Hydraulic Fracturing: Risk v. Acceptable Risk

I have said that the first day of our workshop on hydraulic fracturing, in November, brought out a long list of risks related to hydraulic fracturing and, indeed, the engineers and scientists who participated were quite adept at identifying such risks and possibilities for mitigation.

Something else came out during those first sessions, though, which I found troubling.

What I heard was simply a repeated assertion or implication that those who oppose hydraulic fracturing are moved to do so only by emotion, especially by fear. The assertion was reinforced with reference to certain bad actors in the public arena who engage in campaigns based on misinformation, distortion and possibly even fraud to manipulate the emotions of an uninformed public.

The underlying assumption of such claims, I think, is that there is a clean distinction between reason and emotion, and that only those who base their decisions on the methods and findings of the sciences have reason on their side.

Beneath this is a still deeper assumption that quantitative analysis is the essence of rationality.

What I began to see is the working of a technocratic mindset, which might be expressed – somewhat tendentiously – like this:

We, the scientifically enlightened who have reason on our side, are in the best position to understand what the risks of any particular activity might be, to determine how to mitigate those risks and to determine when that mitigation is sufficient relative to the benefits of the activity in question. Anyone who disagrees with our analysis on any of these points is misinformed; anyone who does not recognize our authority to make these determinations is irrational.

In other words, the message of the technocrat to the public is:

We know what’s good for you. Please kindly be quiet while we instruct  you.

(Individuals at my home institution have said things very much like this, in earnest, in my hearing.)

None of this sat very well with me, but I kept it to myself through the first day.

My turn to speak at the workshop came around at the start of the second day. I had mulled over my remarks late into the night, and delivered what seemed at the time a broadside against the technocratic mindset.

I mean this precisely. It was not a broadside against the natural sciences, nor against engineering, nor even against hydraulic fracturing. My remarks were addressed to the assumption that the legitimate authority to make decisions about risk is based on quantitative analysis of empirical data carried out by experts in one or another technical field.

The slide show and notes from my talk are included in the notes from the November workshop, which are available online.

The short version is that I drew the distinction between risk and acceptable risk: while risk is an empirical concept that may lend itself to quantitative analysis, acceptable risk is a normative concept that really cannot be so reduced.

I further drew a distinction between utility values and autonomy values – referred to elsewhere on this blog as the good and the right – and emphasized that equity in the distribution of risks and consent to risks of particular activities are ethically significant and really not quantifiable.

What I realize in writing about this now is that the force of autonomy values in particular is that they rely on a different understanding of rationality – thinking in principles rather than calculation – that is beyond the reach of the technocratic mindset: it’s a basis on which people may reasonably disagree on the question of what risks are acceptable even if their judgment seems to go against the results of a quantitative analysis of risks and benefits.

In other words, someone could with reason say: Yes, I see the dimensions of the risks you’ve identified, I see the degree to which you can reduce particular risks through practice and regulation, and I even see your account of the magnitude of the benefits, but I still think it’s just not worth it.

In my remarks, I rather pointedly addressed the question of emotion, describing the consistent pattern I’d seen on the first day of belittling all who disagree.

I emphasized that, in light of the wider range of values to which people might legitimately appeal, fear and anger are by no means automatically to be excluded from attention and due consideration in making decisions about risk. Anger in particular is important, because sometimes it isn’t only anger, but outrage, a response to a wrong or an injustice, or to an illegitimate seizure of power.

If members of a community are subjected to a risk to which they did not consent by powers over which they have no control, fear and anger are really not all that unreasonable as responses go.

I also raised a question from political philosophy, as I’d just been reading Iris Young’s Inclusion and Democracy with one of my classes: Why should public deliberation about risk, which is bound up, after all, with lived human experience in particular places, be stripped of all emotion in order to be acceptable? Why cannot expressions of fear our outrage be accepted in the forum and treated seriously and with respect rather than with paternalistic indulgence?

There was more to my remarks, but these points seem the most salient just now.

The effect on the participants was extraordinary. A librarian with whom our team had been working in setting up the workshop observed later that, at that point, the workshop really came to life.

The engineers and scientists who heard me seemed genuinely taken aback, and seemed quite willing to reflect on their own attitudes and ways of communicating about risk.

All other plans for the day were set aside, and we launched into a long discussion of what we might do in the training of engineers and scientists to better prepare them to participate effectively in public deliberation about acceptable risk and how, more generally, we can foster good public deliberation about hydraulic fracturing.

The project team has been working on the results of that session, shaping them into a list of framing questions for the second workshop, in April.

That list is the subject of tomorrow’s post.

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