Thursday, September 13, 2012

Truth, Lies, and Fracking

Below are my remarks for the Dallas Fracking Forum being hosted tonight by several local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the Memnosyne Foundation, and the Sierra Club:
"I have been asked to comment on the ethics of shale gas development. First, a word about how I see my role in this contentious public debate. I am not an expert, nor do I aspire to that role, which is one of offering privileged insight into a narrowly defined aspect of an issue. Rather, I aspire to the role of public intellectual, which is that of seeing things in the round, pointing out general patterns and connections, and provoking thought about underlying framings and assumptions.
Shale gas development is an issue with obvious technical dimensions, which has caused much of the public debate to become dominated by scientific, engineering, and legal experts or by citizens appealing to experts in order to bolster their claims. But the issue is, at its root, about our values – about the way we live, about health, environment, jobs, and individual rights, and about the way we organize society and distribute the power to make decisions. I want to make a plea tonight that we not lose sight of these defining values questions and that we work together to find productive paths forward that balance the many legitimate values at stake.
A week ago, I published a piece titled “The Religiosity of the Fracking Debate.” I argued that there is a sad resignation to the incommensurability of the current discourse surrounding shale gas. Despite the vitriol, both camps are just going through the motions: One says X, the other says not-X and on it goes. No one really seems to believe what they say is going to get an opponent to stop and think. The point is not productive compromise, but all out victory.
In one corner, the industry accuses environmental NGOs of orchestrating a campaign of lies and fear mongering. The public would embrace the shale gas revolution if only they knew the facts – a point driven home in the title of the industry-sponsored film “TruthLand.” In the other corner, those opposed to fracking also have certainty on their side. Of course, for them it’s not emotional hysteria and media sensationalism that are clouding the truth. Rather it is the deliberate production of doubt and ignorance by a powerful and deep-pocketed industry.

I find this framing of the debate problematic. It presumes that it is all a matter of getting the facts right. One side is lying and once we see that, the appropriate policy will become self-evident. The argument from both sides is that the debate is fabricated – sustained only by fear, deception, or greed.

I don’t see things that way. I see a debate sustained by a mixture of scientific uncertainty about harms and benefits and genuine moral disagreements about how to prioritize values, empower various interests, and act in the face of uncertainty.

Take, for example, the recent report by the CDC that found incidences of invasive breast cancer had decreased across Texas except for six counties that happen to lie atop the Barnett Shale. Josh Fox picked this up in his short film “The Sky is Pink” and was later attacked for misusing the science. But as far as I can tell, this was not a debate about what the science says but about what the science means. No one denied the CDC finding and no one claimed it proved a link between drilling and breast cancer.

At issue was what to do about this possible connection between drilling and breast cancer – how should we act given this very limited finding…should we proceed apace until more evidence is gathered, should we slowdown in some way, or stop altogether? This is not about lying or telling truth or getting facts right. It is about how to interpret and respond to inconclusive evidence. And I see here a variety of legitimate responses depending on how we want to prioritize values and whether we want to be more precautionary or proactive.

The problem with the current debate is that it offers no room for productive and explicit discussions about these values decisions. Though it is important to tell the truth, the fracking debate is not as clear cut as determining the color of the sky.

So, even in cases where there is expert consensus on the figures, there is ample room for legitimate disagreements about what they mean for policy. And of course in many cases the experts disagree. Furthermore, expert assessments of harms and benefits will be replete with moral assumptions about how those terms are defined, and they leave open questions about how they should be balanced.

There is so much complexity, so much remaining uncertainty, so many questions about who and what evidence to consider authoritative, so many cognitive and institutional limitations, and so many ways to interpret and order the goods at stake. Five different groups of experts tasked with drafting a drilling and production ordinance could legitimately arrive at five different answers.

The pluralism we find in the fracking debate is not many false beliefs and one true depiction of reality. Rather, it reflects many sound interests and viable candidates for defining what the rules should be. A democratic decision process must represent all reasonable views across the spectrum. It must put them into dialogue such that their assumptions, implications, strengths, and weaknesses can be made visible for policymakers. Whatever view wins, it must be the result of open contestation about goods and goals, and not the result of being mistaken for simply ‘the facts.’

Both sides need to stop pretending that the policy questions here have easy answers once we get rid of junk science. A more productive tactic is to offer practical policy alternatives that link science and uncertainties with a clear statement of goals and values priorities. If the resulting regulations are to be sensible and democratically legitimate, they need to be forged from an open debate about values rather than disguised as the result of some technical calculation.

Of course, it is also not as simple as just discussing values. All sides will likely agree on the basic values of clean water and clean air. But do we need more or different kinds of well casing or vapor recovery units in order to secure these goods?  Scientific study provides necessary evidence here. If someone wants to increase well casing to 10 layers of steel or eliminate all protective layers or mandate more emission reductions, they will need some evidence to justify these actions as necessary for securing common-interest goods. Otherwise, rule-making becomes arbitrary, or it just recapitulates raw political power.

