Fact Checking and Freedom of Speech

I’m sure many (if not all) of you have seen the recent news regarding Facebook’s new push to fact check the articles that are posted on its social media pages.  Zuckerburg feels that Facebook is responsible for the dissemination for a great deal of fake news and also feels that they are responsible for attending to this activity.

While the cause may appear noble, attempting to weed out stories that are blatantly false and stirring hatred and mistrust, I can’t help but see the flaws in this plan.  For one, Facebook is a social media site, designed for people to express opinions, say what they want, and share stories with “friends.”  I don’t think that anyone could ever argue that the intent of Facebook at its origins was to spread truth, trust, and accurate news stories.  Truly, it has turned into a hodgepodge of political correctness, fruitless arguments, and the spreading of gossip, but what else could have been expected when humans are left to explore the internet with abandon.

My second argument is that Facebook is a form of free speech and has never had nor been given the right to police the internet.  There is far more false information out there than truthful, but I am not sure that Facebook is the best place to determine what is true and false.  For one, policing, when done by humans or computers, is not going to weed out all false information and could therefore reinforce those lies that are missed in the eyes of the readers.  For another, policing could very quickly turn into censorship, based on what kind of information Facebook wants shared.  We already know that Facebook targets audiences based on their interests, not only with friends’ posts but also news stories (https://www.facebook.com/facebookmedia/get-started/audience-optimization).  They also highlight their news feed with “trending topics” that are what people are talking about, not necessarily what is true.

I think that many people should be worried about Facebook, not because their intentions are bad, but because of what these intentions could turn into.  Facebook is not going to be responsible for eliminating all false information on the internet and I think it is a bit of a fruitless effort for them to be claiming to be trying so hard to do so.  With great power comes great responsibility, right?

I’m interested to hear other thoughts on this topic, though.  What do you do think about this subject? Are you a Facebook user? An avid fact checker?

See this NYT article for another opinion on this matter.

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Going to the Doctor

Last week I got really sick and somehow ended up in the emergency department of Lewis-Gale, waiting to be told if what I had was simply a really bad virus, or something worse.  I have not made many trips to the ED in my lifetime, but of all of my experiences, this was by far the worst.  I am not trying to speak out against Lewis-Gale personally, but I found that the ED did not seem adequately prepared for the traffic they were receiving that day.  I sat for almost 3 hours in the waiting room before I was taken to a room and was able to lay down.  Of course, I listed off my symptoms, allergies, etc. to help the nurses and doctors who would be helping me, and was left for another hour before I saw a doctor.  He was a resident, very kind, but had clearly not read my chart as I had to list off all of my symptoms yet again and explain how I was feeling.  He told me we would have to wait until my tests came back in about 30 minutes-1 hour and left.  An hour and a half later, the charge doctor came in and I had to list off my symptoms again and he told me that my results looked fine and that I simply needed to take a lot of fluids and sleep to feel better.  Almost another hour later, the resident came back and told me the same thing.  In all, I was there for about 6 hours and probably listed off my symptoms six times.  Everyone I met was kind, but no one spent more than about 3 minutes in my room.  It is very understandable that this could happen in an ED, but I hardly had time to request a trip to the restroom before the nurse or doctor would leave.

This, in context with the article that we read last week by Sonia Henry, was difficult for me to witness.  Seeing doctors lacking empathy towards your situation is the fear of many patients, yet the way that doctors are trained hardens them towards this life.  My fears are in the way that doctors go about making decisions about patient healthcare when they lack this empathy.  It is abundantly clear that this is the reason that prescription medications are over-prescribed and patients are only treated for symptoms: doctors simply do not/are not able to take the time to spend with patients to understand their situation.

My other perspective comes from the fact that my husband is in the process of applying for medical school.  Being with me in the ED, he was intrigued by all of the action in the department, but was also frustrated by how little time the doctors were spending with me.  He has made it clear that this is not the kind of doctor that he wants to be, but I wonder if that is even possible.  I worry that going through the pressures and stresses of medical school, as well as being exposed to so many difficult situations will harden him and turn him into an unempathetic doctor, just like those that we met in the ED and like Sonia Henry.

