One of the fixtures of modern life seems to be the hearty embrace of uninformed certainty. People who just know that certain things are an unqualified bad and will go to any lengths to fight those things seem to make up the vast majority of social media contributors. Although there are many fine examples of this on the political right, let’s complain about some on the political left.
Two such issues are centerpieces of complaints here in Boulder. One is the presence of genetically modified organisms used in crops (GMOs) and the other is the practice of fracking. Neither warrants the blanket condemnation they receive.
Most opponents of GMOs know little about how we’ve ended up with the food crops we have now, though occasionally you get clues, like if you stumble on wild strawberries and wonder why they are so tiny. Our food crops are the products of generations of hit or miss efforts of artificial selection (picking the outcomes you like best) and crossing of different plants to get useful hybrids. The genetic tools now available remove a lot of the hit and miss part of the effort allowing scientists to directly target the aspects of a plant that are causing trouble.
When you say that all GMOs are bad, you might as well say all spot welds in a car are bad and you only want a car assembled with no welds. The use of genetic tools is a technique and not an end per se. A spot weld might make a tougher car, but it will not make a better computer. It is what you do with the tool that matters.
Does this mean all GMOs are good? Hardly, if for no other reason than the law of unintended consequences. For instance, there was a desire to have a variety of common golf green grass be resistant to Roundup; as High Country News tells the story, the new variety was successful–but when it escaped from where it was being grown, it became a troublesome weed along irrigation ditches in eastern Oregon. Human endeavors are filled with such mistakes, many having nothing to do with GMOs (think of all the times an exotic species was introduced and found to be a pest, and then the effort to use the pest’s natural enemy simply created another problem). Just as we recognize that bringing exotic species into someplace requires some forethought, development of GMOs needs to face similar scrutiny.
Fracking is a slightly different issue, though it shares the same blanket opposition that has little to do with what it is and does. Most of the concerns with fracking have nearly nothing to do with the actual process of fracturing rock deep in the earth to release hydrocarbons. Instead when you hear the actual harms people complain about, it is the industrial noise and associated air pollution of the drilling and fracking operations, the greater density of drill pads often needed for the current “non-traditional” horizontal drilling, surface water pollution from spills, aquifer contamination from improperly sealed wells, earthquakes from injection wells disposing of accessory fluids from production, or even the antiquated forced pooling laws that greatly limit the options for those holding both surface and mineral rights. When people talk of banning fracking, it would be like a city banning a car company from using welds–it is not the welding that is the problem, it would be the noise and impacts of the car factory that are being opposed. Fracking is really being used as a proxy for resurgent oil and gas development.
Is fracking then an unalloyed good? Well, no. There are some very positive aspects of it: by increasing the recovery of hydrocarbons from an existing field, it can slow the desire to expand production into virgin areas. The recent application in associated with horizontal drilling has opened up a lot of natural gas, which has been replacing dirtier coal in electricity generation as a result. But there are some instances where fracking is indeed a direct evil. In a few places, it has indeed caused larger earthquakes (though far, far fewer than injection wells). There is an indication that fracking in some shallow rocks immediately below an aquifer in Wyoming has indeed directly contaminated fresh water. And no doubt a few fracking operations have spilled fracking fluids into surface waters. And, of course, the application of the technique has opened up areas that previously were uneconomic (which is a mixed bag depending on where you are and what the land use looks like).
Most folks would probably like the world to be black and white, good or bad. But there is gray all over the place, and GG earns his nom de plume when encountering absolutism. This desire to polarize to the extreme removes all sensible middle ground. We would all win if GMOs were not so misrepresented but also if the regulation on their development made more sense. We would all win if oil and gas development was throttled back by a more driven effort to move on to renewable energy sources. Recognizing the strengths and weakness of things like GMOs and fracking could focus our attention on the specific instances that are most troublesome. But when you just paint the whole thing one color, you lose the ability to separate the dangerous from the innocuous.
