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Vote Early and Often



Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Notes Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2000
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Rights The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) grants permission to use these case and commentary material with the citation indicated above.
Year 2000
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
Language English
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  • Michael  Pritchard

    Posted 13 years and 3 months ago

    Michael Pritchard 

    Western Michigan University

    Susan Landers is asked to recommend the best site for a transportation facility, based on considerations of cost and public need. Then she is asked to reconsider her data and mathematical model because her initial results do not match the Mayor's wish to please a certain constituency. Lamont hopes that either the data or the model can be "adjusted" in a way that will make a credible case for favoring the Mayor's preferred site.

    However minor the "adjustments" might turn out to be, it seems that Lamont is urging Landers to "do the math backwards." That is, she is encouraged to make either the numbers or the model work in favor of a desired conclusion. Landers worries that this action might compromise her commitment to the "health, safety, and welfare of the public." It might, but she should have another worry. Engineers are also supposed to be committed to honesty and impartiality in their work. This expectation requires Landers to do her calculations independently of the outcome she (or the Mayor) desires.

    Lamont is trying to persuade her that it will be all right to let the desired conclusion guide her calculations to at least some degree. This attitude is evident in his suggestion that Landers take another look at the model: "Maybe there is a way to refine it a little more, or perhaps there are some assumptions or parameters that can be changed a little. A model is just that - a model. It's certainly not the same as reality. If there were just some way to keep the Mayor happy, I really think it would turn out well for our department in the long run." Lamont's first three sentences seem acceptable. However, his last sentence makes clear that, in this context, they are offered as part of a rationalization rather than a justification. What basis would Lamont suggest for altering the data or the model? The only reason he offers is that the changes might enable Landers to recommend the Belmont site, which would not only please the Mayor but might also bring more business to the department. This choice, it should be noted, has no special relevance to Landers's original objective of determining, which site would be best, on the basis of cost and public need.

    Philip is even less subtle than Lamont. He emphasizes Lander's advantage over the public. She can tinker with the data or the model in ways that will produce "a better result" without raising any suspicion of data manipulation. But "better result" here has no clear connection with the "health, safety, and welfare of the public," Landers's original concern. It does have a clear connection with honesty or impartiality, however - it is contrary to both.

    It is possible that Landers could succeed in just the way Lamont and Philip suggest. This case illustrates why ethicist William F. May is so concerned about the moral character of professionals and experts. May says of experts, "Few may be in a position to discredit [them]. The knowledge explosion is also an ignorance explosion; if knowledge is power, then ignorance is powerlessness."1 He continues: "One test of character and virtue is what a person does when no one is watching. A society that rests on expertise needs more people who can pass that test."2 Philip is suggesting that no one is watching Landers, which is probably true. But May's point is that we are expected to trust the judgment of professionals and experts. Lamont and Philip are encouraging Landers to compromise that trust.

    May is right to urge otherwise. It may be that even the Mayor would urge otherwise. Of course, the Mayor would be happy to bring forward an honest and impartial recommendation for the Belmont site. Would she also be happy to bring forward a dishonest recommendation, even one that could fool the public? Evidently, the Mayor asked for Landers's expert judgment. She might hope that Belmont would get the nod. But she might be very unhappy to learn that Landers rigged the results. The Mayor could hardly publicly acknowledge that she wants engineers to manipulate data or models in providing services to the city. We have been given no evidence that that is her private view either. So, if she does manipulate either the data or the mathematical model, Landers will violate professional standards, public standards, and quite possibly the standards of the Mayor.

    There is one more important consideration. In deciding what to do, Landers may be tempted to think only of this case. However, from the standpoint of ethical justification, it is important for her to think of this case in conjunction with relevantly similar cases. If it is acceptable for her to manipulate the data or model in this case, then it is acceptable to act likewise in all relevantly similar cases - acceptable not only for Landers to do so, but for others as well.3 If Landers thinks through the implications of generalizing in this way, it is unlikely that she will be able, in good conscience, to follow Lamont and Philip's suggestions.


    • William F. May, "Professional Virtues and Self-Regulation" in Joan Callahan, ed., Ethical Issues in Professional Life (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 408.

    • Ibid.

    • This requirement for justification is commonly endorsed, not only in everyday moral reasoning, but also in moral philosophy. See, e.g., the influential writings of Immanuel Kant, Henry Sidgwick, R. M. Hare, and Marcus G. Singer.

