Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Scenes from the jetway.

Boarding a plane last night, a little scene played out. Prior to boarding, the gate agent had announced that the plane would not have room for wheeled suitcases in the overhead bins, and that anyone who had a wheeled suitcase s/he had intended to carry on should get a tag to check it at the jetway. In the gate area, one of the ticketed passengers, who had a big wheeled suitcase, approached the gate agent to argue about this instruction. For five minutes. After which, she refused to take a tag for her behemoth of a "carry-on".

Boarding. The same ticketed passenger handed over her boarding pass but refused, again, to take a tag for her bag. She walked down the jetway, causing the agent taking boarding passes to chase her down the tube (and, of course, delaying the boarding of everyone else in the line until the agent returned).

On the jetway, the folks set to load tagged bags into cargo asked her, "Didn't you get a tag? Did they run out?" Snottily, she asked, "Why do I have to check mine? There were lots of people ahead of me who brought theirs. I'm bringing my bag with me!"

Of course, the moment she tried to board the (really quite small) plane with this honkin' big suitcase, the flight attendant said, "No, that won't fit in the overhead bin. It needs a tag." The ticketed passenger from hell launched into a tirade about how she had a tight connection to her next flight at the destination and she couldn't lose the time it would require to retrieve the bag from cargo and bring it back to the jetway (seemingly oblivious to the delay she was causing in the boarding of the plane). The flight attendant showed her the overhead bins (each about 1/3 the size of the honkin' big suitcase.) The flight attendant then affixed a tag, handing the H.B.S. and the one other wheeled suitcase that someone else had tried to bring onto the plane, to the folks wrangling luggage at the jetway.

It may not surprise you that this scene made me think about ethics in general, and about rules imposed upon scientific researchers.

I'm not the most Kantian kid on the block, but one of Kant's insights I think is dead-on is that it's assy to make yourself an exception to rules you expect others to observe. If no one takes the jetway tag for his or her wheeled suitcase, there won't be room for anyone's carry-on luggage. Maybe if everyone else gets his or her wheeled suitcase checked, I'll have room to carry mine on (though not in this case) -- but I can only count on this payoff if everyone else plays by a different rule (follow the gate agent's instructions) than I play by (do what you want).

It's worth noting that the problem passenger here justified her behavior by saying:
(1) lots of other people are doing the same thing (false! just one other passenger tried to bring a wheeled suitcase on the plane), and (2) my interests (e.g., in not missing my connection) are such that I should be exempt from the rule. In fact, I don't think these justifications are prima facie crappy ones. If lots of other passengers were ignoring the instructions, there might be good reason to ask whether poor enforcement of the rule had undermined it altogether. Perhaps it is unjust to enforce the rule with me but not with all those other people ahead of me. And, in the event that it were possible to fit some small number of wheeled suitcases in the overhead bins (not true on this plane, but hypothetically on another), there may be interests such that we could identify which passengers could stow their wheeled suitcases overhead.

Here, of course, we had a rule that existed for a very good reason: the wheeled suitcases just didn't fit in the tiny overhead bins. The passenger trying to get around this rule was just being a jerk.

To a certain extent, what's true for the airline passenger is true for the research scientist, too. It's assy to count on other scientists to follow rules but decide that you don't have to follow them yourself. It would be assy to expect others to share reagents, while never sharing your own. It would be assy to expect others to review your manuscripts fairly if you yourself were a reliable source of venom in your reviews of the manuscripts of others. It would be assy to demand that others get their protocols approved by the IRB while making unauthorized changes in your own IRB-approved plans.

And yet ... the nightmare passenger was at least being open in her questioning of the rule. She wasn't trying to be sneaky. Granted, there were more respectful ways she could have expressed her doubt about the rule, and she could have considered the (physically) plausibility of the explanation offered for the rule. But breaking the rule while pretending to follow it would have been worse. Much of the really catastrophic stuff in science, ethically speaking, seems to happen when people act as though they are following the rules while breaking them big time.


At 5:26 PM, Blogger kmsqrd said...

And to think I was annoyed that they wouldn't pink tag my clothes bag.

At 1:46 AM, Blogger element said...

"It would be assy to expect others to share reagents, while never sharing your own...."


you just described my life..... of course, it is others who are being assy, not me!!!

i'm still waiting on data that should've been in the public domain 4 years ago

At 6:56 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

poor element! I feel your pain.

I like the adjective "assy", i've never heard that before. I thought the word was "asinine", and I'm not even sure I'm spelling that right.

agreed: I'll take the snotty loudmouth any day over the sneaky liar.


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