Friday, July 02, 2010

Mooney's Report

I’ve read the report (pdf), and I see no reason to change what I said earlier. There are some things I can add. I agree that communication of scientific issues to the public needs to be improved and that scientists are not doing as good a job as they might. But there are problems with this report, and possibly with the workshops on which it is based.

I separate the two, because Chris Mooney is the sole author of the report. So we don’t know how much of the report is Mooney and how much is the other participants in the workshops.

I pointed out that the op-ed seemed to have a different reference frame from that of a scientist, but we don’t know about that, either. That was a conclusion I was drawing from Mooney’s overinterpretation of some of his data. It’s possible that Mooney is simply assuming that everyone who reads the report and op-ed knows that there are discoverable truths about the world and that science has methods that can discover those truths and then goes on to consider how scientists might better communicate those truths. But he says that nowhere, and his approach to data has an edge of relativism. He seems to be using one of the laws of journalism: if one political party is doing something stupid, the other must be found to be doing something stupid in an equal and opposite direction. (Apologies to Isaac Newton.)

But I’ll leave that aside and look at the report in Mooney’s reference frame. And there are problems there.

Probably the biggest is that he’s got the history of Yucca Mountain wrong.
For an eloquent testimony to this fact, consider the long and dysfunctional history of attempts to establish a national nuclear waste repository at the remote Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. When a 1987 amendment to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act designated Yucca as the sole site to be studied for its suitability as the nation’s central waste repository (removing several other sites from contention), the basis for the choice included highly scientific and technical considerations about geology, hydrology, and tectonic activity, among many other factors. Nevertheless, the legislation was quickly dubbed the “Screw Nevada Bill” by locals, who saw a political ploy to dump on their state. Soon, Nevadans’ sense of grievance found political champions like current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has fought for two decades in opposition to the Yucca plan.
He goes on to make it sound as though this decision was based on the science and that therefore the scientists were at fault. Or perhaps he is simply eliding the decision and observing that it is the scientists who took much of the flack.

Wikipedia gives a summary of the history of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act that pretty much follows how I recall it.*
DOE was to study five potential sites, and then recommend three to the President by January 1, 1985. Five additional sites were to be studied and three of them recommended to the president by July 1, 1989 as possible locations for a second repository. A full environmental impact statement was required for any site recommended to the President.

Locations considered to be leading contenders for a permanent repository were basalt formations at the government's Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington; volcanic tuff formations at its Nevada nuclear test site, and several salt formations in Utah, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Salt and granite formations in other states from Maine to Georgia had also been surveyed, but not evaluated in great detail.[4]

The President was required to review site recommendations and submit to Congress by March 31, 1987 his recommendation of one site for the first repository, and by March 31, 1990, his recommendation for a second repository.
But there was that 1987 amendment by Congress. At that time, several of the sites listed by Wikipedia had been evaluated and recommended, and granite sites in Northeastern states were being evaluated. Public concern about the Hanford site in Washington State was rising, and no way were the more numerous citizens of the Northeast going to tolerate a nuclear repository in their backyards. So pressure was put on Congress, and Congress responded with that 1987 amendment. Yucca Mountain was it. The scientists I knew felt that the decision was premature, and the people of Nevada were outraged that they had been outvoted and the process promised them in the 1982 Act had been truncated

In other words, the focus on Yucca Mountain was a nakedly political decision, but somehow Mooney and perhaps his fellow confrerees have come to believe that it had something to do with the scientists.

This undercuts the discussion of dealing with Nevada’s outraged public. Certainly, in public meetings, it was the scientists who took much of the flack, and the opposition used arguments against the science to try to stop the repository from being sited at Yucca Mountain. But Mooney misunderstands the underlying issue, just as he accuses scientists of doing. It was indeed a “political ploy to dump on” Nevada.

Mooney finds a favorable model in Canada.
Dialogue has not broken down; rather, it has been fostered and strengthened.
That’s a good thing, but it’s, as scientists say, necessary but not sufficient. People can dialogue and disagree, which seems to be the case in Canada, and they can dialogue and agree on stuff that isn’t factual and therefore isn’t going to solve the real-life problem. I’m going back to my reference frame in that last.

The Internet and genetics workshops seem to have produced very little in the way of approaching the questions they raise. This seems to indicate that the means to effective communication being advocated aren’t very useful for being deployed early, even though the report suggests that early deployment is essential for improved communication.

I’ve been hanging out quite a bit lately at The Oil Drum and suspect that the discussion there is the sort of thing that needs to happen more frequently. A number of experts in drilling and other relevant issues comment and respond to questions. There’s a certain amount of extraneous stuff that gets in, but the discussion overall is the kind of thing I’ve had with colleagues. There’s always something somebody doesn’t know, so they ask questions, and people get off the subject, but sometimes something useful comes out of that too. It’s a good thing for those not engaged in science and engineering to see happening and to be able to participate in.

That’s (sort of) one of the recommendations in Mooney’s report. The preface lists a number of recommendations that seem to have come out of the workshops and is signed by American Academy of Arts and Sciences officials. But there’s a lot of the typical academic, more study is needed, make jobs for social scientists too stuff that academic reports always recommend.

More later, maybe.

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*The idea of siting a repository at Yucca Mountain originated at Los Alamos. I never worked on that program, but friends and colleagues did.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Personally, I think scientists need to be better about conveying uncertainty and putting judgments into context. While your "discoverable truths" argument is technically correct, in reality science rarely delivers unambiguous truth.

You can look at the science related to human health or climate change for a host of examples.

Scientific credibility is damaged when one day the public hears that X is bad for you and the next day they hear that X is good for you (or maybe not so bad after all). Some of this isn't necessarily the fault of science since the media too often highlight single studies without providing much in the way of broader context. But sometimes scientific conclusions turn out to be ambiguous or just plain wrong.

Similarly, the public becomes confused when the Al Gores and Inhofe's enter the fray with their exaggerations and downright falsehoods. Worryingly, climate science has descended into tribalism where credibility depends on litmus tests and heresy isn't tolerated. The public sees these battles and the credibility of science and scientists suffers.