Op Ed: Science, Philosophy Both Matter in Fracking Decision

Cornell trustee and doctoral candidate voices his opinion on fracking...

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Guest Viewpoint by Darrick T.N. Evensen via Ithaca Journal, 8/12/13

In May, Gov. Andrew Cuomo informed New York that he will decide whether to permit shale gas development using hydraulic fracturing by November 2014. Even more important than when is how that decision will be made.

Cuomo repeatedly has asserted he will “let the science decide.” As a scientist, I commend him for recognizing the importance of science, but I encourage him also to acknowledge its limitations. With good reason, Nobel laureate Lord Bertrand Russell once wrote, “Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer.” One such question is how New York should regulate fracking.

Science is the most effective set of tools humankind has harnessed for describing our world. It can help us characterize everything from tiny bugs to black holes.

Science, therefore, is essential for describing and explaining the effects of shale gas development. This complex issue requires investigation in biological, physical and social sciences. Nevertheless, no matter what the science reveals about potential economic, environmental, social and health effects, we need some means for determining the value of those impacts. Different New Yorkers will invariably value different outcomes.

I have spent the last two years researching the conversation on shale gas development in New York, Pennsylvania and the Canadian province of New Brunswick. In communities throughout all three jurisdictions, the primary reason that people on both sides of the issue feel strongly about shale gas development is that residents want to protect or foster a desired way of life.

Views on the most desirable way of life differ. I have spoken with dozens of leaders on all sides of this debate. They understand the ecological, economic and social science to date on effects of shale gas development. Many New Yorkers are aware of the science and still cannot agree on regulation.

This should surprise no one. Yet Cuomo’s suggestion to “let the science decide” seems to ignore that people assign greater value to some outcomes than others. Science is descriptive. To be prescriptive, we must philosophically examine and justify why we value outcomes, processes and events as we do.

Philosophy, like science, is essential to an informed decision-making process. Questions of how to weigh outcomes are only the beginning. Other questions abound: What role should distribution of risks and benefits play in decision-making? How do transparency and opportunities for participation in the policy process affect appropriate regulation? How should outcomes be treated differently if citizens are exposed to voluntary versus involuntary risks?

If the governor values the role of experts and values thorough analysis, he cannot only consult scientists. Experts in normative reasoning will never be able to give a concrete yes or no answer on fracking, but they can at least speak to some of the complex questions mentioned above, which extend far beyond the realm of science.

Evensen is a Cornell University trustee and a doctoral candidate in its Department of Natural Resources.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.