The mask

In “The Mask”, the author emphasized that it was the creation of the mask that allowed the deviation from civilization to savagery. He wrote that:

“Of all of humanity’s contrivances, the mask creates the greatest freedom; it enables the extension of the will into the immoral, simultaneously freeing the individual from the moral conscience and personal responsibility.”

and that:

“The mask we use to cover our unethical behavior has its origin in the human need to be ethical.”

This relates me to some cases in the DC Lead Water Crisis and gives me a deeper understanding of those authorities’ behavior. Their intrinsic fear of being unethical and being guilty must have been aroused during the crisis.Thus they had a pervasive need to justify their behavior and mask them more by falsification and fabrication. And the more they mask, the more freedom they would have and the more easily they do more unethical things. Then, these additional unethical things made them want to cover up and mask better. A circle thus formed and made the case worse.

But the author also said, “It is the desire to act unethically while avoiding guilt and maintaining ethical integrity that has led to the creation of masks”. I don’t feel comfortable with the word “desire” here. It’s kind of exaggeration for me. They acted unethically because they wanted to avoiding guilt and maintaining ethical integrity, not because they just want to do ethical things that can lead to fears and guilt for themselves.

Building the mask is the start-point of unethical behavior and it’s an unethical thing itself, simply because it covers up the truth. As the author stated in the end, “only by removing the mask and listening anew to the moral conscience and following its precepts can our moral illness be cured.”

From another side of view, building a mask is a technical work and it takes efforts. If they have made a great mask, then, true, they don’t have to worry much about it. If they were ethical individuals at the very beginning, they would feel a little bit guilt for building the mask but would forget it soon since nothing much would be going on. They probably already have weighed the guilt of building the mask and guilt of the ethical things done before they started the work. But if they were not good at it. They built a poor mask. Then they probably need to pay much more for the repairing work. And this process will keep them feeling the guilt. Maybe much more than the guilt of revealing the truth. In those DC cases, there are some poor mask makers and some good mask breakers. But I am wondering if there are more things that haven’t been revealed just because there great mask makers involved?


reading critique-week 14

There are several very interesting points mentioned in the Washington Post paper. One is that “engineering is always an experimental involving the public as human subject”, and that “scientific knowledge doesn’t hurt anyone—only the use of it can be harmful”. That is to say, a developed regulatory system should include something like an IRB to protect the public. In some traditional engineering areas, the IRB does exist. For example, new building has to be checked by building construction professionals before use. But for more advanced areas, such as IT products, engineers’ innovation capability is far beyond others’ ability to evaluate. Only with human subjects, who love trying new technology and new product, engineers could get feedback and evaluation. Scientists should not be protected from blame that way. At least, their scientific discoveries incented engineers’ and business’ interest, and lead to the birth of new products.

Although I do not like the contractarian code, which advocates that contracts actually exist on paper between engineers and their employers or clients and denies that any such contract exists between them and the public, I don’t want to call the overall engineering ethics “slippery”. Let’s see the big map. Our society is making progress, getting advanced and becoming more complicated, which lead to more dilemmas. There are lots of cases when we need to weigh the risks to some people against social economical benefits, or some benefits against others. This will lead to some unacceptable results for those who stress “0 risk” and “fair”. But overall, we human are getting more welfare from science and engineering. Think about the old days when there was no water line. People got water from the river. They might get poisoned from some natural toxins. They also might die of thirst. Risk is everywhere. Engineering and science are actually there to reduce overall risks. We can supervise them, but not through extreme blame and doubt.

“Doubt is their product” provided a dozen ways to improve the regulatory system, which is very interesting to read. It leads me to think how these abstract theories can be transmitted into practical regulations and how some new polices may lead to new issues. But any way, these theories can initiate more thought and debate and help us better supervise our current system. Corrections/development will take some time but we will be patient.

media and science

I can still clearly remember how I got laughed at by my advisor when I quoted a scientific definition from (a website similar to wikipedia) in one of my scientific paper. I was a sophomore in that year, did not know much about science/technical writing. 🙁 I was not very clear about why I should not use definitions from that kind of website. But the way I got embarrassed kept me away from doing that again. I just keep telling myself the fact that I should never use a citation from websites like wiki in a paper. Now this can be explained easily by the dominant model of science popularization. “Science produces genuine knowledge, but that knowledge is too complicated to be widely understood.” Mediators translate genuine scientific knowledge into simplified accounts for general consumption. For science, simplification usually represents distortion. Scientists would believe that popularization pollutes the sphere of pure research. I don’t like this saying because it sounds like the science popularization did something bad to the pure science. On the contrary, this simplification benefits a lot to research, not only through nourishing the general public’s mind so that they can better participate, but also by assisting researchers when they first encounter certain terms and principles. Whenever I came with new terms, scientific names, and new topics, I would first search them through “popular science” tools. Through some news websites and websites such as wiki, I would get a general overview of the term and get “into” the term easily and quickly. From there, I could also get other common names of the term, which could facilitate my further search using other more “pure science” tools such as SciFinder Scholar and ScienceDirect. Thus, I believe the popular science had more benefits than harm to pure science.

