RantTransportation planning

Transportation modeling & intellectual honesty

I have been meaning to write a blog post addressing intellectual honesty in the transportation modeling practice for a while, but I never had a compelling reason to do so before today.

What happened

The episode that prompted me to write this blog post involves a professional acquaintance praising a private company on a LinkedIn post.

This acquaintance, however, is a recognized expert in the field that the company operates in, and the whole thing sounded pretty much like one of those (poorly written) celebrity endorsements. The fanboy tone of the comment was really on the nose.

I did raise some concerns about the accuracy of the statements made in the post, which resulted on a quite polite and level-headed disagreement. If that had been all, it would just one more case of a company buying (or renting) a professional’s integrity. But it wasn’t. This professional deleted all the comments, leaving only the original post there.

It could be the case that this was just a case of genuine admiration for the company, but erasing dissent makes it look like there is more to the story.

Broader perspective

In the last decade, we have seen plenty of legal trouble (1, 2, 3) for companies that have produced demonstrably absurd forecasts that resulted in massive financial losses for countless investors, and things in California seemed to be going the same way for the High-Speed Rail project when the University of California did its due diligence on the ridership numbers and showed them to be unreliably high (the company, which is very respected, did raise some issues with the criticism produced in the due diligence).

It is funny that incentives and optimism bias have been intensively discussed in the past decade, with the excellent Bent Flyvbjerg being catapulted to near-celebrity status for his comprehensive look into mega-projects. Yet, most of us seem to dismiss those same effects on our daily professional lives, as if the very small decisions we all make every day didn’t deserve careful consideration.

I know it is impossible to consider all aspects of all our actions, but when called on something, we owe our field and our colleagues to re-evaluate the point being raised more comprehensively, which I really don’t see happening very much.  People are too reticent to call on other people’s dishonest less-than-honest statements and too resistant to correct themselves when caught and called out on it.

And this point brings me to something that happened during a conference, and that is worth telling.

While attending a conference, I heard a consultant from a large consultancy company saying that “we (transportation modeling consultants) are paid to justify clients’ projects” (I might be slightly misquoting them, but the comment had this exact meaning).

Back then I objected to it by stating the obvious, that we are paid to give clients our honest professional opinion.  I also added that after all the damage our profession has done in the Australian market in recent years, we should be real sticklers about what how we caveat our opinions and how do we disclose our conflicts of interest.

My feeling on this topic today is the same it was back then. We need to raise the bar in our profession in both ethical and technical terms, and the statement that the unfortunate consultant made was not just a mistake, but a reflection of the state of mind we have in our industry.

It is also true that the public sector needs to take on the responsibility of searching for (and gracefully accepting) independent opinions and not pressuring consultants into giving the answers they want. Intellectual honesty should be rewarded, not penalized.

Some thoughts

A former professor of mine,  the brilliant Dale Poirer, used to repeat every single class (sometimes multiple times) that “intentions matter”. I admit that this was most of what I retained from the 2 courses I took with him (highly theoretical Bayesian econometrics), but the context was the same I am talking about in this post.  Our intentions shape how we phrase BOTH our questions and our answers, and it is necessary to be candid about it when you ask or answer a question. That really stuck with me, and I have made a point of repeating it to everybody who has worked with me since. Intentions matter.

It should also be said that advocacy is important and we should all advocate for what we believe in. I advocate for Open-Source (and have invested thousands of hours putting my proverbial money where my mouth is), but I have never advised a client with a sophisticated model to go all-in on open-source software. It is just not good enough yet for those cases.

I have also advised/suggested clients, partners and at least one employer to do something that would benefit AequilibraE, but before doing so I stated that I had a conflict of interest there. Every single time. And that mattered.

Our profession helps shape our physical environment and, consequently, how we interact with the world. We have no excuses to keep our reasons, biases, and interests hidden.

We should be striving to be unequivocally honest instead of whatever else we have been doing.

Finally, we should remember that perception matters.

Borrowing the words of a much wiser man,  “If we are perceived as being less than intellectually honest, the short term benefits will be overcome by the long term costs in terms of revenue and reputation loss“.  So if you are not going to be honest for ethical reasons, do so for financial ones.

Intentions matter.

What a day.

 

PS

I would like to thank three trusted friends who accepted to comment on this post before I posted it.

The post is not only much clearer than I could make it on my own, but one of them also brought up the point of public perception.