Bullshit in Tunneling, Revisited

Bullshit in Tunneling I co-authored an article for this magazine in April 2010 titled, “Bullshit As Applied to Tunneling Projects.” One of the reasons for writing that article was an admiration of the 2005 book, “On Bullshit,” by Dr. Harry G. Frankfurt, a Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. Focusing on tunneling projects, the article defined what is, and is not, bullshit, noting that it includes statements anywhere between the truth and a lie. It suggested that there is more bullshit in this industry than is healthy, and noted that it can occur in any of the many project facets from planning through construction, and, that it can result in dramatically different project outcomes regarding schedules and budgets. It admitted a candid willingness to subject my personal work history to the judgment of others regarding my use of bullshit. Suggestions to improve the situation were relatively simple, but not necessarily easy to carry out, or enforce:

  1. In all things, know the truth and convey it accurately
  2. Be very careful in giving opinions that are not evidence-based, and be especially clear in noting what you don’t know

In the last four years, much has changed. Globalization and the Internet (along with the proliferation of mobile devices) has nearly created a world without boundaries and increased competition for the available projects; new materials, processes and equipment have come into place to attempt to increase efficiencies and production rates; larger and more complex projects are being planned; and, complex new project delivery systems are being initiated by owners in an attempt to receive better value for their money spent. Given these changes, and in the spirit of open dialogue, it seems prudent to take another look at the situation.

Tunneling: A Growing Global Business

Globalization is advancing steadily, driven by better and cheaper transportation, better and cheaper communication mechanisms, and less restrictive travel and relocation regulations. One of the direct results of this trend is the accompanying population growth of urban areas. Cities are just a better place to live and work efficiently and conveniently. It is a noted fact that cities are also very green, showing a low carbon footprint on a per capita basis. A related result of these trends is an increase in tunneling and underground construction, especially in cities, to both free up surface space and improve quality of life.

To improve transportation between cities, tunnels are also often employed to create the most efficient transportation corridors. Trenchless technology, particularly directional drilling, has also made major strides as it eliminates costly and disruptive excavations in urban areas for utilities and other subsurface construction needs.

Another development that is affecting the global tunnel business is the employment by owners of design-build, public-private partnerships (P3s), and other alternative project delivery methods to hopefully create more cost-effective and efficient solutions to their particular tunneling needs. Initial costs of tunnels can be high, so attempts are made to reduce this aspect. Clearly, the O&M costs of tunnels throughout their long, useful lives is generally much lower than other infrastructure facilities, and this is one of the main reasons for their attractiveness. The evidence suggests that current and planned tunnel projects are becoming more frequent, larger in scope, and more complex in their execution.

Volume of Bullshit

1. In general. Prof. Frankfurt’s book suggested that the widespread existence, proliferation and employment of bullshit is in large measure a result of the many individuals in modern society who are frequently required to speak on topics for which their factual knowledge is sadly lacking. This fact is common today and includes talk show hosts, politicians, salesmen of any and all things, actors, sports figures, clergy, medical personnel, and, of course, engineers, contractors, and lawyers.

We are living in a totally connected, 24/7/365 world where everybody has an opinion about just about everything. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, CNN, MSNBC, and many other communication tools have made this process relentless. Globalization and the Internet have also added the factor of increased competition to the processes. Everybody wants to convince everybody else that they, their firm, their ideas, their products and their processes, are better, faster, cheaper, more interesting and more sustainable than the same of their competitors. When people are impelled to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant, the result is bullshit. Thus, it is more or less obvious that in the last four years or so, the sheer volume of bullshit in the known world has increased dramatically.

2. In tunneling. People involved in the tunneling business, while a varied and clever lot, are ultimately a general cross-section of humanity, and thus subject to the same character flaws of venality, pettiness, stubbornness, vanity and self-importance as others. Thus, it would be unusual for them to not also engage in bullshit. Since tunnel projects are generally large and expensive, and the competition to win the related planning, financing, insurance, design, construction and other associated contracts is truly intense, one might assume that the temptation to sling a little bullshit is also a bit more tempting than in other more mundane endeavors. The players in the tunnel business might be better educated than the average blokes, and might be more used to dealing with very expensive, complex issues, but when two or more entities are seeking to get qualified for, and win, a really big contract, well … watch out for bullshit.

