For a “Higher Purpose”

Living for a “higher purpose” is what has driven the human morality for centuries. And, of course, higher purpose typically means living for something bigger than oneself, such as pursuit of knowledge, the environment, and service to others. Although one can argue that “something” could be the betterment of oneself as a noble higher purpose.

In the discussion of Whistleblowing, Michael Davis1 points out how “Whistleblowing is one way engineers have to show that the public safety, health, and welfare means more to them than employer, career, even their own material welfare”. I would also add that this is not only a way to show their commitment to public safety, but also a moral obligation; that is when whistleblowing is justifiably called for. While the issue of justifiability may be a reason that whistleblowing is sometimes discouraged and/or feared. The notion that whistleblowing should be avoided seems plausible, but perhaps not realistic. In some ways, our system of checks and balances is based on the notion of whistleblowing to prevent wrongdoing and abuse of power. The preventive measures discussed by Davis are relevant and applicable to today’s organizations and are good strategic advice to starting, as well as experienced, professionals. To me the most important is giving careful consideration to the organization that one aims to work for. Although in this regard when I think about the DC lead crisis and the press conference role-playing, I recall my reasoning for choosing the DC Department of Health official (Dr. Lynette Stokes) as my No. 1 role. My selection was based on the desire to be in a position directly involved with the public and be able to offer front-line help and support. Obviously, in retrospect, one can see that the mission statement of an organization is not always reflective of the conduct of its management and/or employees.

On the discussion of “The Media Business2 one cannot argue that media coverage has political implications and impacts public perception in positive and negative ways; and the issue of “newsworthiness” remains relevant in science and engineering reporting. In today’s digital world, the expansion of media outlets offers the public many channels to gain information from. In this regard, the public’s understating of the science should not be underestimated, and in fact should be considered as “corrective force and source of accountability3 as voiced by some scientists. As we heard directly from Andy and Shelli Bressler during our last lecture, a lot of information that helped the DC citizens such as Bressle was gathered through the internet and news media.



  1. Davis, M. 1998. “Avoiding the Tragedy of Whistleblowing.” In Thinking Like an Engineer: Studies in the Ethics of a Profession, pp. 73-82. New York, NY and Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  1. Miller, N. 2009. “The Media Business.” In Environmental Politics: Stakeholders, Interest, and Policymaking, 2nd ed., pp. 149-165. New York and London: Routledge.

3.  Sismondo, S. 2010. “The Public Understanding of Science.” In An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, 2nd ed., pp. 168-179. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-   Blackwell.

Does Justice Prevail?

The study of Washington DC lead crisis and other historical cases of citizens’ exposure to environmental toxics and unheard voices of victims, makes one question whether justice does in fact prevail?  The answer to this question depends on what society we are living in. Of course, in a free society where everyone can freely voice his or her opinions and concerns, justice can prevail; whether it does or not is another question.

In the DC lead crisis, we saw how the coalitions of citizens and experts 1,2 led to the uncovering of truths about the scientifically flawed claims made by CDC about the “no harm done” conclusions on their 2004 BBL study.  While it took more than four years to partly acknowledge that the conclusions were misleading, if it was not for the exhaustive efforts of the coalition of citizens and experts, there may not have been any pressures for the CDC to make such public statement. Although this was far from the “prevalence of justice”, one can conclude that by working together and through engagement in “deliberative democracy3 a positive progress was made as voiced by Lambrinidou’s commentary 4:  “ In a twisted sort of way, this was a victory for children here and elsewhere who may be better protected in the future”. However, the fact that CDC continues to claim to be the savior and/or “innocent victim4 by failing to admit any wrongdoing and ignoring the “precautionary principle5, tells us that justice does not prevail by itself; rather, it is through the diligent and hard work of citizens and experts that any justice can be achieved. Again, this is with consideration that we are living in a free society without abusive powers that allow voicing of such concerns.

In the book, “Street Science” 5, Coburn presents the thought of “how science transforms society, but rarely speak on how society can transforms science and decision making.” This is a very thoughtful remark that we may not normally think about; as scientists and engineers, and in fact as humans, we may tend to think one-sided: how what we are doing is important and is making a difference on the society. But, it is a fair question to ask: doesn’t the society play a vital in shaping us?


  1. Edwards, M., 2010, unpublished letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services (5/27), 2 pages.
  1. National coalition of public health and environmental groups, 5/20/10, unpublished letter to the CDC requesting retraction of 2004 MMWR publication.
  1. Corburn, J. 2005. “Street Science: Characterizing Local Knowledge.” In Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice, pp. 47-77. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: The MIT Press.
  1. Lambrinidou, Y., WAMU 2010 commentary. (
  1. Corburn, J. 2005. “Street Science: Characterizing Local Knowledge.” In Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice, pp. 47-77. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: The MIT Press.


Learning to Ignore

The chilling stories of human tragedies presented in this week’s reading segments awaken us to the destructive power of ignorance and deception. How is it that in spite of decades of knowledge and proof of human tragedies due to lead poisoning in the age of industrial pollution, experts and governmental agencies still denied the fact that lead was poisoning people? The ignored and undermined hazards of lead exposure during the age of leaded gasoline and industrial manufacturing is reminiscence of the DC lead crisis and the CDC actions in how the argument kept reverting back to paint as the most worrying source of hazard and the use of blood lead standards as a “no harm done” mentality.  Why the resistance to accept or search for the truth? Well, history indicates how organizational and/or personal motives can drive one’s ignorance and deception. In the case of lead manufacturing and gasoline, because lead was so much part of the society and economy depended on it, the stakeholders with enforcement power blinded themselves to the truth and remained satisfied in their own world ignorance. It wasn’t until the people and those who endured the pain and costs of suffering, namely steelworkers and ordinary citizens stood up along with expert/scientist advocates that change labor laws and improvements began to emerge. The lessons learned (or not) from our past history indicate the importance of the citizen’s voice in development and implementation of science and technology as discussed in the article by Jasanoff. Not only this is wise, but the right thing to do.

The destructive power of ignorance is also evident in the medical research as so bluntly uncovered by Dr. Ioannidis in the article by Freedman. It is interesting how Dr. Ioannidis describes the ignorance of researchers as an “epidemic” in this excerpts from the article: “Even when the evidence shows that a particular research idea is wrong, if you have thousands of scientists who have invested their careers in it, they’ll continue to publish papers on it,” he says. “It’s like an epidemic, in the sense that they’re infected with these wrong ideas, and they’re spreading it to other researchers through journals.”


Markowitz, G. and R. Rosner. 2002. “Old Poisons, New Problems.” In Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, 108-138. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

CDC. 2010. Notice to Readers: Examining the Effect of Previously Missing Blood Lead Surveillance Data on Results Reported in MMWR. MMWR 59(19):592,

CDC. 2010. Notice to Readers: Limitations Inherent to a Cross-Sectional Assessment of Blood Lead Levels Among Persons Living in Homes with High Levels of Lead in Drinking Water. MMWR 59(24):751,

Freedman, D. H. 2010. Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. The Atlantic (Nov.), pp. 1-12,

Jasanoff, S. 2012. Technologies of Humility: Citizen Participation in Governing Science. In M. Winston and R. Edelbach, eds., Society, Ethics, and Technology, pp. 102-113. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.


A Man with a Mission

Having studied the case of DC lead crisis over the past nine weeks and most recently reading the testimony of Dr. Edwards to the 111th Congress of the US House of Representatives1, one can not help being inspired by the thought of what “ A Man with a Mission” can achieve.  On the first day of ethics class, we were each encouraged to think about and write our life’s mission statement with the following compelling reasoning: “We want you to deepen your knowledge about who you are as a person, where you are going in your life and profession, how you want to get there, and what you see as ethical means of achieving your goals”. I underlined the word ‘ethical” because that is what distinguishes us from one another. We may all have goals and perhaps even know how we each want to get there; but the question is through what means? At what cost? For what purpose? These are all important life-enduring questions that ethicists and philosophers have studied for centuries and continue to study. Through real world observations and human experiences, we know what defines moral and immoral behaviors. In the study of science and engineering we know what constitutes misconduct in practice and research2. In the case of DC lead crisis, we saw all kinds of research and professional misconduct violations, namely data falsification, misleading information, and the failure to inform the public and imposition of harm to the public, on the part of public agencies as well as individuals. Such stories of unethical conduct awakens us to the reality of what happens when we lose sight of our goals and mission in our personal as well as professional lives. In the case of CDC, the agency as well as the individuals involved appeared to have lost sight of their ultimate mission of preventing lead poisoning and as a result got engaged in a senseless game of cover-up and power exposition.

On the issue of public trust and reliability, it is interesting to note how in its own mind CDC seemed to think that it was protecting the public health by minimizing the public fear and undermining the health threat of water-induced lead poisoning when in fact it was the fear itself that protected the public who had no where to turn to for help. While underestimated by CDC and other involved agencies, the public understanding of the lead threat and scientific knowledge was notable. In fact, the findings cited by Resnik3 is a testament to the extend of the public thoughtful understanding of science when “asked about what makes something scientific, 80% said ‘‘conclusions based on solid evidence,’’ 73% said ‘‘carefully examining different interpretations of results,’’ and 67% said ‘‘replication of results by other scientists’’ (National Science Foundation 2010”).



  1. Edwards, M. 2010. Experiences and Observations from the 2001-2004 “DC Lead Crisis” [Testimony before the US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, 111th Congress] (May 20), pp. 1-40.
  1. Harris, C. E., Jr., et al. 2009. “Trust and Reliability.” In Engineering Ethics: Concepts & Cases, pp. 115-134. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  1. Resnik, D. B. 2010. Scientific Research and the Public Trust. Science and Engineering Ethics (8/29), pp. 1-11.


I am not Listening

Reading through the CDC’s response 1 to the Renner’s article 2 on the issue of lead in water and public harm cover up, I wondered why was it so hard for CDC to admit wrong doing and publicly apologize? Is it a question of giving up or losing power and/or authority? Or, is it an attempt to keep a shaking reputation? Whatever the answer, is it worth it, at the expense of public health and lost public trust? I believe, that admitting wrong doing is a step in the right direction and an exercise in power; the power to stand up against wrong-doing, be it due to one’s own actions or that of another. As noted in the WASAwatch blog 3, “It makes no sense if they are concerned about public health. Are they trying to cover up the harm that lead contaminated water caused in D.C.?” As a member of the public, I too am perplexed about CDC’s comments and attempts to defend itself. In one hand the agency prides itself on its long-time public health mission and active role against lead exposure in children, and on the other hand, maintains its cover up of harm done to children due to elevated lead levels in the DC’s water. In search of answers, I looked up the meaning of the word “pride”. As defined in Wikipedia, “Pride” is an inwardly directed emotion that carries two common meanings. With a negative connotation, pride refers to an inflated sense of one’s personal status or accomplishments. With a positive connotation, pride refers to a satisfied sense of attachment toward one’s own or another’s choices and actions, or toward a whole group of people, and is a product of praise, independent self-reflection, or a fulfilled feeling of belonging. It seems to me that the negative definition of pride applies to the CDC’s response.

In reading the scientific article and associated supporting information, by Edwards et al 4 on the evidence of elevated BLL in children, it is very troubling and sad to see how professionals involved viewed the elevated lead in water issue almost as a game, not even thinking about what their actions translated into in terms of harms to the public. By this, I refer to the issue of sampling during the winter months and the GIS mapping to determine where the hot spots were for high lead samples, so that the lead action limits could be met. As if this was an ingenious plan that the professional and engineers came up with.

Reflecting on the readings of Science and Public Participation 6, it appears that the CDC’s understanding of public knowledge is based on a deficit model or at best one that sees its role as educating the public, but, underestimating the value of public’s input. The action of CDC and the response to Renner’s article echoes loud and clear that “I am not listening”. It reminds me of image of a child holding his ears while facing an argument with another kid, holding his ears, not to hear the other, while insisting on his innocence and/or side of the argument.




  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2009. CDC Responds to Article [Media Statement] (April 10), 2 p.,


  1. Renner, R. 2009. Health Agency Covered Up Lead Harm: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Withheld Evidence that Contaminated Tap Water Caused Lead Poisoning in Kids. (April 10):1-3,


3.   WASAwatch. 2009. What the CDC Can Learn from the National Research Council and the Public [blog entry] (May 3), 10 p.,


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


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




Because I do Care

The concept of ‘Care ethics” as discussed by Patazidou and Nair 1 and as applied to the principles of teaching, learning and the practice of engineering is very intriguing. The elements of attentiveness, responsibility, competence, responsiveness, assessment, and integrity are important components in any team effort where relationships between individuals determine the outcomes. I believe how one conducts him or her self in an engineering classroom will have far reaching implications when a person gets into the actual practice of engineering; therefore, emphasizing and teaching the principles of conduct in a team environment, such as an engineering organization, should be incorporated into the teaching. Applying the concept of “Care ethics” in teaching is very inspiring in terms of defining the responsibilities of both teachers and students. If everyone involved follows the elements of attentiveness, responsibility, competence, responsiveness, the results will hopefully be a well thought of and well organized course and students who will become more involved in the learning process. I like how the authors say that teaching care ethics should begin with “Care” for students; I would add that the same applies to the learning end.

