With shale gas and “fracking” shaping up to be the hot environmental issue of the year, the airwaves have been awash with a breathtaking number of scientific reports claiming either to link the practice to any number of environmental catastrophes or absolve it of responsibility for any of them. In the New York Times‘ Dot Earth column, Andrew Revkin makes a good point about this deluge of scientific studies:
Setting aside the fights between environmentalists and industry, the picture emerging in the science is of an initial assertion in an area with inadequate data (largely because of the industry’s proprietary bent) that is — unsurprisingly — being challenged. I encourage you to look back at Gavin Schmidt’s “Fracking Methane” post from last year at Realclimate, which I feel nailed the nuances. I hope he will take a look at the new work, too.
Unfortunately, when research on tough questions sits under the microscope because of its relevancy to policy fights, the impact on the public can be a severe case of whiplash. Journalists and campaigners succumbing to “single-study syndrome” in search of a hot front-page headline or debating point threaten to alienate readers seeking some sense of reality.
This is, unfortunately, an accurate depiction of most reporting on scientific and environmental issues. True scientific research takes time — it takes years of experimentation, testing, and retesting before arriving at a firm scientific conclusion.
And reality is complicated. Good science by good scientists doesn’t automatically result in the kind of certainty and clarity that policy makers would like to have. Medical researches have been studying diseases like arthritis and Alzheimer’s for generations and there is still much that we don’t understand about devastating diseases that affect tens of millions of people. Nutritional science, the science about an activity as basic as eating, is notoriously difficult. We still don’t really know what people should or should not eat in many cases; we do not know why so many people are fat and we do not know how to treat obesity.
A news cycle desperate for headlines and immediacy is poorly suited to accurate scientific reporting, environmental science very much included. Fracking may have all the negative effects its detractors claim — it also may have none. Most likely, it is a useful technology with some unpleasant side effects that can be partially but not entirely addressed at a cost that is somewhat higher than we wished we had to pay. That is how most things in the world turn out; fracking is probably not all that different from everything else.
Thinking about a technology like fracking is also difficult because not all the benefits and risks can be easily compared. Physics and chemistry can help us analyze environmental risks; how do we assess the political benefits and risks? What if brown jobs in fracking and other unconventional methods lead to a new energy boom in the US, providing hundreds of thousands of well paying jobs in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York? What if failure to frack increases US dependency on foreign oil and increases the danger of US involvement in more overseas wars? What if fracking leads to an era of relatively cheap hydrocarbon prices, increasing the rate of CO2 emission and postponing the shift to alternative energy generation? What on the other hand if cheap natural gas (a cleaner fuel than coal, for example) reduces the amount of CO2 emissions?
Perhaps one day human ingenuity will get us to the a place where all these questions have clear answers; we can just plug the variables into a computer and the answers will pop out. Or maybe not; maybe the universe is more complicated than the human mind and we will never master its principles well enough to predict the future with complete assurance.
But what is clear is that in the here and now, questions about topics like fracking (and global warming, for that matter) that combine uncertainties based in the nature of the natural sciences with uncertainties rooted in the even greater and wilder uncertainties of social and political ‘science’ cannot be treated as purely technocratic issues. We do not have and cannot get the kind of certainty that one ideally would like for decisions of this kind.
Common sense is going to have to play a role and, because questions like these are political issues, the common sense of mass public opinion is likely to be decisive. Many important questions, and fracking is one of them, are likely to be addressed by common sense, split the difference, down the middle kinds of compromises. Compromises of that kind often turn out to be misguided, but so do technocratically pure decisions based on science that turns out to be settled.
It’s part of the human condition and it isn’t going away soon: we make important decisions without knowing all the facts. Sometimes, we make expensive mistakes. That’s reality, and we have to deal with it using common sense.