Bizarre Attack on FlintWaterStudy, Rigor, and Purdue Slide Rules: An Epic Failure to Measure Up

Flintwaterstudy represents a scientific collaboration between a group of Flint residents and Virginia Tech scientists, who aspire to uphold the highest standards of rigor, objectivity, truth-seeking, and truth-speaking. While we have received more than our fair share of accolades associated with our role in exposing the Flint water crisis, we have also received more than our fair share of criticism. For instance, our response to an unfortunate editorial in ES&T generated healthy conversation about the occasionally misplaced priorities of modern academia. Although we have received overwhelming support from Virginia Tech, two very vocal internal critics and colleagues (Dr. Donna Riley and Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou) and their off-campus supporters have repeatedly questioned our methods, motives, and ethics.

We have supported their exercise of academic freedom, even as their views played out painfully and publicly in the pages of the NYT Magazine, Chronicle of Higher Education, and in a letter to ES&T’s Editor to which we were compelled to respond “We Helped Flint Residents Save Themselves and Are Proud of It.” But it has become increasingly difficult to ignore their underhanded tactics of trolling us on social media, accusing students of perpetrating grave injustices in Flint under our unethical leadership, and putting into practice principles of science anarchy that they teach in the classroom (illustrated below in an excerpt from Dr. Riley’s course):

“By questioning the commonly held assumption, shared by engineers and non-engineers alike, that engineers hold, or ought to hold, particular expertise and power around technology…  disruption of engineering expertise is a central goal of the course.”

For more than a year we made it our policy to turn the other cheek.

But these two colleagues unfairly, and unethically, took aim at the Flintwaterstudy team at several recent events. At one event, Dr. Riley, formerly of Virginia Tech but now Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University, live tweeted that our Flint team (29 women and 16 men at VT) engaged in “structural bullying,” on par with what would be recognized by individuals experiencing sexual harassment and assault “#metoo” (Figure 1). After learning of this, members of our team were astonished and respectfully offered to exchange information to improve understanding of these serious allegations, but Dr. Riley refused.  She then falsely stated that her tweets were not about us at all, cowardly refusing to further discuss her Twitter activity, and then took steps to make her tweets visible only to approved followers.

Figure 1: Dr. Riley’s live tweets

Forced to seek better understanding through publicly-available information, we discovered a peer-reviewed article just published by Dr. Riley in the journal Engineering Studies entitled “Rigor/Us: Building Boundaries and Disciplining Diversity with Standards of Merit.” Herein, we explore development of ideas presented in that article and then reflect on lessons learned.

RIGOR/US:  American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) 2013 Distinguished Lecture.

As the newly appointed Program Director of Engineering Education at NSF, Riley was invited to give the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) 2013 Distinguished Lecture. The script of this lecture was the basis for the 2017 peer-reviewed Engineering Studies article. A primary exhibit in Riley’s distinguished lecture is an excerpt from a 2004 WIRED Magazine article entitled “SLIDE RULE STILL RULES.”

In her distinguished lecture, Riley highlights the WIRED article to support her contention that the term “rigor” reflects the “phallic state” of “white male, heterosexuality” that afflicts both women and men in engineering. While she develops her argument orally, a slide was presented to the audience with an image taken from the WIRED article, juxtaposed with an added quote about penis size from a fictional character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel (Figure 2).  The Vonnegut quote on the slide does not appear anywhere in the WIRED article.

Figure 2. Slide and partial transcript of Dr. Donna Riley’s “Association for the Society of Engineering Education (ASEE)” 2015 Distinguished Lecture.”
Slide accessed 12/29/2017.

Transcript of Riley discussing above slide.  Time: 11:52-13:30 min in lecture video.

So what is the purpose of rigor in our community? What ends does it serve? Or as Gary Downey might put it, “what is rigor for?”

One of its purposes is a thinly veiled assertion of white male heterosexuality. We’ve already seen that the term has a historical lineage of being about hardness, stiffness, and an erect quality. Its sexual connotations, and links to masculinity in particular are undeniable. My visceral reaction to many conversations where I have seen rigor asserted has been to tell the parties involved, male and female, to whip them out and measure them already. It’s no coincidence, by the way, that this image came from WIRED magazine which is widely critiqued for its puerile sexist humor and boys’ club working climate. It comes from a 2004 story about two Purdue engineering faculty members who collected two hundred slide rules for a campus exhibit. In the article they interviewed another slide rule enthusiast who said, and I quote,

“Slide rules made me miserable in school but now I collect them with a passion. I know it’s weird to talk about passion and connection with slide rules but they fascinate and delight me the way my ex-wife never did. They are functional and beautiful. I guess you could say I’m obsessed.”

