A recent poll of U.K. citizens, conducted by the University of Nottingham, found that 58 percent of men support fracking, compared with only 31.5 percent of women. What explains the difference? Obviously, women don’t understand science. So says Averil Macdonald, the chairwoman of the U.K.’s main shale gas lobbying organization.
In an interview for the Times of London, Macdonald argued that men get facts. “But women, for whatever reason, have not been persuaded by the facts.” She would later write in the Guardian that women typically don’t receive the same scientific education as men; as a result, she says, they lack confidence and “scientific language does not resonate with them.” Instead, they go with how they “feel” and “their gut reaction.” On “one side there are scientific facts … on the other emotional fears.”
It’s ironic that someone who claims to be speaking in the name of science should so unscientifically explain poll results by shooting from the hip with unfounded speculation. I helped to lead the effort to ban fracking in Denton, Texas, and I’ve seen a lot of offensive behaviors from the oil and gas industry. But that this baseless stereotype takes the cake, and I’m happy to see her remarks have met with backlash.
Many of the most intelligent activists I have worked with are women. But my problem with Macdonald’s position is not just the sexism; it’s also the scientism. What I mean by that is her assumption that political questions about whether, where, and how to frack can be reduced to a scientific process of winnowing fact from fiction.
Macdonald writes, “The science behind fracking is well understood: it’s been used for more than 60 years.” Here’s the bait-and-switch in her argument. Yes, the science of how to get gas out of shale is well-established. But the science about the environmental and health impacts of doing that on a massive scale is still young. A compendium of such impact science released by Physicians for Social Responsibility a week before Macdonald’s remarks notes that “over half of the available studies on the adverse impacts of shale and tight gas development have been published since January 2014.”
That compendium argues that a vast majority of these studies shows adverse impacts on water, air, and public health. Of course, Macdonald cites other studies to argue that the facts are on her side. That’s the problem. If by “facts” we mean claims found in scientific studies, then there are always going to be plenty of facts to support both sides of this issue.
Macdonald’s fact-deficit model misses the point. It’s not as simple as using “scientific evidence to reassure local communities,” because there’s plenty of scientific evidence that is not so reassuring. Macdonald is trying to pass off her own interpretation of a variegated field of study as simply “the science.” In such a complex issue, all uses of facts are selective. It’s not a matter of understanding facts—it’s a matter of discerning which facts are most relevant.
Here’s a case in point. A peer-reviewed study (funded by an industry lobbying group) about fracking and volatile organic compound emissions on the Barnett Shale in Texas concludes that “shale gas production activities have not resulted in community-wide exposures to those VOCs at levels that would pose a health concern.”
Of course, this is not some polished mirror of nature but rather the output of methodological choices and limitations. Most importantly, this “fact”—purportedly about a 5,000-square-mile area and about compounds that have very short half-lives in the atmosphere—is derived from just six monitoring stations. It says nothing about the air quality in the yards of my friends who live miles from the nearest monitor but who have gas wells and compressors across the street. Another study that grabbed air samples at locations of concern for residents found “Levels of eight volatile chemicals exceeded federal guidelines.” This fact, unlike the former, speaks to the actual concerns at stake. Not all facts are created equal.
Macdonald is going to run into plenty of women who will have spent years putting the feet of facts to the fire. She’s going to come off looking like the one who lacks education with her breezy talk about science literacy.
A position on an issue is not a fact. It’s a constellation of one’s interpretation of the research along with one’s values. Particularly important are assessments of risk and an underlying sense of our relationship with nature.
When I was campaigning for the fracking ban in Denton, I would often say that reasonable people can disagree on this issue. That’s because reasonable people can assemble different bodies of facts, which will in turn be hitched to different constellations of views about technology, risk, justice, and more. I’m not saying it’s all relative; we can identify which positions are stronger. We need arguments to do that, though, not a laundry list of facts.
Consider Macdonald’s own conclusions. She says that fracking can be done “safely and responsibly” with “minimal impacts to local communities.” But “safety” and “responsibility” are not facts. How safe is safe enough? Responsible by whose standards? There are no scientific answers to such questions. In the past couple of years, Denton has seen one gas well blowout, a fire, and an explosion. Is that “minimal impact”? After all, it’s only three incidents. Then again, what if you live next to the well that explodes?
Maybe the industry thinks it is carrying out the Enlightenment vision of consilience or the unity of knowledge: One day we’ll all see fracking in the same way, as it really is! If so, then they need to catch up with our post-modern times. It’s not a lack of understanding. It’s that there are different kinds of understanding.