PART XI: ENGINEERING ETHICS: FACHEP → FLINTCOMPLAINTS → RHETORICAL HYPERBOLE

Dr. Edwards’ lawsuit regarding events in Flint that he alleged defamatory was dismissed last week.

The decision is a victory for FACHEP and friends and their lawyer Bill Moran. Oftentimes, the loser in such cases makes a desperate attempt to claim the glass is somehow half-full. But that would be dishonest, so we herein acknowledge the victors, and turn our focus to the question: If what transpired was not illegal, was it ethical?

Federal Judge Urbanski ruled that the Flintcomplaints letter signed by FACHEP faculty Dr. Ben Pauli, Dr. Laura Sullivan (Kettering University) and their friend, Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, used wording that achieved a dubious standard, of being too hyperbolic to be trustworthy. The judge described the Flintcomplaints Letter that these three FACHEP and friend PhD faculty endorsed, as follows:

“<The Letter>…is replete with emotional and polemical language, rhetorical hyperbole, and unmistakable indicia of partisanship. Indeed, there is absolutely no pretense of objectivity or disinterestedness…”

”..the authors express their frustration with Edwards about a formal complaint he allegedly filed against a Wayne State University professor <Dr. McElmurry>.

“…there is a definite and palpable current of exasperation throughout the Letter,..The emphasis on the first-person tense……The sum effect of the format, tone, and content of the Letter is to make it unmistakably clear that its contents are of a partisan character…..”

“Moreover … the exasperated tenor, advocative style, and responsive posture would invariably lead a reasonable reader person to expect something less than scrupulous factual accuracy.”

In a post-truth world, what constitutes libel is changing, as described in the recent article “Too Hyperbolic to Be Believed”. Specifically if you make a sufficiently outrageous (i.e., “rhetorical hyperbole”) false statement about someone, the legal system assumes that “no reasonable person could believe” it. By legal definition, if a reasonable reader should doubt it, then it is not defamatory.

Ironically, Dr. Edwards filed the lawsuit and is authoring this blog series, precisely because he expects FACHEP faculty and friends with PhDs to be held accountable for anything ‘less than scrupulous factual accuracy” when it comes to all work conducted in Flint.

For eight months, we have been perplexed, by the question of “Who authored the hyperbolic Flintcomplaints letter—and why?”  With the advantage of FOIA emails unavailable when the lawsuit was filed in August 2018, and which were also unavailable to the judge when he rendered his decision (because new evidence cannot be provided after a case is filed), we can now shed more light on this mystery.

Herein, we examine evidence that shows that the Flintcomplaints letter and anonymously owned websites defending FACHEP and attacking Dr. Edwards were, at least partly, orchestrated by……FACHEP and friends.

CLUE #1: KATHERINE

The once unimaginable possibility that FACHEP faculty might go to such lengths, to  create an event that would put themselves in a positive light, was nicely expressed by Katherine who wrote the following comment, in response to our blog on Citizen Engineering.

Katherine  June 6, 2018 at 9:33 pm

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 <FACHEP> 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 than the original Flint River water.

CLUE #2: WHO WROTE FLINTCOMPLAINTS

Acting on a tip, we submitted a FOIA for emails of a professor we never heard of before: Dr. Britt Holbrook (NJIT Assistant Professor of Humanities). Unfortunately, even though over 2000 pages of responsive emails were discovered 8 months ago, not one of them has yet been turned over to us.

But as part of the FOIA appeal process, NJIT was required to file a document, describing the general nature of emails that were withheld. That document revealed Dr. Holbrook corresponded not only with FACHEP friend Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, but also with FACHEP faculty including Dr. Ben Pauli (Kettering) and Dr. Nancy Love (University of Michigan).

Recall that when Dr. Edwards was subpeoned to testify in Lyon and did so on March 26, 2018, the press characterized it as a “Battle of the Scientists.” To answer many questions posed about Edwards’ testimony, we published a blog with detailed allegations of unethical behavior by FACHEP’s leader Dr. Shawn McElmurry on March 29, 2018. Note that the substance of our allegations was validated in a LARA investigation released last week. In late March Drs. LoveLambrinidou, and Pauli asserted we were “bullies,” spreading “false information” and deserving of sanctions for our “unethical” behavior.

