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Thursday, 5 December 2013

20 Things politicians should understand ... (Part 4)

Continuing the previous three postings here is the last set of 5 more "Things politicians need to know about shale gas science", inspired by the recent Guardian article entitled "Top 20 things politicians need to know about science" from an original article in Nature.  

It is not just politicians that need to know this stuff - without it the whole debate is not possible.

16. Data can be dredged or cherry picked

Evidence can be arranged to support one point of view.

Shale gas is a subject which stirs strong passions and in which opinions are extremely polarised. I would say that more than 95% of public commentators hold a strong view on shale gas, yet the majority of the general public would like clear unbiased, evidence-based information upon which they can make their minds up.

Everyone should realise that Nature is unbiased. If we make certain decisions Nature will give us the unbiased consequences, whether good or bad. We have, therefore, a duty to be unbiased too.

This disconnection between the sources of advice and those who need it is worrying. The few who try to give balanced and factual information are constantly being badgered by both sides to accept views which are not based on tested or testable reality. In this way sources of independent advice are eroded and silenced.

One should realise that industry will not lie to you, at least UK-based industry will not. It is not in their interest to do so, and existing local, national and European regulations are such that there are huge penalties for getting it wrong, in the courts of justice and in the courts of public opinion.

Industry, will, however, put the best possible spin on what they are doing. In the past most of what they did was kept secret; not so much in order to keep the general public in the dark, but because most information is commercially sensitive in a competitive business market. Now, in the UK at least, there is a move towards being more transparent, such that the general public knows more of the information which the companies are using to make their own decisions. An example of this is the before and after water and air quality analyses that Cuadrilla carried out at Balcombe, which are freely available.

Individuals who are against shale gas do not lie either, but they also commonly choose results which and support their preconceptions.  For example, there are very real worries concerning the environmental damage that mining and processing of rare earth elements in China is causing.  Some of these rare earth elements, such as neodymium, are necessary to make the magnets that wind turbines use, and the by-products of mining and processing are toxic and radioactive.  Yet search for neodymium on the Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth web sites and you will not find it.  Rare earth element pollution is not consistent with the message that these organisations want to convey.  Since the pollution happens in rural China, it is simply ignored.  As lobbying groups, these organisations are simply controlling what is made public, and therefore behaving exactly like industry.
Studies have shown that the conscious or subconscious choice of results to fulfil preconceptions is a very human trait, and extremely difficult to guard against no matter how mindful the individual is.

George Bernard Shaw once saidThe moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it.

Scientists are trained to keep an open and unbiased mind, but even they have a duty to be constantly mindful of what the evidence says, and not to interpret the evidence beyond its limits. One of the best tests of such a commentator is to ask whether all of the evidence supports his or her main point.

The authors of the article “Top 20 things politicians need to know about science” concern themselves with the needing to know whether the authors set out to test a sole hypothesis, or happening across a finding in a huge data set. Data that one happens across when not looking for it can be extremely good, useful and relevant. However, often it is not applicable to the argument because it applies to a different group/location/problem/population etc., or was obtained using inapplicable assumptions or using different premises.

The question one should ask is whether the study was designed to answer the particular question it is being used on, and if not whether there are differences that make its use inapplicable.

17. Extreme measurements may mislead

Any set of data (concentrations of methane in ground-water, say) will show  
  • natural variation between locations (due to different geological histories), 
  • plus sampling (sampling may be atypical because it is done in areas where problems are suspected),
  • plus bias (the concentration of methane may depend on some other unknown factor),
  • plus measurement errors (different testers using different methodologies in different locations, or simply using erroneous methods, inaccurate tools or uncalibrated tools).
However, the resulting variation is typically interpreted only with respect to the distance to the nearest well, ignoring the other sources.

Difference, even extreme ones, may be due to a combination of other factors than that in which you are interested.

18. Study relevance limits generalisations

The relevance of a study depends on how much the conditions under which it is done resemble the conditions of the issue under consideration.

For example, there are limits to the generalisations that one can make from US data when trying to predict the effect in the UK or Europe.

19. Feelings influence risk perception

Broadly, risk can be thought of as the likelihood of an event occurring in some time frame, multiplied by the consequences should the event occur. People’s risk perception is influenced disproportionately by many things, including the rarity of the event, how much control they believe they have, the adverseness of the outcomes, and whether the risk is voluntarily or not.

According to David Ropeik roughly 20% of Americans still do not wear safety belts in motor vehicles. The risk perception literature would suggest that this is, in part, because we have a sense of control when we are behind the wheel, and the risk of crashing is both familiar and chronic—factors that make risks seem less threatening. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that if safety belt usage increased from 80% to 85%, 2,700 lives would have been saved in 2002 (National Center for Statistics & Analysis (2003) Traffic Safety Facts 2002: Occupant Protection. Washington, DC, USA: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, DOT HS 809 610).

Similarly, many people fail to protect themselves adequately from the sun, in part because the sun is natural and because, for some of us, the benefit of a healthy glowing tan outweighs the risks of solar exposure. However, solar radiation is widely believed to be the leading cause of melanoma, which will kill an estimated 7,910 Americans this year (American Cancer Society (2004) Cancer Facts & Figures 2004. Atlanta, GA, USA: American Cancer Society).

Focussing on the negative aspects of a development such as a shale gas pollution incident may raise fear despite the extent, timescale and likelihood of the event being small, while ignoring the risks of not carrying out the development, which would include financial and social growth, provision of jobs, better health care etc.

Risk perception should be judged both ways: the risk of doing and the risk of not doing!

20. Dependencies change the risks

It is possible to calculate the consequences of individual events, such as an extreme storm, high tides and the availability of key workers. However, if the events are interrelated then the probability of a disaster is much higher than might be expected.
This is exactly what happened recently in the Philippines. The government was well prepared for storms because it gets lots of them (together with earthquakes and volcanoes – who would want to live there!?). It had dumps of emergency stuff distributed around the country. Yet a combination of a large storm, an unexpectedly large storm surge and the death or ineffectiveness of police and local government workers ensured that Typhoon Haiyan was a dreadful disaster.

 Most disasters that damage the environment and take lives in Europe are due, in the last analysis, to more than one factor, which exacerbate each other. That is the reason why all new and unusual processes have to be considered extremely carefully. Shale gas operations qualify for special care simply because we have not carried many of them out in Europe.

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