Ignoring Geology – A Slippery Slope

September 2006:  500,000 – 600,000 cubic yards of soil and rock slid off a slope in Killbuck Twp. PA and covered PA Route 65 west of Pittsburgh as well as a busy railroad line.  The debris took days to remove from the road and tracks, inconveniencing thousands of people and costing millions of dollars.

The slide originated on an active construction site, which was being developed for a large retail store.  After the road was cleared, my old firm got involved briefly to monitor instrumentation that was installed to measure ongoing slope instability.  Retail development of the site was cancelled and slope stabilization was completed in 2011.

So, what happened??

Simply put, someone forgot to think about geology.  The Pittsburgh red beds are a geologic formation in Western PA well-known to cause landslide hazards.  To quote the state Advisory Committee report on the landslide,

Western Pennsylvania is particularly susceptible to landslides because of two natural geologic characteristics: (1) the bedrock land composition, consisting mainly of incompetent mud rocks such as silty shales and clay stones that weather easily;

As with any failure, blame lies with many parties.  However, had the civil engineers planning the development and their geotechnical consultants remembered their local geology, they would have been on the lookout for these conditions and the landslide would likely never have occurred.

PHD Comics takes a stab at the Italian seismologist case

PHD Comics’ PHD-TV just published an “expose” showing its take on the Italian seismologist case that we talked about earlier in the semester, including some new details I hadn’t heard before.  Really interesting.  The link is (watch the beginning through 10:10 for the L’Aquila stuff) http://www.phdcomics.com/tv/.

Some of this sounds strangely familiar.  Hmmm???


Drawing a Line or Walking the Other Way?

Multiple times this semester, Oscar Wilde’s stance on morality has come up, “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.”  I agree with his position to a point.  We must have clear moral standards or we will have none at all.

Yet in my mind, the idea of a moral line is scary.  It is far too easy to creep up to that line, maybe even to peer across to the other side.  While I may remain in “good moral standing” according to my line, I am too close to temptation for comfort.  Standing next to the line, I can easily fall across or perhaps even be pushed over.  I think the metaphor of a moral line can encourage an attitude in which I ask myself, “How close can I get?  How far can I go without doing wrong?”  If this is the wrong attitude, what is the solution?

One solution might be to draw my practical moral line “a long way back,” metaphorically,  from my true moral line.  While this solution might keep me from wrong, it doesn’t fix the underlying attitude.  A better solution is to flee from the evil, or more plainly, just to walk the other way.  Pursue good behavior.  As the book Yanna reviewed advised, cultivate good moral habits.  In short, the best path to take is the one that leads away from the line between right and wrong, the one that scraps the whole idea of trying to get away with as much as I can without doing wrong.  In order to walk the other way, we need to hone our moral lens.  To put it another way, we must strive to intentionally deepen our worldview, rather than passively letting the world shape us.

I’ve found that reading good and varied books is one excellent way of shaping my worldview.  We’ve been given many great suggestions of books to read in this class that can expand our thinking on ethics and our interaction with the world as scientists.  One particularly formative book for me was The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View by Walsh and Middleton.  Obviously written from a Christian perspective, this book won’t appeal to everyone.  However, the authors present a wonderful resource at the end that I believe may be useful to us all. They provide recommended reading lists for people working in nearly every academic discipline.  I would like to highlight two of the books they recommend for engineers.

Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher – Considered by some among the top 100 most influential books of the past century, Schumacher artfully shows how economics, science, and technology can be carried out in ways that respect people – realizing that they matter.  It really opened my eyes to the alternatives that exist to our current economic system that generally disregards people.

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul – (I have to admit that I make it through all of this one.  It is not a light read.)  Ellul calls into question modern society’s deference to science and technology as ultimate things.  He points out how easily humans become subservient to technology rather than using it within proper bounds.  He helps to raise, and maybe answer, the question of whether we should do things in science and technology just because we can.  Is our humanity being sacrificed at the altar of technology?

