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Marginalizing Dissent: Engineering And The Public Hearing Process

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Engineering, Engineers and Setting Public Policy

Tagged Division

Engineering and Public Policy

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.1033.1 - 12.1033.7



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Paper Authors

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David Haws Boise State University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Marginalizing Dissent: Engineering and the Public Hearing Process

Abstract: In a core class for non-engineers at Boise State University, I focus on helping students understand the impact of engineering decisions on their individual and communal lives. I attempt to de-mystify engineering design, but also try to explain the engineer’s over-reliance on convergent thinking, and the dissonance response of engineers to project opposition (denying, marginalizing, or baffling the opposition through intentionally turgid language and the appeal to “special” expertise). We discuss Habermas and Discourse Ethics, and as one of the principal assignments, I have them attend and report on the public hearing required to enable federal funding for some local engineering project. The Idaho Department of Transportation, and the Ada County Highway District, because of their funding source and extensive range of projects, are the two main providers of hearing opportunities. The interesting thing is that the public hearings of both these agencies have moved from the town meeting model, and to the open house/poster session format—spreading the hearing over several hours, with individual stakeholder participation limited (by the call of nature, so to speak) to a portion of the designated time. While the new model allows for more intimate interaction between staff and stakeholders, it sharply curtails interaction between stakeholders themselves (stakeholders as a whole are fragmented into much smaller groups). Is this a blatant attempt to hijack the public discourse (weakening dissent by limiting the mutual support of dissidents)? Is it reasonable to attribute the drawbacks of this policy change to insensitivity rather than malice? Or perhaps contrary, are the benefits of the new format sufficient to justify the inherent reduction in dialogue between “civilians”? This paper will examine the change in public hearing format in light of the evolving, “historic” view of political thought; Hegel’s appeal to zeitgeist (world-process) and the universal (administrative) estate; and Habermas’ notions of deliberative politics.

Let me begin with two related premises that are simply the opinion of the author:

• the ostensive, legislative intent of the federal public hearing requirement is to empower stakeholders—giving them access to information, an opportunity to formulate informed opinions, and the power to change the proposed local use of federal funds before those funds have been rendered into mortar and steel; and • the esoteric, agency intent of the local public hearing is to demonstrate that a measured effort has been made to allow the previously unconsulted public an opportunity to impact the minds responsible for the proposed use of federal funds.

Project designers have technical expertise, but need to stay in touch with the larger picture of local social concerns. Local stakeholders need to be adequately informed, and gain a sense that their concerns are being considered. Ethical deliberations regarding changes in the public

Haws, D. (2007, June), Marginalizing Dissent: Engineering And The Public Hearing Process Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--1538

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