However, popular science is not real science. Although it does not harm the pure science that much, it does affect the general public’s perception of pure science. And the media business is the major vehicle during this process. Numerous cases like the Bhopal story could demonstrate the media effect on public understanding of science and technology. However, as such an important social character, the media’s objectivity can be affected by many factors, which make the popular science unreliable. First, as a business, it’s chasing economical benefits. It’s trying to provide the most attractive information in an attractive way, which might lead the readers to an biased understanding of the science and technology. Second, since it simplifies the pure science, distortion might be caused among the public. Third, releasing certain information might be suppressed by other social parties, such as the government. For example in China, although google restarted the service, they are using a new filter for sifting information. Information that can be found here may not be available in China. They banned CNN, YouTube, Facebook, etc. Thus, any information that can threaten its governing could be blocked. After this kind of filtration, only bias info is provided, which would create biased understanding of certain topics and issues, including some science and technology.

The book chapter “Avoiding the Tragedy of Whistleblowing” is very well written with great emphasis on key points and clear logic flow. I like the points in that chapter a lot, especially that “whistleblowing is one way engineers have to show that the public health, safety, and welfare means more to them than employer, career, and even their own material welfare.” It was very smart of him to emphasize on “making whistleblowing unnecessary”, instead of talking about “protecting whistleblower” like all the others. There are similar topics to be covered under these two titles. But the first one shows more wisdom. At least, “making whistleblowing unnecessary” it the best way to protect whistleblowers.

some thoughts on public participation

As an example, the birth of “Principles of Environmental Justice” demonstrated the public participation in science and policy-making process in the old days, as well as the development of public participation itself. In the early half of the 20’s century, environmentalists were mostly privileged whites. They called for the protections of wilderness and wildlife with the means to enjoy outdoor creation. (Actions of many mainstream environmental organizations still can reflect these principles.) Goals of these organizations reflect their own interests. They regarded inner-city areas as places of degradation and ignored the environmental problems there. Minorities felt isolated and negatively impacted and initiated the movement of “environmental justice”. The problems showed by the public environmental organizations here are permanent for the society—while we need public participation and “street science” in scientific research and policy-making, how can we deal with the interests of different organizations representing different social groups? How can we identify right information from the vast amount of opinions from them? How can we make justified decisions based on many biased points? There are definitely crazy people and irrational groups in the society. How can we sift the public for our purpose of use? How can we pick out the trustable ones? How to deal with exaggeration? Somehow I got the feeling that public participation/street science is a form or a developed variation of “public survey” and it’s facing the same problems of survey. For example, how to get the most representative data, how to choose the best subjects, etc., all faced by the science of survey.

In DC lead water crisis, the government was not doing a good job getting the public involved. They even did not make good use of the public as just research subject or survey poll. From another side of view, did the mother’s organization on the Capital Hill think about participating in the scientific research of those agencies so as to reveal the truth that they believed? If the government cannot see the necessity to get the public participation, the public themselves might ought to actively show their capacity and voluntarily.

citizen participation in governing science? how?

While Dr. Sheila Jasanoff advanced the term of “technologies of humility” and praised the “citizen participation in governing science”, her tongue was kind of neutral during the discussion of her focal points for modest assessment–framing, vulnerability, distribution, and learning. As she stated, “these points are just pebbles thrown into a pond, with untested force and unforeseeable ripples”, no immediate institutional change was expected. But the author really hope it can start a deeper public debate on the future of science, which will finally advance the development of science in society. So even some stupid points from the public, which probably include mine below, might provide some inspiration for other people to generate their own opposite ideas and eventually promote the debate.

citizen participation in governing science

In the abstract, Dr. Sheila stated that “But several dramatic failures of adequate oversight suggest that this approach (expert committees) is unsatisfactory and needs to be replaced by one in which citizens play a larger deliberative role.” I doubted if the specific problem from the approach of “expert committees” in the history can be solved by “citizen participation”. How can those failures directly demonstrate the effectiveness of “citizen participation”? Can the public foresee any risks that even the experts can not expect? Which form of citizen participation is expected? Since there is no specific story demonstrating the effectiveness and no specific form was discussed, I feel it’s too theoretical. An extreme case would be that a participating citizen who gets to know the facts so well that he naturally joins the business/politics and turn himself into an expert and ends up same with the approach “expert committees”.

our ability to innovate vs. our powers of control

At the very beginning of the ratiocination, one of the rationale was that our ability to innovate in some areas run unacceptably ahead of our powers of control so that we need better assessing and governmental system involving “citizen participation”. I am wondering  if our “ability to innovate” and our “powers of control” are comparable? If yes, I would say our ability to innovate is always ahead of our powers of control. When the scientists invent something, they can never image every aspect of risks that will appear in the real world. Neither do the public or the policy-makers. Lots of problems come only after the innovations were used, especially those invented to solve emergent problems and those economically beneficial to the whole society in short term. The plastic issue mentioned in the end of the article “old poisons, new problems” well demonstrated this point. We are sure that there were potential risks everywhere caused by plastic use and that we have limited power of control on it, but still we are using it in large scales. Same as the lead crisis. We thought we’ve being discussing it for almost a century. But still, other innovations, such as changing of sanitizer, challenging our powers of control from time to time.