While we cannot tell who was authoring or cc’d on any NJIT emails, the timeline, content and general description of emails withheld by NJIT align perfectly with above events as follows:

  1. March 26, 2018-April 1, 2018 (11 pages). Email discussion re: Virginia Tech researcher Dr. Marc Edwards’ testimony about Flint, Michigan water emergency and attached draft letter from Kettering Assistant Professor Benjamin Pauli addressing unfair criticism by Dr. Edwards against the Flint Area Community Health and Environmental Partnership (FACHEP)
  2. March 26, 2018-April 4, 2018 (26 pages).  Email chain including additional discussion re: the possibility of Benjamin Pauli filing a complaint against Dr. Edwards pursuant to ASCE’s ethics and complaint procedures and providing link to ASCE’s ethics page.
  3. March 26, 2018-May 8, 2018. “…request for Dr. Holbrook to provide feedback re Benjamin Pauli’s (Kettering University) proposed letter to AAAS and ASEE.”
  4. May 8, 2018.  “Email discussion re: location for meeting in Wash., DC on May 9, 2018.

The day after the above May 9th 2018 meeting, the “hyperbolic” Flintcomplaints letter was sent to AAAS, AEESP, Virginia Tech, NAE and many other Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) groups.

Although the Flintcomplaints letter was judged too hyperbolic to be trusted by a reasonable reader, many of the STEM organizations were forced to examine this letter seriously.

Let’s consider the increasingly likely possibility, that FACHEP and friends PhD faculty, met in DC on May 9 to discuss Dr. Pauli’s letter, which morphed into the hyperbolic Flintcomplaints letter mailed May 10, 2018. Re-reading the whole Flintcomplaints letter with that thought in mind, reveals that about half the hyperbolic letter, defends the actions of FACHEP faculty– even echoing some of the words endorsed by  Dr. Love, Lambrinidou and Pauli back in late March 2018.

Further, recall that a June 28, 2018 posting on the Flintcomplaints Facebook page acknowledges that the hyperbolic Letter, was “crafted for us” Flint residents. And a reporter from East Village Magazine noted that authorship of this letter was “being strategically cloaked,” but “multiple local activists were involved.” Were Dr. Lambrinidou, Pauli, Sullivan, Love and Holbrook, those who “crafted” a letter for Flint residents to sign? Was this hyperbolic letter, considered a viable alternative, to publicly filing an ethics complaint against Dr. Edwards as discussed early April 2018?

CLUE #3: DR. PAULI (FACHEP) PERSONALLY SOLICITS SIGNATORIES

It turns out that FACHEP’s Dr. Pauli was actually sending out emails to many faculty, recruiting signatories to both the Flintcomplaints letter and still another letter (to be discussed later) with an “appeal for solidarity.” After writing FACHEP’s version of Edwards activities in Flint, Pauli pivoted:

But this email is only indirectly about Edwards’ attacks on FACHEP. It is really about Flint residents and activists.


(Note: Edwards never publicly called out FACHEP until fall 2017, even though they were maligning him publicly since late 2016)

Pauli then requests that people sign onto the two letters, by writing:

I have been following up with many of you individually and I just want to say how deeply appreciative I am of the support. This situation has been a bit of a nightmare for those of us in the middle of it–it has made people fearful for their careers and even their personal safety, and it has sucked up a massive amount of time that could have been spent on a great many other things. It has also been deeply damaging to the community. At the same time, the pushback we are seeing at multiple levels has the makings of something truly historic and inspiring.

We adamantly dispute any implication that Dr. Edwards ever endangered the personal safety of anyone and would like to see a shred of evidence supporting such an accusation. What is truly mystifying here, is why Dr. Pauli and FACHEP themselves spent so much time and energy undermining the credibility of every other entity operating in Flint (i.e., MDHSS, GCHD, CDC, EPA, and Virginia Tech), rather than devoting their energy to the trust-building work they promised when accepting FACHEP funding. Likewise, we simply cannot fathom the mentality of any PhD faculty, who would describe the hyperbolic Flintcomplaints letter as “truly historic and inspiring”.

CLUE #4: PAULI, LAMBRINIDOU AND THE SECOND LETTER

We will now detail the actions of Dr. Pauli and Lambrinidou, as explicitly documented in emails related to a second “letter to STEM from academics” that also spoke out against Dr. Edwards.

