Political polarization, industry funding and sustainable democracies

October 15, 2015 | 0 comments

This post continues our ongoing collaboration with Penn State Reads on Russell Gold’s The Boom which tells the story of how shale gas development has transformed the energy economy. You can read our previous posts on The Boom by going to this page.

On Tuesday, two authors of books on shale gas development spoke at the Earth and Mineral Sciences museum at University Park. Russell Gold and Seamus McGraw, author of End of The Country and Betting the Farm on a Drought, discussed the people who have created the boom and bust of fracking in Pennsylvania. They also talked about its impact on families, communities, government, regulation and local and global environments.

The Field Guide’s first post on The Boom said, “In Pennsylvania, shale gas drilling is one of the most high-profile sustainability issues. If sustainability helps us think about and act on the interconnected health of community and society, economy and nature, then the booming natural gas industry must occupy prime space for us. How?” Two topics emerged at the forum that deepen and broaden understanding of shale gas as a sustainability issue: political polarization and the ethical problems associated with industry-funded research.


McGraw ended his opening comments by saying that if he knows your views on fracking, he can accurately guess your views on gay marriage, climate change and several other issues. You can watch him make this argument in this interview on YouTube.

In part, McGraw is pointing out that many people choose tribal affiliations instead of what they could know based on scientific research or the perspectives we could get by taking other people’s stories to heart. That is, most of us seek out and favor science and stories that reinforce our identities and worldviews. We don’t tend to jeopardize who we think we are. This cognitive predisposition results in what Dan Kahan calls “cultural cognition of risk.”

Kahan and his colleagues designed a study to test individuals’ tendency to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values. The study, “The Cultural cognition of scientific consensus” confirms “that cultural cognition shapes individuals’ beliefs about the existence of scientific consensus, and the process by which they form such beliefs, relating to climate change, the disposal of nuclear wastes, and the effect of permitting concealed possession of handguns.” McGraw raises fracking as another instance of cultural cognition and motivated reasoning on fracking. That is, people believe fracking is good or bad based on some tribal identity and then scour the world for stories and research that tell that they are right. When they confront contrary evidence, they often skip over it or find ways to discount it. Rather than act as scientists seeking to disconfirm a hypothesis, most of us are lawyers pressing an argument as Jonathan Haidt says. Kahan has covered this as well in posts collectively titled “Fracking freaks me out.”

Why does it freak him out? He writes “most members of the general public don’t know what fracking is.” He continues, “A George Mason/Yale Climate Change Communication Project study found that 55% of the respondents in a nationally representative poll reported having heard “nothing” (39%) or only “a little” (16%) about fracking, and only 31% reported knowing either a “little” (22%) or a “lot” (9%).” Meanwhile, the public is evenly divided 40% for to 40% opposed to fracking/shale gas development. As sustainability educators, this presents a significant challenge and opportunity.

The easy challenge for us is overcoming ignorance. We have The Boom, The End of Country, and other excellent narratives of shale gas. The wicked problem comes from entrenched values, polarization and the difficulty of having a level-headed conversation about the issue. With so many identity and worldview landmines front-loaded into any conversation about fracking, we are faced with problems similar to those we face in teaching climate change—identity-protective cognition, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias and rampant disinformation. However, it also presents a significant opportunity to think slowly and learn deeply. As teachers, we can carefully construct environments where people deliberate and reflect on issues as risk- and identity-laden as fracking and climate change. If you are teaching The Boom, how can you incorporate understandings of identity and cultural cognition into your classrooms? To see how Field Guide Blog contributors are thinking about these issues related to climate change, read two previous posts by Dan Kahan and by Joseph Henderson and David Long.


Professor Jonathan Marks asked Gold and McGraw questions about “the distorting influence of money” in shale gas development. Marks is an Associate Professor of Bioethics, Humanities and Law at Penn State with an interest in how industries influence research. He pointed out that industry funding points researchers toward some issues and away from others and it sways researchers to find industry-friendly and commercializable results. At an institution of higher education like Penn State with extensive industry ties in agriculture, energy, engineering and other areas, this can and has created tensions.

To enter more deeply into Marks’s concerns, watch the following interview hosted by Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute. In it, he discusses how the technical and commercializable “solutions” that industries favor cause us to overlook or ignore the systemic and social roots of wicked problems in health, nutrition and energy that pharmaceutical, food and petroleum industries claim to solve.

Wiek, Withycombe and Redman (2011, p. 209) argue that to be competent in sustainability, people need to be normatively or ethically competent. They write, “Addressing sustainability problems and opportunities requires going beyond descriptive questions of how complex social-ecological systems have evolved, are currently functioning, and might further develop. The concept of sustainability is unavoidably value laden and normative, since it addresses the question of how social ecological systems ought to be developed, so that they balance and even enhance socio-economic activities and environmental capacities. This quest is challenged by critical issues of dissent and unbalanced power relations that jeopardize principles of socio-ecological systems integrity, intra- and intergenerational equity, and democratic governance [emphasis ours].” Marks’ discussion of money in research raises these ethical issues.

Marks says that government and society rely on the academy to provide solutions to society’s “most pressing problems—obesity, climate change. If [government and society] make us dependent on industry funding to look for those solutions, then we can only look in places that are consistent with the interests of industry and that is leading us to ignore a host of other potential solutions.” To circle back to Wiek et al, the development and deployment of shale gas involves power plays between industry, government and communities with different impacts on health, well-being and ecological integrity. These power plays and impacts relate to intergenerational issues ranging from local wealth distribution and inequality to global issues like climate change and toxification of the environment. Finally, what is the effect of industry-funded research if it is the basis of outreach and decision-making in a democratic society seeking the common good?

In light of movements to educate for sustainability, we are being called upon and being forced to confront these ethical quandaries. We are politically polarized and we are influenced by industries, sometimes in unseen ways. The Boom and The End of Country make it possible to get into these issues with shale gas development.


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