The government’s chief scientific advisor Sir Mark Walport has slammed an article published in the Guardian that drew comparisons between fracking, asbestos and thalidomide as examples of innovations that had unforeseen consequences. In doing so they were attempting to discredit fracking. However, in a prime example of green on green infighting, Sir Mark said that the article confused “arguments about science with value propositions.” (h/t Bishop Hill)
On the 28th November, The Guardian published an article titled Fracking could carry unforeseen risks as thalidomide and asbestos did, says report. It highlighted a report produced by Mark Walport, which the Guardian said argued that “history holds many examples of innovations that were adopted hastily and later had serious negative environmental and health impacts.”
The article then quotes segments from one chapter of the report, authored by written by Prof Andrew Stirling of the University of Sussex, in order to make a case against fracking. It quotes the report as reading “History presents plenty of examples of innovation trajectories that later proved to be problematic — for instance involving asbestos, benzene, thalidomide, dioxins, lead in petrol, tobacco, many pesticides, mercury, chlorine and endocrine-disrupting compounds…”
The article then overtly draws parallels with fracking, by quoting half a sentence to be found elsewhere in the chapter, which reads: “… innovations reinforcing fossil fuel energy strategies — such as hydraulic fracturing — arguably offer a contemporary prospective example.”
However, Sir Mark has now hit back. In an amendment posted below the original article, Sir Mark states “We owe it to ourselves and to our policy makers to have a high standard of public debate about the future of our energy supplies. That is one of the reasons that, in my role as chief scientific adviser to the government, I have produced an annual report entitled Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It.
“The report is accompanied by a series of evidence papers and case studies, that provide a variety of viewpoints, which are those of the individual authors and expose a wide variety of views. The report itself is deliberately short and accessible.
“The Guardian article that linked fracking with thalidomide and asbestos is a florid example of what my report argued most strongly against. It confuses arguments about science with value propositions. It selected one sentence from one evidence paper, quoted it in part, and in doing so misrepresented both the report and indeed the evidence paper itself.”
Sir Mark then goes on to criticise a media that is willing to slavishly reproduce misreported information, saying “This has been picked up in a careless fashion by other news channels and by social media and subjected to a hopefully brief period of amplification. In doing so, the article debased an important discussion about future energy supplies – and, at least as importantly, it devalues science journalism. I am glad however, that the Guardian has allowed me to express my own voice adjacent to the offending piece of journalism.”
Finally, Sir Mark summarises his view of fracking as an important technology on the road to a low carbon economy, saying “With regard to fracking, the hydraulic fracturing of shale to obtain natural gas and oil, I fully endorse the report of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Of course methane is a fossil fuel, but as long as it is burned efficiently and fugitive emissions of methane gas are minimised, it is a less harmful fossil fuel than coal and oil, and is an important way-station on the global journey towards low carbon energy.
“The scientific evidence is clear that any environmental or geological risks can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through effective regulation.”
Commenting on the spectacle of infighting between the environmental fraternity, blogger Bishop Hill has said “Marvellous stuff. I just don’t quite understand why Sir Mark has chosen this moment to speak out about Guardian Eco playing fast and loose with the facts. They do much worse than this on an almost daily basis.”