August 2000

The Nature of Scientific Inquiry

In the November-December 1999 issue of The World magazine, UUA President John Buehrens wrote eloquently about spirituality and science. His treatment of the topic fits nicely with my theme. Dr. Buehrens’ conclusions are quite wide-reaching. Citing scientific philosopher Freeman Dyson, President Buehrens states: “…a God who is not self involved or fearful but creative and therefore always giving away being and power. A God who is not static but growing and changing, who is hurt or given joy by what we do or leave undone in our relations with others. Dyson speaks of a God inherent in the Universe and growing in power and knowledge as the universe unfolds.” In this citation, Buehrens presents a number of concepts: 1) Creative God, 2) Generous God, 3) Growing God, 4) Unfolding of universe, 5) God is the Universe: weighty theological innovations arising from science and spirituality. How has a simple discipline of measuring triangles and dissecting frogs reached such lofty mythological levels?

We see in president Buehren’s philosophy a tendency common to most humans to create abstract concepts such as justice, freedom, love, spirituality, and now, science, and animate them all, appearing as antique Gods with arrows, swords, or balances in hands. This completes the move of such concepts into the realm of mythology. This move changes how we look at science. Read the old mission statement of the Minneapolis Society and you can see the lofty position to which we have elevated science and the scientific method.

Science is in this way often tied to rational thought, giving the impression that if you are a rational being, you must use the scientific method in every possible situation. At that point, it becomes quite unclear whether science is the preferred universal tool for a rational being or whether science is just a synonym for rationality. If scientific inquiry–the operational definition of science–is just a tool, it becomes very difficult to define when it’s appropriate to use it as a label. If a Swedish scientist claims to have constructed the best possible mattress, has he used our tool? Has science, as a tool, been used to produce a BMW 500 ? Is astrology a product of science as a tool? It certainly is logical in its arguments and based on observations.

On the other hand, is science not a universal tool but only another name for rationality? If we agree that this is the case, then the most primitive aborigines practice science because their behavior within their surroundings is quite. rational.

It is clear from the above reasoning that it is not useful either to consider scientific inquiry as a universal tool or science as a synonym for rationality.

Looking at the problem, maybe we could justify the use of science in a nearly mythological context by considering scientific inquiry as the golden path to truth. The role of scientific inquiry is primarily the establishment of truth, but we need only read the scientific sections in our newspapers to realize that science can be used to define as true many incompatible statements. One day red wine is good for your health. True! The next day, alcohol use may lead to liver disease. True! No wonder that some lost school board in Kansas has declared creation to be a true scientific theory. Arguing along the mythological interpretation of science in president Buehrens’ article, I see no problem in declaring the story of Winnie the Pooh as a theory of small bears.

Uncertain and vague statements about science thus seem to be due to an unnecessary broadening of the definition of scientific inquiry. Let us try to examine its functioning and try to redefine the meaning of the words scientific inquiry.

We have to start from the beginning and try to find the goals for scientific inquiry and the foundational assumptions that such inquiry is based on. You can find the goals quite easily. Read a number of text books in physics ,astronomy, chemistry, biology and psychology, and it becomes immediately clear that the goal is always the same:

A precise description of the external world with us a part of it. A description in terms of observations made, using our senses.

Scientific vocabulary does not contain statements like, “good for you.” Thus, stories about the usefulness of red wine or the dangers of alcohol have nothing to do with science. Nor is the mattress design by Swedes classifiable as scientific inquiry. If the goal of scientific inquiry is to paint a picture, make a model of the physical world, then the two premises that such inquiry is based on become immediately evident.

  1. There is an external world common to us all–a world existing independent of our observing it. Thus, if the human race were obliterated by an intergalactic construction company, the record players booming out Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would continue to play although there are no more humans to hear it. Observers from other planets would find ruins of lost cities and all our toys as real as they once were to us. The world exists even without us. We will call it the common reality premise.
  2. Events in the external world are related to each other by causal connections. Our observations of them are logically related. We call this the causality premise.

Science as an art of describing the world around us cannot function if any of these two premises is violated.

We can ask if these two premises are ever challenged. Of course they are. The causality premise is challenged by the Christian dogma of God’s omnipotence and the possibility of his intervention in our time. The beautiful stories about the compatibility of Christianity and science are just stories. As long as it accepts miracles and response to prayers, Christian dogma cannot be compatible with science because as dogma it negates science’s causality premise,

Let me illustrate with a story: I work for Jimmy the Greek in Las Vegas and my quite well- paid role is to determine the handicaps for college football teams so that the public can bet on them. I work hard on developing the odds through researching statistics, health reports, previous records, etc. All is going pretty well. We don’t worry that most teams with their coaches pray before the game. Let us now assume that one day these prayers are answered and miracles happen here and there. The college games become unpredictable. Very soon, Jimmy the Creek and I decide to throw in the towel. Miracles do the same thing for scientists. Who can predict weather if in the wink of an eye the Red Sea parts on order of a local prophet?

The common reality premise has been challenged by many schools of thought, the latest being the French postmodernists and deconstructionists (Foucault;Lyotard). Anytime you hear somebody describing science as a white male power structure and touting the advantages of female science, you know the common reality premise has been violated. The structure of the world we observe as scientists is observer-neutral and common to us all. You cannot deconstruct it to different pieces depending on who you are. If you can do it, science is not possible. Dogmatic religious people at least are honest to the extent that they often bet their fate on the outcome of their prayer. Postmodern thinkers, however, negate the common reality premise only in a verbal sense in the academic and intellectual world. In their private lives, they act as if this premise were true; they do not doubt that reality for the 10,000 air traffic-controllers is precisely the same anywhere in the world, so they can collect their frequent flier miles in safety.

Let us summarize:

Provided common reality exists independent of us and the events observed show reproducible causality, we can proceed to paint a picture of the world. The process of doing it is defined as scientific inquiry. This inquiry is based solely on past or present observations.

The first development of scientific inquiry by humans started after they accepted the common reality and causality premises. Humans discovered the reproducibility and common basis of observations, maybe 10,000 years ago. We believe that they started with observations of the positions of heavenly bodies and such natural phenomena as the rise and fall of the level of the Nile.