From an ethical standpoint, I think that it is imperative upon educators to begin curbing this unfortunate outcome of their medical teachings.  There is not a lot that is scarier than a doctor lacking empathy when you or your loved one’s lives are on the line, and as people devoted to serving others, it is their prerogative to obtain a balance between distance and empathy.  This article from Berkeley cites a survey stating that only 53% of patients thought that their doctors showed them care and empathy.   Having the emotional capacity to show patients that they care is also associated with higher work satisfaction and the ability to care for patients.  I hope that academic institutions are choosing to teach doctors these principles in addition to their medical knowledge in order to cultivate a better environment for both doctors and patients to be in.

Do you have any similar experiences of seeing a doctor lacking empathy? What ethical questions do you think this brings up?

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Louisiana: Part 1

Over the past few months I have been getting to know the State of Louisiana.  Not only have I had an ongoing Master’s project related to the drinking water in St. Bernard Parish, but multiple events have recently come up that have piqued my interest as to the goings on in that state.  The reason I titled this “Part I” is because I am most likely going to post a few times on what I have found out about Louisiana so I hope I can maintain your interest.

This semester I am enrolled in a Sustainable Infrastructure class, which is a great class that provides an in-depth look at sustainability while being taught in a modern classroom setting.  The first project for the class was to write an Op-Ed on the topic of resiliency.  Truly, the first thing that came to my mind was New Orleans.  I had just traveled there for a well water sampling trip and learned a bit about the aftermath of Katrina and how they recovered.

Merriam-Webster defines “Resilience” in two ways:

  1. the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens

  2. the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc

We, as engineers, are also taught to practice resiliency so let us ask ourselves: is New Orleans resilient? Well, over ten years after the flooding, the population is still over 100,000 fewer than in 2000, with the majority of those former citizens being African American (U.S. Census Bureau).  Additionally, with 80% of the city being flooded due to the breakdown of the levees, destroying 70% of households in the city, this was quickly the costliest disaster in our nation’s history.  Estimates of federal aid going just to emergency relief operations range $75-120.5 billion, and this does not include the costs of rebuilding levees and adding new infrastructure to protect the city from future damage (CNN Library, 2016).  Unfortunately, it is a foolish hope that another storm like Hurricane Katrina will not hit New Orleans again in the near future and, with much of the city resting below sea level, and still sinking, it also seems foolish to hope that flooding will not again occur. Hopefully in future the levees will not break, but added infrastructure is necessary to keep New Orleans afloat.

So, let me ask, is this resiliency (refer to definitions above)? Is investing billions of dollars into a sinking city worth it? Is it ethical to spend that must time, money, and infrastructure? What do you think is the fate of New Orleans?

Nearly 380,000 people still live in New Orleans, many having moved back in the years following Katrina to help rebuild.  I am interested to hear their perspectives on the fate of their city.

(Part II: Louisiana coastline and the oil industry)

CNN Library. 2016.  http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/23/us/hurricane-katrina-statistics-fast-facts/. Accessed November 2, 2016.

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Speaking of pipelines

For my book report this semester I have been reading the book, Tom’s River by Dan Fagin.  It is a well-written, thoroughly researched book regarding the poisoning of the city of Tom’s River, NJ by a chemical company from the 1950s to the 1990s.  One of the key issues addressed in the book is a pipeline that was constructed to carry chemical waste from the factory grounds to the Atlantic about 10 miles away.  In thinking about this pipeline, which was constructed in the 1970s and today, I am shocked to continue hearing about cases like Dr. Maurice’s in Michigan, the natural gas pipeline in Virginia, or this case in North Dakota, where people are fighting against a 1200 mile pipeline that they claim could cause irreparable damage to sacred Indian grounds.

The first role of the government is to protect the people, and I think that many would agree on that point.  Unfortunately, the way that our government is structured often allows for heavy influence from big corporations on our politicians, which can often lead them to making decisions that benefit them personal, or their benefactors, rather than their constituents. While pipelines have proved to be cost effective for many big companies, I find it baffling that any government would put the revenue above the safety and welfare of their own people.  It is also important to point out that, as Dr. Maurice mentioned in her lecture a few weeks ago, pipelines are built to have fairly long lifetimes of ~50 years or greater.  This means that our dependency on oil is expected to live out at least that long in the eyes of the oil company.  Through allowing oil pipelines to be constructed, the government and the American people are resigning ourselves to the idea that our reliance on oil is not going to go away any time soon.  As some point we must say enough is enough.  However, people have an obligation to speak out on issues and make it clear where they stand so that neither the oil companies nor the government feel that they can get away with continued abuse of fossil fuels.