Big Dig Video Link

For anyone interested, here is a link where the recording of the Big Dig talk from my latest blog can be downloaded.  It will download as an executable file to watch.  Of particular interest to our discussion of the interaction of the public and engineering is the first section on history (5:00 to 23:00) and the personal observations (1:05:00 to 1:07:00).


Engineers in Politics

Mark’s latest post Spock for President 2016 got me thinking about engineers in politics.  Commenting on his post, I ran across a blog entitled, The Little Blue Engineer by John Bachner, the executive director of the American Society of Foundation Engineers (ASFE). The story in this blog was so fascinating given our discussion about engineers, the public, and now public policy that I wanted to share it more widely.  Enjoy!

Street Science at the Big Dig

A couple of weeks ago, the geotechnical program was privileged to have Dr. John Christian speak at Virginia Tech on the subject of Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” project.  Dr. Christian is a geotechnical consultant and former MIT professor who has spent most of his career in the Boston area.  He is currently the chair of the civil engineering section of the National Academy of Engineering.

The Big Dig (more properly the Central Artery/Tunnel Project) was an extremely large and complicated highway project that expanded the freeway system in Boston and at the same time put much of the existing freeway underground.  There were many interesting geotechnical issues on the project in addition to the planning nightmare of doing major construction in an old and very congested city.  The project, however, became most famous for it’s ever-expanding budget and schedule.  When it started in 1991, it was supposed to cost $2.8 billion ($6 billion in 2006 dollars).  The project finished in 2007 at a cost of almost $15 billion. 

Dr. Christian’s involvement came near the end of the project as an independent reviewer for the NAE and later as a private consultant.  He spoke mostly about the history and project management lessons learned from the Big Dig.  While he cleared up many of the misconceptions about the project, Dr. Christian also pointed out a number of ways in which the project teams did their jobs poorly eventually costing the taxpayers money.

One of the fascinating aspects was the influence of state politics and public interaction on the project.  Construction began under a “hands-on” governor who placed a local man in charge of oversight.  Whenever a new phase of the project was about to start, this man would meet with residents in the neighborhood to discuss the next steps and how it would affect the traffic patterns, etc.  Invariably, the residents would bring up issues that the engineers had not thought of, and the street-level plans would have to be revised.  These simple interactions and adjustments kept the community engaged with the project.   The community provided street knowledge that the engineering team could not hope to have on their own.

Midway through the Big Dig, the state administration changed and began to take a very “hands-off” approach.  The community meetings ended.  Instead, as scrutiny of the project grew, a “bunker mentality” developed, as Christian put it.  The project team was not allowed to say anything or communicate effectively with the public.  According to Christian, poor communication between the engineers and the public was one of the major problems that occurred with the management of the Big Dig.

It is fascinating to see how the ‘success’ of a project can come down to things like communication and public perception.

Get Out of Jail Free??

I was intrigued by the discussion of the Italian seismologist’s case in the 10/25 class video. I wish I had been there because I feel like a few important points need to be made, especially with regard to the sentiment that releasing these men would be akin to giving them a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

First, the probabilistic seismic hazard analysis (PSHA) that these men likely engaged in to assess the increased hazard is tricky business, fraught with assumptions and uncertainty. It is quite possible that the they truly believed the increased hazard they calculated was not significant.  Seismic hazard analysis is not intended to assess hazard over a short period of time for the purpose of influencing short term decision making.  Its purpose is rather to provide appropriate seismic criteria for the design or retrofitting of constructed facilities over their lifetime (usually 50+ years). The commission was asked to take this tool and give an assessment in an unusual way.

They were also faced with a dilemma over how their assessment would be used or perceived.  For example assume the probability of a large earthquake on a given day was 0.01% before the series of tremors (These are NOT the REAL NUMBERS). With they additional information provided by the tremors, assume that the probability went up by an order of magnitude. This is still only a 1 in 1,000 chance that a large earthquake will happen on a given day. In the short term, the only thing people could do was to leave their homes for an undetermined amount of time.  Living in an area with very old buildings and infrastructure that has not been designed according to modern seismic standards, they really had few other ways to prepare themselves.  I’m not convinced that many people would have fled their homes even if the commission had reported a slight increase in hazard.

