Hydraulic Fracturing: Images from Under Ground

My tongue-in-cheek comment on the language of hydraulic fracturing was intended to get at the ways in which metaphors and images can affect – and sometimes skew – our understanding of risks and responsibilities.

This effect can work in any direction, for or against any particular position, and it can be especially pronounced when the problem situation within which people are making decisions – and disagreeing with one another over what decisions to make – are not well understood.

One theme that emerged early in our first workshop on hydraulic fracturing was that nearly every available image of hydraulic fracturing is inaccurate in ways that may exaggerate or, at least, misrepresent the risks involved in the process – and this is true even of images on websites of those who should know better, and on websites of organizations generally favorable to the use of hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas extraction.

One of the students on our project team came across an especially egregious example of the type, an image used in the film, Gasland: Continue reading

Hydraulic Fracturing: The Project

As I have been hinting, I’m currently caught up in a collaborative project on engineering, ethics and policy related to hydraulic fracturing.

The idea for the project began to take shape in conversations I was having with my colleague, Chloé Arson, who is over in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech. We were exploring opportunities for new directions in engineering ethics education.

I cannot now say which of them emerged first, but there are twin intuitions at the heart of our discussion:

  1. Most interesting problems in engineering – and for ethics and policy related to engineering – involve not only risk but also uncertainty, because the underlying dynamics of the problem situation are poorly or only partially understood; and
  2. We should aim to prepare engineers-in-training to engage in ethical inquiry and policy inquiry at the same time they are engaging in empirical inquiry and in design.

I joked at the time that the second intuition goes both ways: we need engineers who can think like ethicists and ethicists who can think like engineers. Continue reading

Self-Driving Cars: A View from the Sidewalk

I have not been following the hype over self-driving cars closely enough to tell whether it’s a passing fad or something more enduring.

As is often the case with emerging technologies that excite people’s imaginations, many claims for the benefits of self-driving cars come across as exaggerated, almost utopian.

In any case, benefits are cast as benefits, along a single dimension of value: self-driving cars will be convenient and profitable, and we’ll all be better off if they become more prevalent.

I’m far from convinced. 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

From the Archive: What Philosophers Do

Since I’m in the midst of mid-winter revels, of one kind and another, I’m still drawing from the archives of my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth.

Today’s revived is from October 9, 2011. It takes up a question that will continue to occupy my mind as I develop this new blog: What should a public philosopher actually do?

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What Philosophers Do

I write this as I travel home from Washington, D.C., where I participated in a conference titled Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy, organized by the Public Philosophy Network.

I have a number of posts in mind, drawing from sessions and conversations at the conference, but I’ll start with a few of my notes from the conference related to my last post, on the question of whether philosophers can be experts and, if so, in what our expertise consists.

Starting with the opening plenary session, hosted by the Center for AmericanProgress, I listed a variety of ways in which the role of a publicly engaged philosopher might be characterized: Continue reading

Politics v. Policy . . . and Politics

The breaking news about Cuba is electrifying: the last vestiges of the (old) Cold War may finally be starting to thaw.

(I was born in the late ’60s so, as far as my own experience is concerned, the U.S. and Cuba have always been at odds.)

It’s notable to me that little more than an hour passed between the first announcement of the breakthrough and the appearance of this in The New York Times online:

U.S.-Cuba Shift May Change Political Landscape, Too

(The original headline under which the article appeared was: “Obama Adds a Wild Card to the ’16 Political Deck”.)

As often happens, I found this too-quick turn toward presidential politicking to be more than a little grating. Continue reading