or was she also involved in the cover-up? I just found it hard to associate the lady who was (rightly) furious with the officials (in the videos shown in class) with the above statement.

2. Rick Rogers’ statement (March 23, 2004):
“..this is being driven as much by public relations and politicians as what makes sense most other ways“
Was Rick Rogers lamenting the fact that politicians and public relations officials were influencing the issue? Given his involvement in the issue, I thought of him as one of the ‘bad guys’. (Or maybe I am misinterpreting the statement?)

3. Steven Millory’s article in Washington Times1:
Towards the end of the article, the author says “Though I don’t find the increase worrisome, lead hysterics claim all lead exposures in children should be eliminated.“ I wouldn’t be surprised if this was said by someone who is unfamiliar with the dangers of lead in water and innocently believed everything that was said by scientific/ government authorities. But this coming from a person who runs an entire website aimed at debunking junk science (junkscience.com2) raised some red flags.

Throughout Dr. Edwards report, the following two facts resurfaced with alarming regularity:

1. People can be blinded by an ideology, an agenda and fail to see, recognize or acknowledge the harm being done. (I am referring to the CDC’s blinkered, ‘extremist’ attitude towards lead paint.)

2. Without any proof of harm to public health, the officials could go scot-free and even brazenly suggest that their actions in fact shielded the public from unwarranted “frenzied reaction” (i.e., we need dead bodies before we can point fingers. Hyperbole?). Disturbingly enough, members of the public believed that. But did they have access to the right information? Given what was being thrown at them, would they have been able separate facts from fiction?

Freedom of information and some ‘nerd talk’ about search engines:
We are at a strange junction of the information age where we are simultaneously concerned over the cloaking/shielding of available information and the erosion of our privacy.

Freedom of information comes with it’s own set of responsibilities. With increasing ease of access to information, we must carefully evaluate the ‘source’ of the the information besides the information itself. It is incumbent upon ourselves (i.e., the public) to glean the truth from the incessant stream of information that we are constantly subjected to. Moreover, we must also seek out sources and voices that do not align/agree with our own views and perceptions. The platform of information is changing right underneath our feet – Google is no longer just a noun, news media is a serious 24-hour business, the speed of accessing information is faster than the human capacity to digest, process and reflect upon it, information is accessed by millions but managed by a handful, truth is tweaked, embellished, ornamented – belted out at increasingly higher decibels and displayed in brighter, sharper and crisper images – with subtlety and nuance rapidly becoming a lost art. Under this constant deluge of information, we must steel ourselves and not be desensitized to the smaller, weaker and marginalized voices and learn (no, relearn) to distinguish propaganda from truth…

(to be continued… Next week: search engines, algorithmic filtering and citizen responsibility… Note to self: Stop typing when you reach the end of page 2!)

1. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2004/apr/5/20040405-095052-3607r/

2. I went to the website hoping that this was an honest mistake by the author. I read several articles on the website and they all seem to have a lot of speculation with a smattering of truth, instead of a fact-based narrative. There also seemed to be a political slant even in the discussions on scientific topics. Digging a little deeper, I found that the author is also associated with a ‘certain’ television news channel. That’s when I stopped looking for an explanation.

Posted in Ethicsposts

Week 8 – Corporate citizenship – my tuppence worth

Freedom of information, the right to know, public participation in scientific policies and corporate social responsibility – these were the main themes of this week’s reading, along with Dr. Edwards research paper, backed by compelling, painstakingly compiled, rock-solid and bulletproof supporting information.

In the book chapter from Deceit and Denial, the authors point out the fallacies behind the assumption of ‘voluntary compliance’ by industries – perhaps not very different from the belief that researchers will self-correct and self-regulate themselves, as discussed in Steneck’s article (Fostering Integrity in Research: Definitions, Current Knowledge and Future Directions, week 5’s reading). From the checkered past of the the industries’ relation with public health and the with the environment, it is clear that constant monitoring and government regulation is essential. Unfortunately, with the involvement of the industries and businesses in policy-making, the distinction between the gatekeepers and the trespassers is becoming increasingly blurred. Moreover, the events of the D.C. lead poisoning episode suggest that even our gatekeepers need watchdogs – a responsibility that falls squarely on the shoulders of the citizens and citizen-organizations. In the following sections, I will present my views on three intricately connected issues: corporate responsibility, freedom of information and citizen responsibility.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR)/ Corporate citizenship1:
CSR primarily refers to a collective ‘corporate conscience’ or a social contract that should ideally ensure voluntary adherence to socially, ethically and morally acceptable (and commendable) behaviour – as one would expect from a model citizen. I see several flaws in this concept and it’s underlying assumptions. First, the idea of a corporation as a person – a concept that I still have trouble grasping2. Unlike a real person, a corporation is often a for-profit entity not programmed (or programmable) to grapple with ethical and moral decisions. In fact, a moral compass is not even a component in the corporate machinery. We must rely on the people running the corporation to incorporate ethics into the day to day functioning of the organization. So the logical question is: If people run the corporation, then, as a group, do they not deserve the same rights as other citizens? And by extension, shouldn’t the corporation – a group of people – be recognized as a person and be entitled to ‘corporate citizenship’? My answer: Let us compare a group of ordinary citizens with another group in charge of running the corporation. These two groups have very different powers and access to resources. Moreover, the dynamics of ‘group behaviour’ is very different in these two sets. I cannot see those two groups as equal or deserving equal rights.

