Tuesday, March 25, 2008


You're questioning the credibility of the ASCE? Really? Really??
NEW ORLEANS - The professional organization for engineers who build the nation's roads, dams and bridges has been accused by fellow engineers of covering up catastrophic design flaws while investigating national disasters.


After the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the levee failures caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the federal government paid the American Society of Civil Engineers to investigate what went wrong.

Critics now accuse the group of covering up engineering mistakes, downplaying the need to alter building standards, and using the investigations to protect engineers and government agencies from lawsuits.

Similar accusations arose after both disasters, but the most recent allegations have pressured the organization to convene an independent panel to investigate.


In the World Trade Center case, critics contend the engineering society wrongly concluded skyscrapers cannot withstand getting hit by airplanes. In the hurricane investigation, it was accused of suggesting that the power of the storm was as big a problem as the poorly designed levees.
The Katrina allegations are bad enough (it's just the Army Corps of friggin' Engineers that you're disputing here) but the WTC ones take the cake:

In 2002, the society's report on the World Trade Center praised the buildings for remaining standing long enough to allow tens thousands of people to flee.

But, the report said, skyscrapers are not typically designed to withstand airplane impacts. Instead of hardening buildings against such impacts, it recommended improving aviation security and fire protection.

Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, a structural engineer and forensics expert, contends his computer simulations disprove the society's findings that skyscrapers could not be designed to withstand the impact of a jetliner.

Astaneh-Asl, who received money from the National Science Foundation to investigate the collapse, insisted most New York skyscrapers built with traditional designs would survive such an impact and prevent the kind of fires that brought down the twin towers.

He also questioned the makeup of the society's investigation team. On the team were the wife of the trade center's structural engineer and a representative of the buildings' original design team.

Yes, why would we want to have those people on the team?
Gene Corley, a forensics expert and team leader on the society's report, said employing people with ties to the original builders was necessary because they had access to information that was difficult to get any other way.

Corley said the society's study was peer-reviewed and its credibility was upheld by follow-up studies, including one by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Ah, right.

So, in one corner, we have the ASCE and NIST. In the other, we have a single engineer who got a grant from the National SCIENCE Foundation. As any scientist or engineer will tell you, science is not engineering and engineering is not science. People often conflate the two, but they are definitely not anywhere close to the same thing. Political Science and Literature both involve a lot of writing, but I don't think anyone would make the mistake of confusing the two.

Look, I understand that the design of the Towers had a large part to do with the collapse and that a differently designed building might have handled the strike better. I also understand that you can build almost anything to resist almost anything else. That's missing the point. Building skyscrapers capable of withstanding a hit from a 350,000 lbs. object (give or take) traveling between 390-470 knots with fireproofing capable of withstanding a hit from the same object isn't something designers should have to do.

We've been using this word a fair amount on the blog recently, and I think it fits in this situation.