The Illusion of Science and the Science of Illusion

August 22, 2012

by Jimmy

Funny how summer works. I figured I would blog more, but I blogged less. OK, none. Too much beer, too much travelling, too much cycling, too few trucks, I reckon. I kept reading, too, and a couple of books got me to thinking about press coverage of the gas industry and how the industry uses science.

David Gessner. Dude can drink beer and write. My hero.

The two books: David Gessner’s The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. David’s book (I can call him David because we’ve drunk beer together) tells the story of him searching for the heart of the BP spill in the Gulf. He leaves his wife and child and drives down there with no plan except to dive underneath the surface of national news stories and check the deeps for the untold ones. He pulls it off well, and we get a perspective on the Gulf Spill that sounds in some ways eerily similar to what’s been happening in Tioga and the surrounding counties. This is not to say that we are experiencing what the people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are experiencing, but there are connections to be drawn between the influx of industry here and BP’s mitigation shenanigans down there. One thing that grabbed me in The Tarball Chronicles was the way the national press reporting simply did not reflect the reality of the spill. Though David doesn’t spend a ton of words on this, he provides enough to show how the press leaves out stories that might oil feathers. Good stuff. (One day I hope to write a book that mentions beer as many times as his do. For now, I’ll settle for blog posts. . . .)

I read David’s book while I was reading Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt. Oreskes and Conway (I haven’t drunk beer with them, though I’d like to—I’d buy) tell the story of how accepted science on tobacco smoke, supersonic transport, the ozone hole, secondhand smoke, global warming, and Rachel Carson has been challenged—and corrupted—by a few hardcore free-market, Cold War-era academics. The authors are historians of science who, given their subject, need to provide plenty of evidence to support their claims. Not surprisingly, Merchants of Doubt is a painstakingly researched book, well-written, and well worth the read (though it’ll probably piss you off).

Oreskes and Conway show us how the Cold War academics distort peer-reviewed and accepted scientific research by exploiting the gaps in the science, even when the scientists performing the research on, say, secondhand smoke, were (and are) in agreement on the dangers. (As Oreskes and Conway show, Big Tobacco knew of the dangers, too, but that didn’t stop them from enlisting the Cold War academics to blow smoke.) Their work traces how these same academics use similar tactics for arguing against regulations on the environmental issues listed above by creating doubt in public where scientists have none. It’s been pretty effective, given that around fifty percent of the American population doesn’t believe in human-caused global warming, though scientists have had the research fairly settled for about, oh, forty years. (Given the current state of the climate, the percentage of believers might be rising like the oceans.)

Read this book.

A word about gaps: Gaps refer to the gray areas of science, that is, the places where scientists may still have questions, like about how dolphins evolved from shrew-like creatures who, as David recounts, “one day take the plunge,” even though the larger process of evolution is considered a fact. When dealing with cigarettes, the Cold War academics decided to focus on things in the environment other than cigarette smoke that may cause cancer. While this may be a legitimate gray area, it does not mean that cigarettes do not cause cancer. That science is settled. People who use science unethically exploit these gaps, and depend upon the audience’s lack of scientific fluency to lead to a lack of action.

These books got me to thinking about the news coverage and the science surrounding natural gas development here in Tioga County. On the news end, this: I don’t think the national news does a good job explaining what’s happening here. Coverage from Ian Urbina at the New York Times and Abrahm Lustgarten at Propublica is pretty good. I do wonder, however, if their work is enough when Daddy asks me during one of our phone conversations if natural gas extraction is really clean. Looks like he’ll find out firsthand when the industry moves to NC. He doesn’t read the Times or Propublica, though he reads the Charlotte Observer (NC’s flagship paper) and watches the mainstream news regularly. Then there’s the lack of coverage of the Stop the Frack Attack Rally Lilace and I attended in DC on July 28. The NRDC said 5000 people showed up, and we heard people like Bill McKibben, Josh Fox, and Calvin Tillman, the mayor of DISH, Texas, speak. (Personally, we thought Doug Shields from Pittsburgh was most effective at energizing people. He played a role in banning fracking in Pittsburgh.) A couple of days prior, The Washington Post mentioned the protest was scheduled, but, after, not a word. In fact, I haven’t been able to find any coverage of the Stop the Frack Rally by the mainstream media.