Second, the question of citizenship of a corporation: With national boundaries becoming increasingly porous, corporations can be spread across the globe. Which nation’s citizenship does a corporation merit then? When corporations from the first world move their operations to developing nations, the metrics for measuring their social responsibility and accountability changes dramatically. Often, a manufacturing plant in a developing nation holds the promise of new jobs and improved living standards for the local population. Moreover, depending on the levels of literacy and awareness of the local population, the motivation for economic stability in such places often takes precedence over health and environmental considerations. A responsible citizen of the world with a functioning moral compass might alert and educate the local population to use their own resources (manpower and natural) sustainably. Will a corporation do the same? Is it wise to trust a corporation to voluntarily comply with the laws of a foreign land3?

But perhaps the most compelling reason to reevaluate the ‘personhood’ of corporations stems from the behaviourial change that occurs in an individual when part of an organization. I believe that corporations were brought into existence by well-intentioned groups of people to provide a structure for businesses.  And societies have benefited enormously when corporations behaved as ‘responsible citizens’.  But as corporations acquired deeper pockets, became bigger and more powerful, they began to assert their ‘rights’ in the democracy, and their ‘votes’ and ‘voices’ were orders of magnitude more influential than the ordinary citizen’s. Moreover, business organizations held sway over not only those outside the corporate corridors but also over those that governed them (imagine a car controlling the driver4). This capacity to influence individuals and groups of people is evident in for-profit businesses as well as government organizations (DC-WASA, DC-DOH, CDC?). Within an organization, it is easy to distance oneself from those outside the glass walls. And just as profits, successes and bonuses are shared, so is responsibility and guilt. And shared guilt weighs less on the conscience, doesn’t it?  Often, group behaviour in organizations demands conformity and unquestioning adherence to accepted norms. Any attempts to ‘rock the boat’  are usually met with resistance. The ‘organized thoughtlessness’ (Alford, week 4’s reading), our need as employees to ingratiate ourselves with others, to stay with the pack, and  the assembly-line/ factory-model’s approach that dissociate an individual’s actions from the overall consequences – all of these have caused the corporation to morph into something that perhaps it’s creators never intended it to be. At it’s worst, a rampaging  corporation is perhaps Stanley Milgram’s infamous ‘obedience experiments’ being conducted on a global scale. But this time there are no actors – the shocks are real…

[I will continue with ‘Freedom of Information’ and ‘Citizen Responsibility’ in the next critiques…]

1I will admit this: I am biased. In the present day, I do not trust corporations. But what follows is not an idealistic rant against the ‘big, bad, evil corporation’, but an attempt to articulate my confusion regarding the ‘personhood’ of a corporation, and to bring to notice the behaviourial changes that the corporate environment causes – and their impacts. I read several articles about the history of corporate law in the US and how corporations earned the same rights as citizens. However, I still cannot fathom the logic behind those decisions. I truly want to be able to wrap my head around the idea. If someone can, then please, please explain it to me.

2I laughed mirthlessly when I read this on a photo on Wikipedia: I won’t believe believe corporations are people until Texas executes one.(The link: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Corporate_personhood)

3One of the deadliest environmental and industrial catastrophes close to home was the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. It is an essential case study that covers all the topics covered in this week’s reading. The book Five Past Midnight in Bhopal by Lapierre and Moro may also be worth using as a book-review exercise for this class.

4On this note: recommended reading – Bethany McLean’s The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron. The book was also made into a documentary. Quite disturbing.

Hadden, S. G. 1989. “The Need for Right to Know.” In A Citizen’s Right to Know: Risk Communication and Public Policy, pp. 3-18. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Markowitz, G. and R. Rosner. 2002. “Introduction: Industry’s Child.” In Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, pp. 1-11. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bucchi, M. and F. Neresini. 2008. Science and Public Participation. In E. J. Hackett, et al., eds., The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, pp. 449-472. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Edwards, M., S. Triantafyllidou, and D. Best. 2009. Elevated Blood Lead in Young Children Due to Lead-Contaminated Drinking Water: Washington, DC, 2001-2004. Environmental Science & Technology 43:1618-1623 (with supporting information).

Renner, R. 2009. Health Agency Covered Up Lead Harm: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Withheld Evidence that Contaminated Tap Water Caused Lead Poisoning in Kids. Salon.com (April 10):1-3, http://www.salon.com/news/environment/feature/2009/04/10/cdc_lead_report.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2009. CDC Responds to Salon.com Article [Media Statement] (April 10), 2 p., http://www.cdc.gov/media/pressrel/2009/s090410.htm.

WASAwatch. 2009. What the CDC Can Learn from the National Research Council and the Public [blog entry] (May 3), 10 p., http://dcwasawatch.blogspot.com/2009/05/what-cdc-can-learn-from-national.html.