Finally, the hazard being assessed in this case is a natural and not a man-made one. It is not as if a different policy decision could be made to stop the quake if the commission had communicated more clearly.  Also, the commission’s choice to be silent obviously did not influence the occurrence of the earthquake. The opposite is true for most of the cases we’ve looked at in class. In DC for example, the silence/coverup was over a man-made problem and did have direct bearing on whether the hazard persisted.  However, in both the DC situation and the Italy case, the silence leads to people not being informed and not being able to make decisions for themselves.

So I believe we need to be careful when judging the Italian seismologists too harshly. If they are acquitted, I don’t think that they received a scientific “Get Out of Jail Free” card.  While I think that they acted unethically with regard to their communication, this miscommunication does not appear malicious, negligent, or even selfish.  I’ll repeat that they most likely acted well within the standard of practice within their field.  If they hadn’t, the uproar from the seismology community would not have been so intense.  If the ethical norm within a field is utilitarian (I’m not saying I condone that norm), we can and should speak out against that norm, but it isn’t right to bring stiff penalties such as criminal charges against them.  This case should serve as a lesson that teaches scientists, and seismologists specifically, how to communicate more clearly and honestly with the public.

Contrast the Italy situation with the falsifications of Guidotti or Reiber or the CDC.  In these cases, the outright lies fell, hopefully, well outside the norms of their scientific communities.  Their actions are obviously clouded by blatant self-interest.  Yet even there, is criminal action appropriate? I think probably not.  These obvious perpetrators deserve to be disgraced and lose their jobs, positions, and licenses.  Still I believe that criminal action is unnecessary and unhelpful even in this type of extreme scientific misconduct.

Disillusioned in Blacksburg?

Cartoon from Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org)

Dear Government Agency,

I was taught to believe that your purpose for existence was to watch out for the public good.  I thought that your mission was to serve selflessly, unbiased, unswayed by the concerns of private interest.  You were supposed to be the policeman on the corner to protect us from the big bad bullies.  Where were you when the coke plant next door belched toxic fumes into the air every 30 minutes and claimed to be law-abiding?  Where were you when the paper company polluted our streams?  Why didn’t you act when you knew the drinking water was polluted?  I just don’t understand.

Disillusioned in Blacksburg

While this isn’t exactly my reaction, it is the sentiment I’ve heard echoing about our classroom and from others who have taken this class before, not to mention folks like the Bresslers or CACWNY.  Regardless of our own prior opinions of the competencies of government agencies, we’ve all seen the blatant failures of the EPA, NYDEC, CDC etc. over the past few weeks.

The situation begs the question “Is there anything to be done?”  In Thursday’s video conference, Erin Heaney asserted that the activist work CACWNY is doing is a civic duty.  Since we can’t hope for government officials to do their jobs without oversight, we must police them as citizens.  This may be a workable solution, but it is certainly not an ideal one.

My thoughts turned to the way that engineering duties are allocated on state highway projects in Ohio where I worked for seven years.  On road projects, technicians must test construction materials and observe activities to assure compliance with specifications.  These duties are roughly analogous to the enforcement of pollution control laws. In most cases, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) does not carry out these tasks in house.  Rather the responsibility is subcontracted to private sector engineering firms.  The engineering design of roads and bridges is often contracted out in the same way with the state providing oversight but most of the work being done by private firms.  Organizations like ODOT still wield most of the power, but some of their “big stick” is transferred to these firms.  The firms have all the incentives of private practice to do their jobs well and efficiently.  Unlike their public sector counterparts, the engineers and technicians in these private firms can easily be fired if they underperform or fail to do at their work.

I’m sure there would be plenty of sticky details applying this sort of model to environmental regulation.  Maybe it is done this way in some locales.  Still, privatization of enforcement seems like it might be a practical way to get the work done.  It also would allow the work to be performed by local firms with more familiarity with a region’s political, economic, and social climate than regulators from a state or federal agency.  Perhaps it might boil down to convincing the government to share the power – not necessarily an easy task.

