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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Two Realities

Yesterday I was in Dallas.  I participated in a panel discussion: "What Cost Gas Drilling?" at the 48th Annual Conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) that took place in the beautiful Collins Executive Center at SMU.

The participants of my panel included Mr. Calvin Tillman, the Mayor of Dish, Texas; David Pool, Senior VP and General Counsel of Range Resources; Elizabeth Souder, a Staff Writer for the Dallas Morning News; and Andrea Gabor, a Professor of Business Journalism at the Baruch College - the panel leader.

Mr Tillman's deep anguish and fear for his children made the largest impression on me.  Mr. Tillman was demonized by the industry sources as an unreasonable person, who made crazy demands on the well-meaning companies producing natural gas in his community.  Mr. Tillman says that he is quitting the mayor's job, and is moving away from Dish to protect his children from what he fears are real health threats.

It was really heart-wrenching for me to see his anguish and be unable to help him.  But what would I tell him?  That I am a scientist and engineer, who knows all these highly specialized things no one understands?  That I would not fear as strongly for the health of my children, because I know better?  But do I?  I was never in Dish, and I never did any of the air-quality measurements myself, nor did I verify their correctness.

How would I communicate my highly structured and logical approach that is based on decades of training in science?   Physics, physical chemistry, organic chemistry, thermodynamics, phase equilibria, etc., are a bunch of empty words to most people, who have no way of relating to science and discerning what is true and what is not.  Who is lying, and who is not?  How big is the health risk of hydrocarbon vapors?  What does it depend on?  What happens to shallow aquifers with drinking water when they drill for gas?  If the water is cloudy and smells funny, is it a result of drilling in the neighborhood, or something else?

How does anyone know that I am not lying?  By watching my demeanor and body language, or by understanding my arguments?  Will anyone trust someone like me, who works with the industry and might know the truth, as opposed to someone else who has no experience, might be talking nonsense, but is not lying for sure?

On the way back, I reread most of a short book written by the famous British physicist, C. P. Snow, entitled: "The Two Cultures."  C. P. Snow talks there about the scientific and literary cultures, and how the two shall never meet, because of the irreconcilable cognitive and attitude differences.  Here is an appropriate quote that illustrates my anguish as well as any:
...It is obvious that between the two, as one moves from the physicists to the literary intellectual society, there are all kinds of tones of feeling on the way. But I do believe the pole of total incomprehension of science radiates its influence on the rest.  That total incomprehension gives, much more pervasively than we realize, living in it, an unscientific flavor to the whole "traditional" culture, and that unscientific flavor is often, much more than we admit, on the point of turning anti-scientific. The feelings of one pole become the anti-feelings of the other. If the scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing that the future did not exist.  It is the traditional culture, to the extent remarkably undiminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world. (Page 17)

Am I then surprised that some of the Regents of the UT System, and their experts, are anti-science?  Anti-research?  Anti-anything they do not understand, perceive as useless to their lives, and expensive to the society at large?  No, I am not.  We need to do a much better job explaining what it is that we do for others.  The usual "trust us" will not suffice. Perhaps the two cultures should meet, if only occasionally, fifty years after C. P. Snow's famous little book.