Where Is the Scientist?

, former analyst, Center for Science & Democracy | July 9, 2013, 2:38 pm EDT
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I haven’t yet seen Josh Fox’s latest film salvo opposing hydraulic fracturing Gasland Part II. I plan on seeing it soon, given the role of natural gas in our nation’s energy future. But, in the meantime, I did have the chance to listen to the Diane Rehm Show today. Fox and his film were the subjects of the show, and Diane interviewed Fox, along with Steve Everley, a spokesperson from the industry group Energy in Depth. There was also a reporter from ProPublica, Abrahm Lustgarten.

As I listened to the show, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Diane, why didn’t you invite a scientist to join this conversation?”

Fox and Everley said the things you might expect them to say. According to Fox, fracking is pretty much unequivocally bad all the time for everyone except the industry and should be banned everywhere. According to Everley, fracking can be done safely and we should have an honest conversation without exaggerating risks. According to Fox, we can’t have an honest conversation with industry because industry isn’t willing to be honest about its practices, like chemical disclosure. According to Everley, no one is saying there are no risks, but the issue we should be discussing is how to mitigate them. According to Fox, people like Everley are just more merchants of doubt.

And so on and so forth.fracking diagram epa

But, I have to ask: Where was the scientist in all this? Many issues that were raised on the show that Fox and Everley argued about were science-related. These included water contamination, air pollution, well construction and safety, and health concerns about potential exposure to toxic chemicals. Scientists have researched these issues. And I, for one, would have liked to have heard scientists, like the ones who spoke at this recent National Research Council workshop on shale gas development, respond to the statements made by Fox and Everley. Everley and Fox were arguing about facts, but no one was there to vouch for the facts.

It’s well and good that we listen to pro-fracking and anti-fracking voices expressing their opinions. But independent scientists need to be part of these conversations, too, instead of letting activists or even credible journalists speak for them.

What scientists have to say may not be as conclusive at the moment as we’d like. It may be complex and may need further studies.  And it may not yet fully support one side or the other. Fox said fracking isn’t just an environmental issue anymore but a democracy issue. If nothing else, he’s right about that. But to make good decisions in a democracy, we need reliable evidence.

And to get reliable evidence—and a good understanding of it—into the public dialogue, we need to hear more from scientists.


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  • Richard Solomon

    THANKS for providing these links.

    Even a cursory look at the abstracts provided by the National Research Council Workshop demonstrate a lot of scientific concerns about fracking. UCS’s summary of the issues is equally excellent.

    I agree that mass media like radio talk shows or TV interviews should include a scientist who can present the data that the two opposing sides often overlook, if not dispute and even distort at times.

    But UCS’s members and readers of this blog should be advocating with their Senators and Reps in Congress as well as their state legislators for more action to be taken on establishing and enforcing better safety regs on fracking.

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! I’m glad you found the links useful.

      I was actually in the audience at the NRC workshop. As someone whose expertise is in a nontechnical field, I found it especially illuminating to hear the speakers talk about the research and data behind their own concerns. For me at least, it’s motivating to hear that perspective because when I do act as a citizen and express concerns to my elected representatives about the need for better regs, I want to be able to do so on the basis of information rather than sensation or fear.

      Not everyone has the privilege of attending NRC workshops, and so media sources with large audiences like the DR show play an important role in connecting the public with information.

      There are many great examples of media sources that feature scientists’ voices — including, of course, other NPR programs and other episodes of the DR show. Which is why I thought it would have only made sense, from the perspective of advocacy and citizen engagement, to have had a scientist on with Fox and Everley.

      • Richard Solomon

        Now that I am retired I have more time to write my Senators and Rep in Congress about issues like fracking, nuclear energy, etc.

        I find that UCS’s blogs, fact sheets, etc provide very useful info that I can incorporate into emails which I send off. Many times the responses I get back are ‘canned:’ ie, already formulated emails which outline their positions, etc. But occasionally I do get a reply that has clearly been composed to respond to particular points I have made to them.

        UCS has been very helpful in that respect!!