Illusory Views

"Welling Up" by Mindi Oaten
Image credit: “Welling Up” by Mindi Oaten, acrylic on canvas, 2016

Water is a universal motif across the history and breadth of humanity, associated with many themes:

Life, Birth, Fertility
Cleansing, Purity
Calm, Stillness, Reflection
Wisdom, Knowledge, Enlightenment
Transformation, Change, Renewal

Water is a force of nature with massive power, commanding awed respect. The same water that sustains all life on earth has the power to destroy life, property, and illusions. I witnessed water’s stark duality during the Greater Houston Floods of 1994. Standing in the back of a huge truck on a slow tour of my community, stopping on every street to rescue people and pets, the image that struck me and the one I remember was the calm beauty of the water that had perfected such complete destruction.

Thinking about water invokes images of purity, images of cleansing. City officials drinking Flint water on television–it looks clear, so it must be pure. Doctors wash their hands in it, so it must be clean. Images of productivity. Industrial plants use it for cooling, for cleaning, for processing. Images of beauty. Institutions have ponds and fountains; nature has lakes and rivers.

These sacred images mask the reality of water. It looks clear, but it’s not always safe. It can be harnessed, but its force is destructive. It is beautiful, but under the surface, it is hiding something ugly. After the flood water receded, the subtle image that most struck me when I returned home was hundreds of dead earthworms. I grieved the loss of the earthworms. I could fix my house–eventually–but who is going to aerate the soil?

It occurs to me that it must be a human tendency to cling to good images, even if they are a myth, and deny unpleasant realities. When I was a plant engineer, I headed a committee to revise some important safety regulations involving instrumentation for chemical processes. In my research, I consulted the plant’s Principal Engineer, Roger Hickerson. Roger said to me, “water is the harshest service,” meaning the harshest chemical product borne by pipe in our plant from a maintenance point of view. This was a surprising revelation because the plant’s pipes and pumps conveyed chemical streams that are hazardous, deadly, corrosive, stinky, and teratogenic. One thinks of such substances in negative terms, whereas water is clear and pure, isn’t it? I did not doubt Roger’s word. He is a chemical engineer, and he would not make such claims frivolously. Besides, I have seen the inside of drain pipes. When I told the committee that Roger Hickerson said water is the harshest service, they immediately and unanimously dismissed Roger’s claim as impossible. This is disturbing behavior from engineers.

My conclusion is that my colleagues on the committee were seduced by the illusion of water, like a clear glass that you hold up and drink on television. They were not open to the entire range of possibilities that water can be non-potable; water can be destructive; water can be disease bearing; water can be toxic; water can cause maintenance problems in industrial equipment.

From this perspective, it is a little easier to understand how legions of professionals can cling to a false narrative around Flint’s water problems in the face of contrary claims. Easier to understand, but not acceptable. Professional engineers are expected and required to look beneath the surface and expose the truth. I learned this lesson in biology class. The lab practical exam presented a plant in a pot of soil, and the arrow pointed to the base of the plant where it contacted the soil. What was the term? It was not “root,” for the teaching moment revealed a rootless plant, which was just resting on the surface of the soil.

It is not enough to blindly accept appearance at face value. We will see what we want to see easily enough. To have successful outcomes, the gatekeeper of the narrative must dare to look beneath the surface and ask the next question and the next until the truth is uncovered.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Image credit: Katsushika Hokusai (北斎改爲一筆), ca. 1832. The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 45434

Sins of science

Week 10’s readings about the appropriate role of scientists in the public arena brought to mind the story of German chemist Fritz Haber.  Haber was a secular Jewish chemist who won a Nobel Prize for combining nitrogen and hydrogen to make nitrates for fertilizer.  His achievement was hailed as “a triumph in service of all humanity” (from Haber’s obituary in 1934).  On the other hand, he also contributed to the production of synthetic nitrates for explosives, thereby increasing and prolonging the mass slaughter of World War I.  Haber also invented a way to weaponize poison gas for use on the battlefield.  He developed a pesticide called Zyclon A which was later re-formulated by the Nazis as Zyclon B, which was used to murder people, including some of Haber’s own relatives, in the gas chamber.  Was Haber good or evil?  Was he a patriot trying to serve his country or was he a war criminal? Do the ends justify the means?  The point is that scientists often try and position themselves or science in general as being on the side of good or evil, when the fact is there are often elements of both sides present.