The premises for scientific inquiry so far presented are a more abstract part of the process of inquiry. The inquiry itself is an eminently practical process that takes place in seven consecutive steps. We come now to the first three steps of inquiry, common to all branches of science. The steps follow each other both historically and logically. Thus, every new branch of science goes through these steps sequentially.

  1. Record observations (The earliest documents were astronomical charts, that is, bones with markings related to phases of the moon).
  2. Compare observations (develop some kind of quantitative measure, length, height and then develop the concept of scale–high, higher, highest). Convertobservations to measurements.
  3. Introduce common reference (a standard for weight or using sea level as a base for height measurements).
  4. At this point, words such as theory, hypothesis and law, all referring to the latter steps of the procedure, have not yet made their appearance.
  5. Do not think that these first three steps are somehow only associated with the past, namely–the beginnings of science. Some of the most modern scientific fields have not yet advanced beyond this point. Take, for example, the study of human intelligence. The measure we all are acquainted with is I.Q. We carry out a number of measurements in the form of questions and answers. We time some responses; we record and study a population; we convert the results to some combined quantitative measure, percent, number of correct answers, etc. We study a population and find an average. After that, we declare that high deviations from the average are a sign of high intelligence, and deviations towards low, of low intelligence. These conclusions have little to do with science but are a social commentary that may have some validity for some uses. If somebody rapidly solves a puzzle, one should, according to our scale, be good at making cross-word puzzles for the newspaper, which in real life may or may not be true. The big fights about the significance of such measurements as I.Q. are to be expected. The science of human intelligence measurement, if there is such a thing (definable by observations), is still in a very early stage. How does scientific inquiry proceed from observations and compilations? How do we move beyond I.Q.?
  6. This fourth step is the most difficult and arduous of all. It represents identification and separation of variables.
  7. What is a variable? Some measureable property, conforming to some reasonable scale on which its variation can be defined. Temperature, the height of things, weight, are good, clear variables. How many variables do we need to fully describe the properties of any gas such as air/oxygen? Volume pressure, temperature? All three are easy to measure.
  8. We see the problem with I.Q. We cannot yet define decent variables that can be measured by some scale. Can solving crossword puzzles be measured? Think about playing scrabble. What are the variables you can define your prowess with? Can you think of a formula converting your eyesight, memory, speed, the amount of books you have read, into a prediction of your scrabble score? Of course not! Galileo’s brilliant insight was that he found decent variables for observing falling bodies: weight, time, height. Once the variables are separated and defined, we can proceed to the next step.
  9. The fifth step is the formulation of an hypothesis. Let us consider the game of billiards where the described by a change in variables. A billiard ball receives an impetus from the cue ball, thereby changing its position and speed and colliding with a second ball. A follows B follows C. The second ball moves along with some defined speed to some defined direction.
  10. I now define an hypothesis. Billiard balls after being hit by the cue ball move in a direction determined by the angle and momentum provided during the collision. I propose it to be valid for all billiard balls and cues wherever and hit by whomever.
  11. It sounds plausible but needs verification. We and others here and in Europe hit cue balls with different power at different angles and we see that using this hypothesis, we can predict the path of the second ball well. After a lot of testing, we move to step 6.
  12. Conversion of a hypothesis to a theory.
  13. It is time to declare the formula to be a theory for billiard balls. The difference between hypothesis and theory is the amount and variety of testing that has been done. The theory is still and always open to revision by new observations of the behavior of the two balls. We find that we had forgotten to account for friction on the surface. O.K., an amended theory is put forward. Then a wise guy points out that the spin of the cue ball plays a big role. We amend the theory again. When at long last, all variables are accounted for and in a very large number of trials the outcome can be predicted every time, we are ready to proceed to the final seventh step.
  14. The elevation of theory to the status of law, valid for all balls of every material and surface spin and air pressure and humidity. We, of course, find that in this case we are describing Newton’s laws. The fellow with the apple has scooped us.

These are the seven practical steps that fully describe the process of scientific inquiry: a practical, simple but often arduous task. We can now recognize at which stage of development different popular problems are to be found.

We find that the study of human intelligence is in the pre-hypothesis stage where we are looking for variables. Darwin’s hypothesis of 1859 has become a theory of evolution still being amended. The inheritance of genes is based on Mendel’s research which has since become law (Mendel’s problems were simpler than Darwin’s as the number of variables for a gene is far less than for an organism).

The last question about science we are going to explore briefly is the question of the value of the product of scientific inquiry. We assume that all our theories have become laws. How well is the external world described by the laws derived by the seven-point method?

An immediate response to this question will doubtless be put forth by some erudite listeners. They will point out that I am getting dangerously close to describing a totally determined Universe which nobody believes in anymore. Furthermore, in my lecture, I am neglecting indeterminism. Many well-known scientists can be quoted as claiming there is no absolute certainty in science, that science deals only with probabilities.

Some listeners will stretch it somewhat further and claim that the Universe is characterized by the presence of randomness. They point to quantum mechanical theory as support. However, I am trying, in a very short time and quite crudely, to point out that what we call randomness and probability are factors introduced to account for the inadequacy of the human senses to deal with a wide variety of observations. There are too many variables for us to observe with necessary precision; due to the limited nature of our senses, we inevitably influence events in measuring them.

Let us now tackle the concept of probability and its role in scientific inquiry.

We are rolling dice and we keep book, recording all outcomes. It turns out that after a large number of rolls, each of the faces comes up with equal frequency, a very precise number. However, we can never predict what the outcome of an individual roll will be. Despite the best bookkeeping, you cannot find deviations from the results for the large numbers. Thousands of gamblers have learned this bitter truth. Thus, there is a very precise outcome for large numbers; we can certainly consider it to be the law for large numbers. However, there is randomness in the outcome for a single cast. Is this a mystery or a paradox?

Is randomness inherent in the design of the dice? Let us put the dice flat on the table with the face with one up and administer a push to the dice with a very precise machine–a machine that hits the dice in the middle, a little bit above the point of gravity. The dice rolls, maybe three times, with the face showing 2 turning up all the time. We can repeat this as many times as we want. If we place the dice precisely, and the force and direction of the push are constant, the distribution of the face turning up is quite different from the previous rolling where we used our hand. The face showing 2 turns up in most cases. There may be a few other faces when we were sloppy in positioning the dice. Well, there is certainly no randomness in the frequency of faces of dice turning up. (in stark contrast to the series where we used the hand). Consequently, there is no randomness in the dice (the cube itself).

