Why do(n’t) people cheat?

When I think of ethical conduct, at least in an academic setting, academic dishonesty or cheating is the crux that commonly comes to mind. Though it is a relatively mundane topic, and rather cliché, I feel that (as a student) it is still worth discussing.

I admit that I may (or may not) have a different view on cheating than most. For much of my life, I honestly do not understand cheating, or deeply understand why people engage in it. I do not mean that I have a transcendent ideology or am too naive to understand that people do cheat, but rather I do not understand what it would take to make me cheat (again).

One of the first and last times I cheated was in 2nd grade. I was young, and struggled mightily with spelling, a problem I still have today. I remember feeling pressure to do well, and not understanding, at least at the time, why I had such a difficult time spelling the word basket or country. To the 2nd grade me cheating seemed to make sense. I could write the words down, and just copy them over. Simple. Easy. What could go wrong? Well, apparently looking into your desk for a prolonged period of time every 5 seconds is a bit obvious. (As a substitute teacher, and a GTA I can also attest that high school students and college students are just as obvious with their methods…)

To summarize what happened next… I got caught, I got in trouble, I cried, and I felt embarrassed. Looking back, I feel that I was just as embarrassed for feeling the need to cheat as I was actually getting caught. Roughly one year later I was tested and diagnosed with dyslexia and 15 years later I am still terrible at spelling. How did cheating help me? Short answer: It didn’t, and was never going to.

I cannot say for sure if my 2nd grade mishap shaped how I view cheating, or if it was random events over the next few years, but by the time I got to high school I no longer saw the benefit of cheating. I think this can be, more or less, traced back to how I view learning. I don’t care about my grades as much as I care about understanding the information. If I would ever fail an exam I would be more disappointed in not understanding the material than getting the ‘F’. Honestly, I would rather get a ‘C’ grade and know that I understand an ‘A’ worth of the material than get an ‘A’ with the comprehension of a ‘C’.  Admittedly, I will argue for my grades, and do care about them, but more so when they do not directly represent my knowledge of a topic. My point is, I value understanding more than the grade.

This little shift in perspective, I think, makes it easier for me not to cheat. By valuing the process more than the result I have found that the result is almost always guaranteed. If you strive to understand all the material given to you (not crammed for an exam just to regurgitate it and forget it) odds are your exam will reflect a higher level of understanding, making the need for simple shortcuts superfluous. If I want an honest barometer of my work, then how would putting someone else’s work down tells me anything of value? How did cheating on my spelling test in 2nd grade help me understand that my difficulty spelling has more to do with how I perceive and view words than my intelligence? The short answer is that it doesn’t, didn’t, and never would. Cheating doesn’t provide any real benefit, but a short term payoff and the placebo that you actually understand.

I recognize that there is immense pressure on each one of us to ‘do well’, and that sometimes cheating seems like a life line. However, in a profession where our mistakes directly impact people’s health admitting what you do not know is sometimes more valuable than what you do know. I believe that some of this world’s biggest issues can be attributed to powerful people unwilling to acknowledge their own deficiencies. I believe cheating, or other unethical activities, slowly begin to blur the lines between actual and perceived understanding as well as right or wrong.

Why do agencies bathe in blood? – A Press Conference Reflection

As an exercise for our Graduate Engineering Ethics class, we recently conducted a mock press conference related to the Washington DC Lead Water Poising Disaster where each student played a role as a member from the major agencies involved. I was assigned the EPA, and for several days leading into the Mock Press Conference, I was struggling to decide how I wanted to approach the conference. On the one hand, I personally felt obligated to be as transparent as possible, but I somewhat felt that this would go against what I thought the EPA would actually do.

For a few days I went back and forth between what I thought I would personally do (tell as much of the truth as I could, knowing what I would have known at the time) and what I thought the EPA’s action would be (withhold information and deflect blame onto other agencies). During this internal debate, I was somewhat surprised by how strongly I felt that I knew the EPA would not be entirely honest in their account of the events. This could potentially be contributed to hindsight, knowing that the EPA did not handle this event particularly well, or maybe it is just human nature to deflect blame instead of take accountability. Regardless, I decided to be as true to myself as possible by being transparent and forthright with my statements and explanation of the events. I also wanted to see what would happen if an agency admitted outright that they made mistakes and were trying to rectify them as quickly as possible. After deciding on my course of action, reviewing the materials given to me, and formulating my talking points, I went into the press conference feeling relatively at ease. Granted it wasn’t my actual career on the line, but even if it was I didn’t see the benefits of deceit.

My opening remarks admitted wrong doing and poor oversight, acknowledged pain and suffering, but reiterated that the EPA was fundamentally created to serve the public and that ‘we’ would do our best to better realize this goal through our actions. After these remarks, I felt that the panelists interviewing us (interrogating might be a better word) were visibly accepting of my apology and surprised; they seemed to turn their probing questions (which I image would have been directed toward me), and scorn toward the agencies who were less honest with the presentation of their actions.

By admitting that I was (at least in some part) to blame, I seemed to provide vindication to the interviewers while those who lied were ‘attacked’ as if their lies were personal attacks on those asking the questions. This back and forth forced those who lied to stick to their guns, so to speak, perpetuating the lie-probing question-lie interaction that seemed to develop. Down the road, having these statements on record would force future discourse into similar molds.