I recently read the following opinion piece from the Stanford Review, and while I am not sure how much to believe in the article I think it brings up a good point in how Americans tend to handle political situation.

The Hypocrisy of the North Dakota Pipeline Protests

The writers talk about how, for over two years public hearings were held allowing community members, including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, to come and voice their opinions on the construction of the pipeline. The construction of the project was not allowed to start until the people who attended these meetings were able to come to an agreement. Therefore, the writers argue, “new-found objection to the pipeline is hypocritical” because not only did the protestors not attend the public meetings to fight against the pipeline, not every tribe member is opposed to the pipeline.  The writers believe that the true source of newfound opposition are environmentalists from around the country, rather than the local people who had two years to express their concerns to the local government and oil company.

I find this perspective to be both intriguing and indicative of the broader mindset that Americans tend to have about the legal system, particularly when they have an opportunity to voice their opinion.  So few people even vote for their elected officials let alone understand how to be heard, where to go to be heard, and who to speak to when they have concerns about their community.  While, again, I am typically against the construction of oil pipelines, the way to fight for a community is not to wait until the last minute and after the construction has been cleared by all parties, but to use the legal system in the way that it is supposed to be used.

If you have an opinion on upcoming construction projects in Blacksburg, there are two public hearings coming up in December.  This is how to voice your opinion and make a difference!








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Academics versus sports in the University

So this last minute blog post is something that I think everyone can relate to in some capacity: today’s football game! I wanted to say something about it because every time I have been at a university, particularly for a weekday game, there is a big hullabaloo about the university closing early, campus parking being shut down, etc. and I think it is worth talking about from an ethical standpoint.

From the perspective of the academics, graduate students, faculty, and staff at the university, football can often be seen as a great nuisance.  They do not understand why football could possibly merit their days being cut short, facilities closing, or having them impact the workings of their research.  This is a very valid perspective.  After all, what is the purpose of a university but to generate and disseminate knowledge? Football doesn’t serve an academic purpose in the eyes of these firmly academic believers, yet it cuts into their lives nonetheless.

Another side of the debate comes from the football fans: tailgaters, alumni, students, drinkers galore who travel to Blacksburg (or to campus) for the sole purpose of entertainment through college football excitement. They take the parking spaces, play loud music, and start their partying while the academics are shut away in the labs and offices next door trying to get work done.  As upset as the work force of the university might be, it is important to acknowledge who these tailgaters are: donors.  They are often those who contribute the millions of dollars to the university for the purpose of growth and advancement of departments, students, and yes, athletics.  They are essential to the university and are therefore allowed there time to party, whether it cuts into the university life or not.

Lastly is the position of the university leadership.  These are the people who have to make these important decisions of whether or not to allow the university to close early, allow tailgaters to set up and party, allow classes to be canceled.  They are also those who see the financial interworkings of the university and see the big checks that ESPN will send for airing football games.

Which perspective do you fall into? Do you agree with my assessment?

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Getting fired up

Last week, while working on the background/history for my final project, I had a moment. It was in that moment that I found myself transitioning from merely trying to fulfill a class requirement to diving in to a truly tragic and corrupt ethical dilemma.  For my project I have chosen to investigate the goings on of the town of St. Joseph, Louisiana in terms of their drinking water quality over the past several years.  St. Joe has faced some horrendous water quality issues for likely more than a decade, but never received public attention as it is a very small, very poor community in the “Black Belt” of the rural south.  Unlike Flint, MI, St. Joe’s water quality issues are not from the often unseen, silent toxin, lead, but from the highly visible, aesthetically unpleasing iron and manganese that have corroded and destroyed pipelines leaving their water looking like this:


Both the city, the state, and the EPA continued to tell the few people who complained about their nasty water that it was safe to drink, because iron and manganese do not pose a health threat at the levels found in their water (>32 times the secondary MCL).

Coming from a drinking water quality background and having worked on the Flint Water Crisis, I approached this issue from the perspective that if your water looks like this there is absolutely a health risk, even if EPA is sticking to their pathetic guns.  The numerous articles that I read, by journalists from around the country mention in passing that officials say that pipelines have burst, but there is no health threat.  The city has issued over 20″boil water” advisories in four years, leaving them in an almost perpetual state of needing to boil their water, yet officials tell them that there is no serious threat.