The randomness is evidently in our roll. If we study the human hand casting the die, we discover it’s nearly impossible to isolate all the variables that go in the throw: our muscle coordination has an inherent tremor in it. We cannot put forward a theory for the trajectory of the dice. This doesn’t mean it’s not possible in principle to calculate it. In principle it is the same problem as a chess playing robot. We have always said that the game is too complex with too many variables, even the best computer cannot calculate them. Well, Deep Blue is very near to being the best chess player in the world.

What does science do if the calculations are too overwhelming? It observes a number of test throws and draws a list of outcomes and determines the frequency with which any of the faces comes up. The inverse of the frequency gives you the probability of the outcome. There is, therefore, no mystery about the frequency or the apparent randomness.

The most celebrated tables of probability are those for life expectancy. I am sure that soon with completion of the human genome project, we may calculate biological life expectancy for anybody. Still, the tables will do better because they will include such variables as traffic accidents, which are not mirrored in our genes. Thus, frequencies and probabilities reflect our limitations when dealing with very complex systems. They represent a useful approximation that nonetheless has very high predictive power.

What we have done now is to compensate for the inadequacy of our senses in dealing with large numbers, using statistics, which is the science of dealing with large numbers. Again, probabilities and frequencies represent efforts to deal with the inherent limitations of our human senses.

At this point somebody will assert that what I say may be true in macrocosmos, but when we go to atoms, the quantum chemistry enshrines both randomness and the probability present in very simple units of matter.

First of all, the story is not as clear as many would like it to be. Many scientists, Einstein among them, refused to believe in inherent randomness and preferred to look at apparent randomness as a product of hidden variables. The problem of uncertainty is closely linked to the effect of measurements. We have to visualize events so our senses will allow us to make an observation. This is the major limitation of science.

Yes, scientific inquiry will lead to a true picture of the world surrounding us. The picture, however, is never’ complete and has Ito be continuously amended when and if new observations are made. One can ask how can something be true if it has to be amended. The answer is that all scientific laws are approximations, and what we mean by amendment is that we have isolated new variables and can work with higher precision then before so that the picture of the world becomes clearer and shows more details. This does not mean that the previous picture was wrong, only that it was true at that level of detail and precision. One can compare science to photography that works with the same negative but with the use of increasing magnification.

Scientific inquiry leads to a neutral product. Good, bad, useful, harmful are adjectives outside the realm of scientific discourse. Human beings can look at any picture of nature and exclaim, “This is horrible; I do not like it.” Such valuation of neutral facts has nothing to do with science.

To be sure, the behavior of human beings, their beliefs and motivation for their acts, is itself a field for scientific inquiry. It is, however, on the first, most primitive level. We observe human behavior and try to identify variables that seem to influence it although we have not even succeeded in finding suitable measures. Sociology, psychology, economy, etc, are sciences of a sort, but sciences at their lowest level of development. The level is not determined by dearth of hard work and brilliant insight but is simply a function of the complexity of the systems at issue.

The main point remains: we have constructed our present picture of our world entirely on knowledge gathered by use of the 7-point method of scientific inquiry. The extension of science to art, poetry, and religion has not contributed much to science or to the arena of human emotions and feelings. Finally, the verbal extension of science into the realm of spirituality, as in the Buehren’s article, may contribute to literature and poetry, but not to science.

–Andreas Rosenberg

With a Ph.D. and a Doctor of Science from The University of Uppsala, Sweden, Andreas Rosenberg has been professor of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Minnesota since 1964. He retired in 1999 but is still consultant at the Laboratory for Diagnostic Allergy in the Department of Lab. Med, and Path. He is also on the adjunct faculty of the Humanist Institute in New York. This address was delivered last December al the Forum of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.

Published in the 2000 Issue 1 of Occasional Newsletter of the Friends of Religious Humanism

Ethics vs. Making a Living


Tonight I am going to talk about the choices open to an employee who finds herself in an ethical dilemma in the workplace, and the possible consequences of exercising those options.

I am also going to present a framework for THINKING about the problem of what to do if asked to do something unethical or illegal and deciding what to do.

I am NOT going to tell you how to decide if you are being faced with an ethical dilemma–that is different for each person, as you will see when you hear about the framework for thinking about this problem.

Gandhi included in his SEVEN BLUNDERS OF THE WORLD THAT LEAD TO VIOLENCE one about “Commerce Without Morality.” His words were:

“Commerce Without Morality: As in wealth without work we indulge in commerce without morality to make more money by any means possible. Price gouging, palming off inferior products, cheating and making false claims are a few of the obvious ways in which we indulge in commerce without morality. There are also thousands of other ways in which we do immoral or unethical business. When profit making becomes the most important aspect of business, morals and ethics usually go overboard. We cut benefits and even salaries of employees. If possible we employ “slave” labor, like the sweat shops and migrant farm workers in New York and California where workers are thoroughly exploited. Profit supersedes the needs of people. When business is unable to deal with labor it begins to mechanize. Mechanization, it is claimed, increases efficiency, but in reality it is instituted simply to make more money. Alternate jobs may be created for a few. Others will fall by the wayside and languish. Who cares? People don’t matter, profits do. In more sophisticated language what we are really saying is that those who cannot keep up with the technological changes and exigencies of the times do not deserve to live–a concept on which Hitler built the Nazi Party. If society does not care for such people, can we blame them if they become criminals?”

Gandhi was speaking at an earlier time, and from the point of view of the greedy entrepreneur. Little did he know that matters were going to get a whole lot worse–that many ordinary employees, with no stake in ill-gotten profits, would be expected to carry out unethical or illegal activities in the routine course of their duties if they wanted to go on feeding their families. Unethical acts that endanger public health and safety or defraud are widespread. This ranges from falsifying time cards for projects, or fudging test results for buildings or equipment that might subsequently fail and kill people, to bypassing safety rules in nuclear power plants with the possible result of wiping out life in large parts of the planet.

