Vote Early and Often


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.


Susan Landers is a new tenure track junior faculty member in the Transportation Engineering Department at Dearborn University. Her recent research involves developing mathematical models to determine good locations for transportation facilities. Jim Lamont, a senior faculty member who has been working extensively with Landers, has asked her to stop by one afternoon.

Lamont: Susan, I've just gotten some great news! Mayor Walsh has heard about our new work related to the location of transportation facilities. She is a long-time supporter of the university, and she also wants the city to benefit from the newest methods. She has asked us to recommend an additional location for the public transit system.

Landers: That's fantastic! It'll be great to be able to apply these methods to a real-world situation. When do we start?

Lamont: I'd like to begin immediately. With elections coming up, the Mayor is certainly eager to have our recommendation as soon as possible. She has a lot of pressure from community groups -- seems that everyone wants the transit station in their area. If this works out well, I expect that it will also lead to future projects for the university.

Landers: Well, I just finished the report that you asked about last week, so I can start on this project immediately if you like.

Lamont: Great. Actually, I'd like you to be the project director. I've been very pleased with the work that you have done so far, and I think you'll learn a lot from overseeing this project. Of course, I'm here if you really need help, but I think you are capable of working independently. Here's the list of the Mayor's requirements and priorities. Why don't you get back to me with your initial results, and we'll run them by the Mayor.

Landers: Sounds good. Thanks for your confidence. I think it will be a great opportunity to see what it's like interacting with both the research world and the public on a project. I'll get back to you as soon as I can with those results.

A few weeks later, Lamont asks Landers to stop by his office to discuss the project.

Lamont: That was fast work, Susan! I'm pleased with how you have handled this project so far.

Landers: Thanks. I must say, it's been pretty exciting to actually get to use the research we've been working on.

Lamont: I sent the initial results over to the Mayor yesterday, and she called me this morning with some concerns about the report. She noticed that there were two locations that both seemed promising in your report: one on the southeast side of the city, and one in Belmont, that new development area. Your results indicated the southeast location was the best location, but from her standpoint, Belmont might be a better choice. You know, Belmont certainly has a lot of vocal voters, and they're usually the ones at the polls. The initial results also indicated to her that the city location might be a little more expensive to build.

Landers: The mayor's right about the cost, but it also seems that's where the greatest need is. Didn't she ask for the location with the greatest need for transit?

Lamont: That's right, she did. But you know, maybe the difference between these two locations isn't so large. Can you take another look at our 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.

Landers: Well, I can certainly take another look at the results to see if that's really what the model predicts. I can also look more at the model itself, although it appeared that the model was working pretty well with earlier applications. I'll get back to you with the final results.

That afternoon, Landers is discussing the project with a post-doc and friend, Philip Harris.

Landers: I don't know, Philip. I just don't know what to do. When I look at the demand data, it seems pretty clear that the greatest need is on the southeast side of the city. Unfortunately, that area is one of the poorer communities, so some of the infrastructure is not in place. Building the facility there would cost more.

Harris: Sorry, Susan, I just don't see what the problem is. You just have to pick one of the sites, right?

Landers: Well, I don't think it's quite that simple. I really want to do what would most benefit the public. But for the Mayor, money seems to be the largest factor. And, of course, voters. The voters in that new suburb just go to the polls more. But since they also have the money for cars, they don't need the transit facility quite as much. I want to do what's best for the public, but pleasing the mayor may also mean future projects for our department.

Harris: Hmm. Well, I suppose you could always change a little bit of the data. I doubt anyone would notice, and if it gives you a better result. . . . Anyway, some of them are just estimates, right? Or, didn't you say Lamont suggested changing the model? I mean, if a math model says it's the right location, everybody will believe it, won't they? And who really cares if you change a factor here and there, anyway?

Landers: I don't know, Philip. I guess I haven't thought a lot about changing the model. Well, whatever I decide, it had better be soon! The deadline for my recommendation is tomorrow.

Discussion Questions

  1. Revisions and adaptations are a normal part of the development of models. What are the ethical issues in adapting the model in this case? Is there a difference between changing data estimates and changing or adding to a model? Is it ethical to make any of these changes, and if so, which ones?
  2. As a mathematical modeler, does Landers have any responsibility for the outcome of her recommendations?
  3. The first canon of engineering states, "The engineer shall hold paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public." In what way does this canon apply to the situation in this case?
  4. What if this canon conflicts with the wishes of a client?
  5. Should potential future projects for the department be a consideration in the decision-making process?
  6. What should Landers do? Are there things that she should not do? What are the consequences of her decisions?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2000.

. . Vote Early and Often. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

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."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. 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."Ibid. 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.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. 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.

Author: Michael Pritchard, Western Michigan University.

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 client's wishes. A code of ethics that is bent or broken at will based on the client's 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?