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Fracking freaks me out

So I said in my post “yesterday” that I’d share a “freakout” experience I had where data didn’t seem to fit my expectations in an area in  which I like to think I’m at least moderately well informed!

It occurred when I made a 3-day visit to the Ohio State University last week.

I had a great time!

I got to learn about the awesome convergence of interest across programs there in the science of science communication, reflected in the new initiative on Behavioral Decision Making.

I got to have lots of great conversations with amazing scholars, including (but not limited to!) my collaborator Ellen Peters, Hal Arkes, and Erik Nisbet.

And I got to do a workshop on “Motivated System 2 Reasoning,” in which I got a ton of good feedback from an audience that was as diverse in their backgrounds and perspectives as they were enthusiastic to engage (slides here).

Now, the freakout part occurred in connection with my participation in panel on fracking.

The panel was a “town meeting”-style event produced as part of the University’s “Health Science Frontiers” series. In the series, public-health and science issues are introduced by a panel discussion and then opened up for a broader discussion with audience members, all of whom are assembled in the studio of the University’s public television affiliate, which records the event for later broadcast.

Besides me, the panel for the fracking show included Mike Bisesi, a super-smart OSU environmental scientist, and Mark Somerson, a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch who has been doing very extensive, fine-grained coverage of public controversy over the expansion of fracking in Ohio.  The moderator, who displayed amazing craft!, was Mike Thompson, WOSU’s news director.

Not really sure what I could add to the discussion, I figured I’d at least be sure to make the point that most members of the general public don’t know what fracking is.

I mean this quite literally. 

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%).

These sorts of self-report measures, moreover, are known to overstate what people actually know about an emerging technology.

In a recent Pew survey, 51% were able to select the right answer to the question “what natural resource is extracted in a process known as ‘fracking’ ”—in a multiple-choice question in which the likelihood of getting the right answer by simply choosing randomly would have been 25%.  We can infer the percent who actually knew the answer, then, was lower than 50%--& surely no more than 46% (assuming, over generously, odds of 9:1 that any respondent who got the right answer knew rather than “guessed”).

The lack of familiarity with an emerging technology is a good thing to keep in mind when a group of people who are well-informed about and highly interested in a novel technology get together to talk about (among other things) “public attitudes” towards it.

Precisely because those people are well-informed and highly-interested, they will have been exposed to a very unrepresentative sample of opinions toward the technology, and are vulnerable for that reason to grossly overestimate the extent to which the risks it poses are a genuine matter of public dispute. 

This effect, moreover, will be magnified if those people, disregarding the biased nature of the samples that are the basis of their own observations, talk a lot to themselves and credit one another’s reports about who believes what and why about what is in fact a boutiquey issue in which most ordinary people don’t have views one way or the other.

This was one of the point’s I stressed in “yesterday’s” post, which noted the echo-chamber amplification of misimpressions about the extent and partisan nature of conflict over GM foods.  People who know a lot about it—particularly ones who write about it for the media and on-line—take it as gospel that the public is “polarized,” when in fact they just aren’t.

Why would they be? Most of them have no idea what GM foods are either (not to mention that they are consuming platefulls of them at pretty much every meal).

I anticipated that people attending the fracking session would likely be under the impression that “fracking” is a controversial issue that has the public up in arms, and I’d be able to say, “well, wait a second . . . .” In fact, I wasn’t really sure I’d have anything more to say!


So we arrive at the studio for the event and tell the receptionist we are here for the “fracking panel.” 

“Fracking?,” she says. “What’s that?”

“Score!,” I think to myself. This exchange will make for a nice, concrete illustration of my (solitary) point.

At this stage, Eric Nisbet, whom I had arrived with answered, “It’s a technique by which high pressure water mixed with various chemicals is used to fracture underground rock formations so that natural gas can be extracted.”

“Oh my god!,” the receptionist exclaimed. “That’s sounds terrifying! The chemicals—they’ll likely poison us. And surely there will be earthquakes!”


And shit, I thought, now what am I going to say?

Actually, the receptionist’s response made things even better!

Because it turns out that even though people don’t know anything about fracking, there is reason to think that they -- or really about 50% of them-- will react the way she did as soon as they do.

That’s what is freaking me out!

Consider this snapshot of public opinion on climate change:

This is the “profile” of a “stage 3” science-communication pathology.

Not only is there intense political polarization (not just on “how serious” the risk of climate change is, btw, but also on more specific empirical issues like “whether the earth has been heating up” and “whether humans have caused it”; responses to the industrial strength risk perception measure will correlate very highly with responses to those more specific, “factual” issues).

