Leave the full-sized conditioner, take the ski poles: whose assessment of risks did the TSA consider in new rules for carry-ons?

At Error Statistics Philosophy, D. G. Mayo has an interesting discussion of changes that just went into effect to Transportation Security Administration rules about what air travelers can bring in their carry-on bags. Here’s how the TSA Blog describes the changes:

TSA established a committee to review the prohibited items list based on an overall risk-based security approach. After the review, TSA Administrator John S. Pistole made the decision to start allowing the following items in carry-on bags beginning April 25th:

  • Small Pocket Knives – Small knives with non-locking blades smaller than 2.36 inches and less than 1/2 inch in width will be permitted
  • Small Novelty Bats and Toy Bats
  • Ski Poles
  • Hockey Sticks
  • Lacrosse Sticks
  • Billiard Cues
  • Golf Clubs (Limit Two)

This is part of an overall Risk-Based Security approach, which allows Transportation Security Officers to better focus their efforts on finding higher threat items such as explosives. This decision aligns TSA more closely with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards.

These similar items will still remain on the prohibited items list:

  • Razor blades and box cutters will remain prohibited in carry-on luggage.
  • Full-size baseball, softball and cricket bats are prohibited items in carry-on luggage.

As Mayo notes, this particular framing of what does or does not count as a “higher threat item” on a flight has not been warmly embraced by everyone.

Notably, the Flight Attendants Union Coalition, the Coalition of AIrline Pilots Associations, some federal air marshals, and at least one CEO of an airline have gone on record against the rule change. Their objection is two-fold: removing these items from the list of items prohibited in carry-ons is unlikely to actually make screening lines at airports go any faster (since now you have to wait for the passenger arguing that there’s only 3 ounces of toothpaste left in the tube, so it should be allowed and the passenger arguing that her knife’s 2.4 inch blade is close enough to 2.36 inches), and allowing these items in carry-on bags on flights is likely to make those flights more dangerous for the people on them.

But that’s not the way the TSA is thinking about the risks here. Mayo writes:

By putting less focus on these items, Pistole says, airport screeners will be able to focus on looking for bomb components, which present a greater threat to aircraft. Such as:

bottled water, shampoo, cold cream, tooth paste, baby food, perfume, liquid make-up, etc. (over 3.4 oz).

They do have an argument; namely, that while liquids could be used to make explosives sharp objects will not bring down a plane. At least not so long as we can rely on the locked, bullet-proof cockpit door. Not that they’d want to permit any bullets to be around to test… And not that the locked door rule can plausibly be followed 100% of the time on smaller planes, from my experience. …

When the former TSA chief, Kip Hawley, was asked to weigh in, he fully supported Pistole; he regretted that he hadn’t acted to permit the above sports items during his reign service at TSA:

“They ought to let everything on that is sharp and pointy. Battle axes, machetes … bring anything you want that is pointy and sharp because while you may be able to commit an act of violence, you will not be able to take over the plane. It is as simple as that,” he said. (Link is here.)

I burst out laughing when I read this, but he was not joking:

Asked if he was using hyperbole in suggesting that battle axes be allowed on planes, Hawley said he was not.

“I really believe it. What are you going to do when you get on board with a battle ax? And you pull out your battle ax and say I’m taking over the airplane. You may be able to cut one or two people, but pretty soon you would be down in the aisle and the battle ax would be used on you.”

There does seem to be an emphasis on relying on passengers to rise up against ax-wielders, that passengers are angry these days at anyone who starts trouble. But what about the fact that there’s a lot more “air rage” these days? … That creates a genuine risk as well.

Will the availability of battle axes make disputes over the armrest more civil or less? Is the TSA comfortable with whatever happens on a flight so long as it falls short of bringing down the plane? How precisely did the TSA arrive at this particular assessment of risks that makes an 8 ounce bottle of conditioner more of a danger than a hockey stick?

And, perhaps most troubling, if the TSA is putting so much reliance on the vigilance and willingness to mount a response of passengers and flight crews, why does it look like they failed to seek out input from those passengers and flight crews about what kind of in-flight risks they are willing to undertake?

Are safe working conditions too expensive for knowledge-builders?

Last week’s deadly collapse of an eight-story garment factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh has prompted discussions about whether poor countries can afford safe working conditions for workers who make goods that consumers in countries like the U.S. prefer to buy for bargain prices.