The trend is for more and more Americans to be employees. Professions that formerly offered the opportunity for private practice and greater freedoms are increasingly being brought into large organizations. Eighty percent of all engineers are employees, and more and more physicians and architects are being pressured to become employees. As employees, we pretty much have to do what we are told. That’s part of the deal. But what if we are told (or expected) to do something that is illegal or that may cause serious harm to others? Consider the plight of a physician in a managed-care setting. It is one thing to be told to “keep costs down” and quite another to be forbidden, upon pain of dismissal, to even discuss with patients treatment options that the employer deems too costly.


In this talk, I draw a distinction between ethical issues, which are based on broadly accepted standards of right and wrong as laid out in codes of ethics, and issues of personal morality pertaining to individual conduct. Aspects of one’s job may offend one’s PERSONAL moral sense without being unethical or illegal. For example, a Muslim might find it offensive that female coworkers do not cover their heads. Or, an employee may think that the goods and services provided by his organization are offensive. In such cases, the employee can either put up with it or leave.

Instead, I am going to talk about cases in which an employee is asked or expected to perform illegal or unethical acts, or in which an employee becomes aware that illegal or unethical activities are being carried out, where “unethical activities” are those that might cause damage to the public, the environment, or fellow employees.

If the determination that an act is unethical derives from established codes of ethics, there is more societal support than if it is simply derived from a personal ethical sense. There is little enough societal support in any event, but if an employee is damaged and seeks recourse through the courts, reliance on an established code of ethics makes a much stronger case than reliance on a personal sense of ethics.

I am also not going to talk about specific codes of ethics, except to say that they exist. There are THOUSANDS of ethics codes for various professions and employment categories. Teaching ethics is also a big business–engineers, business students, and others are trained to split ethical hairs to a precise degree. However, enforcing these codes is like belling the cat. Enforcement is VERY difficult. Courts, though, do sometimes look at whether ethical objections are based on established codes of ethics for a profession or field. If a dismissed employees? ethical objections are NOT based on an established code, the courts often throw the case out as being simply a personal matter. In other words, you may know that it is wrong to kill people, but you had better find a code of ethics that specifically mentions not taking actions that harm human beings!

Standards of ethics should also be distinguished from laws. The fact that an action is legally permissible does not establish that it is morally and ethically permissible. Similarly, illegality does not imply immorality. We can all construct examples, based on our own experience and on common sense.

Moral statements are statements that something is right or wrong. There can, of course, be disagreement over moral statements. For example, employees may disagree about the morality of killing civilians, so that one engineer could work on a particular defense contract in good conscience and another could not. A code of ethics might simply mention not doing harm to human beings–leaving the interpretation up to the individual employee.


Instead of discussing the ins and outs of developing and debating ethics standards, what I AM going to talk about is the various choices an employee has when faced with an ethical dilemma and the possible outcomes from those choices. In other words, I cannot tell other people what constitutes an ethical workplace problem–this is different for each person–but when you get into that situation, you will KNOW it and what I am providing is a taxonomy of options and the possible outcomes from exercising those choices.

I am also going to present a framework for THINKING about ethical problems in the workplace–hopefully BEFORE one is faced with a serious ethical problem. “Ethics” is often a gray area, so I am going to restrict my comments to cases where there is an established code of ethics for a profession or field and one is being asked to violate it.

The best course of action is to AVOID being put into a situation where one would have to perform illegal or unethical acts, but what about KNOWLEDGE of such acts if you think the consequences are dire? Can one in good conscience remain silent?

Being expected to perform actions that are illegal or unethical is usually a no-win situation. If we refuse, we get fired and possibly “black-listed” as “troublemakers” or–the ultimate sin these days–“not team players.”. If we go along and do what we are told to do, we risk not only the bad conscience of doing harm but the very real consequences of getting blamed if the illegal acts are discovered. That usually results in loss of career or employment, and in some cases personal legal liability. The Nuremberg Defense (“I was just following orders”) doesn’t even work very well in the aftermath of real wars, during which ethics and morals had been abandoned in the interest of winning the war.

Consider the unfortunate engineer who had to sign off on the flight of the Challenger shuttle in 1986. He had not designed those O rings, nor been responsible for the range of tests performed, but he was in a position where the shuttle could not take off without his approval and his best engineering judgement was that the flight would be unsafe at the very cold temperatures that day. He hesitated, and had a code of engineering ethics to back him up, but both his own management and government managers brought a lot of pressure to bear. There were serious political considerations, both for his company and for the U.S. Government. This was toward the end of the Cold War, and President Reagan had made a major point of the shuttle flight with the school teacher aboard. He was told to “Take off your engineer’s hat and put on your manager’s hat.” He did so, with results that we all know about. Who can ever forget the television coverage of that vapor trail dividing into two separate arms?

What would have happened to this man had he stood his ground as an engineer and refused to sign? He would no doubt have been fired. As it was, his career was essentially over after the shuttle exploded. That’s what I mean by a “no-win” situation. This is a famous case, taught in many university courses on ethics. The question for the student–what should he have done?–is usually qualified by the caution to remember the age of this man and think about his chances of finding another job. Students are also urged to consider the latitude in making a technical prediction that the O-rings WOULD fail.

So, if the random workings of the business world place you in such a position, what are your choices?

  • Doing nothing or delaying action–is always a choice. Sometimes things blow over.
  • Attempting to negotiate with one’s superiors is an honorable and forthright course, but one that is frequently not rewarded with a gold star.
  • Going higher in the organization, skipping levels, is also a choice. This sometimes produces a result that is good for society but not so good for the employee, against whom the skipped superiors have many forms of retaliation.
  • “Blowing the whistle” by airing one’s concerns OUTSIDE of the organization is also a choice. Whether this is the first or the last choice depends on the characteristics of the organization.

The Option of Doing Nothing or Delaying

There are lots of ways to carry out this option, depending on the circumstances. An example will be provided later.

The Option of Negotiation Through Internal Channels

If we go through internal channels, the result is very often dismissal. While we dislike beginning with the assumption that everybody is crooked, the truth is that nobody in authority wants to HEAR about such problems. The rules of war–when customary moral and ethical considerations are suspended in the name of winning the war and thus preserving one’s society–seem to have drifted downward into the organizational world. Increasingly, the competitive world of capitalism is viewed as war. The attitude is that preserving the organization is so important that customary moral and ethical considerations are suspended. Firms are merging and buying each other and getting larger and larger. The faceless corporation–which must be protected with the same fervor as are nations at war–prevails.