Step 1: On June 2, 2018, FACHEP’s Dr. Pauli grew concerned that the first Flintcomplaints letter was not sufficiently damaging to Dr. Edwards because “the press release sent out a few days ago to announce the <Flintcomplaints> letter failed to get any traction”. Pauli then emailed numerous false statements to a group of social science faculty, none of whom Edwards had ever heard of, including a preposterous claim that Edwards had been sending “aggressive emails” to Melissa Mays because she signed the Flintcomplaints letter. Edwards sent no such emails to Mays.

Step 2: On June 30, 2018, Pauli then wrote the professors:

“The letter of support for the residents’ complaint is more critical and urgent than ever…Yanna <Dr. Lambrinidou>, can you set up a website that could host the letter and that would allow fellow academics to sign in support?”

From reading this, we get a clear sense that Pauli and Lambrinidou have done this before (i.e., Flintcomplaints). Upset at the escalating attacks, Edwards filed his defamation case 4 days later.

Step 3: Dr. Lambrinidou does not sign the letter. Dr. Pauli authored the letter and makes it clear he never intended to sign the letter he wrote either. Instead, he explicitly tells the other faculty, that his reason for not signing, is to maximize reputational harm to Dr. Edwards:

“Since I am not a signatory to the letter….I am also being very careful about what I say about the letter in general…. because then it might look like I’m the spokesperson for the letter (even if I don’t address it directly), which is something we absolutely must avoid if we want this thing to have its intended impact [on Dr. Edwards].

Step 4: Pauli then informs the signatories of his letter that if Dr. Edwards should call them to discuss matters, then they should give Edwards the cold shoulder” because “this letter, like the residents’ letter, is not for him.” He reminds these faculty how important it is that this effort “goes viral.” The letter is then released.

The day after the second letter was released, Dr. Pauli actually bragged in writing to the faculty who signed it that:

Even if every word of the residents’ letter was a lie, it is hard to see how anyone in their right mind could think that what Edwards is doing is appropriate.  There are already signs that this latest outrage is opening up cracks in Edwards’ reputation, even with sympathizers.”

Step 5: Pauli prepares the professors for anyone who might try and defend Dr. Edwards. For example, Pauli told them that AEESP President Maya Trotz has acted in some truly shocking ways that have compromised people who are trying to speak out about Marc. How she reconciles all this with principles of “community engagement” or “environmental justice” is beyond me.”

PAULI’S BOOK: FIGHTING FOR FLINT

Coincidentally, Dr. Pauli happens to be working on further cashing in on the Flint Water Crisis in general, and the Flintcomplaints and Flintaccountability letters, by writing a book about it.  Due to the fact Dr. Pauli emailed copies of the draft chapter all over the country to malign Edwards, we obtained a copy pursuant to FOIA law.

The draft chapter reveals an academic version of Fire Fighter arson. First, we have argued in this series, that FACHEP repeatedly (figuratively) started fires with residents, by intentionally maligning other academics and public health agencies. They then presented themselves as heroic figures battling the imagined enemies.

In relation to Edwards, Pauli goes further to write about how residents rose up to defend FACHEP, by first authoring and then signing onto the hyperbolic Flintcomplaints letter. In his emails, Pauli alternates between a claim that residents wrote Flintcomplaints, or that activists wrote it, dependent on the audience. All the while Pauli acts as if he is a dispassionate observer of the unfolding events, rather than the instigator he was. Why won’t Pauli honestly admit he played a role in authoring the letter?

For those who are interested in reading this tale, we provide a copy of the draft chapter covering the time period of our blogs 1-10 (read here). For those who do not have the time, we can tell you that the book mentions virtually none of the FACHEP problems we revealed in blog parts 1-10.  There is almost nothing about the clashes between FACHEP and Dr. Wells (MDHHS), or FACHEP’s friction with health messaging of other public agencies through January 2017. Of course, there is also nothing at all mentioned regarding FACHEP’s rumormongering about a shigella outbreak coming from water.

