The Mistrust of Science and what it means for natural gas.

sci placeboI’m in general good health. I never get so much as a sniffle, haven’t had a headache in years, and as long as I stay away from mirrors I feel 30 years old. Thanks to either good genes or the beneficial aspects accruing from twenty years of smoking, drinking and staying up all night, I often appear ten years or so younger than I actually am.

Don’t let that fool you. I’ve also had a fractured skull leading to two brain operations, a burst stomach artery, two separate forms of cancer and a heart valve replacement. Never once during my involuntary medical adventures did I ask to be prescribed the treatment 3% of doctors recommend. In short, I trust science.

I’ve noted here before that natural gas opponents on the other hand, too often choose to cite the outliers in science. And let’s be fair, science isn’t a democracy. Galileo presents an obvious example where one person disrupted conventional wisdom. In the modern era we have the relatively unsung, but spectacular, case of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren who counter to all conventional medical thinking discovered peptic ulcers were not caused by stress, spicy food and too much stomach acid, but by a virus which shouldn’t even have existed. They won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2005.

A recent piece in the New Yorker by a surgeon, Atul Gawande came to my attention ironically enough through a tweet by Bob Ward, Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Institute which studies climate change (on which we agree how overwhelming evidence supports it) but also one who frequently cites outlier studies that paint natural gas in a negative light. Just as often, he chooses to ignore any which show the opposite. Like many communications professional in the climate sector, he often enthuses about emerging technologies that may – or may not- be ready for prime time. Equally, although he too welcomes the two great climate wins of lower carbon emissions and lower carbon intensity, he chooses to present them mostly as wins for renewable technology alone, not for the other key trends of efficient design and the coal to gas switch.

Gawande barely mentions climate -or energy at all, being a physician. Nevertheless, there is much read across here for the natural gas debate. Much of what Dr Gawande says rings a rather depressing bell. I commend the whole piece, but this extract refers firstly to an issue we resolved in the UK a long time ago, but a growing one in the United States – often among the same constituency as fracking opponents – the anti-vaccination movement.

People are prone to resist scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs. They don’t see measles or mumps around anymore. They do see children with autism. And they see a mom who says, “My child was perfectly fine until he got a vaccine and became autistic.”

Now, you can tell them that correlation is not causation. You can say that children get a vaccine every two to three months for the first couple years of their life, so the onset of any illness is bound to follow vaccination for many kids. You can say that the science shows no connection. But once an idea has got embedded and become widespread, it becomes very difficult to dig it out of people’s brains—especially when they do not trust scientific authorities. And we are experiencing a significant decline in trust in scientific authorities.

Today, we have multiple factions putting themselves forward as what Gauchat describes as their own cultural domains, “generating their own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of the scientific community.” Some are religious groups (challenging evolution, for instance). Some are industry groups (as with climate skepticism). Others tilt more to the left (such as those that reject the medical establishment). As varied as these groups are, they are all alike in one way. They all harbor sacred beliefs that they do not consider open to question.

To defend those beliefs, few dismiss the authority of science. They dismiss the authority of the scientific community. People don’t argue back by claiming divine authority anymore. They argue back by claiming to have the truer scientific authority. It can make matters incredibly confusing. You have to be able to recognize the difference between claims of science and those of pseudoscience.

Pseudoscience is especially strong in the UK fracking debate. An engineer, a handful of doctors, or one geologist are often cited as being the Galileo or Marshall and Warren of our time. But the important point is that one or a handful of outliers are their authorities. It used to be said that you can choose your opinion, but you can’t choose your facts.  Today apparently, one can also choose your science. Gawande continues, echoing my points cited above in reference to methane emissions, chemicals and even seismology, but he’s specifically addressing many issues of the day:

Science’s defenders have identified five hallmark moves of pseudoscientists. They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views. They produce fake experts, who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not actually have a credible scientific track record. They cherry-pick the data and papers that challenge the dominant view as a means of discrediting an entire field. They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies. And they set impossible expectations of research:when scientists produce one level of certainty, the pseudoscientists insist they achieve another.

It’s not that some of these approaches never provide valid arguments. Sometimes an analogy is useful, or higher levels of certainty are required. But when you see several or all of these tactics deployed, you know that you’re not dealing with a scientific claim anymore. Pseudoscience is the form of science without the substance.

I trust Gawande. He’s a doctor. But he also highlights some issues transferable to the natural gas debate. One of several mistakes the gas industry has made is assuming people listen to facts. Another is not reaching out to new audiences, an issue not unconnected to spending precious resources only preaching to the already converted. The environmental movement is equally guilty of course. The extreme churches, right and left, often share a common business model: Think of it as tithes in reverse- priests pay their own congregations.

Either pro- or anti-, the general public increasingly don’t listen to the facts, they listen to the messengers. They listen not to the noise, but to the signal.

I’ve also mentioned the concept of “surprising validatorsbefore.  Surprising validators only arise when they have information -from communication – to start their journey from. After that it’s important for them, and them alone to speak to their congregation.  Stephen Tindale in the UK is a classic example, but I’ve always tried to be one too. I’m obviously a natural gas supporter – but not to the exclusion of anything except coal. Or pseudoscience.

Gary Sernovitz’s inspiring book the “The Green and The Black” shows there is at least one other metropolitan liberal progressive apart from I who also supports natural gas.

I would hope communication works both ways. I have a lot of people on the right who read me here, and sometimes I’ve turned down money from conservative groups. Yet I have influenced them on climate. The liberal ones have never offered sadly.

That’s a shame. I speak to a lot of greens in my apparently quixotic quest to explore for shale gas in London. After all not only are they my neigbours, they’re also my tribe. I surprise them by not having horns, not denying the climate, and sharing most every other value they hold.

But, when, not if, the London project comes to pass, there may be another barrier. “Conventional wisdom” investors, or at least those from the right, are convinced (by the protestors!) that I would never get acceptance that would allow any progress.  To that I can only say one thing: They too need to get out of their bubble. Speaking to people, instead of demonising or giving up on them may show how the natural gas industry is pushing on an open door.

But first one has to discover the door, and then turn the handle. Afterwards, as in most things, and here I refer to my medical adventures again, one finds that things aren’t so scary after all and there are nice people only too happy to help.

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