I hope that you can see why I became so fired up by this story and why I ended up staying up into the wee hours of the morning researching the water quality issues, state and city documents, and statements from local and state officials on how they are planning to take care of the problems.  I don’t want to give too much away on this story so that you will hopefully have some interest by the end of the semester, but I hope that you have felt as compelled as I have to investigate your story.  I look forward to hearing about them!

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New Urbanism…pushing out the poor

This semester I have been taking a couple of classes on sustainability, and it has been far more insightful than I would have imagined. I have always had this dry, annoyed view on sustainability, but one of my classes in particular has been really helpful in providing real, understandable ways of applying sustainable measures and how I can contribute to that future.

Yesterday we spent our time talking about land use and got into the topic of urban living.  It is well known that over 50% of the world now lives in urban areas and people are projected to continue moving into the cities, creating more large metropolises and mega cities (cites >10 million people).  One of the standards for looking at positive living scenarios in these booming cities is to understand how to build safe, happy, healthy living spaces for families of all shapes and sizes.  The driver for our millennial generation is to create spaces that are entirely walkable with mixed use zoning, shared spaces for recreation, and basically creating cities for people, not for cars; this is called “New Urbanism.” I absolutely love this idea and can see myself wanting to live in a place like this in the future (see here for examples).

However, do you see one of the flaws with this plan?  The issue that is sounding off loud and clear is social equity.  Already, spaces like these in the cities are the most sought after and therefore, the most expensive.  They are dominated by the wealthy, and as more people move into the cities, wealthy people, the poor are going to be pushed out and lower income families and the slums will continue to be edged out of cities until it is no longer feasible for people to work in the cities.  This is the greatest flaw in this plan, by far and I am interested to know your thoughts. Do you think there is a way to have both social equity and new urbanism? Cheap, environmentally friendly living? What do we need to do to get there?

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Let’s talk about sanitation…and a little bit of politics

Today I was reading an article about an area of southern Alabama that is still living like it is 1900.  The article points out that about 15% of Lowndes County, AL has no septic tank while about 35% have failing septic tanks.  What do they do with their waste? Many of them simply pipe it out of their homes and into the woods, fields, whatever space will take it away from their homes and out of sight…but not out of smell.

The problem in this area, known as the “Black Belt” originally due to the hard black soil present, is not just the difficulty with burying a septic tank, but the poor rural towns located throughout the region.  Can you even imagine a life such as this? Many people in this area recall within recent memory not even having running water in their homes. Is this the same United States that we are living in where we are more concerned about which idiot becomes president than with the people who live without running water or septic?  Now, you might be thinking “our choice for president will help fix this problem!” but I hate to tell you, that is not the case.  I think that too often in this country, we take advantage of the fact that the president is in the spotlight so often and that we get to express our opinion so strongly in favor of one candidate or another, but I think it must be acknowledged that the president has far less power than we are made to think (for an insightful perspective on this listen to this Freakonomics podcast: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/much-president-really-matter-rebroadcast/) .  We lose track, due to media coverage and pop culture of the fact that we not only elect far more voices to Congress (which has far more power than the president and rightly so), but we elect officials to run our state, our counties, our cities, who are the people who have the power to take immediate action. They are the people meant to hear our voices and who we need to care about in an election season.  It is the utilities and the state who must take action to solve local problems.  The federal government only steps in after the county and the state have either gone to them for help or failed so miserably that it comes to national attention (i.e. Flint water crisis) and sometimes that doesn’t even work (i.e. Flint water crisis, DC water crisis, EPA).

I am writing this both to bring attention to this mind-blowing oversight happening in a U.S. state and also to remind you that registering to vote is more than voting for the president; it is voting for your representation in all levels of government, who have the power to voice far more than the president.

Now, what are your thoughts southern Alabama? Do you care for local government?



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Fixing the system from within? My debate on looking to the future.

