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).

Does looking at Flint and DC give a limited view of expertise and the public?

We’ve been looking, over most of this semester, in great detail at what went wrong in Flint and DC during their lead water crisis, and at the flawed rules for lead in water safety.  We’re getting one model of expertise and interaction with the public, but is it a complete model?

Looking at the discussion of how Rachel Carson prepared “Silent Spring” was a revelation.   Here we have a technical expert who had a goal, and a clearly calculated model for sharing her knowledge of the subject with the public.  (I’ve realized that I really need to read “Silent Spring,” even if the scientific information is not as relevant anymore.)

The interesting thing is Ms. Carson might not be considered an expert in the scientific sense- she had no major discoveries.  She was, however, a skillful synthesizer of what was discovered by the scientific community.  Does that make her a truer “expert,” in the sense that she did not have an agenda of pushing her own work?  Are masterful science writers or science policy makers experts, publics, or somewhere in between?

There’s the case of climate scientists, who are at the opposite extreme from the experts we’ve been looking at.  Instead of scientists refusing to take knowledge from non-experts seriously, we’re dealing with non-scientists refusing to take “expert knowledge” seriously,   Are these just the result of a failure to message as effectively as Ms. Carson did?  Or is somehow the flip side of the expert/non-expert divide we’ve been working around?

The many faces of safe water marginalization

We have seen many different views on marginalization in our readings this semester and we have discussed the topic extensively in class.  One thing stands out to me from these readings and discussions.  That thing is power!  The marginalized lack the power and the dominant have it.  Without power, one lacks voice.  One lacks influence.  One lacks basic security of their person.  Further damage to the powerless is that the marginalized story may never be told or if it is told it will be spun in favor of the dominant forces in society.  Why then is it so important for the marginalized story be told?

To this questions, we have answered three basic things.  First was the idea that local marginalized knowledge can be valuable knowledge.  It can help us do better science, as shown in Wynne’s study of Cumbrian sheep farmers.  Next, bringing voice to the marginalized promotes democratic ideals.  The dominant groups with power get their voices heard.  If we are really dedicated to democracy, should not all voices be heard?  As Bohman suggests, deliberative democracy must be sought after.  It does not spontaneously generate.  Third, the voices of the marginalized can also be beneficial to other groups and to society at large.  This idea was put forth in our readings last week by Wehling, Viehover and Koenen.

So, we have three strong reason to seek out the marginalized voice, but there is still the question of where to find this voice.  This week we read the work of Sandra Harding, who puts a new dimension on what it means to be marginalized.  Harding reminds us that marginalization and lack of power is not necessarily associate with being economically disadvantaged.  Harding takes the question of marginalization to the epistemological level.  As Fricker pointed out the epistemic injustice of sexism, Harding expands the epistemic injustice to include other powerless positions that are marginalized, such as race, gender, ethnic background, religion, age and community.   The idea of marginalized community is especially pertinent to the Flint and Washington DC cases of lead poisoning.

If we look at Flint, we see what I will call a classic marginalization of a disadvantaged community.  The marginalization is occurring on political (governor take-over), economic (poor and budget crisis), racial (minority) and health (lead poisoning) levels.  But, in the case of Washington DC, the marginalization is taking place on different levels.  The worst community hit in Washington DC was not poor, lacking political savvy, or a high minority concentration.   The community had power in all those community aspects.  Where the community lacked power was in the management of safe drinking water.  The community also lacked a knowledge of water quality.  Unlike Flint where many knew the water was bad due to the taste and smell (not to mention the rashes), the water in Washington DC appeared safe and unchanged.  To me, this really shows the different faces of marginalization and lack of power.  You would not think of this community as being marginalized, but it was.  It had little power over the water coming from the pipes and permanent brain damage to your children qualifies as marginalization, despite the community wealth.  I conclude that if you rely upon any municipal water source in the US, you are a marginalized community.  It is not a question of whether you are being lead poisoned, but how much?