Maybe the risk of being crushed to death (or burned to death, or what have you) is just a trade-off poor people are (or should be) willing to accept to draw a salary. At least, that seems to be the take-away message from the crowd arguing that it would cost too much to have safety regulation (and enforcement) with teeth.

It is hard not to consider how this kind of attitude might get extended to other kinds of workplaces — like, say, academic research labs — given that last week UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran was also scheduled to return to court for a preliminary hearing on the felony charges of labor code violations brought against him in response to the 2008 fire in his laboratory that killed his employee, Shari Sangji.

Jyllian Kemsley has a detailed look at how Harran’s defense team has responded to the charges of specific violations of the California Labor Code, charges involving failure to provide adequate training, failure to have adequate procedures in place to correct unsafe conditions or work practices, and failure to require workers wear appropriate clothing for the work being done. Since I’m not a lawyer, it’s hard for me to assess the likelihood that the defense responses to these charges would be persuasive to a judge, but ethically, they’re pretty weak tea.

Sadly, though, it’s weak tea of the exact sort that my scientific training has led me to expect from people directing scientific research labs in academic settings.

When safety training is confined to a single safety video that graduate students are shown when they enter a program, that tells graduate students that their safety is not a big deal in the research activities that are part of their training.

When there’s not enough space under the hood for all the workers in a lab to conduct all the activities that, for safety’s sake, ought to be conducted under the hood — and when the boss expects all those activities to happen without delay — that tells them that a sacrifice in safety to produce quick results is acceptable.

When a student-volunteer needs to receive required ionizing radiation safety training to get a film badge that will give her access to the facility where she can irradiate her cells for an experiment, and the PI, upon hearing that the next training session in three weeks away, says to the student-volunteer, “Don’t bother; use my film badge,” that tells people in the lab that the PI is unwilling to lose three weeks of unpaid labor on one aspect of a research project just to make the personnel involved a little bit safer.

When people running a lab take an attitude of “Eh, young people are going to dress how they’re going to dress” rather than imposing clear rules for their laboratories that people whose dress is unsafe for the activities they are to undertake don’t get to undertake them, that tells the personnel in the lab that whatever cost is involved in holding this line — losing a day’s worth of work, being viewed by one’s underlings as strict rather than cool — has been judged too high relative to the benefit of making personnel in the lab safer.

When university presidents or other administrators proclaim that knowledge-builders “must continue to recalibrate [their] risk tolerance” by examining their “own internal policies and ask[ing] the question—do they meet—or do they exceed—our legal or regulatory requirements,” that tells knowledge-builders at those universities that people with significantly more power than them judge efforts to make things safer for knowledge-builders (and for others, like the human subjects of their research) as an unnecessary burden. When institutions need to become leaner, or more agile, shouldn’t researchers (and human subjects) do their part by accepting more risk as the price of doing business?

To be sure, safety isn’t free. But there are also costs to being less safe in academic research settings.

For example, personnel develop lax attitudes toward risks and trainees take these attitudes with them when they go out in the world as grown-up scientists. Surrounding communities can get hurt by improper disposal of hazardous materials, or by inadequate safety measures taken by researchers working with infectious agents who then go home and cough on their families and friends. Sometimes, personnel are badly injured, or killed.

And, if academic scientists are dragging feet on making things safer for the researchers on their team because it takes time and effort to investigate risks and make sensible plans for managing them, to develop occupational health plans and to institute standard operating procedures that everyone on the research team knows and follows, I hope they’re noticing that facing felony charges stemming from safety problems in their labs can also take lots of time and effort.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times reports that Patrick Harran will stand trial after an LA County Superior Court judge denied a defense motion to dismiss the case.

When #chemophobia isn’t irrational: listening to the public’s real worries.

This week, the Grand CENtral blog features a guest post by Andrew Bissette defending the public’s anxiety about chemicals. In lots of places (including here), this anxiety is labeled “chemophobia”; Bissette spells it “chemphobia”, but he’s talking about the same thing.

Bissette argues that the response those of us with chemistry backgrounds often take to the successful marketing of “chemical free” products, namely, pointing out that the world around us is made of chemicals, fails to engage with people’s real concerns. He writes:

Look at the history of our profession – from tetraethyl lead to thalidomide to Bhopal – and maintain with a straight face that chemphobia is entirely unwarranted and irrational. Much like mistrust of the medical profession, it is unfortunate and unproductive, but it is in part our own fault. Arrogance and paternalism are still all too common across the sciences, and it’s entirely understandable that sections of the public treat us as villains.

