Let the Engineer Speak: On Scientific Free Speech and the Harassment of Experts

, lead analyst, Center for Science and Democracy | February 5, 2015, 2:17 pm EDT
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Last week, Minnesota engineer and planner Charles Marohn received a letter notifying him of a complaint of misconduct filed against his professional engineering license. Was Mr. Marohn accused of a misstep in his professional engineering practices? No. Rather, the complaint concerned Marohn’s writings on his website, Strong Towns.

I’ve talked here before about the rights (and the responsibility) of scientists’ engaging in the public dialogue around science-based decisions.  Whether or not you agree, I think none of us would expect to have our professional credentials questioned simply for speaking out for reform in the area we work.

Attacks on an engineer’s credentials for simply advocating change

Minnesota engineer and planner Charles Marohn was notified that a complaint had been filed against his engineering license for misconduct. The board determined no violation had occurred, but attacks like these have a chilling effect on experts. Photo: Courtesy of Strong Towns

Minnesota engineer and planner Charles Marohn was notified that a complaint had been filed against his engineering license for misconduct. The board determined no violation had occurred, but attacks like these have a chilling effect on experts. Photo: Courtesy of Charles Marohn

Marohn started a blog in 2008 that evolved to a nonprofit called Strong Towns. Marohn and the group raise issues and discuss solutions to why American cities and towns are going broke.  Utilizing their engineering and city planning expertise, they work to address what they see as unsustainable development patterns in the U.S. that damage the safety and wealth of communities. Instead, they argue, we should re-think the way we fund and build urban infrastructure to be more safe and productive for all. (As a side note, UCS also supports smart growth policies as a way to save oil).

As Marohn points out, this isn’t the first time they’ve faced criticism from others in their field who see their position as undermining the philosophical and financial goals of the industry. Specifically, their position is inconvenient for those looking to maintain the status quo of current funding structures, namely unlimited funds for motor vehicle travel. Attacking Marohn’s credentials, however, takes such criticisms to new levels.

A chilling effect

Fellow engineer and critic of Marohn’s, Jeffery Peltola decided to attack Marohn’s credentials as an expert, accusing him of misconduct and filing an official complaint with the Minnesota licensing board. Though the board rightfully found that no violation had occurred, the incidence is telling of the challenges that many technical experts face when their professional opinions have policy implications.

Such moves can have a chilling effect on scientists’ willingness to speak out. Many experts aren’t accustomed to the spotlight and such public questioning of their credentials can be intimidating and many cases that is the precise motivation behind the accuser. Marohn states, “I’m not going to let this intimidation change what I do. It has strengthened my resolve to stand up,” but others may not be as resilient.

While there is more focus on harassment of climate scientists, it is worth reiterating that technical experts in many fields have faced similar attacks—from biologists studying frogs to medical researchers studying marijuana. To help, UCS developed a guide and pushes back against attacks, to help experts navigate such public scrutiny of their work.

Charles Marohn told me he felt he couldn’t practice engineering while speaking out. “I felt like I had to choose between being an advocate and being an engineer,” he explained.

A need for scientific experts in public policy debates

This chilling effect is problematic for science and for us all. Importantly, scientists don’t give up their first amendment rights at the lab room door. They have a right to speak up and participate in the democratic process. There of course should be rules guiding professional behavior, but such rules by and large shouldn’t cover what scientists do on their personal time.

We need technical experts like Marohn to speak up when their scientific work suggests a need for policy changes. Engineers, scientists, and other experts are often in the unique position of being able to identify inefficiencies, errors, and shortcomings with our public policies around scientific issues. If those policy decisions could be improved by being better informed by science, I for one want experts like Marohn to speak up. This is how we get better policy outcomes that improve our health, safety, and wellbeing—in the design of our cities and towns as well as a host of other issues.

Our scientists and engineers shouldn’t be the only people making public-policy decisions on science-based issues, but they, without a doubt, need a seat at the table.

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  • In the climate field, the attacks on scientists go to both sides, depending on one’s point of view. Climate skeptics attack scientists who are supporting the IPCC position, and those who accept the IPCC positions attack skeptics. Civility needs to remain in the room, or truth will be the second casualty after civility.

  • Ryan

    My take-away is that the system works. Someone asked the question of whether Charles is acting appropriately and the licensing board replied ‘yes’.

    It would be problematic if there was some systemic position of keeping Charles quiet. There’s no indication of that though. But misconduct does happen. So it would equally be problematic if there was no opportunity for the question to be asked (with some ‘vexatious claim’ caveat on the right to ask questions), or if there was a systemic position of not taking such questions seriously. Again, there is no evidence of that.

    From the letter attached, there is a ‘this is on your permanent record and will count against you in future complaints’ tone that is unwarranted given the claim has been dismissed. The tone of the notification letter could probably have been closer to ‘the complaint has been thrown out and won’t be investigated further, but the outcome does need to be recorded’. But that’s not a huge problem.

    • Conrad Lumm

      It can also be interpreted as a warning: we can censure you, and if you keep it up, we will. Not saying that’s the intention, but if my professional license was on the line, it would certainly cross my mind.

      • calwatch

        Except that professional engineering boards rarely, if ever, censure individuals, and most for obvious failures like running off with people’s money without doing what they contracted for. Even if their building collapses during an earthquake, discipline is rarely meted out.

      • Good thoughts, all. As Ryan points out, I think this is an example of the system working. It is important that we have such systems in place that are designed to assess such accusations fairly and with due process. Similarly, my colleague Michael just wrote a post about who should get to decide whether or not scientists are violating conflict of interest rules and the importance of objective processes making such decisions: http://blog.ucsusa.org/who-should-decide-what-happens-when-scientists-violate-conflict-of-interest-rules-614

        Our primary concerns with Marohn’s case–as Cory and Conrad note–is the chilling effect this could have (and/or was intended to have) on experts speaking out about reform in their field. As Cory notes, it sets a dangerous precedent if we can launch an investigation into someone’s credibility every time we disagree with their opinions.

        Of the same vein, today UCS released a report on the use of freedom of information laws to harass researchers: http://www.ucsusa.org/openrecordsabuse . The report details just such cases of “taking it too far.” On Marohn’s case, we’ll have to wait and see if this was an isolated incident or if it starts to look more and more like harassment.

  • Cory

    I read about this on Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns site and wondered what’s next. Can I as a registered Professional Engineer have my credentials and licensure challenged because I read and comment on the Strong Towns site? How about if I contribute money to the Strong Towns organization? Am I aiding and abetting the enemy? Just how far can this be carried? Let’s take is the next step and say I comment on architecture, a profession I am not licensed to practice but work with on a regular basis. Have I crossed the line by speaking on things I am not an “expert” at? The possibilities are endless and it looks like there are people out there that will pursue them.