Posted in Ethicsposts

Week 7 – Care Ethics + my (failed) attempt at a 1-page critique

(…continued from week 6)
Picking up from where we left – the voices in my head…
“Too detached…(from consequences)”
“Too sweeping… (in it’s application, bulldozes individuality)”
“Virtue ethics?”
“Too ‘middle-path-y’ … (at times, a more ‘militant morality’ might be necessary)“
“Care ethics?”
“Care … what?”
“Dude, care ethics … empathy, emotions… week 7’s reading? Remember?”
“Oh, that …”

(Back to sane talk. I’ve resolved to stick to the half-to-one-page instructions for this week’s critique. Let’s see…Smilie: ;)

Care ethics is the first theory so far, that talks about empathy. More importantly, unlike Kantian theory, care ethics clearly says that morality is not absolute, it is context-specific. Care ethics also seems central to professional and engineering ethics. Through the prism of care ethics, any judgment of morality should take into account the social setting, personal and professional relationships and arrangements.

Perhaps care ethics can shed some light on the questions: “Whose definition/opinion/decision counts?” and “Why so?”. From an idealistic standpoint, each person should have the equal say in these things, and initially I thought the same, but the more iterations I ran in the “ethical cycle” (van de Poel and Royakkers), the more I am convinced of this: Not everyone’s opinion carries the same weight. That is the essence of expertise. One learns and performs a craft well enough to become an expert, an authority in that discipline. While differences in opinions should be valued and entertained in any democratic settings, when it comes to making decisions, certain opinions and voices have to be ignored, even discounted. (I agree with Sam Harris’ view that there is indeed a moral expertise, a moral talent and a moral genius.1)  However, as mentioned in class, the power that comes with the expertise is actually bestowed upon by the anonymous ‘non-experts’ or the ‘laypersons’  – the public. So, coming back to the original question, it is the the experts’ decisions that count. But those decisions should not be made in vacuum. Quite often, the decisions will be shaped by public opinion and the advice (sought or unsought) from other experts. Like we all know, this was a glaring mistake in the DC lead poisoning episode – the experts’ decision to keep things under wraps until it blew up in their faces. (But then, hindsight is 20/20.) Hence, the importance of care ethics – vital for an expert to put oneself in the public’s shoes.

However, care ethics does not give answers about how one should act. Moreover, the role of relationships (personal or professional) in moral judgments seems to be another weakness in care ethics. If relationships are taken into account, are the resulting decisions impartial? If Kantian theory seems too detached, is care ethics too attached? Another personal criticism2 of care ethics is the fact that it promotes a discussion on ‘care’ and ’empathy’ in contexts where we are already on shaky moral ground while not addressing the essential moral question – thus acting as an interim, secondary, damage control measure where morality is already a casualty. (I am referring to the discussion of the welfare of child labourers employed by IKEA. The moral question: Should child-labour even be tolerated? And by discussing care ethics in this context, are we not acting as passive enablers?)

[The readings related to partial-pipe replacement and the pow-pow between Rebecca Renner and Tee Guidotti were hard to integrate into the discussion on care ethics. I’ll leave that for future critiques. Although I will say this: Mr. Guidotti  said in his letter, “I have never been granted the courtesy of receiving a copy of Edwards’s letter, and so do not know what it actually says. I can only respond to Renner …”. I believe as a professional, I would be peeved too if someone made allegations about my integrity and expertise in a letter sent to someone other than me. I would  then respond in person to the person who made those allegations (Dr. Edwards in this case) and defend my stance or explain my actions3. Hurt as Mr. Guidotti was, that he was not “granted the courtesy” of receiving Dr. Edwards letter, I would imagine he would make an effort to have a dialog (public or personal) with Dr. Edwards. Not doing so sends a clear message…]

[I’m already past 1.5 pages … the voices mock… “Yeah, right.. half to one page…(chuckles and sneers)”]

1The TED talk by Sam Harris may be accessed at http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html. While parts of it might seem controversial, overall, I thought it was brilliant and meshes so well with the questions we grapple with in class. I highly recommend this.

2My criticisms/thoughts pertain to care ethics and not to the book chapters. Regarding the book chapters on Care Ethics and The Ethical Cycle (van de Poel and Royakkers), I feel the authors did a remarkable job of articulating several abstract ideas. I particularly enjoyed the description of the iterative process in the development of moral theories. (page 105 , Section 3.11 Normative Ethics).

3A voice now says, “Nah, you would get into a fist fight and end up needing stitches and orthopedic attention.” Those voices…

Van de Poel, I. and L. Royakkers. 2011. “Normative Ethics” and “The Ethical Cycle.” In Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction, pp. 102-108 and pp. 133-160. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Pantazidou, M. and I. Nair. 1999. Ethic of Care: Guiding Principles for Engineering Teaching & Practice. Journal of Engineering Education 88(2):205-212.

Pielke, R. A., Jr. 2007. “Four Idealized Roles of Science in Policy and Politics” and “Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics.” In The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, pp. 1-7 and 135-152. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Renner, R. 2009. “Troubled Waters: Controversy Over Public Health Impact of Tap Water Contaminated With Lead Takes on an Ethical Dimension.” AAAS Professional Ethics Report XXII(2):1-4.

Renner, R. 2009. “Troubled Waters: On the Trail of the Lost Data.” AAAS Professional Ethics Report XXII(3):1-3.