The Option of Voicing One’s Concerns Higher in the Organization

Sometimes this works and higher management agrees with the employee. However, that does not protect the employee’s job from retaliation by the people in between.

For example, in one instance, an engineer successfully convinced a vice-president, after having been brushed off by his immediate superiors, that one of the procedures being carried out was illegal and harmful. The procedure was then modified. This man had been with the company for 14 years. Immediately after his complaints were listened to and acted on, he was fired for insubordination. His subsequent lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that the allegation of insubordination ruled and the ethical complain had not been material. (Essay #6, “Loyalty and Professional Responsibility”, part of work done by Dr. Mike Rabins, Dr Charles Harris, Dr. Michael Pritchard and others on an NSF grant at Texas A & M University.)

The Option of Blowing the Whistle Outside The Organization

There is always the option of reporting wrongdoing through external channels–to government agencies or to the press. However, one had better resign first, since firing is sure to follow, and one may find oneself blacklisted and unable to get another job.

Anonymous whistle-blowing is an option, but this lacks credibility and often the identity of the whistle-blower can be determined anyway.

The contemporary culture is so complex that it is often difficult to foresee or even understand the eventual possible consequences of actions taken as an employee. One frequently has to accept on faith that health and safety rules have a reason–for example that a “cold pour” of concrete (freshly-mixed concrete poured on top of concrete that has already begun to set) may cause a structure to collapse at some future time–or that mixing outdated hamburger with fresh hamburger in a fast-food restaurant may make customers sick.

Taking actions that are harmful to society is not limited to architects, engineers, physicians, those with professional credentials whose seal or signature has legal impact. Ordinary workers in food stores or restaurants or repair shops can also be placed in the position of going along with illegal activities or being unemployed. For example, a mechanic may be told to use refurbished parts and certify them as new, or to skip maintenance steps and certify that they have been performed. The head of maintenance for Alaskan Airlines, in recent testimony shown on television, said that “You have to make mistakes if you are going to make a business grow.” He apparently believed that “making the business grow” justified risking the lives of airline crews and passengers.

To make the point even more vividly, consider that any of you might have been a passenger on the aircraft that crashed and burned in Florida because spent oxygen containers had been illegally shipped as cargo. SOMEBODY had to sign-off on the falsified paperwork–“pencil-whipping”, as it is called–and whether or not the person who did so understood the possible consequences of this action is murky. However, had the person refused, he or she would have probably been fired.

Worrying about the consequences of illegal or unethical actions is what drives some people to make the hard choice to be a whistleblower. I say this is a “hard choice” because what usually happens to whistleblowers in our society is not pleasant.


What I have said so far does not paint a pretty picture of life in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The personal problem of what to do when asked to perform illegal acts in the course of one’s employment is becoming more severe–not just because more people ARE employees these days–but because here in the richest country in the world there is so little in the way of a social safety net that many essentials–such as health insurance–come from one’s employment. What to do in this situation if one is an employee with family members who have pre-existing medical conditions that preclude private health insurance? Where is the balance between one’s personal and immediate responsibilities and one’s responsibility to the society at large, to one’s profession, or to one’s own career?

In the 1980’s, the fashion in ethics circles was that organizations should be restructured to provide alternate channels for reporting wrongdoing so that “whistleblowing” was not necessary. Ethicist Michael Davis summarized this viewpoint in a wonderful paper called “Avoiding the Tragedy of Whistleblowing” in the Business and Professional Ethics Journal (Vol. 8, No. 4, pp 3 – 19). He made the point that even when the whistleblower is protected by law or policy, that employee is essentially lost as an organizational resource because trust has been destroyed and the employee can never again be a contributing part of the organization.

During the 1990’s, as globalization or just plain greed caused organizations to downsize, to restructure, and to try in every way to squeeze every last penny out of every resource, we stopped hearing about arranging alternate channels to prevent whistleblowing. Tight labor market or not, employees are now much more expendable and it is easier to just get rid of the troublesome ones than to worry very much about spending resources on organizational structures to make whistleblowing unnecessary.

A hard fact to accept is that some problems have no solution. This is one of them. What I am going to talk about is not a solution, but rather a framework for THINKING about this problem and formulating one’s own personal viewpoint.


Several years ago, I attended a national seminar on professional ethics put on by a reputable and respected national science organization. One talk has stayed in my mind. Unfortunately, the notes from that seminar have disappeared during the course of many moves, and I cannot give proper credit to the presenter. He was a professor at a school in one of the Carolinas, I think, and I regret that I cannot give him the credit that is his due. At any rate, I want to make it clear that the framework I am going to present here is not original–I got it from that wonderful lecture.

The presenter began by emphasizing that ours is NOT a society that likes whistleblowers, no matter how right their actions or how serious the actions they are reporting. So, he said, the first thing to do is to attempt to negotiate a solution based on the interests of the organization. The assumption is that illegal and harmful activities are not in the long-range interests of any organization. As I said, this was a viewpoint common in the 1980’s, but by the 1990’s began to suffer from a much shorter planning horizon and from the increasing knowledge that in business, crime frequently DOES pay.

Failing that, he said, one should evaluate a matrix of one’s responsibilities. That is different for every person. The factors to be considered are:

  • Personal and family responsibilities to other people (This can include co-workers.)
  • Duty to the society at large (This includes the physical environment of the earth.)
  • Duty to one’s profession
  • Effect on one’s career

For each factor, one should try to estimate the worst case and the probability of its occurring. Then, the worst case results are prioritized. The talk was for engineers and scientists, so the presenter used a decision tree with probability branches and outcomes at the end of each branch. If statistics are not your cup of tea, simply list the worst-case outcomes and prioritize them in their order of significance in your life and conscience.

For example, the parent of a child with a chronic illness that would preclude obtaining private health insurance would weigh the loss of a job or career more heavily than would an employee with only him or herself to consider. A duty to the society at large might outweigh considerations of personal responsibility to family members if the consequences are grave–a nuclear meltdown, for example, in which many people could be expected to be killed.