When describing the Flintcomplaints letter, Pauli wrote the following:

And in the most stunning development yet, 40 residents signed a letter in protest of Edwards’s attack on FACHEP and behavior toward the community generally, sending it to a variety of professional engineering and scientific associations and calling for an independent investigation. After the letter was posted online to Flintcomplaints.com, signatures from residents and outside supporters continued to stream in. Edwards, denouncing what he called the. letter’s “many false claims” and depicting it as a plot by Melissa Mays to smear him, pledged to track down each of its signatories individually and ask them whether they agreed with its every last word.

Here we can see several dimensions to Dr. Pauli’s dishonesty. First, he again hides any personal role in planning, writing, orchestrating or seeking signatories for the “stunning..letter in protest of Edwards’s attack on FACHEP.”

Second, Edwards never “pledged to track down each of its signatories individually.” He wrote a very polite email to the email address from whence Flintcomplaints originated, pointing out false statements in the letter, and asking whether those facts would change anything for signatories. Of course, Edwards got the Pauli “cold shoulder” treatment– no one responded to his email. As far as Edwards knows, the signatories were never even provided it.

We also do not feel Edwards was “depicting <the letter> as a plot by Melissa Mays to smear him.” Here is the full quote from the cited East Village Magazine source:

Edwards asserted the flintcomplaints.com letter had been written, and primarily represented the views of water activist Melissa Mays, though he said it is not all about her. “This is about an attack on expertise,”  Edwards said in a phone call today.  When his detractors — some of whom he said were from academia — “started to attack our engineering expertise, it all went off the rails. It’s a different world view, entirely — what we’ve been calling science anarchy, a populist, anti-elite movement that’s affected all our institutions.This is a new battlefield in a war over science, instigated by professors.  This is coming from academia, spurred on by people who are not engineers.”

We therefore disagree with the storyline presented in Pauli’s book, and we discovered numerous factual errors in the draft chapter that always err towards glorifying FACHEP and maligning others. Overall, when it comes to the book, we recall what Federal Judge Urbanski wrote about the Flintcomplaints letter:

An “…unmistakable indicia of partisanship…frustration with Edwards about a formal complaint he allegedly filed against a Wayne State University professor….a reasonable reader person <should> expect something less than scrupulous factual accuracy.”

SOME CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Regrettably, none of the revelatory emails and insights presented above, were available to us when Dr. Edwards’ defamation case was first formulated and filed. Consequently, these insights were also unavailable, for the judge to consider when the defamation case was dismissed.

It is truly shocking to witness how FACHEP and friends PhD faculty, played a role in orchestrating the hyperbolic Flintcomplaints letter, from its conception to its promotion. FACHEP did not publicly and transparently debate Edwards. Instead, FACHEP hid behind the Flintcomplaints curtain, an action Pauli considers “historic and inspiring.”

Actually putting in writing that a motive for the letters, was to damage Edwards reputation, and inherent dishonesty in how the letters were  represented to academics, academic organizations, and the public, is also extremely disturbing. Is this the kind of behavior the State of Michigan should expect from academics with  public research funding? It is especially troubling because Drs. Love, Holbrook and Lambrinidou frequently claim engineering ethics expertise.

While maybe “no reasonable person could believe” the above story at first glance, read the emails and decide for yourself. Indeed, it is “a dirtier soup than the original Flint River water.” It may not be illegal, but it is ethical?

4 thoughts on “PART XI: ENGINEERING ETHICS: FACHEP → FLINTCOMPLAINTS → RHETORICAL HYPERBOLE

  1. Hi Dr. Edwards: I cannot imagine what it must feel like to have been the subject of such an apparently well-orchestrated smear campaign. It is a chilling new venue presented by social media.

    I am appalled that academics, who I would have previously thought should serve as examples of reasoned and honorable behavior, would engage in activities that I regard as equivalent to ~6th grade level rumor mongering. IMO public institutions need to take a serious look at whether they really want to host and support such individuals.

    Yes, you defended your honor via the U.S. court system as I and many reasonable individuals would in your place. However, having read all 115 pages of judges decision I would hardly characterize it as a “scathing rebuke” on the plaintiffs suit!

    To the contrary, several charges were dismissed WITHOUT PREJUDICE and the final statement on page 115 was that defendants request for court costs and attorney charges was DENIED (all caps in decision doc). Another unfortunate aspect of the judge’s decision for Mr. Moran.

    Keep your chin up Dr. Edwards! One can never be wrong for speaking the truth, even in a situation where events in near history are being twisted for various agendas.