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 4, 2000 

    edited by Brian Schrag

  • Anonymous  Participant

    Posted 13 years and 3 months ago

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 4, 2000 

    edited by Brian Schrag

    The basic issue addressed in this case is the integrity of the researcher: Under what conditions does changing a model violate that integrity? The case also touches on the conflict that sometimes arises between the client's wishes and the engineer's responsibility to the first canon of the Engineering Code of Ethics. ("[H]old paramount. . . the welfare of the public).

    Most scientists and engineers recognize that fabricating data is clearly dishonest, and they rarely encounter clients who ask them to falsify or modify data outright. When they are confronted with such a client, they generally recognize the ethical issues involved and make choices with knowledge of right and wrong.

    However, in a world where models are used to represent and predict reality, the line between what is right and what is wrong can be more blurred. It may not always be clear that one model is superior to another one, or that a particular model does not represent reality. Of course, it would be nice to verify all models by experimental results, but that may not always be possible.

    Models are a scientist's best attempt at representing or predicting reality. They are only as good as the data that is fed into them and the assumptions used to create them. They are also only as good as the motives and purposes of the researchers creating them.

    Is it wrong to change a model? It depends. If the purpose in changing the parameters or operation of a model is to better reflect reality, then it seems clear that there is no dilemma. However, it is a different matter if the purpose is to mold the model to predict a pre-determined conclusion.

    It is bad science to create or modify a model or process specifically to predict a desired conclusion. That violates the integrity of the scientific process, which allows evidence or experiments to point scientists to truth, and ultimately violates the integrity of the researcher making the changes. Imagine a world in which all researchers followed such practices. No one would ever be able to trust models' predictions.

    Even after noting the potential practice of bad science, it changing the model still may be justified. A question that goes unanswered in the text of this case is what the true purpose of the model is. Is it to predict the location with the greatest need? Is it to predict the location with the lowest building and operating cost? Clearly, models for those two purposes could result in different predictions. Much of the time, both purposes cannot be served simultaneously; the modeler must decide which purpose is more important and how much so. Is the purpose of the model to predict the best location? If so, who defines what "best" means? That is something that needs to be worked out by the researcher and client. Once the definition of "best" has been determined, the researcher should have some flexibility to work within that definition.

    A second issue that arises in the case is the potential conflict between the engineering code of ethics and the clientÀs wishes. A code of ethics that is bent or broken at will based on the clientÀs wishes is not much use as a code of ethics.

    However, Landers should still be careful about interpreting the first canon too liberally. If she has traditional liberal leanings, she may want to locate the transit station in the poorer community with the most need for it, regardless of the cost. She should not let her research results be biased by personal views, however. Does this option best serve the welfare of the public? Who defines the public? What is the "welfare" of the public in this situation? Adherence to the code is important, but there are many cases where its application may not be clear-cut.

    Potential future projects or grants should never influence one to make a wrong decision over a right decision. A good test may be to examine the potential decisions given that there are no future grants or money-making opportunities to hazard, and see whether a decision still seems like a viable option. Of course, given two "equally ethical" possibilities, future projects may be one factor among others to use in making a decision.

    Certainly as a researcher, even one involved in seemingly innocuous activities like mathematical modeling, Landers bears responsibility for the outcome of her recommendations. All scientists, engineers, mathematicians, etc., should consider what potential benefits or harm their research can produce. Holding "paramount" the safety and welfare of the public should always be a consideration, as well as practicing "good science."

    As Landers makes her decision, she should keep several things in mind. She should attempt to practice good science. In this case, that can be interpreted to mean not changing a process to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion. She should also consider the welfare of the public. However, this ambiguous term does not always have clear interpretations. Probably meeting with the mayor would yield more insight into the purpose of the model and how the public can best be served. Once she has determined the best model (and the corresponding location of a transit facility), she should not be swayed by such influences such as money for the department.

    As a guide in making her decision, she can continue to ask herself, "Would I want to live in a world where everyone made decisions based on these principles?" Just imagine - if everyone in a community believed in both practicing good science and "holding paramount" the welfare of the public, wouldn't we all want to live there?

Cite this page: "Vote Early and Often" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 4/10/2006 OEC Accessed: Friday, July 19, 2019 <>