On the Fracking and the Fear of Probabilistic Truth

And thus concludes the second consecutive summer for which this blog has gone more or less radio silent, aside from the occasional tweet. Not that you can infer much from an N of two, but it seems like we’re not very good writers when it’s hot out. Actually, it’s not that. Well, it’s not that for me, at least – I can’t speak for my coauthor. Rather, it’s that for me writing is highly place-dependent. I need to be settled (so the mind can wander? No, surely that’s entirely too cutesy) and I need reliably quick Internet (so I can look things up. And that is entirely true). Having spent most of the summer bopping around the Balkans (Greece & Slovenia included, and yes they’re part of the Balkans and also yes that’s a post for another day), both were, for me, in short supply. Not that the Balkans has bad Internet necessarily, but that while traveling it’s hard to get at it in uninterrupted multi-hour bursts, and anyway who wants to spend four hours inside working on a blog post when you could spend four hours sweating your ass off walking down Užička street in Belgrade past all the embassies and ambassadorial residences and the house both Tito and Milošević once occupied.

So here we are with a week left in August, and while this time around there isn’t an incipient school year to serve as arbitrary chronological justification for starting to write again, it does feel like, with September just around the corner and a new job underway, now is as good a time as any other to get back to pre-summer routines, slightly more consistently sporadic (oxymoron?) blogging among them. Thus, without further prefatory ado, here is our first post in a long time, about fracking.

Back in June the EPA released a report on fracking which had been, “…requested by Congress and five years in the making…” Reuters characterized its contents as follows:

The EPA said it found isolated cases of water contamination, but “the number of identified cases … was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.

“We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States,” the study said.

It seems like, though – disclaimer – I am not a scientist, you could read that to mean that there does not appear to be any inherent link between fracking and water contamination. That is, it is possible, indeed quite possible, to frack safely. That water contamination does not inherently follow from fracking. But that under certain circumstances, water contamination does result from fracking. If that were how you understood the EPA report, one thing you might then think is that we should pay special attention to those cases in which water contamination did result, while also allowing fracking to continue as a drilling technique.

Alternatively, you could read that the way Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, did.

[Mall] told Reuters the report was the first time the EPA acknowledged the potential to poison drinking water.

“There are still significant gaps in the scientific understanding of fracking,” Mall said in a statement. “This study is site-specific and limited, which makes it impossible to fully understand all the risks at this time.”

Did the EPA acknowledge the potential for fracking to poison drinking water? Ya, I guess. Are there still significant gaps? Sure, probably, but then again there are significant gaps in our scientific understanding of a lot of things. Whatever, those bits are fine. What is preposterous is the claim that somehow the study is flawed because it is site-specific. How in the fuck else would you assess the dangers of fracking other than to go out and look at all the sites where people have fracked?* To complain that it is site-specific is inane. It is impossible to prove, in the abstract, that fracking is safe and will never contaminate drinking water, and if that’s the kind of standard you’re looking for then…I mean it’s a wonder we allow ourselves to do anything at all in this world. Unfortunately, this attitude isn’t limited to the fracking debate; it permeates opposition to GMOs, too. And hell, it is basically the reason for the continued existence of TSA. In all cases (opposition to fracking, opposition to GMOs, the perpetuation of TSA), the argument relies on what you might call a fear of probabilistic truth. Probably GMOs are not going to cause genetic mutations in humans, and probably even without TSA there will not be a terrorist attack on an airplane in the United States, and probably fracking is not going to trigger a major earthquake. So while we can’t say it is true in some epistemically definitive way that fracking is safe, we can say it is probabilistically true that it is. For fracking opponents, this isn’t good enough. The bigger problem is, it’s hard to imagine what ever will be.

*Yes, yes, I’m sure there’s some kind of simulation you could run, or model you could build, but considering there’s hundreds of thousands of real-world wells to assess it seems like that really ought to be your first and most important port of call