As a second year Master’s student I am facing an internal dilemma that I am struggling to come to terms with: I am trying to figure out what I will be doing with my life one year from now.  Of course, working with some incredible researchers and enjoying the opportunities and life of being a VT student, continuing to pursue a Ph.D. has definitely crossed my mind.  However, I am driven by more factors than just my own personal interests (e.g. I am married and have to consider the desires of my spouse).  Therefore, job hunting has begun.  While I don’t know where exactly I want to be in a year, I know that I need to be working as an environmental engineer and preferably on drinking water issues.  Drinking water has become my passion and especially in light of recent events in Flint, Pittsburg, Louisiana, etc., I feel an obligation to continue working to serve the public. But where should I go?  Consulting seems like an obvious go-to for an entering young professional with a Master’s degree, but I have been contemplating how much I can actually contribute here.  Consultants are hired to take care of very unique issues often times or get to do fun, exciting, dynamic projects, but they serve a company, a utility, a stakeholder, not really the public.  I have worked for a large utility in the past and truly loved it so perhaps that is where I want to be? But it has become abundantly clear to me that not all utilities are created equal and not all are going to be as great as the one that I was able to work for (which was also in the process of constructing a rapid sand filtration facility at the time).

My other consideration, shockingly to me, has been EPA.  Even saying it sounds a bit evil to me at this point.  Over the past year I have been exposed to the true realities of what EPA is capable of.  Lying, deception, ignorance, I could go on.  However, the more I consider my future the more I wonder if the exposure to the flaws of these federal agencies has prepared me to be a part of a solution.  My biggest fear is that if I choose to work for them I will quickly realize that (a) people are not willing to change or (b) the change is too big for me or a bunch of me’s to fix.

With that, what are your thoughts? Do you feel a drive to enter a job with an agency that you know is super messed up? What would the risks be for you?

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Dishonesty, weekly readings, and Flint

For this week’s blog I am going to break into three topics that I have been mulling over for the past week+.

1.) Dishonesty documentary:  I wanted to spend a bit of space talking about the documentary that we had the opportunity to watch as a part of the class. First, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the film and believed that it was well made but, as usual, when dealing with social science, it made me acutely uncomfortable.  In science, where human behavior is shown to be predictable, I become frustrated because I, like many people, do not like to be told how I will make a decision.  It is human nature to think that we are unique and that no one knows how we think, but science often begs to differ.  However, I think that awareness of this can enable us to make better decisions and more ethical decisions.

Something specifically that I would be interested in hearing more about is how the studies conducted in the film were controlled.  Performing social/psychological studies seems to me to only work well in circumstances where the test subjects are not aware of what is being studied. If I were to sit down and take a test knowing it was a study on ethics I feel that would greatly influence my performance in the study.

2.) Weekly readings: Specifically, I would like to talk here about my reactions to the readings on DC that we did this past week.  Reading the direct perspectives of Brobreski, Krough, and Bhat was intriguing and I feel that I now have a much greater understanding of the complexity of what was going on.  It is easy to hear about the DC crisis and, under general circumstances think that these three people were simply the heroes who stepped up and told the truth.  The reading that I did told a completely different story and has left me conflicted on how I feel about these people.  In particular, Seema Bhat’s story is very interesting.  Reading Jerome Krough’s account of his experiences at DC WASA and with Bhat left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  Clearer, Krough was not infatuated with his boss and had some very negative things to say about her. What struck me most about the story is that, from his account, Bhat falsified lead data in the year(s) before she came out about the lead problem.  It appears that she felt that she could only lie up to a point, but when the lead problem became too extreme, she felt that she needed to come forward. Reading further into her accounts, I did not feel like my opinion of her was improving.  While Krough likely exaggerated his report to some degree, I felt that the other accounts of her behavior including her own words solidified to me that she is not the all truth-telling, hard working, great boss that she makes herself to be.  I am trying my best to not cast too much judgement on a person that I do not know, but I lost a lot of respect for this whistleblower reading about how her subordinates see her.

3.) Flint: I think that this class is going to be a bit interesting for me because I have been a member of the Flint Water Study Team for about a year now and am entering this class knowing most of the background and up-to-date information on Flint.  I have given a couple of talks on Flint to different organizations and have traveled there for a sampling trip.  I think that, while this course will probably review much of the information that I am already aware of, it will hopefully also give me a chance to look at Flint from a perspective outside of the FWST.  Our team has become impassioned over the past year to discover the truth in Flint and put everything on the line to serve the people and I wonder how I would feel looking at what has happened in Flint (particularly over the past six months or so) from a non-jaded perspective.  I look forward to learning.

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