Suggested Reasons for Current Situation

1. Evolution. Darwin’s “Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection,” is an accepted explanation for the current state of the human race on Earth. It’s really not correct to call it a theory since there is no other credible explanation. One of the key elements of evolution theory is that genes are totally immoral, they just want to get passed on to the next generation, period. If your ancestors were not good at deception, you wouldn’t be here. “Survival of the fittest” is also not an accurate description of the process of evolution, because it is not the strongest that survive, but those most adaptive to change. The only constant in the universe is change. This applies to the business world, and to the tunnel business: IBM doesn’t sell computers anymore, but they still make a lot of money in services; Digital Equipment is out of business, Lovat is gone, and Dames and Moore is history. The dominant theme is a world of constant change with more and more competition.

2. Globalization. This item is noted above, but it is truly pervasive. There are no boundaries anymore: Parsons Brinckerhoff was sold to Balfour Beatty four years ago and then flipped to WSP Global, AECOM is joining with URS, COWI bought Jenny Engineering, etc. It is now common for big tunnel projects to be bid by international teams of designers and contractors. The job of “selling” these teams to owners, financiers and insurance entities has become extremely complex and risky. Some of these large projects can easily consume 10, even 20, years between planning and the completed project. During the complex procurement process, prequalification often results in as many as five teams being certified to actually perform the work. How do you differentiate and select a winner? Hmm… Again, the increased competition resulting from globalization appears to provide a clear reason for being more forceful in making individual arguments for winning a particular project.

3. Increased Use of Advanced Technology. New technology has made it possible to suggest that certain firms, or individuals, are capable of unique positive performance in select situations, and thus should be chosen over their rivals for certain projects. Because of the sophisticated employment of complex algorithms, proprietary software, and other very high-tech tools, it is not always easy to judge the truth of such claims.

Two examples of the above phenomena follow:

  • In an interview with the New Yorker magazine published on July 28, 2014, Vice President Joe Biden describes his approach to dealing with other nation’s high-ranking officials, “It’s really very important, if you are able, to communicate to the other guy that you understand his problem. And some of this diplomatic bullshit communicates: ‘we have no idea of your problem.’ ”
  • An article in the June 2014 issue of WIRED magazine described the difficulty of the scientific community in judging the accuracy and success of a new quantum computer developed by the firm, D-Wave. Scientists at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Zurich set up a contest between the new and improved optimizer and an Intel desktop. The result appeared to show the D-Wave was not, in fact, faster on many of the submitted problems. When notified of the result, the D-Wave staff said, “It’s total bullshit.”

The above suggests two key things: 1) the volume of bullshit is if fact increasing significantly, and, 2) it appears to be getting more difficult to discern what is, and what is not, bullshit.

Consequences of Bullshit

1. Schedule Delays. One adverse result from bullshit in tunneling is a schedule delay during the project development and execution. The project takes longer to complete than anticipated or predicted. Because of financing issues, this translates to a related rise in cost: time is money. However, there are a variety of other related elements that come into play, e.g., the relationship of the subject project to other projects in close proximity, many of which are often dependent upon the timely completion of the subject project. This interdependence is particularly critical in an urban environment, where the combined synergistic effect can be extremely adverse. A current major tunnel design-build project in the Northwest was awarded not to the low bidder, but to the bidder who promised to finish the project a year ahead of the owner’s published schedule. That project is currently temporarily stopped and looks to be delayed about 16 months.

2. Cost Overruns. The other most common result is a cost overrun, and the dollar issue usually receives more attention. Cost overruns and their resolution are complex because of the inter-related nature of applicable contracts; local, state and federal regulations; project-specific financial arrangements; and the nature and ability of the involved parties to actually raise additional required funding in a timely fashion.