    What’s truly unusual is seeing a voice that’s capable, and willing to state truth in the midst of a twisted narrative and many of us applaud you for doing so. It is nothing short of remarkable. Loved your and Sid’s CNN article also.

  2. Dr. Edwards, thank you for this expose and seeing this through. In the eyes of many, some of the most important work that has been done by you in the wake of the FWC is your examination of these phenomenon that have arisen through the actions of highly imperfect people

    Providing a framework that both scientists and the public can use to speak about perverse incentives and how imperfect people (in academia and science) react to those is critical going forward. Many of us struggle to discuss and examine complex cases such as you have uncovered in Flint and the terminology and framework you have already provided is critical. Your papers on Perverse Incentives in Academia, as well as your articles and talks about “Post-Truth Science” are increasingly necessary.

    It is unfortunate when one is attacked for closely examining such behaviors in ways that affect one’s health, heart or pocketbook, however, many of us have been on similar journeys and respect that you were willing to take on this difficult problem. You are correct in another thing also, sometimes the best friend we have is our dog! 🙂

  3. An earlier response to this comment was deleted by Flintwaterstudy because it spoiled the future storyline. This is the first time we have ever changed a comment.

    Thank you Katherine. It has not been easy. But the stakes are high for Michigan taxpayers, Flint residents, science ethics, Wells, Lyon, and the world. We will stay the course on illustrating the FACHEP train wreck, no matter what the personal cost.

    The financial cost for Dr. Edwards and his family was $70K, to try and stop the unrelenting FACHEP attacks, only a portion of which are described above. We do wish we had known about Dr. Pauli and his emails when we filed the case, much less the wicked web in emails at NJIT that are being 100% withheld.

    Indeed, Mr. Moran was not awarded any of the attorney fees, that he frequently asserted he would win. He claimed they exceeded $90,000 or so at about the halfway point, in an attempt to get Edwards to drop the lawsuit. We are not sure how much the defendants spent defending the whole case, because Dr. Lambrinidou eventually engaged a second lawyer. The point is that the costs of this fiasco go beyond the tens of millions in MI taxpayer money for the criminal cases and the millions in FACHEP funding.

    Note also that these events, were put in motion, by Edwards subpoenaed testimony in Lyon. Imagine that. FACHEP faculty were so upset that Edwards was going to foil their hero narrative with truthful testimony, they had to try and destroy him. The NJIT timeline makes clear they started plotting against Edwards the very day he testified,

    Over the last 16 years, since I was fired by the EPA in DC (2003), starting this long journey, very few people have stepped forward unexpectedly to help. One was Dr. Lambrinidou (2009-2013), who was a great friend and collaborator, until it obviously went sour. But Susan is the first professor to ever really put it all on the line.

    I get why no one with an academic career would ever take this path, but I want to formally acknowledge her extraordinary courage. And to think the two of us once did not like each other– Dr. McElmurry’s serial maligning kept us apart, and eventually a shared frustration of working with him brought us together.

    Thanks to my family, dog, Dr. Pruden, Sid, Katherine, Susan, Kasey and a few dozen people who are encouraging me anonymously. Including a few people who were formerly within FACHEP or at UM–the stories they tell are extraordinary, consistent and scary. Maybe someday those stories can be told as well.

    • Hi Marc: I also want to say a word to Dr. Masten in support of what I know must have been a very painful choice for her. As a faculty member myself, I can only imagine the difficulty in acknowledging wrong doing in someone who was an alumni of my department. I imagine it was soul-searching and frightening to do so (be a whistle-blower), however, I hope she knows that by doing so she has raised the stakes in quality for her program and set an important example.

      I surely hope that others will support Dr. Masten’s honesty and she will not suffer repercussions. I am inspired by her courage and hope that more of us would do the same if put in that difficult position.

      To not have been willing to speak up (even provide some much needed support to M.E. in bringing facts to light) would bring us, as a scientific community, one rung lower on the ladder descending into the void of Post-Truth Science (exaggerated/falsified credentials, misleading results etc).

      In some ways, that is the most frightening thing in what Marc has uncovered in his blog. Seeing another be willing to speak truth gives more courage to the rest of us. Thank you Susan for your courage!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *