“Professional Ethics”: An Abstract
Ethics and ethical practice has long been defined as “moral behavior” or the “standards of professional practice and morals of a particular profession or organization.” Because the code of ethics is specific to a unique organization, one often finds two professionals acting in what appear to be conflicting situations. Take, for example, an attorney and a professional geoscientist expert witness both involved in the same case and on the same team. The fundamental ethical requirement of the attorney is to be “a zealous advocate for the client!” while that of the geoscientist is to be “a zealous advocate for the scientific truth!” Ethics, however, are changing as ethical violations make the news, and new laws are enacted to “prevent” the prior ethical violation. With laws replacing ethics, why do we need ethics? Professionals have an obligation to maintain the standard of the practice in a moral and honest manner. We [professionals] have traditionally not incorporated expressions of “political correctness” in our conversations. After all, we discuss a technical subject that relates to the interests of the group to which we are talking. As professionals we face a new environment, one that might be thought of as “Professional Ethics in Modern Society.” In contaminant transport and movement in the groundwater system we discuss “retardation” and we say things like “the contaminated is retarded. During a landslide presentation we discuss “slope” and “slope failure.” In a discussion of magmatic processes and the formation of intrusive igneous rocks we discuss “segregation of minerals” as the magma cools. New surprise! Someone in the group is “offended” and files a complaint against the speaker for being “offensive,” often without specifying to why or what was offensive. It is critical that we professionals respond to the person receiving the complaint carefully and completely to maintain our professional reputation and standing in the community. In many of my public presentations and short-courses I now include a warning statement that some of the “technical terms used in this presentation may be offensive if taken out of context, and I have no intent to offend anyone but to provide education.”
Christopher C. Mathewson, PhD, PE, PG
Dr. Mathewson received a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1963; and his Master of Science and Doctoral degrees in Geological Engineering from the University of Arizona in 1965 and 1971. He has presented over 500 papers, published over 90 technical papers, edited 4 technical volumes and is the author of a textbook in Engineering Geology. In addition, he is active in the profession, having served as President of the American Geoscience Institute, President of the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists, and Chair of the Engineering Geology Division/Geological Society of America, among other society positions. Governor Rick Perry appointed Dr. Mathewson to the Texas Board of Professional Geoscientists in May 2012.
On April 13 at the Permian Basin Oil and Gas Conference and Expo, Dr. Christopher C. Mathewson, Regents Professor Emeritus, Texas A&M University, will give a lunchtime talk on “Professional Ethics for Geoscientists, Engineers, and Other Good Oil People.” Mathewson, who is retired from his A&M professorial career but is still active as a geologist and consultant, is offered for professionals who need to get their annual ethics certifications, but also is efficacious for anyone wanting to hear a good message on this subject of broad interest. He is a member of the Texas Board of Professional Geoscientists, having been appointed to that post by then-Governor Rick Perry.
His talk, which bears the alternative title of “Is It Ethical to Get Two Desserts?,” highlights the more-complex-than-one-thinks world of professional ethics. What follows is a question-and-answer session with Dr. Mathewson from early February.
Dr. Mathewson: Well, what you’ll find in this talk is that I discuss professional ethics—you know, plagiarism and things like that. Every time you turn around, another agency has passed another law that makes it unlawful to do something that previously was deemed unethical. To plagiarize somebody’s work is now a violation of your professional license, and it can cost you your PG, or PE, or membership in AAPG [American Association of Petroleum Geologists] or whatever else. In other words, that’s become a law. What I discovered, by default, a couple years ago, is what I call social ethics or political ethics. I was giving a talk on contaminate transport. Transport of contaminates in the groundwater system. Contaminates are either solutes and [in which case] they move with the water and they don’t react with the matrix, and so they move at the same velocity as the water, or they are non-conservative and that means they react with the matrix material. The migration rate of the contaminate is retarded, relative to the velocity of the water.
Okay? So I finish this two-day-long talk about transport of contaminates. And how solutes are retarded. And about two weeks later, I got a phone call from the headquarters [of the hosting organization] that there was a complaint filed against me at this lecture. I learned that someone said I used an offensive term and that I shouldn’t use it. Then I said, “What in the heck is the offensive term?” And I learned that it was “retard.”
I said ‘What? You took a technical term out of context. You applied it to a very specific derogatory definition. Then you filed a formal complaint against me, because I insulted you.’