The implicit normative claim behind the appeal to scientific justification is that restrictions on activities should be commensurate with their actual benefits and harms rather than with the influence of interest groups. This is how science and democracy are so integral to one another. In a democracy, decisions should be made not on the basis of what the powerful wish for or want to hear, but on the basis of what is in fact most conducive to the common interest. Only non-democratic regimes, or so we hope, can get away with ignoring truths on the basis of their inconvenience.

But there is also a tension between science and democracy – it is the threat that expertise might colonize public forums of deliberation. Whether the chances of freshwater well contamination are “too high” or the use of green completion fracking methods are “too expensive” to be “feasible” are value-laden decisions. But one can imagine how levels of risk and feasibility can be captured by expert discourses and removed from public forums of reasonable and open debate.  In the case of groundwater and air protection, the question hinges on what level of safeguards must be in place in order to put threats to these goods at an acceptable level. Though science is important here, it is not reducible to science, because the question of what counts as ‘acceptable’ is an ethical and political one. So once again it will not do to simply speak in terms of truth and lies.

So my plea to everyone engaged in this debate is to frame your position explicitly in terms of your values, especially about how you believe we ought to act under conditions of uncertainty. It is a plea also to question experts, especially the ones giving answers that you are most likely to agree with. I think there is common ground to be had here and regulations to be made that form an acceptable compromise. But we won’t get there if we all remain convinced this is just about facts, that we have the facts, and the others are lying."


  1. I am disappointed in the way you have gone about instructing your readers to ignore facts and instead base a position on values related on how one believes "we ought to act under conditions of uncertainty."

    To say that science should be relegated to a subsidiarity position because what counts as 'acceptable' is an "ethical and political one" completely misses the benefit science brings to determining what is, and is not, factual.

    You seem to be espousing the precautionary principle as the only way forward and ignoring what has been shown to be factual regarding oil and gas production using hydraulic fracturing because the evidence to support an outright ban is not there. You do this under the guise of uncertainty, which as a college professor, you know can never be eliminated.

    Science adds to the preponderance of evidence to which an informed decision can be made. You seem to ignore that premise and put in place one's feelings as the lamp to guide one's decisions on this topic.

    And what did you do to add more fuel to the fire of the uncertainty you seem to want to keep in place? You throw into the debate, using the credibility of the CDC, a report on the incidence of breast cancer in Texas. However, for reasons only you know as to why, you fail to tell your readers the probable reason, instead taking the truth-but-not-the-whole-truth way out by explaining "No one denied the CDC finding and no one claimed it proved a link between drilling and breast cancer."

    Why even put that out there if it was not intended as another way to sow the seeds of uncertainty?

    So I will frame my position in terms of the only value of worth, and that is the truth.

    The CDC found the highest incidence of invasive breast cancer in those counties. A true statement. The Barnett Shale represents 18 counties, a true statement you left out. You know what else you failed to tell your readers, that the CDC eludes to a possible reason for this by stating, and I quote; "Registry data also indicated that access to mammography screening in these counties was limited and that screening rates for breast cancer were low."

    That's a more likely reason for a higher incidence of invasive breast cancer.

    You know what else science has taught me? That correlation does not imply causation. A good scientist would never mislead his audience with other possible causes until the most likely one has been eliminated.

    Here is another truth: You don't have to lie to mislead.

    1. I agree that correlation is not causation - a point I make in my piece that I link to here, where I say "But what does it mean for shale gas policy? To claim, as some activists have, that this proves shale gas drilling causes cancer is to make the questionable cause fallacy. That area is home to lots of other environmental risks that could explain the finding."

      I appreciate your feedback, but I think you misrepresent my piece. I explicitly acknowledge the importance of science and I never counsel anyone to "ignore facts" and I don't use the word "feelings" at all. I think we disagree on the ability of science to compel policy action - that is a good disagreement and one that we can't resolve in the abstract (I think it will vary case to case). But let's at least be clear on where we disagree.

  2. You are correct, you did not use the word "feelings." You did, however, make the statement "So my plea to everyone engaged in this debate is to frame your position explicitly in terms of your values, especially about how you believe we ought to act under conditions of uncertainty."

    How should one "ought to act" under conditions of uncertainty? I contend that we should look at the evidence and make a decision on the information we have. You appear to argue against this by framing one's position based on values and beliefs.

    How would a position be formulated if it is to be based on values and beliefs? If a belief is not based on, or supported by, evidence - even with uncertainty - then it has been formulated by nothing more substantive than a feeling.

    Science - or the scientific method of collecting data - is the only way to base a policy dealing with public health and risk. The evidence seen, examined, and discussed is what should compel action. If what you believe is a risk is not supported by the data, and you have no grounds to discard that data, then the belief in the risk must be discarded instead.

    If I have misconstrued your statement on how a position should be formulated on the matter of shale gas policy, then I apologize.

    1. No, I think you are pushing a fair point here and I appreciate it. I just think that when you say "science" or "the scientific method" or "the evidence" you make it sound more simple and homogenous than it is. There are often conflicting sciences, methods, and bodies of evidence. So, I agree that we need to base beliefs on evidence...but the question is which or whose evidence?