Kara has been working as an environmental engineer at a consulting firm for over twenty-five years. Well-known for settling disputes between her corporate clients before litigation must be pursued, Kara often analyzes technical data, particularly distributions of solid particle pollution, presented by disputing parties to help them reach a compromise on the cost of environmental cleanup. For example, two parties may be separated from one another by a strip of land; however, each party must fiscally contribute in keeping the land free from pollutants.
One day, Kara was contacted by a journalist to talk about her experiences at the firm. Kara spoke about how she often encountered cases where companies did not accurately depict levels of solid particle pollution occupying the companies’ respective surroundings. Instead, technical experts, who are mostly engineers, would misrepresent data in order to make it seem that minority parties were responsible for a greater part of the contamination. At the end of the interview, Kara emphasized the necessity of engineers taking ownership and being honest about the presentation of data.
At what point does an engineer’s interpretation of data move from sound technical reasoning to misrepresentation? How should engineers deal with the pressure to come up with data that may indicate favorable results for their employers?
Jocelyn Tan was a 2014-2015 Hackworth Fellow in Engineering Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.