Fracking: Science, Myth and Virtue

Fracking seems to be the big environmental story of the year. Today, two news reports which appear to lend support to conflicting sides of the argument have emerged. One story told us that the economic benefits of fracking may be much less than previously thought, and that gas prices for the consumer will be minimally affected. The other story tells us that a report conducted by the Royal Society for the Department of Environment and Climate Change tells us that the carbon footprint of fracking would be similar to that of other ways of extracting fossil fuels. There is no contradiction between the reports, but they provide ammunition for different points of view.

At a speech at the Royal Society in London, Ed Davey, the energy and climate secretary, said  “You would be forgiven for thinking that it represents a great evil; one of the gravest threats that has ever existed to the environment, to the health of our children and to the future of the planet. On the other side of the coin, you could have been led to believe that shale gas is the sole answer to all our energy problems … Both of these position are just plain wrong. … Gas, as the cleanest fossil fuel, is part of the answer to climate change, as a bridge in our transition to a green future, especially in our move away from coal.”

Consequentialist Arguments

It is interesting that earlier in the debate, much of the opposition to fracking was voiced in terms of its capacity to cause earthquakes. Later, after reports suggested that fracking would cause only very small amounts of seismic activity, the argument shifted to other environmental threats, such as pollution of air and groundwater, and the effect that new sources of fossil fuels would have on climate change. It is also emphasised that fracking is a relatively new and unknown technology, which may have grave long-term risks.

I do not want to undermine any of these arguments. There is growing evidence to support many of the claims about groundwater pollution, and there is a good case that the availability of more fossil fuels is likely to undermine efforts to tackle climate change. Purely in terms of probable consequences, there are good reasons to think that we should not support fracking.

However, when the debate is only had on these terms, it easily leads to a situation where the opponents of fracking are caricatured (as Davey caricatures them in his speech) as the prophets of doom, clinging to their views even in the face of empirically researched, rationally disseminated evidence. The earthquake argument didn’t work, so we found a new danger to focus upon.

The debate is conducted along very crude utilitarian lines, weighing up the costs and benefits to humanity and proceeding according to the best scientific evidence. If it turns out that the evidence comes out against fracking, we decide not to do it, and if the costs turn out to be outweighed by the benefits, then off we go. If we take this approach seriously, there really is very little space for activists and politicians in this argument at all. However much they do their homework, they are amateurs compared with the scientists, engineers, seismologists, geologists, economists and ecologists who really know their stuff. This would suggest that there really is no moral argument to be had here, or at least the moral aspect of the matter is taken care of by a simple formula in such a way that the right way to proceed will become obvious when, and only when, the scientific evidence is in.

Myths versus Science

This rhetoric is typified in the frequent use of the language of scientific fact versus myth. Davey’s speech is entitled ‘The Myths and Realities of Shale Gas Exploration’. He outlines the purpose of the Royal Society report as being that the Royal Society should “make recommendations to ensure exploration in the UK could proceed safely and extraction be managed effectively; Recommendations based on the scientific evidence to ensure that the way forward is informed by fact and not by myth.” He elaborates further on this theme later in the speech: “our society is ill served when we allow myths to proliferate or when we allow debates to be hijacked by zealots or vested interests. So, today, I want to make the calm, rational, objective case for shale gas exploration in the UK in the light of the three equal and overarching objectives I have as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.”

What does Davey mean by myth? It seems that he is using it partly in the usual colloquial sense of meaning bad science, and in this case bad science that is driven by ideological concerns that are not themselves amenable to scientific proof. To some extent Davey is right. It is indeed dangerous when people fabricate scientific results to fit their ideological concerns, and present their own dogma as justified by science, alleviating them of the responsibility to justify their position. More on that in a bit, but first of all I want to point out that the word ‘myth’ gets an unfairly bad treatment in this sort of rhetoric.

Myths, in the traditional sense, are not a pernicious or badly conducted form of science, aiming imperfectly at the truths that science can pinpoint much more effectively. Myths are a different sort of thing altogether – they are fictions, that we know are fictions, and which have a tendency to stick around in the public consciousness. In addition, most myths, folk tales, fairy tales and other stories of these kinds are not based on consequentialist thinking. We do not criticise the myth of Oedipus because we suspect that it is not factually true, and nor do we slate the fairy tale because in actual fact, it is a biological impossibility for a prince to turn into a frog and back again. We know very well the difference between myths and science, and yet we continue to be attracted to the former. Why would we still be fond of myths when science can tell us all that we want to know about the composition of the physical universe? It is because myths are not about truth in the scientific sense, but rather about the sort of psychological meanings that we draw from them, many of these moral.