The polarization is even more intense among individuals who know the most about science generally and who possess the aptitudes and critical reasoning skills most suited to understanding scientific evidence.

The reason “science comprehension” magnifies polarization, CCP research suggests, is that individuals of opposing cultural identities (ones you can often measure adequately with right-left political outlooks but can get an even more discerning glimpse of with the two-dimensional cultural worldview scales) are using their knowledge and reasoning proficiencies to fit all the evidence they see to the position that predominates in their group.

We see this not just on climate change, of course, but on other culturally contested issues like nuclear power and gun control.

But we don’t see it very often.  Indeed, the number of facts that are important for individual and collective decisionmaking that reflect this pattern is miniscule relative to the ones that don’t.

Consider medical x-rays and fluoridation of water:


No polarization, and as diverse individuals become more science comprehending, they tend to converge on the position that is most supported by the best (currently) available evidence.

And I could go on all day showing you graphics that look exactly like that! That pattern is the normal situation, the existence of which tends, for reasons similar to ones I’ve discussed already, tends to evade our notice & result in wild overestimations of the degree to which there is conflict over science in our society.

In fact, consider GM foods:

Despite what people think, there's no polarization to speak of here. It’s true, science comprehension seems to have a bigger effect in reducing risk perception among those who are more right-wing than it does on those who are more left- in their political outlooks.  But since the effect on both is to reduce concern, it’s hard to believe that that sort of difference portends political conflict over whether GM foods are risky.

The perception that these issues are part of the cluster of politically or socially controversial set of risk issues in our society is a consequence of the selection bias and echo chamber effects I also discussed above.

I’ve talked about these things before (and talked before about how it seems like everything I ever talk about is something I’ve already talked about).  And when I talk about GM foods, I usually add, “Of course, there isn’t political polarization over GM foods—most people don’t even know what they are!!”

But now consider fracking . . . :


This is a “stage 3” pathology picture!  

How could this be? After all, polarization that increases conditional on science comprehension is not the norm! And most people haven’t even heard of this friggin’ fracking thing!

I know, I know: many of you will say, “of course, the answer is blah blah blah”—an answer that will in fact be perfectly plausible.  But if that’s your instinct, you should teach yourself to stifle it. 

Everything is obvious once you know the answer!”  Before you knew it, moreover, the opposite was just as plausible.  If I’d shown you that fracking looked like medical x-rays or vaccines or GM foods, you would have said, “Of course—polarization that increases conditional on science comprehension is unusual, and no one even knows about GM foods, blah blah blah….”

More things are plausible than are true!

That’s why we look at evidence.

It’s why, too, it’s no embarrassment to learn that one’s plausible conjecture about a phenomenon is wrong! 

The only thing that would be embarrassing—and just plain wrong—would be the failure not to adjust one’s previous, plausible views in light of what new and surprising information shows.

So what’s going on?

I can only conjecture—in anticipation of yet more study. But here’s what I’d say.

In measuring subjects’ perceptions with the “industrial strength measure,” I defined fracking, parenthetically, in terms very much like the ones that Eric used to describe it to the receptionist.

As was the case for her, that was enough for the participants in the study to experience the sort of affective reaction to this technology that assimilated it to the putative risk sources--like climate change, and guns, and nuclear power—with which they are more familiar and on which they are already strongly divided along cultural lines.

The experience was even more intense among those highest in critical reasoning dispositions. But that makes sense to—for contrary to the dominant “instant decision science” (take 2 cups of “heuristics & biases” literature, add water & stir”) story-telling account of polarization over decision-relevant science, that phenomenon is not a consequence of overreliance on “System 1” heuristic reasoning.  Rather it is a form of information processing that rationally serves individuals’ interest in forming and persisting in perceptions of risk that express their stake in maintaining their status in affinity groups essential to their identities.

We might well infer from these data, then, that there is something pretty peculiar about fracking that makes it distinctively vulnerable—much more so, even, than GM foods, which after all have been around for decades and which advocacy groups incessantly try to transform into a culturally polarizing issue—to the pathology that characterizes climate change and other issues that display the “stage 3” pattern.

Indeed, one of the points of developing a science of science communication—one that tests conjectures as opposed to engaging in “instant decision science” —is to create forecasting tools that can spot public-deliberation disasters like the one over climate change or the HPV vaccine in advance and head them off.

But in that regard, we also shouldn’t assume that every novel technology that has this sort of special incitement quality will in fact become the an object of reason-distorting cultural status competition.

Nanotechnology, for example, displayed a similar sensitivity in a CCP experiment a few years ago, and now I’m pretty much convinced that that issue is a dud.