Validate your experiment here..

A news blurb about “The Reproducibility Initiative” caught my attention a few days ago. Started by cancer researcher Elizabeth Iorns, this program offers scientists a means of validating their experiments at outside laboratories.  Validation tests are performed by one of more than 1000 expert providers (including VT for some tests) through the Science Exchange.  The tests are performed blind so there are no worries about “stealing” ideas or results and are provided on a fee-for-service basis.  Certificates are provided for experiments that are found to have reproducible results.  This type of validation has apparently been endorsed by the likes of Nature and PLOS One.

(image from The Science Exchange)

Is this type of validation the wave of the future in scientific research?  Will all studies be subject to outside review at this level?  What are the benefits?

  • Anomalous results would be highlighted by the verification tests.
  • May help to improve the quality of published research.
  • Gives outsiders an independent verification that data is correct.  The public doesn’t have to solely trust in affiliation, funding source, publication reputation, etc. (Corburn p.67) to assure them.
  • Consortia like Science Exchange give even small organizations access to high-tech research level tests and knowledge without having to own the equipment and expertise themselves.

Are there drawbacks to such rigorous validation?  Probably, yes.

  • It doesn’t solve most issues related to the science-public power dynamic.
  • Requiring validation would be inherently distrustful, not to mention expensive.
  • Core ethical issues of how to practice science are not addressed, rather honesty is forced through policing of results.

Any thoughts??

Share the Power

In Street Science, Corburn deftly illustrates how the “technocratic” model of doing science in the public sphere fails the public and also often falls short of producing “usable knowledge.”  Corburn asserts that a big part of the problem is the power dynamic between the scientist and the public.  Our class discussion yesterday raised similar issues regarding the distribution of power and decision making.  These presentations piqued my interest and reminded me of two arenas where I’ve heard or seen this concept advanced before, which I think we can learn from.

In some fields at least, I think it is possible to conceive of the relationship between academia and the engineering consultant/practitioner as another level of the scientist-public dynamic that we discussed today.  It is easy as a practitioner to become disillusioned with the type and quality of research that is performed by our universities.  Research is too often so far afield from the problems and difficulties faced by the working engineer.  This is easily attested to by paging through many journals. This is not to say that knowledge isn’t pushed forward when we think outside the box. However, the funding structures and decisions about what research to pursue are often made with little input from the practicing world.  A good example of how to break this paradigm exists in the geotechnical program at VT.  We host the Center for Geotechnical Practice and Research (CGPR), which is a partnership between private consulting firms and the department.  This center funds multiple research projects each year.  Key to our discussion here, the funding decisions are made at yearly meetings between the practitioners and professors where the need and merit of various topics are discussed.  This is a simple, yet powerful, model of sharing power in academics, not to mention a great way to fund grad students.

A second and more closely related parallel springs from my experience with the course GRAD 5114 – Contemporary Pedagogy offered by the Graduate School at VT.  As anyone who has taken it knows, the course revolves around the concept of learner-centered teaching.  This course challenges the traditional approach to education, in which the teacher is seen as superior and the bearer of all knowledge, while the student is disinterested, ignorant, and an empty vessel to pour knowledge into.  These descriptions of the teacher and student are much the same as those used by the deficit model of scientist-public interactions.  Learned-centered teaching breaks these notions, showing that students have much to contribute to the education process, if given the agency to do so.  They learn much more when allowed to share responsibility for their learning with the teacher.  This is the same concept as the public contributing to science/research through their knowledge.  I could keep drawing parallels but would prefer to end by observing that much of the advice given to teachers trying learner-centered methods is applicable to “street science” as well.  This might include:

  • Involving the public/students in the work might be messy or unpredictable.
  • You must be willing to learn from or with them.
  • Expect resistance, both from the public/students and from other scientists/teachers.  People often don’t like new things.
  • Keep trying.  The rewards are worth the difficulties.