On Sunday, the Associated Press published a story with this headline: “Experts: Some Fracking Critics Use Bad Science.”
“In the debate over natural gas drilling, the companies are often the ones accused of twisting the facts. But scientists say opponents sometimes mislead the public, too.
Critics of fracking often raise alarms about groundwater pollution, air pollution, and cancer risks, and there are still many uncertainties. But some of the claims have little — or nothing— to back them.”
“You can literally put facts in front of people, and they will just ignore them,” said Mark Lubell, the director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at the University of California, Davis.
Lubell said the situation, which happens on both sides of a debate, is called “motivated reasoning.” Rational people insist on believing things that aren’t true, in part because of feedback from other people who share their views, he said.
The article’s main target for faulty scientific reporting is a recent short film by Gasland director Josh Fox who makes the claim that breast cancer rates among women in a heavily drilled area in Texas have spiked. He sites news accounts. But researchers tell the AP none of their work has made the link. Ironically, the film, entitled “The Sky is Pink,” heavily addresses, and attempts to thwart, this tendency of “motivated reasoning,” although it doesn’t call it that.
It talks about the millions of dollars the gas industry spends on lobbying and ad campaigns. It refers to scientific research, and industry’s own documents that reveal a history of methane migration, or leaks, into residential water supplies.
“These are the facts they don’t want you to pay attention to,” says Fox in the film. “This is them telling you the sky is pink.”
It’s the basics of propaganda. Say something over and over, whether it’s true or not, and people who want to believe it will. As the article says, each side of the fracking debate has been accused of distorting the science, and each side accuses the other of doing it to the detriment of us all. And it’s not just fracking, take any controversy that involves scientific research. It’s as if we can’t be confident of our position if there exists any shades of gray.
Recently, a Duke University study generated a whole host of contradictory headlines and interpretations. It’s not hard to see how this happens. Scientists tend not to be great storytellers, and journalists tend not to be steeped in the nuances of scientific publications. Adding to the confusion is the often contradictory or inconclusive results from a scientific research community that moves much slower, and more cautiously, than entrepreneurs in the oil and gas industry.