So – I don’t know!

But I want to: I want to know more about fracking, and about the mechanisms and processes that comprise our science communication environment.

So I'll collect even more data.

And expect --indeed, eagerly and excitedly embrace--even more surprise.



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Reader Comments (17)

It would be interesting to see the effects of time on each of these issues. More mature issues like X-rays and fluoridation were very polarized in the past in my memory. Fracking is new to the public(despite 60+ year history) so even the scientifically literate do not know how or have the time to find unbiased information. Political opportunists exploit this void in opinion to try create a split or issue that they can use it to advance some political agenda. The wide spread in risk perception would seem to be a political construction which will settle out over time. The real damage to society is the loss of time and GDP that comes from these political diversions.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBill

At that point, Eric Nisbet, who I had arrived with answered, “It’s a technique by which high pressure water mixed with various chemicals is used to fracture underground rock formations so that natural gas can be extracted.”

“Oh my god!,” the receptionist exclaimed. “That’s sounds terrifying! The chemicals—they’ll likely poison us. And surely there will be earthquakes!”

This is a great anecdote. I makes me wonder, and I assume others too, whether her response would have been the same if you'd described fracking as "squirting water under ground to break up rocks and release natural gas for us to collect" or something gentler like that. Drop the words "high pressure" and "chemicals" and it feels less dangerous; drop "extracted" and it feels less like we're taking and are merely just collecting something that becomes more available, drop the word "formations" and it feels less like we are disturbing a natural state...

Can framing really be that critical? My first instinct is to believe yes it can! but I always like to question that first instinct. There's obviously more going on. I'm also wondering, especially on the heels of the geoengineering study, how much difference it makes whether one is merely describing a risk, (e.g. defining fracking with certain words, describing climate change as a certain kind of phenomenon), versus making implications (directly or indirectly) about the likely and desired outcomes of ignoring or not ignoring that risk (e.g. suggesting climate change should be addressed with geoengineering vs carbon tax, or that fracking should either be embraced and improved/studied vs banned/restricted).

(For example, I wonder: would the geoengineering study have produced similar results if the experimental articles hadn't each prescribed outcomes and had merely just tried to define climate change with certain language and examples that were meant to appeal to the corresponding cultural worldviews?)

Obviously in the case of your interaction described above, the receptionist didn't get that second level of implications- there was no time or opportunity for that to even take place... she based her reaction only on a split second interpretation of the rather scientific description. And unlike vaccines or GM foods, where people may in some polls express their concern but then turn around and still get vaccinated or buy unlabeled GM foods, fracking is not something individuals really engage in in any meaningful way.

I'd actually really love to see a similar study of people's perceptions of fracking, limited only to the farmers and other landowners who live in the Marcellus Shale region and are likely to be contacted by a drilling company... based on their inherent role (and agency) in determining whether fracking takes place at all, would the same graph as above materialize? I might hypothesize that this population might respond to the fracking risk more similarly as people do to vaccination or GM foods or.. who knows?! Just some thoughts.

And on a side note, we might look at others in the middle of this world and see what they are doing (and not doing) for other clues... for example, I went to Range Resources' website and typed "fracking" into the site search at the top of the page. Wouldn't you know, there were zero (0!) results returned. They don't use the term fracking anywhere on their page; and following from that I dug up one of their info sheets on it and here's a part of their description:

"Hydraulic fracturing is used to stimulate production from new and existing wells by pumping a sand water mix at a pressure high enough to crack the rock. The small fracture network extends out from the wellbore and creates a pathway for the natural gas to flow from the shale to the well."

If an audience has relatively little scientific understanding of the process, (or even, like most people, have never even heard of it), the "sand-water mix" that helps provide a "pathway for the natural gas to flow" sounds far far less threatening to those who are naturally concerned about the environment and still appeals to those who like the idea of human resourcefulness. I have no idea if this framing is actually successful but it's obvious RR is working based on their own experiences to mitigate threats to egalitarian communitarians while keeping in the good graces of the hierarhical individualists (even without recognizing that exact framework for explaining it of course).

Fascinating stuff. I look forward to seeing more studies on this.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJen

"“Oh my god!,” the receptionist exclaimed. “That’s sounds terrifying! The chemicals—they’ll likely poison us. And surely there will be earthquakes!”"

Really? She managed to figure out there might be earthquakes from that description?

I will grant you that the word "chemicals" is not unlikely to trigger an adverse reaction - I recall having to explain very gently to one lady why it would be impossible to offer her "food without any chemicals in it" - but I'm surprised that the description would raise thoughts of earthquakes. Unless, of course, she already *had* heard about the issue.

