Citizen Engineering comes to Flint — Disrupting Communities by Undermining Engineering Expertise

Flintwaterstudy was launched in August 2015 with the following goals and principles:

We have worked hard to stay true to our goals, and also play a role as an honest broker of scientific information and analysis for all parties. It has not been easy.

Early on we put our professional careers and reputations on the line, by attacking unethical and unscientific statements made by powerful government agencies (e.g., MDEQ, MDEQ again, US EPA, US EPA again, US EPA, MDHHS, MDHHS again, City of Flint, City of Flint again). We spent thousands of hours (and dollars) on Freedom of Information Act requests — releasing the documents with an analysis online for everyone to see and all media to use. We publicly supported valid scientific claims made by Flint residents that were being unjustly ignored, and we spoke out on behalf of silenced EPA Whistleblower Miguel Del Toral. We released our data and associated information on water lead (see full data sets from 2015 and 2015-17) and legionella (see also here and here) transparently and in near real-time, exposing the problem of elevated lead in water and the high levels of Legionella in large buildings. We paid for most of it out of our own pocket, and were proud to be part of a “critical mass of moral courage” that exposed what is now acknowledged world-wide as an environmental injustice.

In late 2015 the maligned agencies began an escalating public health response and relief effort. It started with a lead advisorycity water emergency and then culminated in President Obama declaring a Federal Emergency. At that point hundreds of millions of dollars were mobilized to help Flint recover. The agencies that caused the crisis admitted fault, many civil servants were indicted or resigned, and the vast majority of employees in those agencies who are ethical honest professionals were newly empowered to do their jobs—Miguel Del Toral was even given a leadership oversight role in EPA. We have been guided by the principle that “If you want to be part of the solution, we will work with and defend you, but if you are part of the problem we are going to call you out.” Since the Federal Emergency we observed great relief work by all parties, we were proud to work alongside them and report their progress firsthand (e.g. see here and here).

But as anyone following Flintwaterstudy or the Flint Water Crisis knows, unfortunately, the hundreds of millions of dollars and all the lawsuits and media attention, brought something else to Flint.  We have documented how numerous unethical opportunists (see here, here, here, and here) descended on the city starting in late 2015, to exploit the tragedy to their own advantage. The media spotlight and the possible large financial rewards also played a powerful corrupting role. Unfortunately, when bad science was deployed by these groups in a manner that could compromise public health, they became “part of the problem” and we made the difficult decision to call them out. This was particularly painful in some cases, because some of those formerly allied with us in exposing the agency corruption and misconduct during the water crisis, have remained in full-blown and full-time attack mode even after the Federal Emergency—a few of these individuals have now become dedicated adversaries of Flintwaterstudy and Dr. Marc Edwards.

Citizen Science versus Citizen Engineering

One untold story unfolding behind the scenes, feeding the growing controversy, is a clash of cultures and philosophy from within academia. On one side are the proponents of “Citizen Science,” which is exemplified by the scientific collaboration between Flint residents, Flint Water Study and others, that first exposed the water crisis in August-September 2015. Citizen scientists are dedicated to truth-seeking and truth-speaking, working in collaboration with trained scientists, in order to learn about their environment and the world around them. An exemplar from the water crisis is Flint, is resident LeeAnne Walters, who recently won the internationally recognized Goldman Environmental Prize for her grass roots activism.

On the other side are followers and practitioners of an emerging philosophy of “Citizen Engineering,” first defined by Purdue University Dean Dr. Donna Riley and effectively put into practice in Flint by her colleague Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou. Citizen engineering involves a process by which:

“community members (“non-experts”) identify scientific questions …sometimes but not always with the cooperation of trained scientists,” with “…the disruption of engineering expertise is a central goal….”

This goal of disrupting engineering expertise complements Dr. Riley and colleagues plea to get rid of the concept of “rigor” entirely in science and engineering to uphold “social justice” and eliminate “the profession’s tendency to marginalize, ignore, silence,…<l>ocal knowledges and scientific counter-knowledges that depart from dominant paradigms of engineering thought and practice.”