Charles Dickens told the story of the poor and powerless in London.  He spoke for the poor with emotionally captivating fictional individuals such as Tiny Tim in the Christmas Carol.  Similarly, Karl Marx spoke for the poor of the same historical period telling the story of the poor and powerless with his material historical analysis.  Marx give voice to the proletariat.   Who then will speak for the powerless and marginalized concerning safe drinking water?  It is a story of the poor and the rich.  It is a story of communities without power and communities with power.  It’s everyone!  There are many faces to clean water marginalization, but they all have one thing in common.   All believe that the water in their glass is safe.  Are we powerless to confirm this?  And if lead is present are we powerless to do anything about it?  Lead knows not who it poisons, it just poisons.  Welcome to the marginalized world everyone.


Bohman, J. (1996). Public deliberation: pluralism, complexity, and democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fricker, Miranda, Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

“Harding, S. 2005. Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is “Strong Objectivity”? In A. E. Cudd and R. O. Andreasen, eds., Feminist Theory: A Philosophical Anthology, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Wehling, P., Viehöver, W., & Koenen, S. (2015). The public shaping of medical research: patient associations, health movements and biomedicine. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Wynne, B. (n.d.). May the Sheep Safely Graze? A Reflexive View of the Expert–Lay Knowledge Divide. Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology,44-83.




Lead, Margarine, and Unintended Consequences

Paul A. Offit, “Pandora’s Lab” excerpted from Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong (2017) in National Geographic, June 2017, 136-150

Having heard a lot about the Lead and Copper Rule, I’m still mulling over whether government regulations like the LCR, however well intended, do more harm or more good in protecting the public.  I recently came across an excerpt of Dr. Paul Offit’s 2017 book, Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, which tells the story of the government’s role in restricting dietary fat while inadvertently promoting trans fats which turned out to be far more dangerous than saturated fats.

In 1977 a US Senate Select Committee published dietary guidelines calling for reduction of all foods containing cholesterol (eggs) and saturated fats (like butter, lard, cream, and processed meats).  With help from consumer activists and government agencies, these guidelines became government policy and had a tremendous influence over Americans’ eating habits.

The government guidelines were based on inconclusive studies of total fat and total cholesterol intake.  In the 1980s, several studies indicated that foods with saturated fat contributed to heart disease while those with unsaturated fat (like fatty fish, almonds and other nuts, flax, and chia seeds), did not.  Since margarine was low in saturated fat, Americans were told to continue to eat “heart healthy” margarine instead of butter.

Unfortunately, margarine contains 25% trans fat, which turns out to be far more dangerous than other fats.  Though researchers had reported on the dangers of trans fats as early as 1981, the dominant narrative was that all saturated fats were bad and unsaturated fats were good.  Cholesterol, too, turned out to be more complex than we were led to believe.  Some cholesterol is actually good for you (HDL), some is bad for you (LDL) and some is VERY bad for you (VLDL).  Trans fats not only increase VLDL but they decrease HDL.

In contrast to the expedited way the government implemented guidelines on saturated fat and cholesterol, it wasn’t until 2006 that the FDA finally implemented rules requiring manufacturers to list the quantity of trans fats on nutrition labels.  As quoted in the article, Harvard epidemiologist Walter Willett said “you really need a high level of proof to change [government] regulations, which is ironic because they never had a high level of proof to set them.”  Unfortunately the FDA still allows manufacturers to claim zero grams of trans fats in products that contain less than .5 grams (like coffee creamer and some margarine).

Back to the LCR.  Like the dietary guidelines, the LCR was intended to protect the public.  But, like FDA rules, the LCR contains conditions, exceptions, and loop holes that open the door to abuse and actually discourage enforcement by the people charged to implement it.  Laws and regulations including the LCR that rely on science must be reviewed as the science evolves and brings forth new evidence.  This speaks to the importance of science advisors who understand science as well as legislation and can keep track to ensure legislation includes mandatory review periods.

