The Source Civil Engineering Magazine Engineers’ professional opinions must be grounded in observation and analysis
A Question of Ethics

Engineers’ professional opinions must be grounded in observation and analysis

By Tara Hoke

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SITUATIONS An ASCE member appears in a television advertisement urging voters to support an upcoming ballot measure that would raise local taxes to fund highway repairs and improvements. An opponent of the measure files a complaint with ASCE, alleging that the member’s statements omitted or mischaracterized certain facts in order to paint a misleading picture of the measure’s costs and impact. The complaint also alleges that she failed to disclose her personal interest as the principal of a firm likely to compete for projects funded by the additional tax dollars.

A major newspaper publishes an opinion letter written by an ASCE member. In the letter, the member identifies himself as a retired engineer and describes his background in technology and research as his basis for presenting a contrarian’s view of the human impact on global climate change. Another member forwards the column to ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct, highlighting a handful of factual inaccuracies in the author’s argument and claiming that the author’s letter painted a false or misleading picture of his expertise, when in fact the author had no education or experience relevant to a discussion of this subject.

A tropical storm causes the roof to collapse in a large commercial structure. In the aftermath of the storm, a news reporter publishes quotes from a local structural engineer and ASCE member, speculating on the cause of the roof collapse. A complaint is forwarded to the CPC, alleging that the structural engineer’s speculations were wholly inaccurate, that the engineer had made the statements with no prior knowledge of the roof’s design or construction, and that he had no involvement in investigating the collapse.

QUESTION Did the actions of the members in any of these situations violate the ASCE Code of Ethics?

DISCUSSION Fundamental Canon 3 of the ASCE Code of Ethics reads: “Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.” While cases involving this canon are not as common as those arising from competitive behavior (Canon 5), employer or client obligations (Canon 4), or overall professional integrity (Canon 6), the engineer’s obligation to be objective and truthful is nevertheless one of the most critical aspects of the ethical practice of engineering. 

Perhaps unique among all learned professions is the extent to which an engineer’s services affect a multitude of interest groups — each with its own set of vital but often conflicting wants and needs. Often, an engineer’s success in navigating those different interests is dependent on the engineer’s ability to act as an honest broker, an expert adviser whose opinions are grounded in observation and analysis and not shaded by personal bias or other considerations. 

Perhaps unique among all learned professions is the extent to which an engineer’s services affect a multitude of interest groups.

Conversely, failure to meet this ethical expectation may have far-reaching consequences for all those who rely on the engineer’s judgment. Clients may make poor decisions because of an engineer’s unwillingness to report an uncomfortable truth; members of the public may be harmed by an engineer’s decision to omit or mischaracterize potential risks. Compliance with Canon 3 is thus not only an ethical objective in itself but an essential part of the engineer’s compliance with all aspects of professional ethics.

The guidelines to Canon 3 offer more elaboration on the ethical imperative of truthfulness. Guideline a notes that engineers may not “participate in the dissemination of untrue, unfair, or exaggerated statements regarding engineering,” while guideline e cautions engineers to “avoid any act tending to promote their own interests at the expense of the integrity, honor, and dignity of the profession.” Recognizing that selective truth-telling or other evasions can be just as deceptive as outright falsehoods, guideline b instructs engineers to “include all relevant and pertinent information in [professional] reports, statements, or testimony,” while guideline c advises engineers to “express an engineering opinion only when it is founded upon adequate knowledge of the facts, upon a background of technical competence, and upon honest conviction.” Finally, in cases where a conflict of interest or the appearance of influence is inescapable, guideline d directs engineers to “issue no statements, criticisms, or arguments on engineering matters which are inspired or paid for by interested parties, unless they indicate on whose behalf the statements are made.”

Although Canon 3 establishes a solid framework for an engineer’s daily professional life, the cases presented here represent gray areas in the applications of this canon, as they test the boundaries of what an engineer’s duty of honesty and objectivity entails outside the rendering of professional services for employers or clients.

In the first scenario, it could be said that the engineer urging voters to support a ballot measure had not included all relevant and pertinent information in her statements and that she had failed to disclose personal interests that might influence her judgment on this matter. However, it would be difficult to argue that her advocacy efforts constituted a professional report, statement, or testimony, and it is even more questionable whether her thoughts on a local tax initiative represented an engineering opinion. Moreover, although the ad identified the member as an engineer, it did not claim that her profession gave her any special expertise on the subject nor did the member’s statements suggest she was offering a professional recommendation.

the engineer in the second case expressly identified his engineering education and expertise as support for the merits of his argument on climate change.

Conversely, the engineer in the second case expressly identified his engineering education and expertise as support for the merits of his argument on climate change. As such, one might question whether the member had the necessary background of technical competence to offer an engineering opinion on the subject or, if not, whether his factual inaccuracies and misleading claim of expertise comprised untrue, unfair, or exaggerated statements regarding engineering.

Yet the member’s statements were not made in the context of a professional engagement, nor did his arguments bear any resemblance to an offer of professional services. For that reason, it could be said that the member’s letter was written not as a professional but in a purely personal capacity, making the application of Canon 3 at best unclear.

In the third case, the member offered commentary on an engineering matter, and his opinion was sought specifically because of his expertise as a structural engineer. If he had insufficient knowledge to form an engineering judgment on the roof’s collapse, it could certainly be said that he had offered an untrue, unfair, or exaggerated professional statement. In addition, if the member’s statements to the media were made for the purpose of gaining exposure or recognition as a local expert, he could be deemed to have acted to promote his own interests at the expense of the integrity, honor, and dignity of the profession. On the other hand, one could argue it is unfair to treat all statements on engineering matters as equivalent to professional advice and that as long as the member clearly identified his statements as speculation, he should not be held to a professional standard of factual accuracy and rigor.

When considered by the CPC, the committee concluded that the engineers in the first two cases had not violated Canon 3, finding that neither case represented a professional opinion on an engineering matter. However, the committee was less inclined to excuse the member’s actions in the third scenario. Noting the respect that members of the public typically afford an engineer’s judgment on professional matters, the CPC believed readers might give undue credence to opinions couched as speculation. In addition, because the subject involved a matter of significant local attention, the CPC thought the member’s opinions could easily inflame local sentiment, stoking anger or casting blame unfairly on those who might be deemed responsible for a potentially dangerous failure. 

For these reasons, the CPC felt the engineer in this case had a heightened obligation to confine his comments to matters within the scope of his knowledge or observation and to identify what pieces of information were lacking in order to inform an engineering opinion on the cause of the roof’s collapse. While the CPC still believed that formal disciplinary action was not necessary, it sent the engineer a cautionary letter, reminding him of his ethical obligations under Canon 3 and advising greater restraint when offering public comments on engineering matters.

This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.


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