Friday, November 30, 2012

Just the Facts?

There is a recent piece out by an industry supporter calling for “facts not fear” to drive the policy decision about fracking in Illinois. I have written before about a "fact-based" framing of the debate.

I think there are problems with putting things this way. This piece about Illinois is a perfect example of a selective reading of the studies that confirm her position, while conveniently ignoring any studies to the contrary. This is perfectly fine advocacy work. But it should not be passed off as simply ‘the facts’ or ‘the whole truth.’ For example, she mentions frac focus as a shining beacon of industry disclosure, but she fails to note the loopholes that riddle that system. And there is no mention of studies (even industry studies) that show well casing integrity problems are persistent.

 But the ‘fact-based’ framing is not limited to the industry. NY Governor Cuomo recently stated (in reference to that state's moratorium on fracking pending a scientific review): "Let the science dictate the conclusion. We will make a decision based on facts."

The same framing is shared by those who oppose fracking. The leading fracking critic in the US, Josh Fox, also thinks the facts are on his side. Indeed, he thinks the answer to the question: "Should we ban fracking?" is as easy as the answer to the question: "What color is the sky?" He is able to paint the exact opposite picture of fracking – as inherently and irredeemably dangerous – by, of course, simply letting the facts speak.  
Should New York, Illinois, or even Denton ban fracking? The answer to that question is just not as simple as looking out the window and reporting on the color of the sky. Yes, we must be ever vigilant to make sure biased and bogus claims are not passed off as facts. But there is more work than just that.

Shale gas policies entail judgments about what kinds of risks and uncertainties are acceptable, who to empower with decision-making, who to empower with the authority to speak the 'facts,' what kind and how much evidence to require prior to taking action, how to prioritize competing goods, and which tradeoffs to make. Judgments and interpretations are unavoidable in a way they are not when we are deciding on the color of the sky.

What I see going on are two incommensurable worldviews. One says fracking is wonderful; the other says it is evil. They both claim to be reporting just the facts. They both claim the other side is lying; either out of selfish greed or baseless fear.

What this framing does is submerge the driving worldviews and keep them out of the debate. One side believes in the free market, in the unlimited potential of the human intellect to solve problems, that humans are defined by calculated risk-taking, and in a boundless quest for progress through the technological control of nature. The other side believes nature sets non-negotiable limits to human action, that markets often fail and require regulations, and that humans can act hubristically by overreaching and unleashing powers they cannot understand or control.

There is a telling example of this in the book that has lately become so popular among those opposed to fracking. In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway argue that science often shows we need health and environmental regulations. Corporations don't want to hear that, so they obfuscate the science and manufacture doubt and debate where the facts are actually established...if only we would listen to the science.

So, they have the same fact-based framing as is used so often by the industry, but of course in the service of opposite policy conclusions. But at the very end of their book, they acknowledge the limits of a science- or fact-based framing. The caution against a "foolish cynicism" that would have us always questioning and demanding scientific proof. Their very last paragraph reads:

“Or as Bill Nierenberg put it in a candid moment, ‘You just know in your heart that you can’t throw 25 million tons a year of sulfates into the Northeast and not expect…consequences.’ We agree.”

In a wonderful act of irony, a book premised entirely on listening to the science concludes with a plea to listen to one’s gut. Oreskes and Conway clearly share that second worldview about limits to human power. That is why their heart counsels them to be more cautious and impose regulations.

This, I think, is the best part of the book. It is not a plea to simply ignore science or the facts. They make it very clear that such wishful thinking is a serious problem (epistemic closure is another name for it). But it is an acknowledgement that the facts will never be enough. We cannot help but choose and interpret facts from a particular standpoint. Here, finally at the very end, they admit that they think we ought to interpret things from a standpoint of caution and limits. That is the place they are coming from - and that makes all the difference. Josh Fox opens GasLand with a scene of his beautiful home in the woods along a creek - that fragile, limited, natural place is where he is coming from -- that is the key to understanding how he reads the facts. But no one talks about that part of the movie - it is all about the facts of flaming faucets, not the standpoint of one's beloved home.

By way of commentary on Merchants of Doubt. I think there is a great deal right about this book. Especially valuable is the call for critical thinking when it comes to assessing knowledge claims - they are right to point out our responsibility to look at who is speaking, where they have subjected their claims for critical review (scientific peers?), and where their money comes from.

In the case of tobacco, such vigilance helped eventually to show how power and ideology was masquerading as science. I think the same is needed in the case of climate and fracking.

But what I don't like about that book is the way they conflate science with policy -- the way they tend to argue that once we see who is speaking the real facts, the policy conclusion is self-evident. As if the policy derives from the science - or the science compels a single rational course of action. As Cuomo said: "Let the science dictate the conclusion."

This is clearly not true in the case of tobacco. Yes it is what? Should we prohibit it outright the way we do other drugs, should we prohibit smoking by parents, should we prohibit smoking in bars or restaurants, should we tax it, at what level....? Numerous courses of action seem consistent with the scientific consensus, because the policy is not reducible to facts.

The same is true of climate change. Oreskes and Conway seem to think that accepting the IPCC consensus is tantamount to endorsing the Kyoto Protocol. But that is just one policy response. It implicitly defines the problem in terms of mitigation, which in turn stems from their underlying worldview about the necessity of curtailing human actions on a finite planet. But one could accept the scientific consensus and nonetheless call for a different kind of mitigation scheme, or geo-engineering such as carbon capture, or a mixture of some of this with adaptation - we could do a cap and trade scheme or a carbon tax or.... I don't think one can accept the science and then do nothing - but how to change the status quo is again open to interpretation and judgment.

With fracking things are different. There is no consensus from an authoritative body such as the IPCC and there are not decades of intensive, controlled experiments by the federal government as in the tobacco case. So here I think the big questions are not about who has the facts but how should we act under conditions of uncertainty - who bears what burden of proof - and how are we going to get independent, trustworthy scientific consensus on risks? I have been saying all along - and DAG always endorsed this idea - that we ought to follow a precautionary approach to such uncertainty. We have acted too fast, done too much with insuffcient knowledge. And we don't have the conditions in place to gather more knowledg and modify fracking in light of that knowledge, because the industry has too much influence on the market of ideas and the regulatory process.


  1. So let's look at the facts.

    Stack up all the peer-reviewed studies that prove fracking harms health of humans, animals or the environment including climate change.

    Stack up all the peer-reviewed studies that prove fracking is safe.

    Measure those stacks and get back to me.

    1. Oops, hit reply too soon.

      We have enough evidence to know that fracking is causing harm. That debate is over. We won't know how much harm it has caused or if it's possible to mitigate harm until the loopholes are closed and this industry operates following the laws meant to keep us safe.

      I think for most people it is about their beloved home. They talk about the flaming faucets in Gasland because they connect with the belovedness of home and the fear of losing that.