Certainly one of the most striking things about modern American political discourse is the magnitude of outright lying going on. While misdirection and obfuscation were not uncommon in political speech, outright provable lying wasn’t. And yet now we have a President who Politifact says has made statements that are either false or “pants on fire” 47% of the time and who has inspired the Washington Post fact checker to keep a running count of lies. This follows years of internet chain emails and conspiracy theorists that have made Snopes expand rapidly to capture and review all the questionable stuff circulating on the internet. Needless to say, this tends to encourage others to play equally fast and loose with truth. For a scientist, this is a distressing trend–but it isn’t really that new.
Now to be clear, big lies have made the circuit before, being a staple of the Nazi government, for instance; the related game of “whataboutism” was a favorite of the old Soviet state. Some might point to McCarthyism in the US as a domestic episode, though the Red Scare had less questioning of objective truth and more vilification by insinuation. Here GG refers to outright misrepresentations of is going on. And as science’s goal is to discern the nature and rules of the reality we inhabit, it has a habit of landing in the crosshairs of those whose interests conflict with reality.
…or maybe worse than the NY Times thinks. They have collected all the various scraps of examples of how the current administration ignores/villifies/overrules/denigrate science and scientists. None of this is new if you’ve been following along, but it is depressing litany of persecution that is unlikely to improve.
But wait, they left some stuff out.
One point then NY Times makes is that there are a lot of unfilled science advisory positions; what they don’t investigate is how many qualified scientists would be willing to take one of those positions. A quick guess suggests the answer is not many. Why bother when it is clear the boss doesn’t care what you say?
Recall that the scientists running for Congress this past Tuesday all lost to Democratic opposition within primaries. Scientists, it appears, are not desired by the people in the halls of Congress.
And while there is comfort in the words of Democrats (and a very few Republicans) running for office about the role of science, one has to wonder how much is simple political expediency–since climate change has become so fiercely partisan in this country, it is unsurprising to hear Democrats say that science is important. Will they say the same of research that shows GMOs are not harmful or that challenge the presumed ecological benefits of farm-to-table or organic farming? If not, they might not be the big boost science is looking for.
Science is the art of asking observational questions whose answers can change your view of how the world works. If you want to find policies that will have impacts in the directions you want to go, it is wise to see if there is science that bears on those policies. Silencing the scientists won’t change the end results of bad policy choices, it just makes the inevitable bad decisions more tragic.
While the political press continues to chatter endlessly about horse races, pardons or the prospect of pardons and the apparently unending series of Scott Pruitt missteps, more substantive stuff dribbles into the background. Among those things is the role science and scientists play in American governance.
Yesterday saw a pretty serious failure of scientist-candidates to survive primary battles. As Science notes, only one of the candidates endorsed by 314 Action survived to appear on a November ballot–and that candidate had no primary opposition. Most of the scientist-candidates fell to the bottom of the vote. It would seem that a science background is not something voters desire in their representatives. The experience of getting clobbered does not seem to be encouraging at least some of the losers to return to fight again in the future, though some other losers are continuing to be interested in public policy.
While the losses of scientist-candidates suggests a lack of desire among Democrats for that kind of expertise (nearly all the scientists are running as Democrats), administration action continues to sideline science, suggesting an equal lack of respect from the conservative part of the body politic. The science advisory board for EPA was sidelined from the development of the “transparency” policy proposed by the administration; it will instead weigh in separately, but having been left out of the loop, it seems clear that the board’s review will have little impact. This continues trends of disbanding advisory groups, barring scientists receiving grants from serving on remaining advisory panels, etc.
It is as though the world is putting on their virtual reality headsets and setting them to “personal ideal,” oblivious to real impacts resulting decisions might have. Meantime, science, the actual attempt by humans to develop a conceptual framework about the world around us that accurately describes reality, is being dropped to the wayside.
Imagine, if you will, that a Congressional committee on transportation decides to have a hearing focusing on improving our transportation infrastructure. The session opens with the committee’s chair noting that there is considerable controversy in the engineering community on the use of steel beams in building overpasses, and so we should refrain from building overpasses until the community agrees on the need for steel beams. A highway engineer then testifies that no, there is no such controversy; at most, there are some disagreements on some details about anchoring beams and such not, and regardless of the choices made, new overpasses with steel beams are far better than the overpasses we continue to use today. A committee member then pipes up suggesting that overpasses are collapsing because of the weight of birds’ nests in the nooks and crannies on the overpasses. Nothing is done and roads continue to crumble.
