The Art of Fabrication

Reading the Guidotti et al (2007) paper, after all that’s been discussed in class, was almost a humorous experience, minus the humor ofcourse. Knowing that the data was false, the authors corrupt and the conclusions invalid negated the credibility of the entire article. But that is for me – a person who knows. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a naive citizen of D.C – either a worried mother or say, an environmental engineer whose scientific curiosity has been piqued by the case. The discussions in the paper would make both of them happy. To the engineer, who trusts science and data, all those numbers and statistics would make him think the problem is solved. To the mother, to whom science means nothing in comparison to the health of her child, just the “conclusion” in the beginning of the paper would be enough to assuage her worries. Problem solved. The score: 1 million points to the authors (or DCWASA, CDC, DOH), 0 to the people.

The approach of the authors in structuring the paper is smart, to say the least. They start off by establishing the credibility of those on their side, again DCWASA, CDC etc. They address the history of lead in water with legitimate facts. They mention the counteractive measures taken by DCWASA to deal with the issue, such as offering free testing, distribution of filters to homes, arranging low-cost finance etc. And they present their methods and results, which try to prove that they have done their work, pretty meticulously at that. Case established and trust won. (The erratum in the end was almost a joke, if I can say so!).

It makes me wonder – did these papers have to go through any other reviewers before being published? Or were the profiles of the authors enough to warrant publication? If that was the case, did they not abuse their scientific power, esteem and respect to present wrong facts in the belief that they will be accepted? Then, isn’t this a violation of their ‘Virtue ethics’? (Poel et al, 2011). I also think the ‘equity or justice’ angle of risk assessment (Harris et al, 2009) or the value of an individual in the society was ignored throughout. What do you guys think?

The concept of virtue ethics, in itself, is easy to understand but difficult to follow. I feel that most often than not our responses to practical situations are circumstantial. For example, a person may kill someone in self defense. While Mahatma Gandhi may have claimed non-violence would have solved the issue, the instinct to save one’s life takes over and controls actions. This is well-articulated in the article – “A person’s good character traits do raise expectations, but they do not provide a measure for judging an action”. Also, who defines what these virtues are? Each person’s views of personal ethics varies and hence the distinction between good and bad is a blurred thin line.

To lighten up the mood a bit, I thought this was funny: 

References:

1. 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.

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

3. 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.

4. 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.

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