On the science question, Oreskes and Conway made me wonder whether the gas industry is reversing the Cold War academics’ strategy by assuring us that the science on fracking is thorough and clear, that is, there are no gaps or gray areas. Recall this phrase? “There’s never been one case—documented case—of groundwater contamination in the history of the thousands and thousands of hydraulic fracturing [wells].” This, from Senator James Inhofe, and quoted on the Energy in Depth website. There have been scientific articles questioning that blanket statement, but it depends on how narrowly or broadly you define fracking. Given the attention placed by the industry on the economics of gas development and that fact that many people need a job or lease money, rigorous unbiased science gets pushed to the wayside. As far as I can tell, given the scope of the drilling, there aren’t a tremendous number of scientific articles about the process, period. The industry appears to be relying on two studies, from the Ground Water Protection Council (1984) and the EPA (2004), to show that fracking is safe. Though I can’t find it online, the GWPC study dealt with fracking in coal deposits and the EPA study did not look at the fracturing process itself. That’s not an overwhelming body of evidence. And, fortunately for the gas industry, you can’t have a documented case of pollution from fracking if no one is doing the documenting. But the industry wants us to think that the science is conclusive and shows that they are justified in drilling full speed ahead.

If anything, these books help me think about the need for the study of rhetoric, something I’ve questioned the worth of lately, even though teaching rhetoric is my job. Rhetoric is the study and strategic use of words and images to incline people to think in certain ways, to take certain actions, to adopt particular attitudes.  Rhetoric is neither moral nor immoral; it’s the choices we make every time we interact with someone, whether family, friend, boss, or stranger. What makes rhetoric moral is the way we use it, what ends we try to achieve when we make our choices. The way, say, we define fracking. Science can be used rhetorically as well. (Science has a rhetoric of its own, but we don’t have space for that here.) What makes scientific research and rhetoric moral is the way it involves peer review by experts, tests and re-tests, accurate predictions, and so on. This is a long process that involves much work on the part of scientists, and, eventually, they will settle on something as a fact, as reality, like the earth revolving around the sun. Or evolution. Or climate change. The peer review serves to eliminate the biases that scientists may build into their research programs. It’s harder to see just what you want to see when people are looking over your shoulder.

In my view, the gas industry assumes a credibility for their science that isn’t there, because there hasn’t been time to establish an unbiased or objective body of research. This is not to say that I think there is no science behind the industry’s work; in fact, taken by itself, I think the technology is pretty amazing. But the problem with technology is that it’s often divorced from its larger context—in this case, clean air and water and the preservation of communities. David points out in The Tarball Chronicles that BP was mostly concerned with appearances rather than cleaning up their mess. The gas industry here acts much the same, given that they tout economic interests over environmental ones.

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5 Responses to “The Illusion of Science and the Science of Illusion”

  1. Kathy Thorne said

    Check this out – Joe Romm’s “Language Intelligence”. The book is recommended on the Think Progress Climate Change RSS. The blurb says that the book is “… The Progressives’ Field Guide In The War Of Ideas”. I haven’t read it yet but it’s on my list.

    My problem with conservatives is that they just don’t want to hear any competing ideas. When I offer to explain how CO2 warms the atmosphere they just leave.

    • Thanks for the title, Kathy. I’l add that to my list. Romm’s a smart guy.

      I know quite a few conservatives and count some as close friends. They are thoughtful and have moved my thinking on some things. What bugs me is when a few loud free marketers have an impact all out of proportion to the facts. I don’t see the free market dealing with the issues I’ve raised here.

      By the way: cool blog. I like the immediacy of it.

  2. david brown said

    Jimmy,
    Good to see ya back on the keyboard. Thanks for putting it so clearly and thanks for the referred to reads but I think you’re right, I’d probably just get pissed if I read them and I’m already pissed enuf. Keep up the good work and take an occasional beer brake

  3. Lewis Guignard said

    Kathy Thorne and I might have a difference of opinion. Very few people I know doubt climate change is real. What is in question is man’s ability to control the climate and what would be happening without his minor influence. The records we have go back at best 200 years, before that records are based on fossils; tree growth, ice core drillings etc. 20,000 years ago, long before man was a blip, the ocean water levels were 200 to 300 feet below where they are currently. That was because of the glaciers which covered the northern hemisphere. Man did not cause those to melt, but they melted in large part anyway and were melting as the industrial age began and continued. Now, suddenly, man is supposed to stop everything he has done to make life so good for most of us, to stop the glaciers from continuing to melt? Is he also going to stop the next ice age from beginning – remember the science of the ice ages and that we’re existing in an interglacial period. Remember that the meaning of an interglacial is that the expectation is we’ll return to another ice age as this interglacial ends. Remember from the science that earth has also been much warmer in some parts of the past than it is today. The earth is 4 billion years old. The ice age cycle has been lasting 400,000 years or better. Our best records of change are 100 years long or less.

    In reality the question of global climate change is only one: can scientists offer a solution which will control the climate and assure us that it will stay within certain parameters if we follow their prescription? If we can’t be assured then I suggest climate changeis something we should live with, not obsess about.

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