Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Science and the Public

Science and technology are hugely important in our current society. Our quality of life, our health and the levels of wealth we now enjoy are all predicated on technological and scientific advances.

However, it seems that wherever science and society directly intersect, controversy is never far away. My particular expertise is in shale gas, but we see similar controversies with respect to GMO food, nuclear power, climate change and vaccines, for example. A recent Pew Society report documents substantial differences between the opinions of scientists and those of the general public.

In an article for the Washington Post, Mark Lynas documents a "new Age of Ignorance", noting "determined lobbies working to undermine public understanding of science."

We've seen the (ex) Science Advisor to the European Commission hit out at dishonesty from environmental NGOs who pressurised Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to axe the position. According to wikipedia, the EU Commission:
"is the executive body of the European Union responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU." 
Why indeed would such an institution need someone to advise them on matters of science?

A recent article in Vox, on the anti-vax lobby, provided the original motivation for this post:
There's a broader point here. It can be easy to stereotype the vaccine debate as people who believe in scientific evidence versus people who don't. But that's an oversimplification. Vaccine skeptics do think they believe in scientific evidence. They can cite dozens of studies and cases. They see themselves as the side in this debate that's actually following the evidence, while the pro-vaccine side is blindly trusting in authority and ultimately getting taken in by a massive pharmaceutical scam. 
The problem is when you dig into the studies they cite, the evidence they're relying on doesn't hold up — it's misinterpreted, selectively reported, or refracted through conspiracy theories. But knock down one bad interpretation of a study and there's always another, and another, and another. And then there's the flood of wrenching anecdotes which can't be checked, but which are reported by people who are in pain and arouse our deepest sympathies. The result is that to someone primarily consuming anti-vaccine arguments, the evidence looks overwhelming, the media's dismissal of it looks corrupt, and the victims seem very real.
I couldn't help but notice that you could substitute any of the above controversial technologies into these two paragraphs. Read again but substitute "vaccines" for "GMO", for "nuclear power" or "shale gas" and I think this summary is equally valid.


  1. Good post JV. It is a constant surprise to me that people are prepared to comment on things they do not understand. I am a pro fact person. I remember getting into a furious debate with someone when I said that the pressures in HF are not necessarily excessive. My goodness, I was told off. '12.500 psi is just too much for the casing' and lots of rude words.
    This person very evidently had no idea that fluids are injected through a packer and the bulk of the casing is not exposed to the pressure, and that fluids are circulated down and up the outside. The concept of total hydrostatic head seemed beyond her as well.

    If people protest against a motorway, or building, thats a valid input.

    I have never heard of people protesting a motorway design, or the engineering of a building... (those foundations are just not deep enough!!)

    The assumption most people have is that these complex issues are looked at by competent engineers, backed by good regulators, an extensive knowledge base, and that best practice will be followed.

    Why is that not the case for fracking? By all means talk about climate change/industrialization/traffic/future energy supplies etc, but please do not waste my time talking about stuff you do not understand!!

  2. I have no problems with fracking far from it. America have been doing it for awhile now and I have not heard one bad thing about it. I do have a question, we have a lot of coal mining tunnels under our feet, could the vibrations from fracking cause them to start collapsing? Or is that a ridiculous question.

    1. It is. Not sure if this is tongue in cheek or not! Its odd not to have heard nothing bad about it as there is so much nonsense out there. almost uniquely bullshit, irrelevant of made up.

      The max permitted seismicity would be 0.5M, after which pumping must stop. There is the vaguest chance of a slightly higher level, but the best brains in the UK have come up with this.

      If a coal mine was going to collapse (and this has caused proper seismicity) then its going to shortly anyway. There are hundreds of bigger tremors each year in the UK bigger than that.

    2. Hi Anonymous,
      The near-surface vibration caused by shale is unlikely to exceed that caused by other typical day-to-day activities, such as trucks driving past, or even slamming a door violently.

      Moreover, if an operator is planning to drill in an area with ono coal-mines in the vicinity, they will be required to obtain permits from the Coal Authority before they can begin.

  3. Another good example is creationism, with plenty of studies on it. Creationists have the same style of arguing as frackwits

  4. Thanks for letting me know my question is stupid, and should not of been asked.

    1. It doesn't add up...11 February 2015 at 07:03

      Your question was perfectly reasonable. The coal seams in the UK that have the record of the greatest seismic activity are in Nottinghamshire: there's a useful discussion of them here:


      Fracking in shales many miles away from coal seams will have no effect on those seams. Fracking associated with coal bed methane projects might be a slightly different matter, but as the British Geological Survey comments Human activities such as mining can change the state of stress on nearby faults by either the removal of sub-surface rock or by the collapse of old mine workings, which can move the faults closer to failure and result in induced earthquakes. Fracking does not entail removing sub surface rock (aside from the insignificant borehole), thus removing the major cause of mining related seismicity. That still leaves a small probability of triggering an existing fault near the seam. That probability is in general rather lower than the already very low probability for shale rocks, as coal is much softer, and can be fractured at rather lower pressure, so fractures are unlikely to propagate much beyond the seam itself.

    2. One doesn't normally use hydraulic fracturing to extract CBM

    3. It doesn't add up...13 February 2015 at 11:04

      It would be more accurate to say that at some sites it may be possible to produce some CBM commercially without fracking. For example, consider this report on Airth:


  5. Thank you, I find it all very interesting and I have gained some more knowledge, which I thank you for.