Negotiation should be attempted, but carefully. The superiors with whom one is attempting to negotiate may know perfectly well that what they are asking the employee to do is illegal, and may not want to discuss this or continue the employment of anyone who has mentioned it.

Another option is to quietly circumvent the illegal directive, if at all possible. As an example, I offer one of my own experiences. When I was a quite junior consultant at one of the Big Ten firms, I collected, for a government contract, proprietary data from private firms with the clear understanding that these data were to be used for no other purpose. Not too long afterwards, one of the officers of the firm decided to use the data for another contract, one in the private sector. I knew there was no point in discussing this ethical–and possibly legal–violation. Instead, I went into the office in the middle of the night, removed the data from the files, and put it into the burn bag for classified waste. When the data turned up missing, nothing much was thought about it. The place was ALWAYS disorganized, and the assumption was that the data had simply been lost or misfiled.

If one has evaluated one’s own personal matrix and decided that she cannot live with the ethical violation, and options within the organization have been exhausted or believed to be ineffective, the next step is to “blow the whistle” by reporting the violations outside the organization. Whether or not this is combined with a resignation depends on the degree of statutory protection one enjoys. This is MUCH greater in the public than in the private sector. For private sector employees, the best choice is to find another job FIRST, and then blow the whistle on the violations at the previous job.

The framework discussed above is a simplistic application of Utilitarian Analysis, but a powerful one. Issues of ethics are usually not black-and-white. They are many shades of gray. Even questions about the legality or illegality of various actions are usually not simple. A structured analysis of one’s duties and responsibilities, with probabilistic estimates of the likelihood of outcomes and of their consequences, is helpful.


Let me get back to the assertion that ours is not a society that likes whistleblowers. Most employment is “at-will”, meaning that an employee can be dismissed at any time for any reason.

Three major “exceptions” to the at-will doctrine are:

  • Breach of an express or implied promise, including representations made in employee handbooks.
  • Wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, and
  • Breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

You will notice that one of these is “wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.” However, employees who are dismissed because they brought illegal practices to light do not have an easy time of it in court. As has often been said, “The business of America is business” and courts have been known to issue judgements NOT favorable to whistleblowers, even those who only blew the whistle INSIDE their organization. For example, a woman who reported wrongdoing through channels in her firm and was then fired was not protected because she did not report the wrongdoing OUTSIDE the firm and a court found that her dismissal fell under the category of internal company reasons rather than the violation of public policy rubric.

Even when there is a whistleblower statute, enforcing it is long, expensive, and difficult. I was president of the board of the ACLU in Washington, D.C. when we took on the famous whistleblower case of Ernie Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, a cost analyst for the Air Force, had told a Senate hearing about the true, and astronomical, cost of the C-5A airplane. For this action, he was trashed all over the government and fired. A Washington law firm with a partner on our board was representing him pro bono for the ACLU, and as I recall, the pro bono time totaled a couple of million dollars before the case was successfully concluded. It took four years for Fitzgerald to get his job back. He was then demoted, denied a pay raise, and banished to some Pentagon attic. When he was proposed for a special award from the Institute of Industrial Engineers for outstanding service, the prize was canceled. Corporate members on the board of directors included officers from Lockheed, manufacturer of the C-5A. “They’ll be after me as long as I live,” says Fitzgerald, as reported in the WASHINGTON POST.

Following is a taxonomy of things that organizations do to discredit whistleblowers and even those who try to express their ethical concerns through internal channels. This is from a summary of the Government Accountability Project’s handbook for whistleblowers, The Whistleblower’s Survival Guide: Courage without Martyrdom.

Spotlight the Whistleblowers

This common retaliatory strategy seeks to make the whistleblower, instead of his or her message, the issue: employers will try to create smokescreens by attacking the sources motives, credibility, professional competence or virtually anything else that will work to cloud the issues s/he raised.

Manufacture a Poor Record

Employers occasionally spend months or years building a record to brand a whistleblower as a chronic problem employee. To lay the groundwork for termination, employers may begin to compile memoranda about any incident real or contrived, that conveys inadequate or problematic performance; whistleblowers who formerly received sterling performance evaluations may begin to receive poor ratings from supervisors.

Threaten Them into Silence

This tactic is commonly reflected in statements such as, “You’ll never work again in this town/industry/agency?” Threats can also be indirect: employers may issue gag orders, for example, forbidding the whistleblower from speaking out under the threat of termination.

Isolate or Humiliate Them

Another retaliation technique is to make an example of the whistleblower by separating him or her from colleagues. This may remove him or her from access to information necessary to effectively blow the whistle.

Employers may also exercise the bureaucratic equivalent of placing a whistleblower in the public stocks: a top manager may be reassigned to tasks such as sweeping the floors or counting the rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom. Often this tactic is combined with measures to strip the whistleblower of his or her duties, sometimes to facilitate subsequent termination.

Set Them Up for Failure

Perhaps as common as the retaliatory tactic of isolating or humiliating whistleblowers by stripping them of their duties is its converse-overloading them with unmanageable work. This involves assigning a whistleblower responsibilities and then making it impossible to fulfill them.

Prosecute Them

The longstanding threat to attack whistleblowers for “stealing” the evidence used to expose the misconduct is becoming more serious, particularly for private property that is evidence of illegality. Having to sign waivers about the confidentiality of ALL workplace information as a condition of employment is becoming commonplace.

Eliminate Their Jobs or Paralyze Their Careers

A common tactic is to lay off whistleblowers even as the company or agency is hiring new staff. Employers may “reorganize” whistleblowers out of jobs or into marginalized positions. Another retaliation technique is to deep-freeze the careers of those who manage to thwart termination and hold onto their jobs: employers may simply deny all requests for promotion or transfer. Sometimes it is not enough merely to fire or make the whistleblowers rot in jobs. The goal is to make sure they ” will never work again” in their field by blacklisting them: bad references for future job prospects are common.