Shared Responsibility for Risk?

Based on our discussion yesterday, I see a strong need for a health based standard not on water quality, but how water quality impacts people medically. The lead and copper rule (LCR) standard is necessary for water utilities to measure the content of water coming out of their plant and potentially through the distribution system. More discussion needs to happen around who is responsible for the water distribution once it leaves the plant. Every city is different and every city has citizens with different opinions on who bears the burden and the cost for pipe replacement. So how can we prevent lead poisoning of people through the water supply? What would be an effective health based standard that citizens impacted by the risk and those responsible for resourcing the fix, agree to. Blood lead levels (BLL) does not seem like a good metric to resolve this problem. As Dr. Simoni Triantafyllidou noted, BLL is contingent on so many different variables. How can governments or their contracted utilities agree to a standard with so many variables out of their control? Is it the governments’ responsibility in total to provide clean water with zero medical impacts? How would any institution be able to agree to that standard? How would a city or state budget for medical impacts on people? Where does the responsibility manifest today and what has resulted? I think we can see that the attempt or assumption of putting responsibility for medical impacts upon the government creates an environment where “risk” studies do not identify risk.

How can we bring those responsible for governing and those governed together in shared responsibility? I don’t think this idea can even be discussed in an honest and open way, unless the conversation can take place with full transparency without retribution. Science could be the mechanism where this take place. A shared responsibility for science: data collection, research question development, monitoring, testing, loosening of definitive causality requirements for resourcing, analysis of risk – may create an environment where understanding of the science (trust of the information) becomes owned by all impacted. Could effective decisions on avoiding or mitigating risk and resourcing against that risk be prioritized or even accomplished if government and citizens through the shared mechanism of science, shared the responsibility for identifying and mitigating risks to include lead in drinking water?


The visual display of scientific information – is it accessible?

During the DC water crisis, the CDC conducted a study purportedly to examine if there was any harm done to the public between 2001 and 2004. The study concluded that no harm occurred. After listening and talking to Simone about her work on the same study objective as the CDC study, it becomes readily apparent that data manipulation is a key factor in the visualization of study outcomes. The CDC study lumped all BLL into a single data category and Simone isolated the BLLs by high risk and low risks segments. This simple adjustment to the data set yielded significantly different visual results.  By combining the data set, CDC softened the curve and generated like results as previous years. Their conclusion that this like result demonstrated no risk is just bad analysis but it wasn’t obvious from just looking at their graphic. An increased risk was demonstrated by the CDC study because they showed the DC data as a shift above the national trend line.   Simone adjusted the picture to amplify that shift and wrote a different story line.

Edward Tufte has written several books on the visual display of quantitative information. Graphics reveal data and are instruments of communication and in this way, “data graphics are no different from words, [and] any means of communication can be used to deceive” (Tufte, 2001, 53). Tufte points out that when people are presented with visual information, they, “quickly and naturally” direct their attention, “toward exploring the substantive content of the data rather than toward questions of methodology and technique” (ibid., 20). “Our visual impression of the data is entangled,” in the ideologies of the producer and consumer of the graphic (ibid.).

In the same way a scientist or an engineer can harness authority just by their stated profession, a scientific graphic can harness authority because it looks like a fact. In the spirit of increased community participation in science, a sharedness of meaning must occur. How can complexity become more accessible? Most scientific or engineering graphics do not do this well. “Imagine if graphics were replaced by paragraphs of words and those paragraphs scattered over the pages out of sequence with the rest of the text [or meaning] – that is how graphical and tabular information is now treated in the layout of many published pages, particularly in scientific journals and professional books” (ibid., 181).

Tufte recommends some techniques in graphic display which might help. Words, graphics, and pictures should be combined in the display of information. Segregation of meaning between the words and the graphics should always be avoided. Specifically, in graphics in exploratory data analysis (as in BLL over time box charts), “words should tell the viewer how to read the design and not what to read in terms of content” (ibid., 182). The art and creativity of science lies in taking the data or facts and determining a finding. And citizens impacted by the risk a scientist or engineer may be studying, have a right to see the data and draw their own conclusions.


Tufte, Edward R. (2001). The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, CN: Graphics Press.

It was a boojum . . .

Toward the end of our class meeting last week with Paul Schwartz, Paul’s comment about the “rescuer/hero narrative” in regard to the Flint crisis gave me pause. I have seen references to a similar paradigm in the Flint Water Course, which describes instances in which “people came into the city to help and assumed that the residents were ‘country bumpkins’ who knew nothing.”

I understand this dynamic quite well, and Paul’s mention of it made me recall my own experiences. Some years ago, my husband died suddenly, leaving me alone to raise four angry children who did not understand why their father was not with us. My family became a beneficiary of various social services, which means that several professionals were tasked with getting me the help that I needed to put my family on track to recovery. In practice, the professionals from different agencies could not come to a consensus about a relatively trivial matter, and their itinerant, chaotic approach to “helping” us was actually harmful. My family soon escaped further harm by moving away. A month later, we were visiting a family advocate who had befriended us, and her neighbor told her that she had heard of us. We were famous! One of the agencies that failed to help us changed history and was touting our “case” as their own achievement: “We changed this family’s life.” It turns out that the harm continued after we moved away because we were objectified.

What resonated with me about Paul’s comments was the idea of the fishbowl of victimhood, the insult of self-proclaimed rescuers drawn to the limelight of a crisis to glean some personal glory through self-accolades before they vanish.

What does this have to do with the boojum? A boojum is “a particularly dangerous kind of Snark,” and both are creations of Lewis Carroll in his famous 1876 nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark. To me, the Snark is symbolic of the chaos of bias, prejudice, and reckless disregard for truth. Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks of boojums and Snarks in relation to these concepts. In 1993, Eileen Byrne wrote Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome, which discusses women’s access to science and technology in higher education. Byrne coins “the Snark syndrome” to describe beliefs that have no credible basis, that have been internalized through use, then are institutionalized and used to justify decisions and policy. I often felt that my situation was being over-sensationalized, with truth being pushed aside in favor of rumor and innuendo. When I took exception to such misinformation creeping into school reports, I was stonewalled. Does this sound familiar? What widows have in common with ordinary citizens is that both are subject to being marginalized by those with elite or authority status. Have we seen the Snark Syndrome in our studies of Flint and Washington, DC this semester? I believe we have.

Byrne, E. M. (1993). Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome. Falmer Press, Bristol, PA.

Carroll, Lewis (2006) [1876]. The Annotated Hunting of the Snark. Edited with notes by Martin Gardner, illustrations by Henry Holiday and others, introduction by Adam Gopnik (“Definitive Edition” ed.). W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-06242-2.

Illustration credit: Théophile Steinlen [Public domain] (1898) via Wikimedia Commons

A case against the ideal of universal citizenship and just science

Iris Young, in her chapter, “Polity and Group Difference”, from her book Throwing Like a Girl, examines society’s baseline assumption that “modern political thought generally,” assumes that the universality of, “citizenship status transcends particularity and difference” (Young, 1990, 114). Given that modern society has (over time) awarded full citizenship status (here read as equal political and civil rights) to all groups, why do we still see inequality and consequently oppression (ibid. 114)? Young postulates that this inequality still exists due to the irreconcilability of the specificity of groups trying to align with established assimilated norms of citizenship. And, unless you are a member of the group which created the assimilated norms, you cannot, metaphorically speaking, cross the river. To cross over suggests different types of groups (women, blacks, American Indians, Hispanic, elderly) must change holistically to create the homogeneity (historically – white bourgeoisie male) required for assimilation. And how does this idea of citizenship and assimilated norms impact science and the development of new knowledge? In Flint, we can see that the maldistribution of clean water was exacerbated by an extreme injustice of misrecognition – particularly among the poor and minority population of the city. These people should be heard by those in power (government) and those with authority to influence government decisions (scientists/engineers). They can and should identify data and create knowledge which has a direct impact on mitigating any negative risk brought upon them. In her essay, “The Five Faces of Oppression”, Young says that, “social justice requires not the melting away of differences, but institutions that promote reproduction of and respect for group difference without oppression” (Young, 1998, 94).  So what are these institutions and how can they help bring participatory parity? As a STS community we need to ask ourselves, how should scientists and engineers engage effectively with a community such as Flint? How can they educate and inform a community and what (metrics) would we use to know if that community was indeed informed? What is the approach for these two entities (science and society) to achieving a shared understanding.

Young, Iris. (1990). Polity and Group Difference: A critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship. (I. Young). Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory. (pp.114-137). Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Young, Iris. (1998). Five Faces of Oppression. In A.E. Cud and R.O. Andreasen, eds., Feminist Theory: A Philosophical Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Using FWC as a case study for uniting environmental and ecological justice movements

Is the Flint Water Crisis a case study for environmental justice or ecological justice? How can these two movements unite around a specific definition of injustice as it relates to Flint? If activists and movements employ the term in the same way, will they leverage more focus and more power? And in addition, if these movements were able to critique themselves and address the gaps laid out of Schlosberg, could they create a more powerful and effective resolution for future environmental and ecological justice concerns?

David Schlosberg asks these questions in his book Defining Environmental Justice (2007):

  • “What is the relationship between environmental justice, which addresses environmental risks within human communities, and ecological justice, focused on the relationship between those human communities and the rest of the natural world” (Schlosberg, 2007, 3.)? 
  • Can we, “apply the same conceptions of justice, and the same broad discourse of justice, to both sets of issues – environmental risks in human populations and the relationship between human communities and nonhuman nature” (ibid., 6)? 
  • “Do those who speak of environmental justice, and those who call for ecological justice, understand the concept of ‘justice’ in similar ways” (ibid., 3)?

 Schlosberg identified two major gaps:

First Gap: the distance and relationship between justice theory (and theorists) and the environmental movement (and its activists). They are not considering, much less integrating, each other’s contributions effectively.

The Flint Water Crisis (any many other soon to be crisis in other American cities) is a case study of justice theory. Maldistribution of clean water as a function of a maldistribution of lead pipes and resources occurred. In addition, misrecognition of those impacted by the polluted water occurred. Those without a ‘voice of authority’ could not get their concerns heard or respected. As a consequence, they were poisoned by water that they knew was bad but had been assured was clean. Without the ‘credentials’ to make their voices heard, how can they overcome procedural injustice with political and decision-making power? The Flint Case Study is ongoing, but how can the environmental movement learn from this and position themselves to support not only Flint, but other communities in the future? What should the environmental movement consider and integrate from a justice theory assessment of the Flint Water Crisis?

  • “The problem that I see is not that distributive theories of justice cannot be applied to environmental justice. Rather, the issue is that justice theory has developed a number of additional ways of understanding the processes of justice and injustice – and these developments have rarely appeared in the literature on the environmental justice movement” (ibid., 4).
  • “The environmental justice movement supplies ample evidence that all of these conceptions of justice are used in practice, and that, in fact, a comprehensive understanding of the way that movements define the ‘justice’ of environmental justice must include all of these discourses” (ibid., 5).

In addition to Distributive, the environmental movement should consider the following unapplied justice concepts:

  • Recognition – addressing the processes that construct maldistribution (Young, Fraser, Honneth)
  • Capability – capacities necessary for individuals to fully function in their chosen lives (Sen, Nussbaum)
  • Participation – necessary for individuals to ensure functioning (Fraser, Sen, Nussbaum)

Second Gap: disconnect between environmental justice and ecological justice

“We should extend the organizing framework of environmental justice, “to include the conception of ecological justice as well” (ibid., 7). – think Rachel Carson Silent Spring

Lead pipes are poisonous – period. Every lead pipe in the country used for water that touches humans, should be removed. But why isn’t anyone talking about the initial problem of the severity of pollution of the Flint River? Why can we not incorporate environmental justice efforts with ecological justice efforts? They are completely integrated.

  • “The vast majority of work on environmental justice does not concern itself with the natural world outside human impacts, and most work on ecological justice does not pay attention to issues raised by movements for environmental justice.” (ibid., 6).
  • “We can draw parallels between the application of notions of justice as distribution, recognition, capability, and participation in both the human and nonhuman realms. A broad set of theoretical concerns, notions, and tools can be applied to both environmental and ecological justice” (ibid.).
  • There is, “potential of using the same languages(s) of justice in addressing both sorts of issues and relationships” in the environmental and ecological justice movements (ibid.).

The Flint Water Crisis could be used as a case study of how to expand justice in general by connecting the environmental justice movement with the ecological justice movement.

“Issues of inequality, recognition, participation, and the larger question of the capabilities and functioning of individuals and communities – human and nonhuman – can come together in a broad and inclusive discourse that can strengthen the explanatory (and mobilizing) power of the movements that use the language of environmental and ecological justice” (ibid., 8).

Schlosberg, David. (2007). Defining Environmental Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.

B-coming Future Engineers 2017-07-12 20:31:24

“We have to go by what the system says.” What or who is this infernal “system?” Nobody can say. How convenient to have a nameless, faceless entity to hide behind whenever someone challenges data. “The system” is the presented as the ultimate authority. No human person has authority to examine or override data or decisions. …

Towards Ethical Frameworks for Cyberspace

Oppressors in social issues are often characterized along racial, gender, class and political lines. However, these traditional lenses may, at times, obscure fully understanding the thoughts, mindsets, and actions that lead to irresponsible, negligent, unethical, immoral and illegal actions. In the case of the Flint Water Crisis, and other similar crises, where those in power are charged with protecting the public, it is important to understand the root-cause of their failing. Likewise, it is important to understand who the victims are and understand their suffering first-hand. While an understanding can be gained through research, it is often constrained and even biased by the dominant narrative.

In this case, it may benefit us to look beyond traditional social and political lines of demarcation to understand what possessed those in power to hold onto their positions of power at all or any costs. We need to ask, what drives power actors to do, or not do, what they ought? How should social and economic factors be considered, weighted and balanced? To date, five different government officials have been indicted, and the common denominator is that each held and misused high-level positions of power. Each seemed to choose to act in their own best interest rather than in the best interest of society.

An often-overlooked element, which may represent the real crisis among the ‘power elite,’ is a lack of a guiding moral ethic, a plumb line that, regardless of the personal or professional fallout, they would not cross. The Flint water crisis illustrates a desperate need for governing officials, at all levels, to operate transparently by a set of values and norms rather than depend solely on the law. But where do these values, norms, and standards come from? Who sets these standards and who do these standards benefit? Once in place, how do citizen gain voice or agency to hold those in power to these moral and ethical standards so that the best interest of society is considered before a crisis reaches criminality?

Once a crisis becomes a legal issue the ‘ethic’ defaults to liability and plausible deniability, not the public good. While legal justice may prevail in the end to the point that one feels vindicated but in most cases cannot and does not erase the hardship, suffering and loss that has transpired. It’s time that we set aside the most obvious divisional lines, and to look at how power unchecked, regardless of the social stature, corrupts.

The Flint case serves as a useful case from which we can explore the role and importance of an ethical framework for traditional professions and professionals (doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, etc.) and government workers who have a specific and stated obligation to the public. Lessons learned from the Flint case can be applied in other disciplines or areas of inquiry.  An emerging socio-technical ecosystem that is of interests to me, and that needs such a framework (e.g. guiding values, ethics, norms, and laws, etc.) is cyberspace, as it touches and shapes the lives or more than half the world’s population.

On Juggernauts and Jabberwocks (or System Thinking)

Hunting of the Snark Plate 8 by Henry Holiday in Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark

“We have to go by what the system says.’

What or who is this infernal “system?” Nobody can say. How convenient to have a nameless, faceless entity to hide behind whenever someone challenges data. “The system” is the presented as the ultimate authority. No human person has authority to examine or override data or decisions. Hence, bad data and bad decisions are allowed to go unchallenged because they are shrouded in mystery and anonymity.

The person who spoke those words to me works at Bank of America, and “the system” has calculated my mortgage interest using bad data that was manipulated by a human person. The error cannot be challenged because “the system” is part of a circular argument.

Me: I want to challenge bad data.
Bank of America: We have to go by what the system says.
Me: These numbers are incorrect.
Bank of America: In the next billing cycle, the system will update your statement with correct information.
Me (next billing cycle): There were no corrections; these numbers are still wrong.
Bank of America: The system does not make a mistake, so the numbers are correct.
Me: But you acknowledged that the statements were incorrect as a result of human error. Where is the correction?
Bank of America: We have to go by what the system says.

If someone wanted to implement a scheme to move assets from one place to another without being assigned blame (to steal money undetected), such a “system” of obfuscation is the perfect mechanism. Challengers will be so frustrated by the challenge process that they will give up. Challengers that persist will not be able to bypass the gatekeepers, who probably really believe that “the system” is always right.

I thought that perhaps nobody at Bank of America uses a calculator, but I realized that is not the point. I will never be able to reach the person with the calculator because the system of obfuscation is institutionalized.

How many institutions are able to deflect challenges under the shield of a “system?” I submit that Bank of America’s “system” method of deflecting inquiry is conceptually the same mechanism that disempowers citizens of cities like Flint while they suffer great harm without recourse. A “system” is a subterfuge, a substitution for legitimate authority which conceals the absence of the valid exercise of expert judgement while it also frustrates discourse. Bank of America passed my phone call from one associate to the next, some cowardly refusing to stay on the line and explain my issue to the next associate to take the call. Similarly, Flint residents have dealt with an opaque and obtuse Department of Health that was unresponsive to individuals and which put out misleading information to the public.

My dispute with Bank of America is like the Flint citizens’ dispute with their governance in that in both cases, those with authority are rendering decisions that are not based on empirical facts. The “facts” may be altered to fit the decisions, or the truth may simply by pushed aside or discounted, in some cases when those in authority do not have the expertise to use evidence to inform their action or inaction. The good news for laypersons is that those with authority do not have a monopoly on science or mathematics.

I am not a banker or an accountant, but I can use my working knowledge of mathematics to calculate finance charges, once I know the methodology that is being used. In the absence of specific guidance from Bank of America, it is possible to research the normative practices of the mortgage banking industry and reverse engineer prior account statements to derive the correct formulas. That is what I did.

Most Flint citizens are not civil engineers or environmental scientists, but a lack of academic credentials does not render one powerless. Citizens can research the normative water utility treatment practices and study evidence found in reports to determine what water treatment practices are likely in use. That is what they did.

Learning the truth is not the end of the battle. I must convey my findings to Bank of America in such a way that whoever receives my report will be convinced that it is correct and compelled to take action to repair my account. I am fortunate that federal law prescribes dispute protocols which force Bank of America to go through the motions of reviewing my claims. There is no fixed dispute protocol for public health or environmental claims. Citizens of Flint must create an infrastructure of their own to give their evidence a public hearing to motivate or compel change.

Does this mean that our society places a higher value on monetary assets than on public health assets? Perhaps. I think it just means that multiplication is monolithic, whereas science is multifaceted and has more fissures to shelter iniquity. In both cases, the most apt symbolic image for citizens who would challenge authority is the inequality operator.

Illustration by Henry Holiday (originally 1876), Plate 8 in The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits by Lewis Carroll, MacMillan and Co, Limited, St. Martin’s Street, London, 1931. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons).