During last class, while watching the press conference snippets, I was startled to see the scientists and engineers involved lie with ease to the public. Granted we have the great advantage of being on the outside looking in, but I still struggle greatly with the question of why these people felt they had to lie.
As engineers and scientists it is in every step of our training to be thinking rationally and to approach problems rationally, and then explain solutions rationally. It is this rational thinking that I used to think entitled the engineering community to the trust of the public. The hearings and press conferences we watched last class begs the question, why should we trust ____. Fill in the blank with any number of agencies that have failed the public to which they were made to serve. Not just in the case of high lead in DC water, but in several other cases around the country as well. When faced with this question in the mock press conference I had no answer. When Marc asked me (representing DoH), why do you trust DC WASA to handle these lead samples, what went through my head was, “Oh poop, why should we trust them when they are the same agency that got us into this mess?”
Its strange to see these “rational thinkers” lying to the public about things that could be causing serious harm, all to save themselves from being blamed for a crisis. So what causes these “rational thinkers” to act so irrationally? Obviously this is a super complex question that may and probably won’t be answered. But after reading the piece on inner circles for this week I could start to see how something like this could happen. The scenario the speaker goes through about the innocent conversation in a coffee shop, where something not so innocent is proposed seems all to realistic. I mean who hasn’t been in a situation where they do something that’s not smart because they look up to the person proposing the idea. Or even just because they want to seem “cool” to friends. I can think of a situation that is probably common for most college students. My freshman year I had a Calc 2 quiz on Friday morning. Thursday night my friends wanted to go down town and I wanted to study for the quiz. I’m sure you can see where this is going… I got pressured into going down town and did not study that night at all. This example is obviously much more mild than hiding a health risk from thousands of people, but I think it can point to an explanation in this case study.
These experts, rational thinkers, scientists, engineers, authorities, and so on, may have gotten so wrapped up in going along and fitting into the office that they lost sight of what their main purpose is, to serve the public. Unfortunately, their mistakes and the domino effect of lies that come from them just damages the public trust in “experts.” These actions just give strength to the question, “why should we trust ____.”