Guidotti, T. L. 2009. [Letter to the Editor in response to Renner’s “Troubled Waters” articles]. AAAS Professional Ethics Report XXII(3):4. (Renner’s final response to Guidotti, is in PDF “W7 Renner Response.”)

Renner, R. 2010. Reaction to the Solution: Lead Exposure Following Partial Service Line Replacement. Environmental Health Perspectives 118:A202-A208.

Renner, R. 2007. Lead Pipe Replacement Should Go All the Way. Environmental Science & Technology 41(19):6637-6638.

Posted in Ethicsposts

Week 6 – Flexing our ‘ethics muscles’

(…continued from week 5)

The previous (abruptly ended) discussion about public consciousness, public memory and “who decides what’s just?” ties in nicely with the assigned readings for Week 6. The excerpt on Virtue Ethics builds on the earlier narrative of Utilitarianism and Kantian Theory. The ‘research’1 publication by Guidotti et al. (2007) is yet another example of science done wrong in the D.C. lead poisoning episode. The two book chapters on Risk Assessment are a new addition to our class’s “ethics repository” and provided a fresh look at how “acceptable risk” and the definition of acceptable is viewed by the ‘experts’ and the ‘laypersons’.

Guidotti et al. mentioned occurrence of lead poisoning in 2003, while the authorities had documented proof of elevated lead levels in 2001. The following sentence in the abstract sets the tone:

“This study cannot be used to correlate lead in drinking water with blood lead levels directly [when the (misleading) correlation between the two is the first thing that jumps out of the page] because it is based on an ecologic rather than individualized exposure assessment; the protocol for measuring lead was based on regulatory requirements rather than estimating individual intake [thus inadvertently and for once, (unwittingly) truthfully hinting at the chasm between regulatory requirements and individual/public health] ;”

Surprisingly, even after the events from 2001-2006, the authors still harp on the dangers of lead paint and downplay exposure through drinking water. But the most subtle and deceptive aspect of the article is this: The authors discredit the research by Miranda et al. (2006), saying that conclusions were based on insufficient quantitative data (“sampling data, ranges, or representative values of lead in water”). The authors also provide great details about the the sampling methods – how many residents were contacted, how many volunteered, how many refused –  but amidst all the swirling numbers, they conveniently chose to omit the time difference between exposure and sampling, or whether the ‘sampled’ residents’ water intake comprised of tap water or bottled water. This, I feel, is a great example of how sometimes, the question that is not asked turns out to be the most important question2.

Regarding virtue ethics, I like that argument that individuals are not born with ethics coded into their DNA, but are shaped and moulded by upbringing and external factors. Unlike Utilitarianism and Kantian Theory, virtue ethics do not always have an answer for “how we should act”, but provide a blueprint for what is perceived as an ethical act. (Of course, unlike engineering blueprints, the interpretation of this ethical blueprint is subjective.) However, I am not comfortable with all the emphasis on virtues and motivations directed towards a ‘mean path’, steering clear of extreme indulgence and complete self-sacrifice. If the mean path were the only path we should follow, would anyone risk incarceration by protesting? Would people lay down their lives for a just cause or their ideals? Would their ever be a whistle-blower?3 In Set Theory / Venn Diagram parlance, I feel that sometimes the middle path and the moral path are mutually exclusive.

It’s interesting how intimately the abstract concept of ethics integrates with cold, calculating4 engineering. Yes, I agree with Charles Perrow’s argument that tightly coupled complex interactions make risk assessment and failure prediction difficult – while the distribution and arbitration of ‘justice’ in risk-assessment and awareness must take into account all partied involved, experts as well as laypersons. But from my previous professional (and personal) experience, I’ve found that if we seek to accommodate the opinions of every single person affected by our decision, nothing gets done. As professionals, we have to make hard choices/decisions without distancing ourselves from the those on the other side of the ‘perspective spectrum’ or desensitizing ourselves to their pain.

The Watchperson Project in Corburn’s book chapter brought me right back to the original idea in this week’s critique – public consciousness and memory. I desperately want to believe that the issue of lead poisoning in D.C. is still alive as a cautionary tale in the minds of the residents. But the date of the last entry on the blog WASAwatch5(May 18, 2010.. 2010!) and the number of signature on the petition to “Hold the CDC Accountable for Lying to DC Residents About Their Water”6 (1444) deflates the spirit a little. I wonder how the protagonists in this episode, i.e., the good guys – the instructors of the class, whistle-blowers and the affected parents – feel about this.

Since we have covered some ground related to the ethical philosophy, I thought we should test our freshly built ‘ethics muscles’. I’ll leave you with some disturbing (and possibly unfair) questions:

There’s a red button. Press it and the world will be rid of disease, hunger and strife. Eternal peace and prosperity for all. The catch: A randomly chosen sample of 10000 people will die (painlessly). You will never know their identities. What would you do? Who should we follow? Bentham? Kant? Aristotle?

Don’t want to decide? Let’s up the ante: If you do not press the button, all of human kind will wither and die. What would you do now? Does the number 10000 matter?7(…. see you next week….)

1Here, I’m using the term ‘research’ in loosest sense possible.

