The Proper Application Of Science In Energy Policy

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Much has been written recently about the role of science in influencing important issues of the day. 

The hottest topic (so to speak) has been climate change. True believers insist “the science is settled,” Donald Trump and the like deny there’s any science at all, and those with a good understanding of scientific principles realize that it is very early days in the study and modeling of that immensely complex thing called climate. Blair King (‘A Chemist in Langley’) sensibly subdivided climate debaters into “catastrophists” at one end, “denialists” at the other, and a spectrum in the middle (“alarmists,” “warmists,” and “lukewarmers”) who actually understand and debate interpretation of the science (https://achemistinlangley.net/2015/01/14/does-the-climate-change-debate-need-a-reset-on-name-calling-in-the-climate-change-debate/).

The leading energy issues today — fossil fuel consumption, hydraulic fracturing, and pipelines top the list in Canada — all attract intense debate, and much of that debate calls upon science for support.  But compared to the spectrum of climate debaters, energy issue debates aren’t quite as polarized. There are lots of energy issue catastrophists, but most people find themselves trying to balance economic value versus environmental protection. Energy issue debates don’t have strong “denialist” voices, as no reasonable person believes that major industrial activities can be undertaken without risk. Everyone in the discussion, however, calls upon “science” to back their arguments.

So what counts as science, and how do we use it? Although not a scientist, Ken Dryden (goalie, lawyer, author, and politician) put forward a great perspective in talking about the science behind the really complex subject of concussions. He said: “science [is] about knowing better today than yesterday, but of never knowing for sure, because science never knows for sure, because what it knows today is only a placeholder for what it will know tomorrow. But games are played today — so what do we do? Based on the best science we have at this moment — today — what decisions do we take?”

Dryden was speaking primarily about peer-reviewed science — where scientists publish their research in reputable journals after review and correction by knowledgeable peers. It’s regarded as the gold standard. But it takes years to gather data, conduct research, write papers, submit them for publication, have them reviewed, and finally see them published. This process progresses science, but it does not provide quick answers to burning issues with important economic and environmental implications. And it does not necessarily address the questions that most urgently need answering.

For timely and relevant answers on energy issues, we more commonly rely on targeted scientific investigations conducted in many different settings — in regulatory and government agencies (like the Alberta Energy Regulator or the Geological Survey of Canada), in universities, in industry, and by independent scientists and consultants. Much of this work is of high quality, and may later find its way into the peer-reviewed literature, should the investigators wish to subject themselves to the peer review process. Some studies use proprietary data sets not always available to academic researchers; a good example would be seismic data, which in Western Canada is confidential. Results are communicated in workshops and conferences as presentations and reports not subject to formal peer review, but available in a much shorter time frame.

But without peer review, how do we know unbiased and scientifically rigorous information is being communicated? That depends both on the scientist reporting and the reader understanding.

Good scientists are trained not only in their specific technical disciplines, but in good scientific attitudes. Good scientists are curious; they collect valid data and they work to find the correct answers. They are not driven to verify ideological positions or to generate results supportive of their financial sponsors, but instead to report upon rigorous analysis of the data. 

But how does the reader distinguish good science from biased or incomplete reporting? And even when a good scientist has produced good science, what do we do with it?  What are the assumptions? The limitations? To what situations does it apply? The reader must be scientifically literate as well — he/she must understand how science works to make these judgments, and to decide how to use the report to address the issues that require action.

This brings me back to Ken Dryden’s fundamental question: “Based on the best science we have at this moment — today — what decisions do we take?” The science is not the decision — it supports working toward a decision. 

And it’s a dynamic situation — scientific inputs will change as science progresses. Those that say “the science is settled” or invoke “scientific consensus” demonstrate that they haven’t the faintest clue about how science works. Charles Darwin put forward the concept of biological evolution in the mid-1800s, and although the basic principles remain valid, biologists are still working to refine our understanding of the mechanisms. Similarly, climate model results from 10 years ago might still inform, or they might well mislead us.

Looking at climate change as an example, a great report (whether peer-reviewed or not) on the outputs of a great climate model provides important scientific information. It does not tell society what to do with that information. It only provides an input, upon which decision makers must layer many other inputs to design relevant action plans. Society’s wants and needs, economics, rights, fairness, the practical realities of engineering solutions are all important inputs to consider in designing actions, whether regarding climate change, energy issues, or other big questions facing humanity.

Scientists that do great work (like the latest climate model) and then tell us what actions need to be taken (like reducing fossil fuel consumption by a certain amount) don’t understand the role of their work. If you’ve spent the time and energy to produce great science, it’s highly unlikely that you have developed expertise in all the other important inputs. Decision makers must understand your science and its limitations, combine it with many other expert opinions and analyses, then design the best way forward.

Unfortunately, our decision makers are generally politicians, who tend to respond to poorly-informed public opinion instead of harnessing good science and expert analysis to reach sound action plans.

Next month, I’ll look more closely at the science supporting energy issues.