Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fracking: An indepth look at truisms.

 In Truisms and Tropes: Taking Shortcuts Safely I explored how we often make judgments by anticipating how certain stories will always end. We base that ending on truisms we carry from story to story. This quicker alternative to extensive research is necessary because of the judgments that we feel the need to make on a bewildering number of topics.

Fracking is a perfect example of the sort of topic I mean by that. Fracking or Hydraulic Fracturing is the procedure of creating fractures in rock layers for the purpose of extracting oil or natural gas. This allows mining to go deeper than before and opens up reserves that wouldn’t be otherwise accessible. Some say more natural gas via fracking is the only feasible way to prevent global warming because natural gas is so much cleaner than coal. Others argue it will only bring more environmental devastation in particular broken landscapes, contaminated ground water and local ground pollution in just the extraction process. When you take into account the total energy and water costs of fracking, some say it’s not any kind of solution at all.  

The reality is I am no engineer or even much of an environmentalist. I found myself falling back on certain truisms to make my mind up about fracking. That's predictable given that, regarding the facts of fracking, I depend so heavily on other peoples explanations.

I decided to explore my truisms and those that might support a contrary decision to my own alongside each other. In doing so I chose a range of truisms from the rational to the more fanciful. My truisms were as follows. As they indicate I am instinctually opposed to fracking;

  • Corporations always minimize and off load costs if they can.
  • Appetite grows with supply, so new energy sources don’t solve anything.
  • This whole attitude of let’s go deeper like going faster, higher, bigger is what got us into this mess.
  • Bad shit always lies a-slumbering in the deep.
Some truisms another person hypothetically in favour of fracking might use include:
  • Environmental arguments are just about protecting local land values against development for the good of all.
  • You can’t rely on changing people’s selfish behaviour. Hence we need cheap clean energy rather than energy conservation efforts.
  • If we listened to our fears about every new idea then we would never do anything.
  • God has promised this world will be safe from overwhelming destruction till he returns anyway.
Once again I chose to include a progression from the rational to the more fantistic. However I think there is something going on other than just that transition from the top to the bottom truisms.

The first points in both lists can be linked to evidence specifically relevant to the case at hand. We may even be recalling stories involving the specific corporations and environmental groups currently discussing fracking. The problem is that there is a real difficulty resolving the differences between conclusions at the top of both lists.

It needs to be recognized that cuts to the public sector particularly in the area of science and the increasing wealth imbalance between corporations and governments has a far-reaching crippling effect on our discussions. There are growing doubts about the motivations behind information we receive. There is a dearth of trusted sources. We are at the mercy of information sources with interests in the matter at hand, either directly or through complicated money trails.

There are two possible strategies for organizations hoping to deliver information in such a biased media environment. One strategy is to simply speak more and louder than your opposition. This is a more viable strategy if you can obtain more media control. It’s also a temptation for small voices which only feel heard when they make more extreme and absolute claims.

The other strategy is to cultivate trust by being more careful about what you say. This takes advantage of the pull instead of push approach of the internet. However it relies on your audience’s memory and active involvement in investigating matters. As much as I hope this second strategy will be what succeeds I wouldn’t be sure of it.

As we move to the second and third points on the list of truisms, we have propositions that are shaped by less directly relevant information. We are drawing on some more general economic principles. We may even begin to include events and episodes from our personal history, but still relevant to construction and energy consumption.

Precisely because this information is not as relevant to the case of Fracking we believe we can trust it more. I think we like to believe we are being crafty by coming at a problem in a slightly different way to how we are expected to. We can imagine that the manipulators of our news media never thought to misrepresent something like the Collins Class Submarine debacle in order to affect our thinking on an issue like Fracking. By being novel in drawing parallels between the two we like to believe we can stay a step ahead of misinformation.

Unfortunately we may be being naive here. I think there is a vigorous contest occurring between media manipulators and audiences. We may think that a connection has never been thought of but there is a lot of marketing science involved in uncovering those connections and playing on them even before we are aware. Certainly politicians with very little comparative funding to major corporations pay attention to a diverse range of factors affecting their re-election. We should expect much more from big business.

 By the third truism we may be drawing on matters as far afield as what Uncle Barry did wrong with his investments or something about Orville Wright and his magnificent flying machines. What’s interesting, however, is not only that these stories have even less bearing on the case at hand (aeroplanes and trust funds are nothing like gas mines), they are facts which (at least seem to) have much more verifiability. In fact we can actually agree on these matters with people who disagree on our ultimate conclusions about Fracking.

 For example: although I might not agree with Joe Bloggs on fracking we can both agree that flight would never have been discovered if the first pioneers listened to their critics. We can also both agree that get-rich quick schemes generally bring failure not riches as in poor Uncle Barry’s case. That gives us some common ground to move forward from.

 This makes this level of discussion much more rhetorically fruitful than the first points. The first truism about whether environmentalists or corporations are lying is buried under a tonnage of spin. We don’t even know where to go to establish who is right. By the third truism though we have reached agreed reality. That’s not to say we can’t all be wrong. The family rumour mill may have one theory about Uncle Barry’s misfortunes that is ignorant of some special cause of it. Our history of human flight may have been tidied up for school kids when we learnt it. Usually though we can get closer to the truth here than we can with the issue at hand. We have after all selected these analogies for their familiarity. What we may struggle to agree on is relevance to the question at hand.

 Hence our increasingly complicated world demands better thinking tools to evaluate the relevance of analogies. The key points to consider are;

  • The points of comparison between one analogy to another
  • The relevance of the points of comparison to the matter at hand
  • Any points of discomparison and their relevance.
The last truisms on our list are something qualitatively different from the others. Firstly they have a qualitatively different relevance. The statement “Bad shit always lies a-slumbering in the deep” is relevant at all times once you accept it. “Always” gives that away. The same super-relevance is there for any divine promise of preservation for the earth. We can argue around these truisms conclusions (by saying fracking only damages the earth which God didn’t promise against for example), but there isn’t anywhere that the truisms are not in effect.

Secondly these final truisms have a local certainty to them. Usually if we believe one or the other we are going to hang around with people who believe them too or if not we will keep them to ourselves. The very incredibility of these sorts of statements mean that if we are emboldened to express them it’s only because we are safe to do so by universal agreement.

These two qualitative differences make these final truisms powerful refuges. Local certainty and total relevance are such a relief compared to the uncertainty and questionable relevance of our other truisms. I think we need to recognize how tempting and relaxing these sorts of truisms are for this reason.

The refuge-like nature of these truisms also reflects that they aren’t part of a shared reality at all. They provide us with foregone conclusions because they are tailor made to serve our conclusions. This makes them the least useful of all to resolve disagreements such as about fracking. Our desire to hang out in this territory for comfort’s sake can only polarize and paralyse our collective decision making. 

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