Myth and the Moral Imagination

These meanings do not work simply by way of a crude symbolism that makes their morals easily translatable into less opaque language, although a lot of contemporary notions of them seem to proceed as though that is the case. I don’t think that we can say for example, as some people try to, that the moral of Prometheus is simply that if you meddle with mighty powers beyond your understanding, then you will inevitably face some horrible punishment. If that were all that was going on, why wouldn’t you just say that in the first place, and why wouldn’t we then run some kind of scientific investigation to determine whether it is actually the case? Rather, the myth expands the complexity and sophistication of our moral imagination. We are initially invited to sympathise with Prometheus as the man who champions humanity in the face of tremendous unknown powers. We experience his tragedy with him, and reflect on his punishment: do we feel that it was deserved? is such a punishment invited by such behaviour? How does Prometheus’ ultimate fate reflect back upon our initial sympathies with him at the start of the tale? What does the punishment tell us about Prometheus’ character, motivations and desires? The ending of the tale is not a statement of the inevitable effects of human meddling, but instead serves to complicate our feelings about Prometheus’ character and actions, and ultimately about our own. It helps us to grow and develop as human beings.

There is a great deal of academic writing on this by people who are a lot more qualified to speak about it than I am, but it is important to remember that utilitarian thinking was not a dominant force in the world where this myth developed. Of course, the hearer of the myth would know that he who defies the Gods in such a story will inevitably fall, but they also know that they are hearing a story, and will witness people around them who ‘have it coming to them’, but are not ultimately punished. The consequence has significance for the hearer because of what it teaches us about human attitudes – not least our own – and not because it is the inevitable effect of a certain action.

A Missing Dimension

This kind of meaning that can be drawn from myth serves a different role from the facts that we derive from scientific enquiry, and is a vital part of our moral education and development. It is also a dimension that appears to be lacking from the current arguments about fracking and other current political issues. Blinded by narrowly consequentialist thinking, there is little space to think about the attitudes and motivations behind actions and policies. I suspect that it is not too much of a stretch to say that some of the ‘prophets of doom’ are actually motivated by the thought not that fracking will bring inevitable calamity upon our heads, but that such calamity would be deserved or appropriate. Judged by scientistic crudely utilitarian criteria, this view is nonsense. Where is the scientific evidence for desert and appropriateness?

To look for evidence is to take the wrong approach. Science cannot provide us with ethical justifications for particular attitudes or courses of action unless we already have some idea about the best way to live. Instead we should ask ourselves when and how it became acceptable to say things like: ‘yes, but they’re only tiny little earthquakes.’ It is remarkable that ‘fracking’, a word irresistibly reminiscent both of non-intimate sexual acts, and of various acts of violence, came to refer to ‘the forcing open of fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressure’ (OED definition) and that the word actually has its origin in the oil and gas industry. To come up with the word (even, as it originally was, without the ‘k’) to refer to such an activity, without realising that one is inviting trouble, demonstrates either a casual attitude towards violence, or a view of the Earth as nothing more than an inert cupboard of resources that is not susceptible to violence or harm.

This dimension, based as it is on virtue, vice and character, is not explored in the current argument. Instead, the debate is solely conducted according to what the science tells us. The science, however, can only ever tell us about means, and not about ends. Science does not tell us what is virtuous or vicious, permissible or impermissible, what attitudes we should take towards economic growth, technology and the natural world. To do that, we need to think for ourselves, not to ask somebody else. Myth, then, is not the problem, although the bad science sometimes labelled as myth can be. What is really at fault is the idea that scientific findings, on their own, can tell us what to do, and that any other considerations are nonsense.

When we think like this, any myths that we want to smuggle in have to be disguised as science, and once this is done, they are no longer our responsibility, but are farmed out to unelected experts. The notion of economic growth dogmatically presented as an unequivocal good takes this form, and disguising it as a scientific truth of economics means that there is no space for the autonomous self-reflection that might lead us to question this view.

Let me tell you the story about the King who wished that all he touched turned into gold…