It appears to me that other theories of ethics, such as virtue ethics and utilitarian are embedded into the concept of care ethics as the individual actions and conduct in a given team would be likely driven by their moral values and virtues that would in turn influence their decision-making process. The question is how would the relationships among individuals within a team shape? Would there be clashes in terms of beliefs or would there be cooperation and/or compromise to make the best possible decision? This brings us to the concept of “Ethical Cycle” which seems to be an inherent function of moral decision-making process. The ethical cycle decision-making seems to be applicable to the case of Washington DC lead in water contamination; although one can argue that the “ethical cycle” was somewhat broken when all the stake-holders and experts were not involved in the decision-making process, namely the affected citizens and scientific and engineering expertise. For example, on the issue of partial lead replacement impacts and hazards, the decisions made were not based on thoughtful consideration of all available expertise and known science at the time, but perhaps influenced by politics and cost implications.

Reflecting on the reading from the “Honest Broker” and the articles on the health impacts of lead exposure on the blood level of children, I think about the importance of the responsibility that we hold as engineers and/or scientists in terms of communicating our finding with stakeholders and/or the public. Is being a “pure scientist” or “scientist arbiter” a responsible position to take? Or, should one be an “issue advocate” or an “honest broker”? Perhaps the answer lies within our individual moral values as well as the extent of our expertise and authorities.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Ethics in Engineering, Science & Policy Making – Personal Reflections

The case study on the “Community Knowledge and Environmental Justice” in Street Science by Coburn 1 is inspiring and uplifting. It demonstrates a successful story on how involvement of the community of Greenpoint/Williamsburg in a Brooklyn neighborhood resulted in better decision making by policy makers in assessing the risks of exposure to air pollutants. As I read the story, the wisdom of the concept “Learning to Listen” kept echoing in my mind. To hear the local knowledge, insightful observations, organized efforts, and commitment to action is indeed inspiring and uplifting. The case also demonstrates how the initial tendency by the policy makers and risk assessment scientists could have resulted in making short-sighted decisions in fully assessing the actual risks of exposure to the residents; but, thankfully, this did not happen due to the persistence of the community members and responsible decision making and willingness to listen by the involved parties. As a point of self-reflection, perhaps, if we find ourselves to be in a similar position of an expert and/or authority, we can remember not to ever underestimate anyone’s opinion, much less the community or public we are serving. To value everyone’s contribution and insights on decision making process and generating ideas to solve a given problem.

In contrast, the same cannot be said in the case of DC lead in water crisis. The article by Guidotti et al 2 on the public health response to the lead in water contamination reveals some shortcomings in gaining the public trust as well as consensus building within the scientific community. Referring to mitigating measures taken to protect the public healthy, the article indicates that “the story was sufficiently prominent that it is unlikely that any families in the District of Columbia with young children were completely unaware of the issue or the availability of the screening program”. Yet, this leaves me the reader wondering why, in spite of the public awareness and prominence of the issue, “of the 177 homes with > 300 ppb lead in drinking water, the residents or owners of 44 could not be contacted after multiple home visits and telephone calls; the residents of 14 had their lead levels tested privately; the residents of 10 homes refused to participate”. Interestingly enough, of the “210 residents of 119 houses participated in the screening program. None had a blood lead level > 10 μg/dL.

The Kantian theory of virtue ethics 3 emphasizes on the character of the acting person and the fact that good character can be shaped by proper nurture and education. Therefore, in this respect and at a personal level, it is important to know that our individual actions are extremely important and can serve as examples for others to follow. On the other hand, in the practice of engineering, the concept of “Risk and Liability4 plays an important role on decision-making. In this context, one important ethical issue is the degree of involvement from those to whom the “Risk” is directed.

In the context of ethics, whether an individual decision or one that requires consensus building to assess risks and liabilities, I believe that character and virtues of the actor(s) involved is of extreme importance.



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

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

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

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