How Science Works and How the Press Thinks Science Works.

by | Dec 9, 2016

The famous scientist and science fiction author, Isaac Asimov, wrote;

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The string of anti-intellectualism has … nurtured … the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

In a free and open democracy, it is imperative that the press “get it right” when it comes to informing non-scientists about scientific discussions.

We thought about this quote which speaks to the false equivalence of truthiness (similar to truth) versus truth when American Public Media (APM) made innuendo of impropriety when the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) made last-minute changes to the title their multiyear investigation report on the risks of hydraulic fracturing.

This claim by APM has now been widely re-reported by the press at large and instead of focusing on the scientific results, the media is echoing the innuendo of impropriety.

Hydraulic Fracturing Facts

After $27 million and great anticipation by both the environmental community and industry, the USEPA weighed in on high volume hydraulic fracturing last year and concluded there had been no systemic contamination of drinking waters from hydraulic fracturing.

To come to this conclusion, EPA reviewed 3,700 sources of scientific information and the history of 273,000 hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells in 25 different states between 2000 and 2013.

The EPA found one event where a surface spill of fluids contaminated ground water; 32 surface spills that contaminated surface water; and 36 instances where fugitive natural gas from failed well construction entered domestic water wells.

Doing the math, less than 0.25 percent of gas wells led to any kind of scientifically demonstrated contamination, negligible for all practical purposes on any rational risk basis.

Risk Perspective

“Systemic” means a widespread phenomena occurring throughout an organism or system. A familiar analogy might be a human infection. The human body deals with multiple minor infections all the time, however, infection becomes life-threatening is when it becomes systemic and spreads throughout the body.

A standard measure of risk is comparing the number negative events per 100,000 total events.

In the case of hydraulic fracturing affecting drinking water, the EPA found that 2.8 gas wells per 100,000 gas wells drilled might contaminate a drinking water supply.

So let’s compare the relative risk of hydraulic fracturing to other common activities:

  1. Cigarette smoking will kill 3,000 people per 100,000 active smokers per year – yes, this indeed could be viewed as a systemic problem.
  2. Driving kills about 10 people per 100,00 people per year in the United States – we don’t think anyone would consider this a systemic threat.
  3. Pharmaceutical drugs will cause potentially serious adverse reactions in 606 people per 100,000 people receiving a prescription each year resulting in 30 deaths per 100,000 per year. Given the broader benefits to our health, I think we all agree that this is not a systemic problem.

How Science Works

IES thinks the USEPA demonstrated that hydraulic fracturing does have risks and in a very small number of cases, adverse environmental consequences, but the risks are not systemic.

So what happened to get the APM reporter’s apparent ire in the case of EPA’s report?

Prior to the release of the report, the USEPA changed the title description to depict the scientific reality more accurately:

First Report Title:
“EPA Study Shows Potential Vulnerabilities to Drinking Water from Hydraulic Fracturing Process” to:

Final Report Title:
EPA Releases Draft Assessment on the Potential Impacts to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing Activities (June 2015)”.

The first version suggests the USEPA focuses on places where drinking water might be vulnerable to contamination, whereas the second version prudently presented a neutral title that presents the nature of the actual report’s findings.

How the Press Works – Controversy Sells

APM sensationalized the story by highlighting the rare instances of contamination and including citizen testimony by people with an underlying agenda (with photographs) that the USEPA “didn’t do its job”.

We find it unfortunate that publically funded broadcasting used agenda driven journalism instead of information driven.

APM should have presented a more balanced report focusing on the science of relative risk rather than controversy.

We have published other Briefings on how science works: Science is at Its Best When an Experiment Fails.

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Independent Environmental Scientists
Applying scientific principles and methods to understand Earth processes and the human environment.
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