Experts, Ethics, and Public Communication

After listening to Wednesday’s guest speaker began thinking about how the low-income home project relates to the DC and Flint water crisis. In comparison, I am concerned that experts are not completely open to the public until a disaster occurs. As in DC and Flint, the experts had knowledge about the hazards of lead drinking water but chose not to communicate the hazards and risks to the public. Since experts have knowledge about risks and hazardous conditions, I question the reasoning behind not informing the public. Should experts view retaining information about the scientific risks and hazards from the public a question of ethics?

If we learn anything about experts and ethics, I am not clear if expert understands the ethics of explaining hazards prior to a disaster. So if knowledge is power, then science retains power by know disclosing scientific hazards to the public.

It appears to me that scientific experts have knowledge that can prevent most scientific problems in the public domain. So, without the knowledge of scientific risks and hazards, science experts remain in power over a submissive society.

Experts viewing science through the lens of laypersons

There is an old cliché which states, doctors, make the worse patients. The movie, The Doctor, is a great illustration of the cliché. Although this is a fiction movie, the plot of the movie highlights reality when a experts lose their power.

Plot of the Movie –  The Doctor

Dr. McKee is a self-center surgeon with equally bad bedside manner. His life is great, and he knows it until one day he comes face to face with an illness. Dr. McKee receives a diagnosis of throat cancer, and now he is a patient. Dr. McKee now undergoes cancer treatment in the same hospital where he works. Now, Dr. McKee gets an experience like any normal patient, and he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t receive any special accommodations as a doctor in the hospital. Instead, he gains the experience as norm patient without an affiliation to the hospital.

By the end of this journey, Dr. McKee personality and morals change. He understands how he and his colleagues had dehumanizing patients. with his new insight on life, Dr. McKee changed from treating illness to practicing medicine for treating human beings with illnesses.

As a subplot in the movie

Prior to becoming a patient, Dr. McKee planned to help a fellow surgeon’s defense against malpractice with a well collaborative testimony.


Relating the Plot of the Movie to our Class

When an expert is stripped of their power, the expert can view the public through a different lens. The former-expert lens changes from that of an expert to a lens of a layperson. With the lens of a layperson, the former expert can now experience scientific politics as a person without power. With the lens of a layperson, the former expert becomes armed with the knowledge of a layperson which helps establish the former expert as an influential leader of a social movement or counterpublics.

In the movie, Dr. McKee was stripped of his power as an expert while undergoing treatment as a patient. Dr. McKee felt dehumanized. During his time as a person without power, Dr. McKee began a moral transformation. He understood the life of people that were not experts.

As an example:

Dr. McKee new insight about the relationship between patients and doctors influence a change in his own behavior as a doctor and influence his position about the testimony for his fellow surgeon. Now , Dr. McKee practices medicine with a moral obligation to his patients

B-coming Future Engineers 2017-07-05 23:00:47

When I am not being listened to, I will not speak. That was also the normative practice between wage earners and engineers during my engineering career. By listening and being quiet, I earned the privilege of conversation with craftsmen. I was taught that a plant engineer and a millwright working together can be an effective …

Do scientists learn to ignore non-experts by learning to ignore grad students?

Reading through Robert Musil’s “Rachel Carson and Her Sisters,” I was struck by how closely the author argued that “Silent Spring” was heavily influenced by her network of colleagues throughout her life.

I couldn’t help but wonder why we are so reluctant to define scientists in this manner.  We find that popular accounts of scientists are often built around a “lone genius” stereotype of Einstein coming up with relativity on his own.  We do this even though we know that Einstein was swimming in a community of scientists questioning the limits of classical mechanics.

Does this model change how we perceive scientists and engineers interacting with non-experts?  We see discussion of the interaction of Marc Edwards and other experts with the Flint water crisis.  These obscure that Professor Edwards functioned as part of a team of researchers at Virginia Tech when looking at the lead levels.  We are writing out graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and technicians from the story.

If we are writing out highly trained people who work with the lead scientist on a project like this, doesn’t that make it easier to write out the non-expert as well?  Ignoring the narrative of a lab head sharing authority with his or her grad students makes it easier to embrace a narrative where non-scientists are passive bystander.

Does ignoring that scientists function internally with each other, with different levels of experience and expertise, make it easier to write off non-scientists as non-experts?