Hydraulic Fracturing: Toward Better Deliberation

When the conversation opened up on the second day of our November workshop, after my presentation on acceptable risk, the project team and the invited participants spent much of the remainder of the morning developing and jotting down ideas for fostering better, more informed and more constructive public deliberation about hydraulic fracturing.

Our initial ways of phrasing the questions were rough, and many of them were likely to be perceived as biased against one group or another, playing on stereotypes, say, of engineers or of some of the more strident individuals who might show up for a public hearing.

In the weeks that followed, the project team at Georgia Tech revised the list, and reconsidered it, and revised it again.

The end result is a set of questions that will frame the work of our second workshop, now scheduled for early April: Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Hydraulic Fracturing: Images from Under Ground

My tongue-in-cheek comment on the language of hydraulic fracturing was intended to get at the ways in which metaphors and images can affect – and sometimes skew – our understanding of risks and responsibilities.

This effect can work in any direction, for or against any particular position, and it can be especially pronounced when the problem situation within which people are making decisions – and disagreeing with one another over what decisions to make – are not well understood.

One theme that emerged early in our first workshop on hydraulic fracturing was that nearly every available image of hydraulic fracturing is inaccurate in ways that may exaggerate or, at least, misrepresent the risks involved in the process – and this is true even of images on websites of those who should know better, and on websites of organizations generally favorable to the use of hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas extraction.

One of the students on our project team came across an especially egregious example of the type, an image used in the film, Gasland: Continue reading

Hydraulic Fracturing: The Project

As I have been hinting, I’m currently caught up in a collaborative project on engineering, ethics and policy related to hydraulic fracturing.

The idea for the project began to take shape in conversations I was having with my colleague, ChloƩ Arson, who is over in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech. We were exploring opportunities for new directions in engineering ethics education.

I cannot now say which of them emerged first, but there are twin intuitions at the heart of our discussion:

  1. Most interesting problems in engineering – and for ethics and policy related to engineering – involve not only risk but also uncertainty, because the underlying dynamics of the problem situation are poorly or only partially understood; and
  2. We should aim to prepare engineers-in-training to engage in ethical inquiry and policy inquiry at the same time they are engaging in empirical inquiry and in design.

I joked at the time that the second intuition goes both ways: we need engineers who can think like ethicists and ethicists who can think like engineers. Continue reading

From the Archive: A Phenomenology of Driving, and Other Matters

Continuing along the thread of music and the experience of systems and of movement, here is a post that appeared on my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, on November 11, 2011. In it, I draw from half-remembered conversations from grad school to inform an elucidation of the fluidity of movement and the transparency of technical artifacts when we are using them.

(This post was followed, a few days later, by a more technical post based on an attempt to read Husserl.)

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A Phenomenology of Driving, and Other Matters

Yesterday morning, I was discussing risk and risk perception with my engineering ethics class, focusing on the distinction between the risk expert’s quantitative approach to risk (risk = probability of harm x magnitude of harm) with the lay public’s qualitative and experiential approach to risk.

There are a number of reasons, I noted, why Americans regularly accept the relatively high risk of injury or death from automobile accidents (with ~40,000 car-related deaths in the United States every year), but are skittish about flying in airplanes and exposure to other risks that are, statistically, of much lower probability.

People are generally more likely to accept risks they take on voluntarily, for example, than risks that are imposed without their consent. People are also more likely to accept familiar risks than those that are novel. They may also, I speculated, be more willing to accept risks when they have a sense of being in control of their own fate. In fact, when we are in a familiar circumstance with a sense of being in control, we may not even perceive a given activity as risky at all.

There is little in American experience more familiar than driving and riding in automobiles, and we seldom feel more in control of our own fates than when we are behind the wheel. Continue reading