As for whistleblowing in general, there is an excellent guide on the web for how to go about this and what to consider ( BLOWING THE WHISTLE WISELY – 12 SURVIVAL STRATEGIES Key issues covered are

  • Before taking any irreversible steps, talk to your family or close friends about your decision to blow the whistle.
  • Be alert and discreetly attempt to learn of any other witnesses who are upset about the wrongdoing.
  • Before formally breaking ranks consider whether there is any reasonable way to work within the system by going to the first level of authority. If you do decide to break ranks, think carefully about whether you want to “go public” with your concerns or remain an anonymous source. Each strategy has implications: the decision depends on the quantity and quality of your evidence, your ability to camouflage your knowledge of key facts, the risks you are willing to assume and your willingness to endure intense public scrutiny.
  • Develop a plan-such as strategically-timed release of information to government agencies-so that your employer is reacting to you, instead of vice-versa.
  • Maintain good relations with administration and support staff.
  • Before and after you blow the whistle, keep a careful record of events as they unfold. Try to construct a straightforward, factual log of the relevant activities and events on the job, keeping in mind that your employer will have access to your diary if there is a lawsuit.
  • Identify and copy all necessary supporting records before drawing any suspicion to your concerns.
  • Break the cycle of isolation and identify and seek a support network of potential allies, such as elected officials, journalists and activists. The solidarity of key constituencies can be more powerful than the bureaucracy you are challenging.
  • Invest the funds to obtain a legal opinion from a competent lawyer.
  • Always be on guard not to embellish your charges.
  • Engage in whistleblowing initiatives on your own time and with your own resources, not your employer’s.
  • Don’t wear your cynicism on your sleeve when working with the authorities.

Many states have whistleblowing laws, and these can be effective if one is fully prepared beforehand and learns from the errors of those who have gone before and had their cases thrown out (see URL above). Utah’s whistelblowing law covers only public employees, not those in the private sector. (See Section 67-21-1 et seq.)From time to time there are murmurings that the Congress may pass federal whistleblowing legislation to protect employees in the private sector (public employees already have a law for this). However, the trend is not to disturb the mighty economic engine, so that is not likely to happen any time soon.

Employees in the private sector are pretty much on their own. What CAN they do? Here are some suggestions, things that I have seen used successfully.

  • Always know where you could get another job FAST, so that you can change jobs before matters about your reporting of illegal activities or refusing to perform them get too nasty. Form a trust group of others in your field who will take you in on short notice, and whom you would take in on short notice. This may or may not involve people who will falsify references for you if need be.
  • Accumulate assets and stay out of debt. Money means freedom–freedom to resign without another job if necessary, freedom to support your family if you are fired and it takes a long time to find another job, freedom to move to another community if necessary, freedom to pay legal fees if you have to. How do you go about this? Discipline yourself to routinely set aside a certain percentage of all income–not for your next car or next house or your children’s education–but for your freedom and survival. Many routinely tithe to a church. I have not heard about churches? coming to the aid of their members when they run afoul of illegal or unethical activities in their workplace. They are more likely to point a finger and say that the person’s trouble are due to unrighteousness! So tithe to yourself instead and hope that you never have to use the money to get out of an impossible ethical situation in the workplace. If you are lucky, it will be a nice nest egg for your golden years. If you are not lucky, and get into a jam, the money may make it possible for you to keep both your livelihood and your self-respect.


I have painted a dismal picture of the American workplace, and I think that matters are going to get a lot worse before they get any better. The pendulum always swings, but it may take a while for THIS one to turn around. In the long waves of Capital vs. Labor, labor is not currently on the winning side. And we are ALL labor–no matter how highly compensated–unless we control capital of our own. Some of us may even be slaves–if our indebtedness is high enough.

So how can we live with ourselves, and more importantly, what do we tell our children about the work world? Do the right thing and you will be rewarded and prosper? They probably know better. I should mention at this point that I am an Atheist speaking to a Humanist gathering, and rule out divine intervention as a solution. To those who say that if they are put in an impossible work situation–break the law and harm others or see their families on the street–God or Jesus or a guardian angel or whatever will rescue them–my reply is “How did God or Jesus or your guardian angel let you get into the situation in the first place?” Better to look to human society, human structures, and one’s own intelligent planning for help.

Marilyn T. Welles

Socrates Changes the Lives of Present-Day Prison Inmates

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“…the overwhelming majority of prison inmates in this country, both state and federal, are not incorrigibly mean or evil, and a correct understanding of the `public interest’ dictates that they should be given the opportunity to participate in state and federally funded higher-education programs designed to change their thinking and conduct.” This startling statement by Lawrence T. Jablecki appears in his article, “Prison Inmates Meet Socrates,” in the May-June, 2000, issue of The Humanist. He is not assuming the role of the liberal weenie who doesn’t believe in punishment. He acknowledges that “criminal offenders are in conflict with the norms of society; and that they are not suffering from psychological disorders that both explain and excuse their conduct. They have consciously and deliberately chosen to commit a crime; or, in numerous cases they have consciously and deliberately set themselves up for committing a crime by altering their normal mental and physical capacities. They were free to do otherwise and should be held responsible. Violent predators and many career criminals deserve to be incarcerated for many years, and some should be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. I have no philosophical objection to capital punishment, but I am opposed to it because innocent persons are convicted and executed.”

Jablecki believes an introduction to the gadfly of Athens is a highly potent crime-prevention initiative that should be made available to a multitude of prisoners. As an undergraduate student who had not allowed any serious reflection and study to engage his mind or interfere with fun and who was thinking seriously of dropping out of college, one afternoon Jablecki encountered a campus intellectual who, when greeted with the words, “Hello, what do you know?” stopped in front of him and said, “Mr. Jablecki, I do not know anything. I am simply attempting to understand.” Later on Jablecki asked a senior philosophy major to explain the difference between knowing and understanding. The latter encouraged him to enroll in philosophy. Jablecki did, and learned the answer to his question. He was introduced to the life and teachings of Socrates. In a very brief period a Socratic “conversion” changed the entire course of his life. This autobiographical snapshot evidences the view that it is impossible to exaggerate the power of ideas and concepts–for example, justice, truth, goodness, virtue, and beauty–to grab a human mind and redirect a person’s life in the manner advocated by Socrates.

In 1986-87 Jablecki introduced Socrates to 30 prison inmates in two classes at Brazosport Junior College in Lake Jackson, Texas. They had been convicted of a range of serious felonies and incarcerated for a number of years. He told them he had decided to teach this class because of his firm commitment to the views of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant concerning “respect” for all persons as moral agents capable of choices and because of his own firm belief that the class members could change the direction of their lives if they chose to do so. This experience of teaching philosophy to prison inmates has convinced him that, if the prisoners perceive that he really means what he says, the way is opened up for some existentially meaningful discussions and insights.