Of course it’s silly to tar every chemical and chemist with the same brush, but from the outside we must appear rather esoteric and monolithic. Chemphobia ought to provoke humility, not eye-rolling. If the public are ignorant of chemistry, it’s our job to engage with them – not to lecture or hand down the Truth, but simply to talk and educate. …

[A] common response to chemphobia is to define “chemicals” as something like “any tangible matter”. From the lab this seems natural, and perhaps it is; in daily life, however, I think it’s at best overstatement and at worst dishonest. Drawing a distinction between substances which we encounter daily and are not harmful under those conditions – obvious things like water and air, kitchen ingredients, or common metals – and the more exotic, concentrated, or synthetic compounds we often deal with is useful. The observation that both groups are made of the same stuff is metaphysically profound but practically trivial for most people. We treat them very differently, and the use of the word “chemical” to draw this distinction is common, useful, and not entirely ignorant. …

This definition is of course a little fuzzy at the edges. Not all “chemicals” are synthetic, and plenty of commonly-encountered materials are. Regardless, I think we can very broadly use ‘chemical’ to mean the kinds of matter you find in a lab but not in a kitchen, and I think this is how most people use it.

Crucially, this distinction tends to lead to the notion of chemicals as harmful: bleach is a chemical; it has warning stickers, you keep it under the sink, and you wear gloves when using it. Water isn’t! You drink it, you bathe in it, it falls from the sky. Rightly or wrongly, chemphobia emerges from the common usage of the word ‘chemical’.

There are some places here where I’m not in complete agreement with Bissette.

My kitchen includes a bunch of chemicals that aren’t kept under the sink or handled only with gloves, including sodium bicarbonate, acetic acid, potassium bitartrate, lecithin, pectin, and ascorbic acid. We use these chemicals in cooking because of the reactions they undergo (and the alternative reactions they prevent — those ascorbic acid crystals see a lot of use in our homemade white sangria preventing the fruit from discoloring when it comes in contact with oxygen). And, I reckon it’s not just people with PhDs in chemistry who recognize that chemical leaveners in their quickbreads and pancakes depend on some kind of chemical reaction to produce their desired effects. Notwithstanding that recognition of chemical reactivity, many of these same folks will happily mix sodium bicarbonate with water and gulp it down if that batch of biscuits isn’t sitting well in their tummies, with nary a worry that they are ingesting something that could require a call to poison control.

Which is to say, I think Bissette puts too much weight on the assumption that there is a clear “common usage” putting all chemicals on the “bad” side of the line, even if the edges of the line are fuzzy.

Indeed, it’s hard not to believe that people in countries like the U.S. are generally moving in the direction of greater comfort with the idea that important bits of their world — including their own bodies — are composed of chemicals. (Casual talk about moody teenagers being victims of their brain chemistry is just one example of this.) Aside from the most phobic of the chemophobic, people seem OK with the idea that their bodies use chemical (say, to digest their food) and even that our pharmacopeia relies on chemical (that can, for example, relieve our pain or reduce inflammation).

These quibbles aside, I think Bissette has identified the central concern at the center of much chemophobia: The public is bombarded with products and processes that may or may not contain various kinds of chemicals for which they have no clear information. They can’t tell from their names (if those names are even disclosed on labels) what those chemicals do. They don’t know what possible harms might come from exposure to these chemicals (or what amounts it might take for exposure to be risky). They don’t know why the chemicals are in their products — what goal they achieve, and whether that goal is one that primarily serves the consumers, the retailers, or the manufacturers. And they don’t trust the people with enough knowledge and information to answer these questions.

Maybe some of this is the public’s distrust for scientists. People imagine scientists off in their supervillain labs, making plans to conquer non-scientists, rather than recognizing that scientists walk among them (and maybe even coach their kids’ soccer teams). This kind of distrust can be addressed by scientists actually being visible as members of their communities — and listening to concerns voiced by people in those communities.

A large part of this distrust, though, is likely distrust of corporations, claiming chemistry will bring us better living but then prioritizing the better living of CEOs and shareholders while cutting corners on safety testing, informative labeling, and avoiding environmental harms in the manufacture and use of the goodies they offer. I’m not chemophobic, but I think there’s good reason for presumptive distrust of corporations that see consumers as walking wallets rather than as folks deserving information to make their own sensible choices.