The literature is replete with examples of “bad” projects that were severely harmed, or in some cases abandoned, because of the failure to secure required additional funding to complete the work. A currently active major East Coast tunnel project has experienced major delays, and, the budget has increased by a few billion dollars.

A casual look at the recent history of tunnel projects gone bad, especially large ones in urban areas, suggests that the legal profession is the one entity that is most likely to profit; and the third parties in the vicinity of the work, along with the taxpayers in the project area, are the most likely losers. The amount of time and money involved in these situations is generally very long and very large, respectively.

Suggestions for Improvements

A prudent person would argue that some changes are in order. A good start would be:

  • More strictly enforce Cannons 2 and 3 of the ASCE’s Code of Ethics, which address individual competence, truth and objectivity. A major change in such enforcement would not be easy to accomplish, but it makes sense as a way of beginning. The complexity of carrying out such a program would have to be the subject of another article. The example of the massive financial crisis here in the United States that began in 2008 and is finally pretty much in the rearview mirror does not offer much hope. Identifying and punishing the “guilty” in that case was largely unsuccessful.
  • A second suggestion applies to all players in the industry and is simply to rely upon ONLY verifiable facts and evidence when judging the merits of any claim or prediction for project performance, or for team or individual performance. This should apply throughout the entire procurement project process, from planning to completed construction and initial operation. Opinions are likely to contain bullshit.
  • A third suggestion is to look carefully at the current use of “risk management” and its shortcomings in justifying and managing complex urban tunnel projects. Risk management programs and processes largely rely on probability theory to assess uncertainty and link the various risky elements into a model that permits the “evaluation” and “management” of uncertainty and risk for the project. These models may include even the viability of the project; financing issues; design and construction issues; third-party issues; and insurance, regulation and contract issues. There appears to be ample evidence that probability theory falls significantly short in trying to judge the actual outcome of truly complex projects.

It would not be incorrect to describe a tunnel project as analogous to a military battle. All complex projects, at every stage of their development and execution, are really conflicts, conflicts between the best solution and the solution that works (wins). What is the optimum financing scheme, the best design strategy, the best owner contractual strategy, the best bidding strategy for competing design or construction firms, the best construction sequence, the best strategy to deal with and resolve adverse contingencies, etc.? The myriad decisions required to get through all these elements are made by opponents in many individual conflicts. It would be wrong indeed for any player to think his opponent’s choice of strategy will be made by chance. Chance has nothing to do with it. Each player should be expected to do their very best to deduce what the other’s strategy choice will be and prepare for it. Game Theory provides a more realistic approach to these projects and judging their outcomes, but, again, a detailed discussion of Game Theory and its applicability will have to be the subject of another article. Suffice to say that Game Theory is a different way at looking at conflicts, i.e., interactions between individuals and groups with differing goals and strategies, and it has been successfully applied in many complex situations.

The incidence of bullshit is increasing everywhere, and, it is becoming more difficult to discern the difference between bullshit and the truth, or an outright lie. The consequences of this dilemma can be severe. Buyer beware.

A final note regarding the difficulty of knowing the “truth.” Various forms of skepticism suggest that we have no access to objective reality. To the degree that we’ve lost the discipline required to the reach ideal of “correctness,” some have pursued an alternative ideal of “sincerity,” i.e., we try to accurately represent ourselves and be true to our own nature. This is a mistake. We are not determinate. We ourselves are subject to correct and incorrect descriptions. Prof. Frankfurt describes this dilemma well in the last sentence of his book, “And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”

Thom L. Neff, PE, PhD, is president of OckhamKonsult. His professional career has included significant assignments in the planning, research, design, construction and operation phases of a wide variety of civil and heavy construction projects throughout the United States and overseas. He has also worked on Design-Build and Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects that have ranged over transportation, water/wastewater and oil facilities.

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