How Planners Deal with Uncomfortable Knowledge:

Bent Flyvbjerg writes a paper about writing a paper (or more precisely, a paper about promoting a paper):

Abstract: With a point of departure in the concept “uncomfortable knowledge,” this article presents a case
study of how the American Planning Association (APA) deals with such knowledge. APA was
found to actively suppress publicity of malpractice concerns and bad planning in order to sustain a
boosterish image of planning. In the process, APA appeared to disregard and violate APA’s own
Code of Ethics. APA justified its actions with a need to protect APA members’ interests, seen as
preventing planning and planners from being presented in public in a bad light. The current article
argues that it is in members’ interest to have malpractice critiqued and reduced, and that this best
happens by exposing malpractice, not by denying or diverting attention from it as APA did in this
case. Professions, organizations, and societies that stifle critique tend to degenerate and become
socially and politically irrelevant “zombie institutions.” The article asks whether such degeneration
has set in for APA and planning. Finally, it is concluded that more debate about APA’s ethics and
actions is needed for improving planning practice. Nine key questions are presented to
constructively stimulate such debate.


>A study of moral hypocrisy with the American Planning Association (APA).

>”APA seriously breached its own ethics”, according to JAPA editor.

>APA is found to deny and divert evidence of malpractice and bad planning.

>APA’s hypocrisy is shown to place transparency and billions of dollars of citizens’ money at risk.

>Nine points for debate aimed at reducing hypocrisy with APA and improving ethics in planning.

Keywords: Planning, uncomfortable knowledge, moral hypocrisy, professional ethics, planning
ethics, malpractice, the American Planning Association, Journal of the American Planning

Several comments:

0. In general I like Flybjerg’s work and have cited it. However no journal or professional organization I am a member of has ever gone to any lengths to promote any of my papers. I am not sure that specific article promotion is the proper role of APA or other professional associations. Aside from being a bit unseemly, giving excess attention to one paper necessarily detracts attention from other papers. While inevitably the scientific and practicing community will come to conclude which papers are important, the quality of “significance” should not be a criteria for publication (or in my view, article promotion).

1. I am no longer a member of APA or AICP (though I did pass the AICP exam many years ago), primarily because of the benefit/cost proposition of membership. I did not see any professional value to membership personally, and at >$300 per year, this was a non-trivial cost (I now see where some of my money was going). Similarly I do not attend the very expensive APA conference except when somebody comps my registration, as when it was in Minneapolis. I am inclined to think a lot of professional certification is a racket. (Professionals of course should engage in continuing education, and we need ways of accurately assessing professional ability, the licensing game is excessive. In the beginning, who assessed the assessors?)

2. I have withdrawn a couple of papers from JAPA because of failure to review, though this is a competence issue which I believe the new editors are aiming to rectify. Still unhappy having lost a few years of review time with a journal not doing its job.

3. Professor Flyvbjerg has been critiqued elsewhere (Retraction Watch) for dual publication (an ethical problem, as when submitting papers to journals it is expected they have never before been published in peer-reviewed journals, and simultaneous review is also verboten. However given journal’s failure to respond, it is possible that one thinks the paper has been rejected when it hasn’t. I don’t know the circumstances in this case.).

4. There is a certain irony in this paper being published in an Elsevier journal.

5. Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns has made ethical critiques of American Society of Civil Engineers.

6. Mike Spack has made ethical critiques of Institute of Transportation Engineers for not making its basic tools open access.