This then raises the question, why, when given the opportunity, do agencies feel the need to attempt to deceive the public? The only reasonable explanation I can see is that individuals do not want to personally sacrifice their job or that the organization does not want to be tied to their mistakes. Though I understand the need for self-preservation, this necessity, in my opinion, should not transcend an engineer’s requirement to safely provide services to the public.

Organizationally, I fail to see how admitting mistakes is a better look than perpetuating dishonestly until they are publically found out. Instead of the handful of errors they originally committed, you are left with numerous instances where the organization is irrefutably wrong.

Agencies actively withholding information forces experts to aggressively push issues and fervently call out the agency’s wrong doings in public forums. I imagine, to the layman, this looks as if there are significant disagreements between the experts and the agencies that represent them, and likely leads to public distrust. Personally, when public opinion can sometimes be finicky, I would hate to see a national loss of respect for an important agency (such as the EPA) through the deliberate actions of our own field. However, if agencies are not willing to police themselves, and admit when they inevitably make a mistake, then there is no alternative but for experts to provide aggressive oversight regardless of the overarching ramifications on public opinion.

It is my opinion that due to the impact these agencies have, they will inevitably falter and proverbially get blood on their hands; however, I think it is better to clean your hands, then bathe in it.


Engineering: A Gradual Departure from Ethics(?)

Where are we going? As a civilization? As a person? As a profession?

As a third year graduate student in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) most nights I can honestly say I do not know where I am heading for food after work, so if you are looking for a life altering answer from someone who has figured it out I will likely disappoint.

The reality is these questions, though extremely difficult to actually answer, are often spinning around my head, and if you are reading this I am assuming yours as well. If you haven’t, take a moment and consider… Where are we going?

The first question you must answer is who (or what) is we?

For myself, this we is often fluid and frequently changes based on context or my perspective. Sometimes it encapsulates my own life or the lives of my closet relationships, other times it is our Country as a whole, but for the purpose of this initial blog it is the Engineering profession as I have humbly experienced it.

The second question to answer is what direction is this we headed? Positive? Negative? Backward? Forward? Aimlessly?  

To begin to answer this, I feel that it is best to start from where I came from. My broad connection to engineering and the sciences is the culmination of personal hardship, both physically and emotionally, but is not entirely relevant to this topic. The main take away is that I pursued CEE to make a positive and lasting impact on the communities around me. From talking with most of my colleagues, their stories were often different, but their motivations for joining the field were the same. I obviously do not know everyone and their motivations, but I doubt anyone ever became an engineer with the intention to unethically do their job. Nonetheless, history is tarnish with unethical engineering practice and the devastation these practices left behind, whether it be: The Challenger Disaster, Bhopal, Flint Michigan, or a yet to be discovered incident that is happening right now.

 The sad reality is that not all engineers are motivated strictly by their ethical conduct.  Engineers are human and can make mistakes when internal and external forces act on them. Most have personal and family considerations and some have industrial pressures that don’t perfectly align with ethical best practices. Altogether, engineers can find themselves in situations where good ethical conduct is not always rewarding, and sometimes comes with personal sacrifice. It is in these instances where I potentially see a departure from ethical behaviors in our profession’s future.

As a part time High School substitute teacher, and a full time believer in giving back through teaching, I have found myself talking on numerous Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) panels with the goal of introducing High School students to the world of engineering. What I have found, with disheartening regularity, is feigned interest in (what I view are) the fundamental merits of engineering and some co-panelists who resort to talking salaries to generate interest.

Whether it can be contributed to the nativity of youth or not, having prospective engineers primarily motivated by financial compensation (in my opinion) is not conducive to fostering good ethical practice and the longevity of our profession. In the toughest of situations, where one must choose between their livelihood or their ethical center, individuals motivated principally by wealth will likely contribute to the ethical departure of engineering.

In the modern world where much of society is devoted to consumerism, how does a well-paying profession attract an ethically upstanding work force? Feel free to add it to the growing list of questions that I only have ideas, not answers.

I believe it starts with the general view of what the profession is. If people view CEE as a paycheck it will attract people for far difference reasons than if they see it as a fulfillment of their civic duty; much the same as if a prospective police officer enrolls at a police academy driven to serve his or her community or gather unrestrained power. In this instance it is up to the current profession to market the career as one of civil service and not just financial security.

Furthermore, attracting ethically aware individuals is only a start, and the greater engineering curriculum should place a larger emphasis on ethic conduct that goes beyond the adherence to various honor codes designed to limit academic fraud. Engineering ethics should be engrained in the decision making process similarly to the mathematical rigors associated with physics, calculus,  chemistry and others.

Admittedly, I do not think good ethical practice can be taught, as the fundamental application is still user dependent. However, I feel that through the exposure to ethically challenging situations and introspective thought people will be more likely to enact a positive ethical response when faced with a similar scenario in the real world while potentially promoting self-initiated ethical development.

In the end, having more ethically cognizant engineers with a willingness to act in the face of adversity may begin to counteract a gradual ethical departure and continually root engineering in the “highest principals of ethical conduct” [1].

Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!



Attached are links to the

NSPE Code of Ethics: https://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics [1]

ASCE Code of Ethics: http://www.asce.org/code-of-ethics/

Imagine references in order of appearance