Bad Apples or Bad Barrels?

While listening to Sean talk about his experience in cycling and reading about Mr. Armstrong and his embracing of the doping friendly culture of cycling, I kept thinking about the Phillip Zimbardo Ted Talks I posted a couple weeks ago and his theory of the bad barrel instead of the bad apple.  It was pretty clear by Sean’s presentation that there was a lot of support to dope in cycling to perform better.  It was brought up in our discussion that this is not just a problem in cycling but in sports in general.  The question I want answered is where does this culture of doping (the bad barrel) come from? So in thinking about this and trying to determine the problem, maybe not all of the blame should be cast in the direction of the athletes.  Maybe we as fans should take a look in the mirror and cast some blame at the person staring back at us.  It seems that the culture surrounding the athletes in professional sports is mostly created by the pressure fans put on the sport and has just as much to do with the doping problem as the athletes in the sports themselves.  I would argue that is a perfect example of the bad barrel idea.

I came across and article by Jim Caple on that talks about the relationship between PED use in baseball and the fans.  Here is the link: In the article, Caple points out the inconstant stance that fans seem to have on PED use saying, “Take PEDs to help the local team and you’re a hero worthy of loving standing ovations.  Take PEDs for an opposing team and you’re an evil, no-good cheater who should be banned for life.”  He goes on to argue that this inconsistency  is confusing for the players and that we should condemn PED use unless we are willing to condemn all player guilty of it.  Again, this points to a bad barrel instead of a bad apple situation.  What is the incentive behind playing clean when all the fans want to see is superhuman ability on the field.


Another point of this is the penalties handed down to dopers and how they are so inconsistent.  I think Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez are two examples of this happening.  In both cycling and baseball it is known that there was a serious doping problem within the entire sport.  However it seems like the penalties handed to these two athletes are far more severe than those handed to their coworkers.  Why is that? I think this points to another flaw in the barrel that should be corrected in order for these sports to clear themselves of doping.  If their respective sports believe the penalties handed to these two are fair, then everyone caught doing the same things should get an equal penalty.

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Ted Talks: Philip Zimbardo on the The Psychology of Evil

So I haven’t really been too into this blogging thing so far.  I’ve kind of had the mentality of it being something I had to do every week, just like any other assignment.  But this week I’m really excited to share this with you guys.  Recently I’ve gotten really into watching the Ted Talks they have on Netflix about social psychology.  I saw this one today and I got so excited that I stopped what I was doing and started taking notes on the lecture.  So many of what Philip Zimbardo talks about in this lecture made me think about the DC water case, I knew I had to blog about it.  Please watch this video, its 23 minutes and well worth it!

(I don’t want you reading what I wrote on it until after you watch it, so I put this cartoon below it to fill space…. Watch it!)


Wow right?

So I picked out a few things he discussed that really hit me.

First of all, the very introduction that the boundary between good people and bad people is not a brick wall, it’s permeable, and good people can become bad and bad people can become good.  We’ve brought this up several times in class already, but I thought the metaphor of a wall and a permeable membrane was interesting.

His way of trying to understand the psychology of the change of character within people is interesting as well.  The idea that it may not be just a bad apple, but a bad barrel that is the problem.  Maybe we can apply this to the DC lead poisoning case.  Could the system in place be part of the problem, not just the certain individuals that conducted misconduct?

I thought his 7 social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil could also be applied to the DC case study.  I’m going to reiterate them here and you can think about how they apply.

  1. Mindlessly taking the first small step
  2. Dehumanizing others
  3. De-individuation of self
  4. Diffusion of personal responsibility
  5. Blind obedience to authority
  6. Uncritical conformity to group norms
  7. Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference

He mentions that the slippery slope to evil comes from new and unfamiliar situations.  This brings to mind the numerous times we’ve said in that the DC lead crisis was an unprecedented lead contamination case.  Could this unfamiliar situation for the DC authorities have led them to their misconduct?

Finally, in his conclusion he talks about how the same situation has the power to do three things to people.  It can inspire terrible acts, inspire heroic imagination, or can bring about the evil of inaction.  From what we’ve learned so far, you can easily see all three from the actors in the DC case.  Zimbardo stresses that self labeling ourselves as a “hero in waiting” can help us do the right thing.  What a cool idea!

I think I’ve left a lot on the table to be discussed about this video and how it relates to the DC case.  So lets discuss Smilie: :)

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Thoughts on YPSG

Well I’ll admit it, I was one of the students that didn’t read the first YPSG assignment.  I got confused by the folder, was unobservant, and it cost me 0.4 points.  I’m saying this in the spirit of being translucent, which I learned was important by reading the book in the last week.  I figured I would use this weeks blog as an opportunity to digest what was read a little bit.

It seemed to me that there were a couple of key ideas that were used throughout the book.  One was to be self aware, and one was to ask questions.  Being self aware it seems can keep you out trouble.  By knowing what you stand for, who you want to be, what you want to be known for, etc.  you can more easily chose the actions that will uphold your ideals and values.  Others will also quickly catch on to your values and will not ask you to do things that go against your values.  Asking questions seemed to be important in the examples she gave of someone witnessing wrong doings in the workplace.  She recommended asking questions of yourself to make sure you weren’t jumping to conclusions, asking an outside opinion from someone, and then even when confronting the person, using neutral questions to better talk to them instead of accusations.

