The battle over who’s at war with science

Now, I’m very aware that in writing this post, I may be exposing my own cognitive dissonance, but hopefully I can reason my way out of it.

Lately, I’ve seen a slew of stories about the political left war on science, e.g. anti-GMO, pro-alt-med, anti-nuke.  The first one I read was in New Scientist a few months back, and it was a little lightbulb of realisation for me. Yes, I’m obviously a bit of a lefty, but I hadn’t fallen into any of those un-critical ” ‘natural’ is always better” positions. I was on the side of science, politics be damned.

Today, I read a blog post by Keith Kloor on Discover that briefly interviewed Alex Berezow, a co-author of Science Left Behind (and the New Sci article), a book about the lefty war on science. It’s directly pitted against Chris Mooney’s views, exemplified in The Republican War on Sciencethat the political right are a far bigger threat to science.

Two things strike me about this interview.

Firstly, Berezow is asked directly about his view that science journalists come down hard on right-wing anti-science, but give left-wing anti-science a pass. I don’t know about the book, but at least in this interview he doesn’t give any evidence at all. I’m not saying there isn’t any, it’s just an odd waste of a platform to explain exactly what it is, considering he comes down hard on journalists.

Strangely, my best journalism friend and I have encountered this bias, subconsciously. from our professors. Her thesis piece was about GMO crops. Her story is excellent and well-rounded, but of course, the overall sentiment is pro-GMO — which her two supervisors repeatedly suggested she tone down. I read her piece, and I think she justifies her tone perfectly. She also pointed out to me how a couple of professors felt the need to tell her how good the organic food they buy is, despite that really having nothing to do with GMOs (the two are in no way mutually exclusive).

Yet, with me, my anti-fracking in BC stance was roundly supported and praised by our profs. Which brings me to the second thing that strikes me about Kloor’s post: he and Berezow call anti-fracking a part of the leftist war on science:

“Democrats are opposed to natural gas, even though it’s cleaner than coal and oil. [This a sweeping statement that would be more accurate if he substituted environmentalists for democrats–KK]”

Speaking of sweeping statements, I would seriously argue that this view is naive and simplistic. Calling gas “cleaner” simply because it releases less carbon dioxide than coal upon burning misses a LOT of the bigger picture. Forgetting the environmental impacts on the ground for a moment, one of the biggest threats to the clean reputation of natural gas is fugitive emissions – leaks of pure methane gas that escape into the atmosphere. Methane is a far, far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

And the biggest problem with fugitive emissions is that we really don’t know how big they are. We rely on self-reporting of the industry, which, apart from having more profitable things to focus on, really doesn’t know itself how much gets lost. There have been only a couple of field studies of fugitive emissions, which so far point to methane releases being higher than reported by industry.

There’s also lifecycle emissions; all the emissions which are released in every stage of the process  from well-to-wire, not just end-use burning. Lifecycle emission are very dependant on the situation of the particular extraction-market situation, which in BC is baaaad.

What’s my point here? That saying anti-fracking is anti-science is wrong, because the simplistic statement that natural gas is cleaner than coal is on shaky ground, because we don’t have the science. You can’t be anti-science if there isn’t nearly enough evidence. You can only look at where the current evidence points and decide whether this is a case where the precautionary principle applies – especially when fracking is expanding incredibly rapidly.


I wanted to wait until my feature was published before making this post, but I got carried away in my ire, as usual! Incidentally, if you want to read my entire literature review about the “green” credentials of natural gas, I posted it online here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s