Scientists need start addressing that element of chemophobia — and join in putting pressure on the private sector to do a better job earning the public’s trust.

Shame versus guilt in community responses to wrongdoing.

Yesterday, on the Hastings Center Bioethics Forum, Carl Elliott pondered the question of why a petition asking the governor of Minnesota to investigate ethically problematic research at the University of Minnesota has gathered hundreds of signatures from scholars in bioethics, clinical research, medical humanities, and related disciplines — but only a handful of signatures from scholars and researchers at the University of Minnesota.

At the center of the research scandal is the death of Dan Markingson, who was a human subject in a clinical trial of psychiatric drugs. Detailed background on the case can be found here, and Judy Stone has blogged extensively about the ethical dimensions of the case.

Elliott writes:

Very few signers come from the University of Minnesota. In fact, only two people from the Center for Bioethics have signed: Leigh Turner and me. This is not because any faculty member outside the Department of Psychiatry actually defends the ethics of the study, at least as far as I can tell. What seems to bother people here is speaking out about it. Very few faculty members are willing to register their objections publicly.

Why not? Well, there are the obvious possibilities – fear, apathy, self-interest, and so on. At least one person has told me she is unwilling to sign because she doesn’t think the petition will succeed. But there may be a more interesting explanation that I’d like to explore. …

Why would faculty members remain silent about such an alarming sequence of events? One possible reason is simply because they do not feel as if the wrongdoing has anything to do with them. The University of Minnesota is a vast institution; the scandal took place in a single department; if anyone is to be blamed, it is the psychiatrists and the university administrators, not them. Simply being a faculty member at the university does not implicate them in the wrongdoing or give them any special obligation to fix it. In a phrase: no guilt, hence no responsibility.

My view is somewhat different. These events have made me deeply ashamed to be a part of the University of Minnesota, in the same way that I feel ashamed to be a Southerner when I see video clips of Strom Thurmond’s race-baiting speeches or photos of Alabama police dogs snapping at black civil rights marchers. I think that what our psychiatrists did to Dan Markingson was wrong in the deepest sense. It was exploitative, cruel, and corrupt. Almost as disgraceful are the actions university officials have taken to cover it up and protect the reputation of the university. The shame I feel comes from the fact that I have worked at the University of Minnesota for 15 years. I have even been a member of the IRB. For better or worse, my identity is bound up with the institution.

These two different reactions – shame versus guilt – differ in important ways. Shame is linked with honor; it is about losing the respect of others, and by virtue of that, losing your self-respect. And honor often involves collective identity. While we don’t usually feel guilty about the actions of other people, we often do feel ashamed if those actions reflect on our own identities. So, for example, you can feel ashamed at the actions of your parents, your fellow Lutherans, or your physician colleagues – even if you feel as if it would be unfair for anyone to blame you personally for their actions.

Shame, unlike guilt, involves the imagined gaze of other people. As Ruth Benedict writes: “Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism. A man is shamed either by being openly ridiculed or by fantasying to himself that he has been made ridiculous. In either case it is a potent sanction. But it requires an audience or at least a man’s fantasy of an audience. Guilt does not.”

As Elliott notes, one way to avoid an audience — and thus to avoid shame — is to actively participate in, or tacitly endorse, a cover-up of the wrongdoing. I’m inclined to think, however, that taking steps to avoid shame by hiding the facts, or by allowing retaliation against people asking inconvenient questions, is itself a kind of wrongdoing — the kind of thing that incurs guilt, for which no audience is required.

As well, I think the scholars and researchers at the University of Minnesota who prefer not to take a stand on how their university responds to ethically problematic research, even if it is research in someone else’s lab, or someone else’s department, underestimate the size of the audience for their actions and for their inaction.

A hugely significant segment of this audience is their trainees. Their students and postdocs (and others involved in training relationships with them) are watching them, trying to draw lessons about how to be a grown-up scientist or scholar, a responsible member of a discipline, a responsible member of a university community, a responsible citizen of the world. The people they are training are looking to them to set a good example on how to respond to problems — by addressing them, learning from them, making things right, and doing better going forward, or by lying, covering up, and punishing people harmed by trying to recover costs from them (thus sending a message to others daring to point out how they have been harmed).

There are many fewer explicit conversations about such issues than one might hope in a scientist’s training. In the absence of explicit conversations, most of what trainees have to go on is how the people training them actually behave. And sometimes, a mentor’s silence speaks as loud as words.