You’d wonder just when Congressmen became such experts in engineering and marvel at their ability to keep anything from being done. And yet hardly anybody bats an eyelash these days when this scenario plays out with the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s hearing on “Using technology to address climate change” , where committee chair Lamar Smith added to his already considerable collection of misrepresentations of the science by claiming that humanity’s role in climate change is unknown and that there is “legitimate concern” that climate scientists are cooking their studies to get desired results (as opposed to, say, certain politicians misstating the science to get desired outcomes). Perhaps best of all was the suggestion from Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks, who offered that rocks falling into the ocean could be driving rising sea level.
Well, to be fair, Brooks actually asked about all the material being dumped into the oceans from rivers and such not, which at least isn’t unscientific. But these questions are often posed as though nobody had thought of that (the answer is that of the >3 mm/yr rise we see today, perhaps 0.02 mm/yr is from sedimentation). No doubt we’ll soon get pop quizzes from Congressmen about plate tectonics, glacial rebound (which is a player, but actually dropping sea level at about 0.3 mm/yr), the rise in sea level from more and more boats, etc. Yes, the people whose careers are spent worrying about this stuff have indeed thought about this stuff. We’re still waiting for the day when a Congressman’s question reveals a truth about science previously overlooked by scientists.
What was more disingenuous was Smith’s display of plots of fossil fuel use and sea level rise over time and saying that obviously the rates were so different that a connection was unlikely. (Phillip Duffy’s response kind of missed the point). Um, OK, time for a science experiment at home. Take a pot of water, put it on a gas burner. Turn on the burner–what is the rate of use of fuel? Pretty high right away, no? How about the temperature of the water? Um, still pretty cold, no? If you plotted them up, you’d probably find that while the rate of gas usage might be constant, the temperature of the water in the pot gradually increased. Obviously these are unrelated since they look different. (And the real world version involves 2 more levels of integration–first as CO2 levels increase, which is an integral of the fossil fuel use rate, then the change in heat in the atmosphere and oceans, which has both some integration and lag time, and finally the connection of that to sea level rise similarly has a lag and integration of sorts as thermal expansion is aided by melting ice. Yes, the curves will look different).
There are precisely two explanations for the kinds of misrepresentation engaged in by several members of Congress. Either they are stupid or they are crooked. GG actually doubts stupid; getting elected and managing a staff and doing all the fund raising and everything else requires some basic level of competence. This leaves crooked, and by that GG means that they need a certain result for reasons not being shared with the public and so seek to obfuscate. No doubt all or nearly all politicians make public pronouncements they know to be false as a means of appealing to their constituents, but one has to wonder at this point who this charade is for when significant majorities of Americans think the government is doing too little to deal with climate change.
A short pointer to a nice Economist article going through more of the background on the EPA’s utter disregard for science under administrator Scott Pruitt. This includes the formal unveiling of the policy of pitching science where the raw data is inaccessible (usually because of the confidential nature of medical records). However, Politico noted that many industry studies are similarly unavailable, and internal messages within the administration point to an effort to try to make industry studies somehow accessible while barring academic studies.
This clear and utterly shameless attack on scientific research outside industry with the totally transparent goal of removing regulations deserves all the invective available. There is already a strong bias in the U.S. system in favor of allowing things that haven’t been demonstrated to be safe to be made or sold or released into the environment. As nearly all demonstrations of illness caused by environmental factors will require confidential medical records, the Congressional Budget Office (per the Economist article) estimated that it would cost $100M per year to properly redact these datasets to comply with this new rule. Naturally, the Trump administration has called for budget cuts rather than seeking the funds necessary to implement their rule.
Unfortunately, too many have been yelling about far lesser transgressions so the outrage that should be directed at this move won’t register. But please yell.