What I also found to be interesting about the book was the seemingly endless amount of examples she gave for how people get themselves into bad situations, and how others get people into bad situations.  Especially for the latter, its scary to see how we can be forced into a seemingly no win situation by a superior or worse a family member or friend.  This book pokes several holes in my original story of self which stated that I thought I would be able to make the right decisions because I am a moral person.  Gunsalus posed several situations where I would have no idea what to do.  One interesting real life situation was with the two lawyers that had a signed murder confession from a client, but couldn’t release it due to client confidentiality laws.  I would feel so guilty knowing that the falsely accused was sitting in prison while I had their get out of jail free card, but couldn’t play it for them.

I will definitely be telling Marc I would like to hold on to this book.  I think its value is not in the one time reading of it, but in having it in your library to refer back to in trying times.  I do not want to wind up like a lot of the people in her proposed situations that do not know where to turn.  This book will at the very least give basic guidance and a starting point of action, something I could see being very important in a tough situation.

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Why should we trust _______?

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 ____.”

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Tattle Tale

As I was reading the stories about the “whistle blowing” for this week, it kind of reminded me of growing up, snitching.  I can remember getting into fights with my brother (who is 6 years older and much bigger) and antagonizing him until he would eventually throw something at me, hit me, or do something else that I felt I didn’t deserve.  At this point I would run to my mother and briefly describe (in most likely an annoying yelling tone) what had happened.  Example, “MOM DAN HIT ME.”  And then she would yell at my brother for hitting me, the outcome I had hoped for.  However, every once in a while I would catch my brother doing something he shouldn’t have been doing, like playing a video game when he was supposed to be working.  I would run to my mother again, “MOM Dan’s playing Mario Cart and he’s not supposed to be!”  This would get my brother yelled at, which was the goal, but then I would get in trouble too for being a tattle tale.  I know I sound like a little punk so far in this blog, but that’s probably an accurate representation of me as a little kid.  Likewise, at school a snitch was about the worst thing you could be as a kid.  Nobody liked the teachers pet that always told on you for doing something you weren’t supposed to.  Even if you weren’t the one being told on, you still knew that you better not hang out with that kid because he’s a snitch. I remember one time in kindergarten I called the principal of my school Miss Piggy to a “friend” of mine.  My friend raised her hand, and told on me… I’m still a little bitter about this.

So this brings me to the whistle blowers in the readings for this week.  After thinking of the negative connotation that normally comes with “telling on” or “snitching on” it made me have even more respect for the whistle blowers of this weeks readings.  These people decided that they were okay with jeopardizing relationships that they had with collegues because it was the right thing to do.

Thinking about these times I was scolded for being a tattle tale and the playground social dynamics of my kindergarten days also made me wonder if there isn’t something wrong with teaching kids that it’s not okay to tell on someone.  I mean it’s kind of a confusing message, tell on others when you are little and it’s a bad thing, tell on coworkers and peers when you grow up and it’s the right thing.  What do you guys thing?

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Farmers Correcting Scientists

Last semester I took Introduction to Science and Technology Policy where we spent a little time on the idea of coproduction.  Therefore, when reading and talking about “Street Science” in this class, those ideas came storming back and I wanted to use this opportunity to share with you a paper we read with respect to coproduction.  I also wanted to use this to reflect a little on the idea of science being impacted by non-scientists.


So first of all, the story I wanted to share (the class I took involved a ton of reading and this was by far my favorite article we read).  The article I will paraphrase for you is “Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities and public uptake of science” by Brian Wynne.  This is the story of sheep farmers in England after the Chernobyl radioactive fallout.  They were first told by scientists that there were going to be no effects from the disaster on their livelihoods, however this changed when the sheep living in the Cumbria fell-top area were found to have radioactive contamination.  The government but a ban on sheep meat that came from this area and reassured the farmers that it wouldn’t last long because the radioactive levels would fall quickly… but the levels didn’t, and the ban didn’t end quickly.  For the next several years the scientists stuck with their story that the levels would soon fall, and the farmers became very impatient and annoyed with the scientists. The farmers developed their own theory for the source of the contamination when the “experts” claims were failing.  They suspected that the contamination was actually coming from a chemical and nuclear facility in the area that had a history of environmental contamination, however the scientist were confident that this was not the source.  Farmers believed the scientists were overconfident to the point of ignorant.  One farmer pointed out the the steam from the cooling towers of this facility hit the tops of the surrounding hills and that was where the radioactive hot spots were.  Eventually the farmers got more involved in the science of their problem and asked the government for pre-Chernobyl data to which they received only post-Chernobyl data, or data from only low areas and not the fell-tops (higher areas).  This indicates that the government had seen high levels of radioactivity in these areas and covered it up, then Chernobyl gave them the opportunity to pin it on someone else.  Although the scientists were unaware of this dishonesty from the government, they would have benefited greatly from listening to the local knowledge.


Wynne uses this example to critic scientists’ view towards non-scientists.  His main point is that when scientific findings are challenged by a non-science group, most scientists will react by assuming this group doesn’t understand and needs more education.  He challenges scientists to instead assume that they themselves are wrong and need more education from the non-science group.

So why are scientists so reluctant to trust the knowledge of people outside of the scientific community on issues we are “experts” on? When the idea of coproduction was first introduced to me I must admit I didn’t think it made much sense.  Why should I listen to someone who isn’t studying as much as I am on an issue that I am an expert on?  Then the more I thought about it and after reading this case study, it made me realize that although people are not in the scientific community, they are still experts in what they do.  The sheep farmers spent their entire lives studying their land, and their sheep.  Who are we to question them about their knowledge?


While paraphrasing this study I left out quite a because it is a very long article and I didn’t want to write to much and bore you all.  I would encourage you to read it though, I thought the interviews that he does with the farmers were especially insightful and show how ignorant science is not trusted by those outside the scientific community.  And to state a conflict of interest, I grew up on a farm which could contribute to me liking this case study so much.


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