Whatever you think about the two clashing philosophies, obviously, any effort by experts such as Flintwaterstudy, to call out possible misuse of science by non-experts, is destined to create a major conflict and hard feelings.  Such was the case in post-Federal Emergency Flint.  Examples of our work in this area include the following:

We stand by our scientific reporting of these and many other issues. But as a result of the above we have been attacked repeatedly by Dr. Riley, Dr. Lambrinidou and Dr. Laura Sullivan (FACHEP) in social media, closed presentations and at conferences—they refuse all attempts to engage in responsible professional conversation about these and other issues. This is particularly painful because as recently as 2012, Dr. Lambrinidou was as equally outspoken advocate of Dr. Edwards’ research, public engagement, ethics and moral leadership, as exemplified by letters nominating him for some of the same types of recognition that she now decries.

Flintcomplaints.com

The long-running unprofessional social media attacks and rumors, recently escalated with a letter writing campaign by some Flint residents (now with the public support of Dr. Lambrinidou and Dr. Laura Sullivan of FACHEP) and launch of a website Flintcomplaints.com. We welcome the chance to finally address these unprofessional attacks directly and publicly. Below we respond, point by point, to all specific claims in the Flintcomplaints.com letter.

1. Violation of Principle #3 of the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing: “Let People Speak for Themselves” (https://www.ejnet.org/ej/jemez.pdf): In March 2018, Mr. Edwards filed a formal complaint against Professor Shawn McElmurry and FACHEP (Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership). This complaint does nothing to help the residents of Flint move toward recovery in the Water Crisis. In fact, it has caused more strife, stress and drama that we do not need, want or deserve… Michigan and Flint residents have their own voice and have never asked Mr. Edwards to speak for us, let alone take official action using our names instead of his own.

Response:We stand by the accuracy of our blog post raising legitimate questions about Dr. McElmurry claims that he worked “in Flint” from 2010-2015 and developed a hydraulic model of the Flint Water system. We further note that Dr. McElmurry and Wayne State have not yet given a direct response to this important question. We have raised additional concerns about this issue by citing Dr. McElmurry’s statements made under oath. We do not agree that our raising these points violates any democratic principle. To our knowledge, Dr. Edwards has never once claimed that he represents “the people of Flint” in relation to these complaints —  moreover Dr. Edwards clearly signed the complaints in his own name.

2. Obstruction of Flint’s right for self-determination. …Many residents now fear the possibility that Mr. Edwards’ glib, reckless, and egotistical conduct may hamper the ongoing criminal investigation into the Legionnaires deaths in our city, which we see as the only form of justice we might achieve (http://michiganradio.org/post/scientific-disagreements-could-affect-special-prosecutor-s-case-flint-water-crisis.) This additional and totally undeserved worry suddenly adds to the stress and chaos we already feel.

Response:  The only specific item mentioned in Point 2, is again related to our specific allegations about Dr. McElmurry, as represented in the Michigan Radio report. We agree that it will be unfortunate for everyone, if Dr. McElmurry’s past representations of his qualifications and his statements made under oath are indeed false—but doesn’t Dr. McElmurry himself bear responsibility for those statements? We also find it remarkable that none of the signatories of the letter, seem to have any problem, with the prospect that Dr. McElmurry made false statements to win millions in research for which he was unqualified, or stole the research ideas of a young assistant professor. 

3. Unsubstantiated defamation of Flint residents: Mr. Edwards’ portrayal of Flint residents as dumb, dirty and vulnerable to being misled by anyone other than himself started in early 2016, is ongoing, and is misguided and offensive…. The allegation that FACHEP announced that they found shigella in Flint water is a lie… In May 2016, Mr. Edwards erroneously accused Scott Smith and Water Defense of scaring residents out of bathing (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/31/flint-lead-tainted-water-crisis-michigan-safe-to-use). Mr. Edwards also accused Dr. Laura Sullivan and Mr. McElmurry of FACHEP of causing Flint residents to stop bathing because their research scared us (according to some reports, Mr. Edwards made the preposterous claim that as many as 80% of us returned to a state of filth). This is insulting and false. It is also blatantly unscientific because Mr. Edwards did not bother to ask actual Flint residents about our bathing habits before coming up with this pronouncement.

