ENR’s recent investigation into licensure exemptions for petroleum projects and other industries, plus the accompanying editorial, has generated some thoughtful discussion among our readers via enr.com. This is what online forums do best: create a dynamic exchange of insights and observations from a cross-section of the design and construction community, often proving as illuminating as the original story. 

But I can’t help find some incongruity in the fact that so many people who commented on a story about the merits of putting personal and professional reputations on the line did so anonymously.


This is by no means intended as a criticism of anyone who commented on that story, or anything else on enr.com for that matter, without revealing his/her identity. It’s simply the way things are on the Internet, where nicknames and aliases have been accepted means of identification since the not-so-distant days of dial-up modems.  

In this relatively short time, information sources have gained global credibility by revealing only a smattering of details about themselves, while deep, even romantic friendships have blossomed among people who may never know each other’s names.  Some opt for anonymity out of a legitimate fear of retribution for speaking out, while others do it just to tease anyone who comes across their disembodied musings.

That such trust has been so easily bestowed on users of a medium that has revolutionized the way we communicate and interact with each other is truly remarkable. It’s also a bit disconcerting for the future of the engineering licensure debate, as advocates for fewer exemptions say that public awareness is integral to effecting any kind of change.

Unfounded rumors and misinformation already gain immediate and widespread acceptance because somebody “saw it on the Internet,” which must make it true. 

But because the current generation of students and those who will follow them have no concept of life without the Web and its culture of concealed identity, might they be even more willing make such assumptions about other thingssay, a complex system is safe just because “somebody” must have figured it out, or that a lot of positive, albeit unsigned user comments means that a product lives up to its manufacturer’s claims.

Certainly, Internet frauds have been and will continue to be outed. But that typically happens only after the damage has been done, with consequences running the gamut from user chagrin and disputed Wikipedia entries to outright crimes. 

Similarly, the design flaws in the Macondo well’s drilling system became apparent only after 11 lives were lost on the Deepwater Horizon, and the Gulf Coast was slathered in oil. As we reported, the absence of professional engineering oversight has figured prominently in the subsequent investigation--an irony that’s not lost on licensure advocates such as Leonard Timms, President of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).

“It’s just interesting that while licensed PEs are charged with preventing accidents,” Timms says, “it’s only after they occur in other areas that the issue for other industries comes up.”

Encouraging personal accountability on Internet forums may not do any more to safeguard the public than broadening PE sign-off mandates to other industries. But as we debate and rethink the definition of “public safety and welfare,” perhaps it’s a good time to also consider our assumptions on other things, including who we trust and why.