Sometimes a slide rule is just a slide rule. But glorifying a tool for calculation, an icon of engineering rigor, and in the same sentence denigrating, in sexual terms, the woman he presumably once loved, reflects a quintessential sexist engineering culture.

As illustrated by the transcript (Figure 2), Riley effectively manipulated the WIRED slide rule image, alongside a left-field quote from a fictional Vonnegut character, to generate a hearty laugh from her audience and frame two Purdue engineering faculty. As far as the audience was aware, the Vonnegut quote on the lower part of the slide was part of the WIRED article. The fact that the supposed overtly sexual quote from a “slide rule enthusiast” whose profession is unknown, was not made by either Purdue faculty in the WIRED image, did not deter Riley from “poster-izing” these men in front of a disturbingly appreciative and laughing ASEE audience.

This entire portion of her presentation strikes us as highly inappropriate, unprofessional, and hurtful, especially because the ASEE lecture is a formative experience for many young students who were attending to hear a powerful and distinguished voice in the field.  Afterall, Dr. Riley would be distributing tens of millions in NSF grant funding over the next 3 years.

Riley’s Engineering Studies journal article (2017).

In the peer-reviewed journal article, Riley used the transcript of her 2013 distinguished lecture (Figure 2) as the framework. The image of the two men with a large slide rule is prominently displayed, but the accompanying quote is moved into the article text along with a dubious explanation that Vonnegut “studied mechanical engineering at Carnegie Tech and the University of Tennessee.” Riley is clearly insinuating that Vonnegut’s experiences taking engineering classes while serving in the army influenced his writing about penis size more so than participating in the Battle of the Bulge, stacking naked victims of the Dresden firebombing like cordwood while a German prisoner of war, or pursuing his chosen field of undergraduate study in biochemistry at Cornell.

Her peer-reviewed article has already been the subject of considerable outright derision for many other reasons, but herein we focus specifically on an issue that has not yet been explicitly addressed. Specifically, were Riley, and the journal, justified in allowing use of this image with Purdue faculty posing with a large teaching slide rule as a permanent iconic memorial to their Freudian interpretation of the “phallic state” of engineering and “white male heterosexual privilege”? Seeking to resolve that and other questions, a member of our team exchanged emails with two editors of the journal, one of whom (at Virginia Tech) oversaw the publication of the paper and a second editor who took over the role effective January 1, 2018. We made it clear that we thought the image (and perhaps the entire paper) should be retracted. The goal was to give the editors a chance to thoroughly re-review the paper and respond to the use of the image before we publicly critiqued the article.

Exchange with Journal Editors

Within 48 hours of our email query to the editors, Dr. Riley’s “ASEE distinguished lecture slides” previously available through a link on YouTube (Figure 2) mysteriously could no longer be accessed.  Clicking on the link now states “This uploaded file has been marked private by the author. Sorry!.”  The first editor then e-mailed that our questions were “unethical,” “unprofessional,” and a possible attempt to “demonize the journal and the field of scholarship it represents.” Moreover, that if we proceeded with our critique containing the alleged unethical and unprofessional elements, he suspected that “the journal will take appropriate action.”  Obviously, questions that seemed professional and relevant to us were received with immediate and open hostility.

After full consideration of our questions by the new editor, a final decision was made that we summarize with the following quotes (emphasis added):

“… this article passed a review which was entirely in keeping with the standards of the journal, of the field of engineering studies, and of the various broader fields (e.g., anthropology, sociology, science and technology studies) which most of our authors and reviewers are affiliated with.”

“the photo doesn’t seem to have upset anyone when it appeared in WIRED, even though the WIRED article itself indulges in a sexualized interpretation of the photo.  What you seem to be saying is that the photo was unproblematic when presented in WIRED, but that a feminist interpretation of the photo is illegitimate even when that interpretation relies on the overt text – not the subtext – in which the photo was embedded.”

“WIRED chose to begin the article with a photo of the curators holding a seven-foot-long slide rule, and chose to end the article by quoting an overtly sexualized ode to slide rules…. there is an overt sexual reference in the WIRED article which Donna, relying on the literature she cites, was well within her rights to juxtapose with the photo that accompanies that article.

The idea that no one was upset when it appeared in WIRED, because there was nothing in the article that most people would be upset about, did not seem to be within the realm of reason to the editors. Review the article as a postmodernist Rorscach test and decide for yourself: Does the alleged micro-aggression by a civilian slide rule enthusiast justify Dr. Riley’s academic macro-aggression against her fellow engineering faculty at Purdue?