So the question, “Is ethical to get two desserts?” is that same political thing. Nobody even thinks about the guy that walks brings in cookies for the office staff and there are eight staff in the office, and there are eight cookies. And one guy takes two. The muckety-muck, self centered SOB has two cookies. For himself. Because he’s entitled to them. Meanwhile, we now have one of the office staff members who’s not going to get a cookie, because this SOB ate it. Well, we don’t think about that as ethics. Nor do we think about it being ethics when you’re driving, and, you know, someone says “Get out of my way you SOB—I’m in a hurry.” Whether it causes an accident or not, who cares? Whether I delay or disrupt somebody, who cares? It’s not my worry. That’s where, “Is it ethical to get two desserts?” comes from. Meanwhile, there are cases where one can go to a restaurant and they wheel out a dessert tray after dinner, and they say to you, “Help yourself.” There are eight different desserts on the tray. You say, “Well, gee, that apple pie looks good, but can I also have that brownie over there?” And they’re happy for you to have both. In that case, the restaurant is set up to serve as many desserts as you want.
What I’m talking about is the social-political ethic. I have some other examples that I’ll tell people about, in the talk. Some of them are really weird. Fact is, you have something out of context. That’s where that [title] came from.
PBOG: So, you talk about language and how to use it in a world full of political correctness. But what about the idea of ethics just in terms of theft, or the kinds of things that they worry about in the oil field? Are you going to address anything like that?
Mathewson: Yes. Like deceptive trade. Or lying. I have a couple of things I cover. Say you’re reviewing a proposed drill site and you realize that the geologist has falsified the evidence. It’s no longer safe. The potential risk is very high, the safety risk is very high. What do you do? What if the Yeah, the guy is a licensed geologist in the state of Texas, a PGE, or a PG in other licenser states. That geologist has falsified the data, in order to sell his client’s property. And the client then drills the hole and 13 workers are killed, along with three citizens who lived nearby. That geologist, before the disaster even took place, was risking the health and lives of people. But you see, what that geologist was doing, had nothing really to do ethics. It had everything to do with professional code, which is managed by the license that he holds. That’s my point. It’s that many of the things that we used to think were ethics, now are, well, now they’re rules. They’re law.
You need to be aware of it and the professional ethics that you then get is, simply, the stuff that hasn’t become law. You go out to dinner with a client and the client buys dinner. You’re the professional, you’re gonna make a recommendation to the Railroad Commission on behalf of your client and your client is buying you dinner. Is it ethical? Well, that depends. Is it payola? You happen to be on the board and this applicant is a former student of yours. Or this—you go to lunch together and he buys your lunch. Whoops.
Then you start looking at it like, “Well, if it was less than $20, it’s okay.” Or less than so much, you know? Is that really payola? Is that bribery? What was the intent? The intent was, have lunch with your former student. We deal with those all the time.
Then subtly, buried in the rules, there’s, “Oh, well you can’t receive a meal more than X dollars.” What do you do if you happen to collect statues of birds? You have had this collection of birds for years. One of your former students, who is associated with the oil industry, and you’re a regulator, finds this historic carving of a bird statue, that’s probably worth $10,000. Well, he bought it with the intent of saying, “Hey Professor. This needs to go in your collection.” Yeah, but it’s a $10,000 gift. Does that automatically mean I’m now on payola? You see, you have those things to worry about.
PBOG: Yes. You’re defining the problem. What does the person who’s attending this talkg—what do they come away with? They’re grasping some of the complications and some of the stickiness of the question, but what do they come away with, that when they leave, they might say, “Okay, now I’ve got that. Now I know I’m gonna do this differently.” What could they hope to gain like that?
Mathewson: My hope, that their gain is that they will become aware of … the number one, the complexity of ethics. Ethics is not simply right and wrong. It’s also being aware of, “Gee, if I do this, this way, it may be unethical. If I do it that way, I’m okay.” What are the things I need to think about, in order to be an ethical professional, in the petroleum industry?”
Now you start looking at someone who says to you, “Okay, I own a ranch. I want you to drill a well on my ranch.” You know darn right well there isn’t any oil within 90,000 feet. It’s sitting on the Precambrian granite. You’re not going to drill and find oil. But, if I give you $10,000, you’ll negotiate with these companies. You know darn well they’re never gonna drill. You just suckered me for 10K, to go find a driller. Why would they do that, if there’s no oil? Well, you pay my $10,000, I’m going to get somebody who’s going to drill a hole. Maybe it’s 30 feet deep and we say, “Hey, we’re in Precambrian granite. There’s no oil.” At which point, you say, “Sorry guys, there’s no oil on your property.”
PBOG: But you as the geologist made a little money in the meanwhile.
Mathewson: Sure. You put $10,000 in your pocket. Minus the small amount it cost you to drill a hole. So the point of my talk is to reveal how complex professional ethics and social and political ethics are.