Science and advocacy

Attorney making her case before a judge
Never cross the line between science and advocacy. Leave advocacy to the attorney. Shutterstock image.

Previous blogs have cautioned against crossing the line between science and advocacy. But what does that mean in practice, and why is it a problem? For one thing, it’s contrary to the engineers’ code of ethics:

Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony. They shall include all relevant and pertinent information in such reports, statements, or testimony…—National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics

While advocacy may be truthful, by its very nature it isn’t objective. Instead, it takes a side—representing the plaintiff, selling a product, or writing an op-ed piece. There’s nothing inherently unethical in any of these activities. An attorney who vigorously argues on behalf of her client on the basis of the facts and the law is doing her job ethically. A salesman whose products provide good value for the money and meet the customer’s needs is doing his job ethically, too. If he provides reliable service after the sale, so much the better. And a thoughtful opinion can inject much-needed reason and information into a discussion.

A methodology for forensic engineering

At Beton we sometimes serve as expert witnesses in construction litigation. We perform a failure analysis to determine what went wrong and why. While the investigation takes shape a little differently each time, we have an overall framework, based on the scientific method, that helps us collect and interpret the information. It also helps us separate science from advocacy.

The idea is to start with the big picture, progress step by step to the individual details, and then assemble those details into a consistent, coherent whole. We start with the background—project history, available documentation, and drawings. Weather data will tell us about temperature, wind, and precipitation—that is, exposure conditions that may explain premature distress in concrete. Chemical exposure may be important as well. Sometimes that’s a consequence of the application, as in an industrial or agricultural setting. Or we may need to consult Sanborn maps to see what sources of contamination were at or near the site previously.

That background helps us develop one or more hypotheses that will guide our site visit and sampling. At the site, we look at the overall patterns of distress first. We may map the cracking on a drawing of the site, or plot the areas of delamination. The locations of any photos and samples should all be marked on the plan as well.

Sampling requires thought and care, as it isn’t practical to examine many samples thoroughly. A core where the concrete has already failed is often far less informative than one where failure is just beginning. We may need to take care to avoid contaminating or destroying evidence. For example, cooling the core drill with water could wash away chlorides—not what we want if we’re investigating the causes of corrosion. And preparing specimens for microscopy requires even more attention to detail.

Product development

Beton also helps develop products for the construction industry. Our client might be an entrepreneur who wants to make concrete without cement. Or maybe they have an industrial byproduct they’d like to use in concrete. Or they might want to make another construction product such as tiles. We may find that the material works well in some ways but not so well in others. We’ll work to improve the performance to get it to do what the client wants, and we may suggest applications where the performance would be acceptable. Sometimes we’ll suggest strategies for a client who wants to enter a particular market.

On occasion a client will ask us to endorse their product. That’s something we can’t do, as that would cross the line between science and advocacy. We’ll develop and test your product and provide all the data, but we can’t help you sell it.

Objective reporting

It’s natural to want your client to win. You develop empathy for the party the attorney who hired you represents. Or you worked so hard to formulate the product that you want it to succeed. But you need to avoid crossing the line between science and advocacy. Your ultimate responsibility is not to your client, but to public health, safety, and welfare.

So be as objective as you can in your reporting. Stick to the facts. Present the evidence and form a professional opinion, but avoid subjectivity. Your investigation may lead you to believe that the plaintiff’s accusations are bogus. But limit yourself to showing the flaws in their case and presenting your evidence. The attorneys—and the jury, if it comes to that—can form their own judgments.

To an extent, any presentation of information involves some subjectivity. Even the way you organize the material highlights some things and downplays others. Telling a story chronologically implies that the sequence of events matters. If you plot data on a graph, you invite the reader to compare them. And when you report your findings, the reader will see the first one as most important.

It’s essential to report all of your findings, whichever side they support. It’s unethical to withhold evidence, and it doesn’t help your client. The sooner they know they don’t have a case, the better equipped they are to come to a settlement. I’ve had attorneys tell me they won’t ask me to testify once they’ve read my report. They know what I’d say under oath—and so will the opposing attorney.

Lastly, don’t speculate as to anyone’s motives. We can observe what people say and do. From that we may infer motives, but we don’t know. Such inferences don’t belong in a technical report. So don’t insinuate that the plaintiffs are just going after the party with deep pockets. Don’t imply that their expert used certain test methods simply because that’s what’s in their lab. Just demonstrate the limitations of those methods for this investigation.

Op-ed pieces

Engineers may write opinion pieces, whether blogs like this one or editorials for periodicals. Because it’s not a professional opinion, it’s ethically acceptable to do so. However, just as in a professional report, opinions based on evidence carry more weight. And the person who carefully weighs the evidence before rendering any kind of opinion deserves more credibility than one who doesn’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

Sadly, not everyone can discern whom or what to believe. It takes effort to sort through all the information, and who has time to check all the facts? Unfortunately, lies and half-truths take on a life of their own, persisting despite having been debunked.

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late.—Jonathan Swift, 1710

It’s become all too common in the last few years for certain media outlets to “cherry pick” facts to support a particular narrative—or an agenda. Technically they may not be lying, but they aren’t really telling the truth, either. Such selective reporting has no place in technical reports. Over time, it also undermines the credibility of the individual and the institution they represent. And it also deceives many people.