Our story does not end with the editor’s decision. Although the author of the WIRED “SLIDE RULE” article was correctly cited by Dr. Riley as Delio (2004), what she failed to mention is that Ms. Michelle Delio is not a member of a WIRED “boys club working climate” that supposedly conspired with the Purdue faculty to assert “white male heterosexual privilege.” Rather, Ms. Delio is infamous for fabricating quotes to “color” stories, often to add misogynistic flare, as in the case of 2 retracted stories about corporate culture at Hewlett Packard in 2005. WIRED itself now generally affixes a Reader’s advisory” to all of Delio’s work, stating “WIRED News has been unable to confirm some sources for a number of stories written by this author.”

Delio’s Wikipedia entry, and dozens of articles about her unverifiable quotes, have been accessible by a simple internet search since 2005. But we are not the least bit surprised this fact eluded Dr. Riley for 5 years as she told and re-told her story, since she espouses purging rigor completely in favor of “other ways of knowing.” It also escaped the journal’s peer review process and the re-review by the editors. Suspiciously, while we have searched as best we can, we have not yet been able to find evidence that the “slide rule enthusiast” quoted in the WIRED article actually made the quote or is even a real person. Like most Delio fabricated quotes, we may never know for sure, but the quote hyped-up by Riley is perfectly in keeping with the type of secondary color quote Delio was known to fabricate. Clearly, we come to find out that use of the WIRED article to support Dr. Riley’s argument that rigor must be done away with in engineering education, well, it lacks …rigor.


<Buckminster Fuller> believed that the future lay in cultivating the scientist in all of us.  If science is an unfinished project, the next stage will be about reconnecting and integrating the rigor of scientific method with the richness of direct experience to produce a science that will serve to connect us to one another, ourselves, and the world.”   Peter M. Senge.

We believe, more now than ever before, that the future lies in cultivating the scientist in all of us-the virtuous aspiration to seek objectivity and rigor, while openly resisting all provocateurs who recklessly appeal to subjectivism or a common enemy. Failing to do so, collectively, will end in anarchy.

The problems faced in rectifying diversity disparities in STEM are of utmost importance and urgency. But Freudian interpretations of slide rules, lack of due diligence in fact-checking colorful quotes lifted from the internet, or recklessly live tweeting about “structural bullying” and “#metoo” in relation to our scientific and humanitarian mission in Flint is not a solution. Social scientists frequently complain that their quantitative STEM colleagues do not listen to them, but this is a clear case where we were repulsed in horror because we did listen.  We only wish it were possible to completely ignore such unprofessional provocations. Riley’s paper and the ASEE presentation should be carefully studied by all STEM faculty to better understand the logic and motives of postmodern science anarchists before they become ingrained into positions of power in modern academia.

As we return to our work after remembering and celebrating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us re-dedicate ourselves to bending the moral arc of history towards justice, and be inspired by his visionary wisdom as applied to our present circumstance:

We must learn to live together as brothers <and sisters>, or perish together as fools.”

Marc Edwards, Amy Pruden, Siddhartha Roy, Jeannie Purchase

Virginia Tech-Flintwaterstudy Science Team Members

LeeAnne Walters, Kaylie Mosteller

Flint Residents and Citizen Science Collaborators

Email exchanges with Dr. Donna Riley, Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou and editors at Engineering Studies journal:

Download (PDF, 1.17MB)

One thought on “Bizarre Attack on FlintWaterStudy, Rigor, and Purdue Slide Rules: An Epic Failure to Measure Up

  1. To the Flint Water Study Team, I have a great respect for the work you have accomplished and consider you to be esteemed leaders in the field. However, I fear that the content of this post only bends itself towards proving her point. I was particularly disappointed that you focused on only a few parts of her argument (which, albeit, was scattered at best), but left out some of her more salient points. For instance: “As I thought more about my own experience with the concept, I came to conclude that what we (in engineering and in engineering education research, but perhaps more broadly in academia) are whipping out and measuring is the ruler itself. ” Perhaps I am taking a more moderate view than she is arguing, but I think it is reasonably agreeable that scientific metrics and methodologies get used like weapons a lot– things with which to bludgeon that which does not agree with you. I think we have all witnessed this at conferences and seminars, deserved and not. In any case, I certainly don’t agree with all of her argument. It is a little hard to defend the notion that we should somehow be reducing the objectivity or passion with which we pursue our science. But I also don’t think her argument is as irrational as you have framed it to be, and the framing, I fear, may only reinforce her point.

Comments are closed.