The idea of “technologies of humility” is promising. But how to realize the ideal system remains a puzzle. Hope to see some concrete debate on that.

public trust in scientific research

As Dr. Edwards said in the testimony, “as long as the CDC continues to defend the CDC MMWR, the agency will not have a shred of scientific credibility.”, which means that CDC should be honest towards the general public to promote the public trust in science. This statement can be validated through David Resnik’s theory. (1) the general public expect to know the truth from scientific research; (2) honesty in research will ensure that the general public know the truth; (3) the truth could lead the general public to make right decisions, maintain their health, and further trust and support scientific research.

I guess CDC also well know how important the credibility is. And they did try to retain it, but through an unethical way. They might feel revealing the fact and admitting their fault is just doing the opposite and reducing their credibility. After all, they have successfully held (concealed) the truth for so many years, and thus, probably not many people are as persistent and concerned about the detailed truth and ethics as Dr. Edwards. With few public concern, they must feel it’s better to keep holding the truth than to reveal it, which will definitely reduce their reliability. Thus, CDC tried their best to hide the truth from the general public; in Dr. Edwards’ narrative about the lead crisis, we can easily find the CDC’s dishonesty in different forms, lying, deliberate deception, withholding information, failing to see out the truth.

I am moved by Dr. Edwards’ effort in fighting for the truth and ethics and his input in preparing the testimony materials. After reading the document, I got two concerns. (1) Should the public lose their trust in the CDC’s scientific research? Although i am sure CDC has fault on this issue, but I am not willing to doubt CDC’s mission and their effort to serve for the public. (2) What is the rationale behind admitting the fault/being honest at this time (so late) vs. doing whatever to maintain their credibility and continue serving the public? how can they admit the fault and at the same time maintaining the credibility? If they know the answer, they probably will be more willing to retract the paper and admit their fault.

first blog~

I was astonished reading the facts that “Frank had been lead poisoned on the job and laid off by the company”, that “the industry’s child, one of his children, had been born with extensive physical disabilities and severe mental retardation”, and that charity was the only kind of help she could seek for. While we can easily recognize a series of chronic problems, such as that research institute is facing the conflict of interest introduced by funding opportunities from the industry, and that policy makers are faced with dilemmas between industry’s “product-centered” argument and the public advocates’ “zero risk” argument, we should pay more attention on the industry’s response to emerging environmental danger to prevent any further severe harm to the general public.

While we can blame the industry’s suppression of information on pollution and hazards in the old days, we should not attribute all the faults to them today. With the vast information and different opinions, how to sieve them is a big issue. How to get the public’s attention effectively is a question not only for the industry but also the government and the general public themselves. The way that the information is given can affect the distribution tremendously. For example, my mum told me that working under radiation, such as in the power electronic system engineering lab, would reduce the chance of giving birth to a boy (compared with giving birth to a girl). Some friends told me about this too. But I never truly believe it. In contrast, I read a paper about nutritional benefits of fish oil in a scientific journal. And I felt so excited during that time that I told everyone that I care that they should consume fish oil on a daily basis. During the Japanese earthquake early this year, the nuclear disaster scared lots of Chinese people because they are so close. My relatives, in lots of different cities, told me that they could not get salt from the market, because everyone believe that the salt could reduce the harm of radiation from the nuclear plant! In fact, only the iodine (in the form of KI) in those iodine enriched salt might be able to work against radiation. I was amazed at how this little piece of information from some experts distributed nationwide in such a short period of time and the speed that the general public reacted; all salts in the market disappeared within two days. I told my parents that I could send them pure KI, which is more “powerful”, if they need. I don’t know if they believed me or not. I just feel we have already got too much information on what is good and what is bad. But hardly any of them are trustable to me. I probably won’t do anything if someone told me salt works against radiation. It’s not about the right to know.

My father is an electronic engineer in a huge fertilizer company. I have a friend living in an apartment 1 mile away from their plants. They told me that when the wind blows in certain directions, they have to put a wet towel over their mouths and noses. Her mother is a chemistry professor. Somehow they lived there for more than ten years. My father also heard that the radiation in the plant is harmful. Due to the potential health effect, the company provides all the employees whole body physical examinations each year. He and most of his friends are already bold. They know it but they do nothing.  In my opinion, they just got the information on radiation harm through an ineffective way that they did not take it seriously.

While reading the medical research and the active role of patient organizations, I am thinking if the patient organizations should be considered as the general public, and their participation as “public participation”. As in the class ppt, it says “public—those persons whose lack of information, technical knowledge, or time for deliberation renders them more or less vulnerable to the powers an engineer wields on behalf of his client or employer.” Patient organizations are active shaping the agenda of research in fields of their concern, because they got the disease and have much more info that the other general public and that can contribute to the development of the field. For the other general public, if they want to participate effectively, they need to gain more knowledge on the specific topic, which is just extra work for them; otherwise the effectiveness of their participation would be in doubt. But any effective participation and co-production that can promote the development of a research area should be encouraged; it does not matter if they are the general public or not.