Perhaps surprisingly, except for a mere few, these prisoners do not blame society or others for their criminal behavior. Many vented their resentment about how they believed they were treated unfairly at one or more steps in our system of criminal justice, and any seasoned practitioner in the system is obliged to acknowledge the truth of some of their claims. Yet they did accept the facts that they made real choices to commit crimes and that society has a right to protect itself by incarcerating malefactors. They recognized that none of them were compelled or forced to commit their crimes and they were free to do otherwise. None claimed, or even implied, that he did not deserve to be punished. They said they knew exactly what they were doing when they committed a murder, robbed a store at gunpoint, etc. They also spent several hours discussing the meaning of concepts such as knowledge, wisdom, ignorance, self-interest, mistake, voluntary, involuntary, happiness, and virtue.

In 1988 Jablecki began teaching philosophy to various graduate and undergraduate student prisoners in Rosharon, Texas, in the already established prison program of the University of Houston at Clear Lake. The profound relevance of Socrates’ teaching that the “unexamined life is not worth living” are evidenced in comments made by the researchers in the program after a five-year revue:

“These students find that courses in history, literature, and philosophy profoundly deepen their sensitivities and expand their horizons. TDCJ students may come from pockets of economic poverty from which they have never escaped–they have literally no knowledge of other ways of living. Humanities courses open new realities to them, wholly changing their perspectives about who they are and what the world is about…Such courses are truly revelations, showing ways of living and thinking that they have not encountered before.”

The university’s most current report in 1995 showed that between 1990 and 1995, of the 39 inmates who earned a bachelor’s degree, 17 were released on parole and two were returned to prison–a recidivism rate of 11%. Of the 45 who earned a master’s degree during the same period, 19 were released on parole and one was returned to prison–a recidivism rate of 5%. Studies conducted recently in Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and other states have all reported significantly low recidivism rates for inmates in correctional higher education programs, ranging from 1% to 15.5%. In Texas between 45% and 50% of parolees from the general prison population are re-incarcerated within three years of the date of their release. They then are convicted of new felony offenses, many of which involve victims who suffer the loss of property, physical injuries, and death. The author’s own contact with students in the program, including some now on parole, confirms a determination to change and make contributions to society totally unmatched by the majority of inmates who spend their idle time playing dominoes, watching television, and reflecting on their perceptions that they are the oppressed victims of society.

Some of these former students are now paying taxes. Some short-sighted politicians in Washington have in recent years made prison inmates ineligible for Pell Grant tuition assistance for higher education, a move that has saved only a tiny amount of money, 35 million dollars of the six billion awarded to all recipients. “The policy these politicians approved,” says Jablecki, “places them in the category of unmerciful retributivists who sincerely believe in the moral imperative of severe punishment for all criminal offenders–that is, they have no mercy for the wicked…they really believe that the construction of new prisons is not a necessary evil but a necessary good.”

“As was the case when I was introduced to Socrates, he can shake unexamined beliefs and faiths. However, unlike any of their other academic classes, it is important that most of my courses contain opportunities for prison inmates to reflect on the most important and enduring questions of human existence. And I can confidently claim that many of them are surprised by the joy of facing the unfathomed depth of Socrates’ message to live an examined life.”

Cindy King

Member Spotlight

Cindy King

Out of the mouths of babes sometimes comes the incentive to act. This is the case for Cindy King, a humanist with a passion for justice. Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Cindy received a BS in Physical Anthropology from the University of Utah. Although her dad is descended from Brigham Young’s brother, her family was not predominantly Mormon. In fact, her dad’s parents came to Utah from Nevada and her mom’s parents came from Oklahoma, both families working for the railroad. Cindy met her wonderfully supportive husband, Arthur Clark King, through the Unitarian Church. He is an Environmental Scientist with the State Division of Air Quality. They have two children.

When Cindy’s daughter was very young she asked her mother why the government caused air pollution. This innocent query jarred Cindy, who then became involved with the Sierra Club. She served on the Utah Chapter’s Executive Committee from 1986-1996. She founded and ran the Club’s Environmental Health Committee from 1986 to 1990. Under her leadership, the committee brought litigation against U.S. Pollution Control Inc., purportedly the largest solid/hazardous waste incinerator west of the Mississippi. Although they lost this battle on a technicality, they won the war. The facility eventually suffered losses and shut down. Cindy studied at Salt Lake Community College, receiving an Associates degree in Environmental Hazardous Materials. She became the Utah Chapter’s Hazardous Waste Specialist. In this position, she attends public meetings on various environmental issues – most recently on incineration – which spews pollutants into our air.

Cindy was appointed by federal officials as the Utah citizen representative on the Defense Department’s Committee for Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment. Her appointment was opposed by Utah State officials, angered by her activism. Cindy travels to D.C. three times a year to sit on this committee, which has already identified six alternative ways, other than incineration, to dispose of these weapons.

Cindy and her children were interviewed for a Greenline documentary, aired on PBS in the East and on the West coast. Four years ago, as Vice Chair of the Utah Sierra Club, Cindy testified during Utah Wilderness hearings. When she faced a packed auditorium and stood silently for two of her three minute time allotment to protest State Environmental Policy, the crowd went wild with support. Cindy has suffered personal threats to herself and her family because of her activism and her present litigation status against the State on the incineration issue, causing her to change her phone number.

Cindy espouses an essential “Trinity” of Celebration, Fundamental and Engagement, i.e. the Celebration of Life, the Fundamental of breathing deeply, essential for a full life, and the Engagement of the brain before opening the mouth, essential for effectiveness (and saving oneself from embarrassment.)

Cindy’s extraordinary courage is driven by righteous indignation and anger. Taking action and getting results are her vindication. When a State bureaucrat questioned her intelligence, she retaliated by registering in a Master’s Program in Environmental Policy in Public Administration and Government Regulation at the U. But her ultimate opponent, a difficult one to vanquish, is the complacency generated by the dominant Mormon tradition of not questioning authority. Officials who disregard public health know no fury like the fury of Cindy King.

–by Mary Sanderson