2Check out the erratum on http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/annotation/listThread.action?inReplyTo=info:doi/10.1289/annotation/e0852962-b97c-40aa-8e62-2b7802dfde79&root=info:doi/10.1289/annotation/e0852962-b97c-40aa-8e62-2b7802dfde79. (For me, the most striking feature was the tiny font.)

3I don’t know. A voice in my head is chanting “Go Kant!”. Another screams “Down with utilitarianism!”. And when asked about virtue ethics, yet another shrugs and says “Meh…”

4Not intended as a negative connotation.



7I feel like a horrible person for even thinking up this scenario. The voices are back… Kant wins.


Van de Poel, I. and L. Royakkers. 2011. “Normative Ethics.” In Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction, pp. 95-101. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Harris, C. E., Jr., et al. 2009. “Risk and Liability in Engineering.” In Engineering Ethics: Concepts & Cases, pp. 135-164. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Corburn, J. 2005. “Risk Assessment, Community Knowledge, and Subsistence Anglers.” In Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice, pp. 79-109. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: The MIT Press.

Guidotti, T. L., et al. 2007. Elevated Lead in Drinking Water in Washington, DC, 2003-2004: The Public Health Response. Environmental Health Perspectives 115(5):695-702.

Posted in Ethicsposts

Week 5 – Murky waters: Questionable research practices

This week’s reading provided a different flavour to the ongoing discussion about ethics and morality. For the first time, we delved into bioethics and Kantian theory and, through the letters and emails, experienced a more ‘complete’ unraveling of the D.C. lead poisoning episode from a ‘first-person-shooter’ perspective. We also read about a very practical approach to ethics in scientific research in Steneck’s article.

Several points made by Steneck resonated with me, perhaps because all my present endeavours (as a student) and future plans are directed towards a career in academia. I find the choice of the word ‘fostering’ in the article’s title very appropriate. Ethical behaviour cannot (and should not) be forced upon an individual, for any ‘morality’ under coercion is no morality at all. I therefore feel that Steneck rightly talks about ‘fostering’ integrity instead of ‘mandating’ the same through the involvement of the government. The categorization of unethical research behaviour as serious misconduct (e.g., blatant fabrication) or questionable research conduct (e.g., fudging the survey responses of two out of a hundred interviewees) and the bifurcation of ethics into moral principles and professional standards does provide a more stable platform to discuss and pin down the intangible ethical and moral issues. While the ‘practical-me’ (who evaluates the ‘solutions’Smilie: ;) applauds the measures suggested by Steneck, the ‘skeptical/cynical-me’ (who evaluates the questions) wonders about the efficacy of those measures.

Regarding Kantian theory1 vis-a-vis bioethics, I find the concept of autonomy and self-legislation in morality very appealing. While the ‘idealist-me’ admires Kant’s proposition that when it comes to morality, there is no room for ‘bending’ the rules, ‘the practical-me’ understands that some tradeoffs, although undesirable, are necessary. Still, I fully agree that the foundation for our ethics should be moral norms and not hypothetical norms, and that, the impetus to do what is right must come from within us, rather than be dictated by external factors. The stark contrast between the Kantian theory of not ‘misleading a person’s rationality’ by withholding information and the approach taken by the DC WASA and the DC DOH also raises further questions about whether these moral and ethical theories can even be integrated into the psyche of a corporation2. Still, I feel that the Kantian theory of ethics is more applicable to personal morals, than to professional ethics, for in the context of public health and bioethics, the prosperity of a population takes precedence over the suffering of an individual. Since public health is so intricately intertwined with civil liberties, I couldn’t help wondering about the points on ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ raised in the two excerpts from the book chapters. Who decides what is ‘just’?

[I will now change the narrative and let the ‘skeptical/cynical me’ loose. In the following questions I will explore some (uncomfortable) questions and scenarios related to the measures for promoting ethical behaviour in research, and the upholding of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ two other areas that have not been addressed in the readings (yet) – public consciousness and public memory. I do not have any answers yet, but I strongly feel that the awareness of a question is necessary for any search of answers.]

In the context of research ethics in Steneck’s article, let us delve deeper into the varying motivations and incentives behind research misconduct. While egregious misconduct (falsification and fabrication) are clearly defined and the punitive repercussions are well-known, the ambivalence towards questionable practices is more troubling. The following hypothetical scenario is built from a personal experience during my Masters degree studies:
Two MS students in the last stages of their degree are having the same thought: “So far, all the data supports my hypothesis, but I wish those last two readings were higher by 10%. Had that happened, the data would have fit my model perfectly…” Student A is planning on building on his/her research and pursue a PhD in the same area, ultimately seeking a career in academia. All his/her future plans depend on the success of the MS research. Student B has a job offer in the industry and the success or failure of his/her research has no bearing on the future job. How would the motivations to fudge the two data points differ in A and B? More importantly, is there (or should there) even be any room to even have this discussion? How important are two seemingly innocuous data points when considering the larger picture of one’s life/career? Should the differing circumstances of A and B play any role in the decision? If my understanding of Kantian theory is sound, the answer is clear. “Thou shalt not fudge data” is a non-negotiable universal moral law. Plain and simple. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if Kantian theory is applicable in this case3

Another issue with the statistics of research misconduct is the inherent bias in surveys and questionnaires. A question may be posed in a manner so as to box the response within the paradigm that the questioner want to promote, while suppressing other conflicting ideas and notions.
Example: Let’s say, I sell ice-cream (vanilla and chocolate only). To promote my brand, I devise a survey that asks: Do you prefer chocolate over vanilla? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’. End of survey.
The question: Where does butterscotch4 figure in this survey? While this is a laughably simplistic example, I wonder how does this differ from the surveys with questions such as:
“Will you vote for candidate A and B?” without inquiring about the interviewee’s political ideology, or
“Under conditions of anonymity, would admit to being guilty of research misconduct?” without first having a discussion on what constitutes research misconduct.”

With the existing publish-or-perish scenario in academia, can researchers be blamed for ‘salami-slicing’ their results? Doesn’t research itself have a tiered approach? We ask a question, obtain preliminary data, suggest a hypothesis, publish (while withholding more ‘crude’ preliminary’ data), follow-up with more research, more (and ‘better’Smilie: ;) data, better models  – more publications. Perhaps there is a more urgent need to promote a sense of stability and security in the research community, both in terms of funding and position, and reduce the relentless (and in my opinion, needless) pressure to have x publications per year. Also, decoupling the ownership of the research results from the source of funding might be a better approach to reduce bias in research. (I understand that this is impossible at present.)

The previous question about “Who decides what is just” brings us to the issue of public consciousness and public memory. I will argue that public memory is woefully short. Given a choice, why would we entangle ourselves in uncomfortable moral issues (e.g., the ethics behind the incarceration of suspected ‘terrorists’ in Guantanamo Bay, to keep us safe), when there are less complicated but more visible issues to deal with (e.g., taking off  our shoes or having a baby screened through a scanner at the airport, again, to keep us safe). In the same context of public consciousness, considering the far-reaching damage that CDC’s misleading MMWR must have done, I cannot help but wonder, how alive this issue today in the collective memory of D.C.’s residents… (I am already at the end of page 2… to be continued next week…Smilie: ;)

1I am sure there is more to Kantian theory and a student of philosophy might vehemently disagree with my views (and rightly so). I therefore present all my comments with the disclaimer that they come from a ‘layperson’s’ perspective and understanding of philosophy

2I stared at that sentence for several minutes wondering “Is ‘psyche’ the right word to use in the context of a corporation?”

3Let us assume that A and B are completely unfamiliar with the concept of ‘conflict of interest’ and are making their decision based on their personal moralities and the 15 minute pep-talk on research integrity given by the Dean during their welcome ceremony. As I have mentioned before in the earlier write-ups, these ‘tiny dishonest actions’ bother me more than egregious violations of an ethical code. For a cautionary note on the same topic, do check out the following TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_beware_conflicts_of_interest.html

4My favourite flavour in ice-cream.

Posted in Ethicsposts

Week 4 – An ‘Orwellian’ view of life as an employee

In this week’s reading, ‘story’ of lead poisoning in D.C.’s drinking water further unfolded through the two articles by Rebecca Renner, showing how an inflexible, flawed paradigm1 can hamstring any scientific investigation. The blinkered vision and the dishonest agenda behind the so called ‘investigation’ again reiterates the potential consequences of a haywire administrative machinery with corroded ethics and broken moral compass. What also stands out is the stark difference in the ‘ensure-the-data-fits-the-hypothesis’ approach to the investigation by the agencies D.C. compared to the honest pursuit of truth by John Morrow in Greenville, N.C. Seeing some of the video clips in the class, I was also struck by how difficult it is to restore the public’s faith in the system, while also empowering them with access to information, encouraging a questioning nature without promoting public paranoia. I realized how important the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is and how essential it is to remember that we have access to this and should put this to good use when needed2.

The issue evokes strong emotions and it would easy to resort to harsher, more emotion-laden styles of narration (subtle or direct). Hence, I particularly admire the ‘balanced’, restrained narrative in the two articles and how the facts are presented without being coloured by emotions. Having studied this issue for the last few weeks, I would personally find it hard not to let some emotions seep into anything related to this topic. On a related note, I couldn’t help thinking about the effect a photograph may have on the readers’ psyche when reading the narrative. Would my response (on an emotional scale) have been different if the photo of the boy drinking from the fountain had been a) absent, b) replaced by a simple faucet, c) replaced by a photograph of an actual victim, say, a baby with elevated blood lead levels (BLLs)? I am not suggesting that including the photograph is inappropriate, but I am struggling with the questions: Would I choose to include a photograph at all? If so, which one? Why?