Response: In response to the complaint we sent a polite letter to the email address provided to us on May 23rd  and May 24th. We pointed out that the source of our citation that 80% of Flint residents had changed their bathing habits was a U.S. Centers for Disease Control study—and we provided the authors a specific reference to that report. We also provide Facebook postings in which Dr. Laura Sullivan claimed that to avoid Shigella, her Wayne State and University of Michigan (FACHEP) colleagues had told her to boil filtered water before bathing. We also quoted a Flint resident who recently asserted “We have shigella because we wash our hands.” None of the insulting comments stated above, were ever made by Dr. Edwards. If he had done so, he would sign the flintcomplaint letter himself. As for Scott Smith data being used to scare residents about bathing, we think the title of the youtube video (“Scott Smith from Water Defense-Bathing in Flint is NOT SAFE.”) posted by Melissa Mays April 11, 2016 speaks for itself, but there are many other examples.Despite our polite letter mailed May 23 and May 24, we have received no response, yet these obviously false claims are now repeated on the flintcomplaints.com website. It therefore, seems that the website and letter are intended to deliberately defame Dr. Edwards, as opposed to exposing Dr. Edwards alleged defamation of Flint residents.

4. To our knowledge, there is no one in the scientific community overseeing Mr. Edwards’ work or the way he uses his power over powerless residents. As far as we know there is no one in the scientific community ensuring the integrity and honesty of Mr. Edwards’ words, research and activism. Mr. Edwards has repeatedly spoken and written about how there are no bacteria or dangerous pathogens in Flint residents’ water, even though he is not a microbiologist nor is he doing mass testing within our homes. Also, Mr. Edwards has assured Flint residents that it is safe to bathe in unfiltered water even though he has not done widespread testing of hot shower water and he is not a physician, dermatologist or toxicologist.

Response: The claim that unfiltered Flint water is safe for bathing, is the official position of all relevant public health authorities. The agencies position is supported by Flintwaterstudy’s extensive independent monitoring data for pathogenic and other bacteria that goes back to August 2015—our data supports the position of the agencies.  As indicated in the polite response we made to the authors of the letter on May 23 and 24, we asked them to produce a shred of evidence that Edwards repeatedly claimed “there are no bacteria or dangerous pathogens in Flint residents’ water.” For the record, Dr. Edwards has never made such a statement. He has repeatedly stated that all water in the U.S. has some levels of dangerous bacteria, and that there is no such thing as a risk free shower or bath in any U.S. city. Like the public health agencies, he has asserted that all the available data, indicate that Flint water is now as safe as other cities with old water pipes. The authors of the letter never responded with any evidence that he made such claims about “no bacteria,” which again, illustrates a deliberate attempt to defame Dr. Edwards by people who obviously know better.

As for the question of oversight, we wonder aloud:  “Who is examining the honesty and integrity of the words and actions of Dr. Riley, Dr. Lambrinidou, Dr. Sullivan and Dr. McElmurry?” And, “Who will correct the many false claims made in the Flintcomplaint letter, as detailed herein, sent to numerous professional engineering organizations, and now to the world? Afterall, it is their Citizen Engineering that has the explicitly stated goal of disrupting expertise and communities, and in Flint, they have been partly successful.

Response to original letter on May 23-24:

Download (PDF, 178KB)

Responses: Dr. Marc Edwards

Acknowledgements: Dr. Siddhartha Roy

One thought on “Citizen Engineering comes to Flint — Disrupting Communities by Undermining Engineering Expertise

  1. All extremely logical and factual responses Dr. Edwards. You will always win in the court of science and facts but that’s clearly not how these folks play. The hubris of this group for attacking someone for noticing gross fabrications and probable lying under oath is pathetic.

    Good assignment for an undergraduate media class to figure out who the heck is actually behind such ‘sites’ as “flintcomplaints.com” and what their ultimate goals are, revenge, defamation, money, other? Probably a dirtier soup that the original Flint River water.

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