Hydraulic Fracturing: Risk v. Acceptable Risk

I have said that the first day of our workshop on hydraulic fracturing, in November, brought out a long list of risks related to hydraulic fracturing and, indeed, the engineers and scientists who participated were quite adept at identifying such risks and possibilities for mitigation.

Something else came out during those first sessions, though, which I found troubling.

What I heard was simply a repeated assertion or implication that those who oppose hydraulic fracturing are moved to do so only by emotion, especially by fear. The assertion was reinforced with reference to certain bad actors in the public arena who engage in campaigns based on misinformation, distortion and possibly even fraud to manipulate the emotions of an uninformed public.

The underlying assumption of such claims, I think, is that there is a clean distinction between reason and emotion, and that only those who base their decisions on the methods and findings of the sciences have reason on their side.

Beneath this is a still deeper assumption that quantitative analysis is the essence of rationality. Continue reading

From the Archive: Value Compression

As I’m busy getting the new semester underway, I’ve turned once more to the archives of my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, for an older post of what I hope is enduring interest.

The following was first posted on September 26, 2013.

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Value Compression

I have been reading an account of a research project in urban planning, an effort to develop a more adequate model of human travel behavior in response to particular urban forms.

As part of the pilot test for the project, which ultimately involved a survey administered to a rigorously stratified sample distributed across a major world city, the researcher conducted interviews with a number of city residents selected from the same sample. The idea was to refine the survey instrument to capture more subtle gradations in travel behavior.

As the researcher described it, the interview subjects seemed eager to tell their own stories of living in and moving through the city and, according to the researcher’s account, some became quite animated in the telling.

But the researcher had taken a particular attitude toward the subjects, and the theory to which the researcher appealed made very specific, very stringent demands as to the kind of data that would be acceptable. Continue reading

An Ethicist Walks to Work

A few months ago, something that happened on my morning commute provided an example of moral perception I could use in class later that day: what it’s like to see the ethical texture of an entirely mundane situation.

I was walking along North Avenue on my way from the transit station to my office on campus. Alongside the stadium, I approach a driveway that leads to a parking garage.

There was a car on the other side of the avenue attempting to turn left into the drive, across two very busy lanes. I checked over my shoulder and saw a gap in the traffic that would allow the car to turn safely . . . at just about the moment I’d be walking across the drive. Continue reading

The Other End of the Beam

This past semester I presented students in my engineering ethics course with an especially messy problem situation involving the development of a cyclotron for use in proton therapy, an unreliable fellow engineer, a boss playing favorites, the spectacular failure of a control system during a preliminary test, the relative merits of hardware versus software, and a lot of time pressure.

Proton therapy is a relatively recent development in the treatment of cancer; a new facility for proton therapy is under construction only a few blocks from campus.

Students worked on this situation in groups over a period of several weeks. I asked them to analyze the situation, do whatever background research they needed to do, develop at least three options, and offer up a careful, even-handed consideration of the ethical implications of each option in terms of basic values.

The results were mixed. Continue reading

An Unlikely Contrast Between Torture and Social Media

Continuing the point about the good and the right in discussions of the CIA torture program, my attention has been drawn to a domain in which arguments from the right seem more easily to yield to arguments from the good, almost to the point of reducing the discussion entirely to terms of benefits and costs.

I am about to delete my Facebook profile.

I posted some status updates to that effect, along with some links to sources intended to provoke thought about privacy, social life, and the uses and abuses of Big Data. Continue reading

The Torture Report: Further Clarification

Since it is such a sensitive issue, I want to be especially careful in the language I use to discuss torture. Reading over yesterday’s note, it seems I could have drawn the point more precisely.

Here’s some of what I wrote:

That said, a number of commentators have hastened to say that even if the program had yielded useful intelligence, even if it had saved lives, it would remain a gross ethical offense, something in which Americans – or indeed human beings generally – ought not to engage.

It is here that I pick up the tacit premise that efficacy has nothing whatever to do with ethics.

In fact, those who appeal to the claim that torture worked and that the CIA used it to save American lives can be seen as those with the most to lose and the most to hide, which may give many the impression that an appeal to efficacy is a trick played by scoundrels and double-dealers rather than a genuine ethical argument.

Continue reading

The Torture Report: Efficacy v. Ethics?

There’s not a lot I can add to the conversation of this past week about the CIA torture report that came out of Sen. Feinstein’s committee.

I did note, however, that many politicians and commentators fell into a narrative about the report according to which the question of whether torture worked has no bearing at all on the question of whether torture is ethically justifiable.

On this account, torture is wrong because it is a gross violation of the dignity of a human being, treating a person as a mere thing. This was brought to a point by the psychologists involved in developing the CIA interrogation program, with their talk of “learned helplessness”: they set out explicitly to break the will of the one being interrogated, destroying the very basis of moral personhood. Continue reading