The issue also calls into question, the rationale (and perhaps, the lack of foresight) in the Safe Drinking Water Act (1996) which allowed 8% lead in plumbing components. Perhaps this is because of the dichotomy between the policy makers and the scientists/engineers. This leads us to reevaluate the dynamics between engineers and managers in an organization. While the book chapter on Engineers in Organizations discusses organizational disobedience and the often strained relations between engineers and managers, I struggled with the questions: Do good engineers really make good managers? Are engineers more ‘malleable’ for managerial tasks than non-engineering professionals? From numerous examples in the readings and from personal experience, I agree with George Andrew’s view that management requires a completely different mindset and skill-set compared to engineering, and regardless of their engineering skills and aptitude, most engineers are not inherently good managers.3

Regarding this week’s reading, I also wondered if we really need to delve deep into the philosophies and theories behind ethics (e.g., consequentialism, deontological ethics, utilitarianism etc.) to gather a working understanding of ethics4. But I realize that the theories provide the language (a necessary platform) to discuss knotty, abstract ideas behind ethics, and are therefore essential. But few ‘assigned’ readings have evoked such a keen sense of sadness, perhaps even cynicism, as this week’s book chapter titled “Organized Thoughtlessness”. The author paints an intensely depressing, bleak, sinister, ‘1984-esque’ Orwellian picture of life as an employee in a modern-day organization. Parts of the author’s commentary on the organization’s, society’s and legislature’s treatment of a whistleblower are almost poetic – oozing with the pain that the author feels for the ostracized alleged ‘patients’. The line where the author rationalizes his own seemingly harsh response to whistleblowers to “stop whining”, saying that, “It might just mean that I was tired of their pain.” was especially poignant. The systematic process of treating a whistleblower not as an employee, but as a patient is chillingly fleshed out in the author’s commentary. Only by labeling a person a ‘patient’, and his/her response to one’s moral obligation as a ‘condition’, can a person and his ideas be marginalized and ‘quarantined’. (This chapter was even more difficult to read than the one on Normative Ethics5 because of its sheer emotional impact.)

The pressure to operate within the “purview of legally protected behaviour” promotes a blinkered, not-my-job-hence-not-my-concern outlook towards the wider, far reaching consequences of one’s action within an organization. Is it this ‘conscious, learned thoughtlessness’ that caused the CDC to believe that it was not their job to investigate discrepancies between the public statements and the actual results from in the D.C. lead-poisoning case? Regardless, I cannot help, but feel a little sorry for the cognizant multitudes who ‘stay with the pack’ and watch the systematic attack on (and disintegration of) the whistleblower – who was once a colleague, a friend, and is now, a pariah, a (deservedly) quarantined patient. Perhaps this cultivated ‘thoughtlessness’ serves as an opiate to dull the pain from one’s bleeding conscience, torn and crushed under the guilt from choosing what is easy over what is right. The author also accurately points out the severe inner conflict a person can have, with one’s values and morals on one pan of the balance and one’s responsibility to one’s family on the other. (I fervently hope that I never ever have to choose between the two.)

This might seem extreme, but having worked in a corporation and having seen several events unfold in recent years, here is an issue I have been struggled with: In my eyes, a corporation is first and foremost a profit-making, self-serving, almost pathological entity – the sole purpose of which is to make money for the shareholders6. From this perspective, what does organizational loyalty even mean? I believe that loyalty is two-way street. How can (and why should) a person be loyal to an entity, knowing that if there is a conflict, it will annihilate him/her without any qualms? There are no ethics coded into the corporate machinery, and the entity itself can usurp its owners if needed (case in point – Enron). In this light, isn’t expecting organizational loyalty from a person akin to expecting a bonded labour to be thankful and loyal to one’s master who feeds them a few morsels to keep them alive, only so that he may strip them off their human rights and dignity on a daily basis?

1the paradigm that the possibility of lead-poisoning is primarily from lead paint and not from drinking water and that only service through lead pipes could be responsible for elevated blood lead levels (BLLs).

2In 2005, a similar legislative development in India resulted in the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which, despite its loopholes and caveats, has been instrumental in cutting through the red tape and bureaucracy in India.

3George Andrew’s article may be accessed at: http://askmagazine.nasa.gov/pdf/pdf28/NASA_APPEL_ASK_28i_good_engineer.pdf

4Reference to week 4’s reading: Normative Ethics.

5In the chapter ‘Normative Ethics’, the assignment of the monetary figure of $200,000 to a human life and the blatant, shameless defense of this idea in a court of law was particularly disconcerting.

6Regardless of the social benefits of a corporation, is this not the fundamental reason for its very existence? The following book drives home this point better than I ever will: The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (Joel Bakan). The book was also made into a documentary by the same title.

Posted in Ethicsposts

Week 3 – Cold-blooded science is passionate and personal

Scientific analysis is supposed to be dispassionate and neutral, relying solely on ‘what the data says’. Perhaps this aspect of the ‘craft’ of science, promotes a warped image of the very nature of science itself. While scientific study may be objective, science and its practitioners cannot stay unattached to and unaware of the merit, motivation, method and consequence of the scientific study. Lekka-Kowalik discusses this idea in the article on the value-laden nature of science. The faulty investigation of blood lead levels (BLLs) in a ‘selected’ population in Washington, conducted by Stokes et al. reiterates the importance of objective analysis and highlights the misuse of statistics in scientific studies. Lekka-Kowalik’s article challenged some of my preconceived notions about objectivity in science, especially her discussion on how a lack of ‘attachment’ is not only impossible in scientific study, it is also essential to the practice of ‘responsible’ science and strengthens its very nature. Practicing objectivity while being aware of this attachment can lead to conflicts – both within oneself and with external factors (colleagues, expectations of one’s supervisor(s), organizational values). In such cases the following can prove to be invaluable – an understanding of the one’s role in the organization, the knowledge (and practice) of one’s professional standards and ethics and the clarity to see when professional ethics outweigh organizational expectations. The three book chapters in Week 3’s reading beautifully illustrate these ideas.

