Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Science, well sort of…The experiment begins, on the topic of….

Well, I’ll tell you in a second.  Regular readers, and bless all 8 of you, will recall that I’ve taken on the task of exploring how one comes to a belief by conducting an experiment on myself  - right here, on this blog (background here). I’ve  picked a topic that is sciency and that I honestly don’t know much about and I’m going to document how I form my conclusions on it.  I guess the uber idea is to serve as a model of sorts, with the hoped for result of getting you to examine your own path to your beliefs as you see how I arrive at mine. When I announced this experiment, several of you suggested topics for me to examine.  I hated all of them, partly because I had already decided, but mainly because your ideas were far better than mine.  But my original idea stuck in my head, so I’m going with the topic of… fracking.

To start, I need to come clean about my overall biases. First I am generally skeptical about proclamations of absolute certainty on any topic.  So I’m assuming going in that my conclusion will be a nuanced one, with many shades of grey.  Second, I tend to dismiss sources that I deem to be purely ideologically motivated, both left and right.  But this can be a trap, because motivation does not necessarily make the claim factually wrong.  The problem with all biases is that we often unconsciously seek to confirm them by interpreting information to align with our preconceived notions.  So feel free to call me out if you see me erring.

In terms of the topic, the specific question I’m seeking to answer is whether fracking, and the resulting increase in the availability and use of natural gas, is on balance a ‘good thing’ as it relates to climate change. In other words, will fracking result in a meaningful reduction in GHG’s, and will the associated risks/costs be worth that reduction?  Easy one, right?

My Methodology
I thought I should set out my plan of how I’m going to go about this effort on the near non-existent chance that someone might seek to replicate it. First, you should know that I have been consciously avoiding reading or listening to anything on the topic of fracking since I picked it about a month ago. And quite frankly I had read little before then, so I truly am going into this pretty open.  My plan is for the next month to simply start reading everything that I run across on the topic.  This should be easy as my twitter feed and various news channels are replete with mentions of it.  But here is the first problem… I self-selected these sources, and I’m assuming the provided perspective will be a skewed one.  So to counter balance this I’ll also seek out other sources I might not otherwise stumble upon, and just see how it goes.  I’ll then report back on my preliminary conclusion and how I arrived at it.   And here’s where you come in. Over this next month feel free to point me to any data you think I should look at.  I’d particularly value sources that challenge the status quo, either pro or con.  I’ll include your suggestions in my search unless I judge them to be whacky.   My thinking is that this is how we generally come to conclusions about a topic, by just kind of drifting towards it with random inputs from various media, friends, etc.

After I report back on my initial conclusions, I intend to get serious, and actually seek out authoritative sources on both sides of the issue and ask them to make their case. Not yet sure who this will include, but I’m guessing the natural gas industry, various academics, and advocacy groups.  What fun.  Again I’ll ask for your suggestions.  I’ll give myself another month to absorb all this new information, see the impact on my beliefs and then report back again.

Finally, I’m going to go back and double check myself to see if I have allowed biases or other errors to creep in.  I’ll do this with the help of my friend Dr. Anthony Pratkanis who has spent a career researching belief formation and has a number if interesting strategies that will help in my self-assessment.  I mention Anthony by name in part to show you how serious I am about this, but mainly to impress you with the quality of my friends.  I’ll then issue my final conclusions…gulp.

So, what do you believe?