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Duck, Rabbit, Gas Well

A Gestalt Theory of the Fracking Debate

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, now in its 50th year of print, offers a unique way to understand the debate over fracking. Kuhn speculates that two people might “see different things when looking at the same sorts of objects.” Jane looks at a gas pad site and sees an environmental apocalypse. Dick looks at the same site and sees a clean energy boon. Jane sees corporate colonialism. Dick sees an energy independent America.

It’s like the duck-rabbit illusion. The human mind makes the image into a picture of something. Some see a rabbit and others see a duck, but no one sees just lines or a bunch of parts. This is a basic tenet of Gestalt psychology. So too, the pad site must appear as something or other to human minds that are simultaneously perceiving and making it.

When it’s just rabbits and ducks we are comfortable with ambiguous multi-stability. But people who switch readily back and forth between ducks and rabbits are immovably either pro or anti fracking. When it comes to energy, they insist, there is one unified and stable reality. With ducks and rabbits, there are only interpretations. But with fracking, there is the truth and there are lies.

Dick sees environmentalist hysteria clouding science with fear. Jane sees corporate greed manipulating and stifling scientific truth. I think Jane has a stronger case. As I’ve argued before, we can’t create billions of dollars of vested corporate interests around a new technology and expect an objective scientific assessment of its risks.

But if we take Kuhn’s point seriously, we have to question what ‘objective science’ means. Dick and Jane are opposites in everything save this: they both think there is only one right way to see what they are looking at and that science gives us that sight. Science provides truths that correspond with a mind-independent reality. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo noted that when it comes to his state’s rules for fracking he will “Let the science dictate the conclusion.”

Science will compel the right policy action. For those inspired by Kuhn, this sounds as plausible as the tail wagging the dog. The ‘right’ action is not as simple as settling on the facts. Everything depends on perspectives, which are deeply rooted in psychological worldviews. Or to play loosely with Kuhn’s own term, it all hinges on ‘paradigms.’ Jane will see any scientific study through her paradigm and Dick through his. Paradigms precede and preconfigure perception. Jane sees ducks regardless of any science that might suggest rabbits and vice versa for Dick.

Much has been made of the lack of scientific understanding about fracking (for which the industry is partly to blame). That needs to be remedied through more monitoring, and certainly outright lies and misconduct must be dispelled.

But as more scientific studies accumulate, gridlock may not disappear. As science policy scholar Daniel Sarewitz has argued, large bodies of knowledge “can be legitimately assembled and interpreted in different ways to yield competing views of the ‘problem’ and of how society should respond.” One can always find a “set of scientifically legitimated facts” to support any values position in an environmental controversy.

This isn’t about one side having sound science and the other having junk science. Sarewitz is saying that nature is sufficiently complex to provide “an excess of objectivity,” where all sides can legitimately paint a picture about what fracking means. More science may actually make fracking gridlock worse, because uncertainty is not just a lack of scientific understanding but also a “lack of coherence among competing scientific understandings.”

We are all awaiting the statewide health science assessment in New York and the nationwide water quality assessment being conducted by the EPA.  But it may be that these studies will produce intensified controversy rather than consensus on a shared picture of reality.

Science won’t dictate any conclusions. It is all driven by deep-seated beliefs. So, what are the warring paradigms in the fracking debate?

Jane’s is a “precautionary” paradigm. It posits a transcendent nature that sets limits on what humans can do. As I’ve written about before, precautionaries live in a steady-state world where nature is being exhausted and is soon to bring human civilization down with it. Limits are the name of the game. Risks should be avoided and uncertainty should be reduced via scientific inquiry prior to action.

Dick’s is a “proactionary” paradigm. It posits humanity as co-creators of nature with possibilities yet to be realized. Proactionaries live in an open-ended world where natural and artificial capital feed off of one another. Striving is the name of the game. Risk should be generally encouraged and uncertainty should be reduced via trial-and-error fixes.

As Kuhn notes, “When paradigms enter, as they must, into a debate about paradigm choice, their role is necessarily circular. Each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigm’s defense.”

The question for those inspired by this Kuhnian read of the debate is not which rules should govern fracking. That suggests some objective way (outside of any paradigm) of discerning the ‘right’ rules. The question is: Who gets to write the rules – those who see ducks or those who see rabbits? And to that question there are no easy answers.

Adam Briggle is a faculty fellow at the University of North Texas Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity and co-author with Carl Mitcham of Ethics and Science: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press).

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