Lekka-Kowalik’s article especially sparked a deeper realization about some decisions that I make during my studies. For example, while choosing the value of α = 0.05 (the probability of false positive) and assigning a 95% confidence interval to my statistical analysis, I may be following a thumb-rule, however, depending on the implications of my research, I might choose higher α values for more conservative estimates. I now realize that this decision has some subjectivity built into it. Still, as long as I am aware of this subjectivity (and mention this in my findings), I feel that it does not make the analysis biased or skewed. Before reading the article, I never realized this seemingly unseen ‘internal subjective, decision-making machinery’ operating within me. The author gives a very pertinent example of how the moral weights attached to scientific decisions differ greatly when studying the effects of a toxin on humans and when researching the geographical occurrence and spread of a certain flower. The responsibility to attach those moral weights to decisions rests primarily on the scientists and not the organization – hence the need for ethical education of scientific professionals.

The inherent subjectivity in science, however, does not warrant that we violate standard rules and ethical codes that apply to scientific research. The mode of investigation by Stokes et al. suggests that the objective behind the data collection was to satisfy the notion that “lead leaching from old lead pipes are the only cause of elevated BLLs” rather investigating the question “what causes elevated BLLs?”. To me, the fact that the ‘sampling was not random, concentrating more on the cases where lead poisoning might have higher probability and the improper and inconsistent blood sample collection (venous vs. fingerstick), says that the investigators had motives that were different from doing good, honest science. Perhaps the idea behind the BLLs investigation was to fit the data to a model that they favoured, rather than fitting a model to the data. This raises pertinent questions about the role of a professional in an organization and its influence on the practice of the profession. I agree with the discussions in the book chapters about the role of engineers in organizations and engineering code of ethics.

While management decisions can sometimes override engineering decisions, the expectations are not always clear, especially when engineers play the added role of managers. From my own professional experience as a process engineer with the job title “Manager (Operations Department)”, I can testify that there was always some inner conflict about the decisions involved, with my engineering instincts almost always trouncing the management thought processes that the organization tried to instill in me1.

Keeping both – the big picture and the code of ethics – in mind is especially pertinent when the actual research may be fragmented into ‘projects’, where it is easy to lose track of the overall impact of the research. A professional code of ethics is also essential as it ‘standardizes’ the professional moral compass, thus providing a baseline when the personal moral compasses of individuals might conflict. Awareness of the subjectivity in science can also help in situations of dual use of one’s research. Again, things might not be black and white. A research on robotics may be used insending unmanned robots in rescue missions in disaster-struck areas or may be used to deploy unmanned predator drones to war zones. Personally, I would experience pinpricks from my conscience if my research on nanoparticle-protein interactions were used in biological weapons instead of targeted delivery of medicines. But will I say no to funding opportunities from the military, knowing that my findings might actually help other researchers make progress in medical science? I still do not have an answer …

I agree with the discussions presented by Lekka-Kowalik and the discussions in the book chapters. However, I disagree with the idea that “…science works as the epistemic authority, andsoitisnotneutralwithrespecttovalues.” While science may attack, weaken and even ‘offend’ values and ideals that our societies are built upon, its treatment and analysis of the values is objective. Science is not partially favourable to one value and unfairly harsh to another. It is the very nature of the values and the assumptions built into them (e.g., “All human beings are created equal2.”) that determines whether scientific analysis diminishes or reaffirms them. Hence, I believe that although science affects ‘infallibility’ of values when they are analyzed, it does so without partiality, and is therefore neutral3.

All these discussions point at the following: There is an urgent need to educate scientific professionals, not only in technical competence, but also in professional and moral codes of ethics, thereby producing individuals with sound technical knowledge and the ability to evaluate (and hopefully foresee) the consequences of their actions, while being cognizant of the underlying motivations. Also, when a professional is embroiled in ethical conflicts (with oneself or with the organization), the code of ethics also applies to the onlookers. It is incumbent upon the other professionals (the ‘onlookers’Smilie: ;) to speak up. I wonder how episode of the Challenger disaster would have played out had the junior engineers broken the chain of command. After all, in the words of Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

1Now, after reading the book chapters and looking back, I actually feel a little proud.

2While believers of creationism will emphatically say “Yes! All human beings are created equal.”, the proponents of natural selection will disagree with the idea and might even take issue with the use of the word created. I refuse to be drawn into the crossfire. I personally feel that all humans do not have equal aptitudes and talents. (Science says so.) Talent, however, is overrated. I will not discriminate when it comes to offering equal opportunities to individuals with different capabilities, for science still hasn’t plumbed the depths of what an ordinary individual can achieve with dogged determination and sheer hard work. (My values dictate this.)

3I might have misunderstood the author’s use of the word ‘neutral’. If the author used ‘neutral’ to denote ‘that which does not affect or influence’, and hence infer that science is not neutral, then I agree with the notion.

Posted in Ethicsposts