"How could this be? After all, polarization that increases conditional on science comprehension is not the norm! And most people haven’t even heard of this friggin’ fracking thing!"

I thought you said it was 39% of people who hadn't heard of it?
(Although I am confused by the distinction between "a "little"" (22%) and ""a little"" (16%).)

It's interesting to note that people with very low science comprehension have virtually no split. Is it possible that those who haven't heard of it are also in the low science comprehension bin?

And does this imply that people with low science comprehension are not protective of their identity? Or that they can't figure out which option fits with their identity and which conflicts with it?

"Before you knew it, moreover, the opposite was just as plausible."

Mmm. Actually, if you had asked me before presenting your numbers, I would have said that I thought a correlation was quite likely because I would have thought that the number who hadn't heard of it at all would be far less than 39%. I would have quite believed that very few people would have known what fracking *was*, in the sense of being able to define or describe it. But it's appeared in the news often enough in association with the climate campaigners and environmentalists and people of that ilk, and I would expect most people to have known that there were protests going on about 'fracking' and to have a fair idea of which 'side' the protesters were on, relative to themselves.

Of course, that may be a local perspective. People have been far more alarmist about it over on this side of the Atlantic. I know there was some movie-maker over there who used to go around setting fire to people's tapwater, but I really don't know how much popular penetration his beliefs have got over there.

"More things are plausible than are true! That’s why we look at evidence."

Yes. But we also need to be cautious about believing everything people say. When people say "I don't know anything about..." they don't always mean quite what they say. Sometimes they mean "I don't want to have to sit a test on...", as when people tell me they don't know anything about mathematics. They do, they either just lack confidence or see it as 'uncool'.

Evidence is subject to error. So plausibility still comes into it.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Well, that's some food for thought. On some level, you might be able to dumb it down to something that "makes sense": some things naturally sound scarier than others. If certain definitions unintentionally trigger negative framings in the listener, are there other (still accurate) definitions that won't? That has an Orwellian distastefulness to it.

I guess the tricky part is that the thing is selectively scary to certain groups but not others. Otherwise it wouldn't be polarizing. So why doesn't this definition of fracking sound as scary to conservatives? Because it triggers a "liberal" concern, or because a "conservative" idea counteracts the scariness? (Or both?)

(No answers are expected to my thinking-out-loud questions.)

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterScott Johnson

Thanks for posting this. I especially like the idea that the more cerebral [aka critically reasoning] you are, the more worked up you get over tracking.

We were curious about public knowledge on fracking and so went to public opinion surveys. One version of what we found is written up (and free to access) at The Jury Expert. <>


March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRita Handrich

"I see lots of potential benefit, but I just don't know enough about the hazards associated with producing it."

It's a good question, suggesting a move from type I to type II thinking. *Any* industrial process has risks, many of which we find acceptable to a varying degree, so we need to interpret the question in that perspective (which is where values come in). In this case most of them are easy enough to work out.

The technology for oil and gas drilling has been around for a long time, and is presumably 'acceptable' on that basis. A drillbit on a long extensible rod is extended down the hole and rotated, drilling 'mud' is pumped down the hole and back up, to lubricate, cool, and carry the rock fragments back up. A concrete casing is used to line the hole, and sealed to stop the mud leaking out (it's not particularly toxic, but it reduces efficiency), to stop the final product you're drilling for leaking out, and to stop ground water leaking in.

Gas is non-toxic - methane is a natural product of digestion so we're often exposed to high levels of it - but oil has a lot of toxic components. On the other hand, they sell most of those components to the public (oil and petroleum for cars, bitumen and tar for roads) so they're not *that* wildly dangerous, and there are plenty of micro-organisms with a taste for them. Both are flammable, so there is a fire/explosion risk in the right circumstances.

Many of the concerns revolve around leakage of gas and drilling fluids into freshwater aquifers. Generally, there's a shallow layer of permeable water-filled rock on top, a thick layer of impermeable rock, then permeable oil or gas filled rocks below that. While the hole is being drilled through the top layers, the oil and gas is still sealed away below and you only have to worry about drilling mud. The stuff done down at the bottom of the hole in the oil/gas bearing rocks is a long way from the surface, and well separated by a lot of impermeable rock. The only issue is if the well casing at the top is flawed and leaks.

So lets consider the risks there. First, water moves only slowly through permeable rocks and they act as a natural filter. Rainwater falling on the land is initially polluted by all the manure and muck (and, yes, methane) that life leaves around, but after being filtered through a few kilometres of rock is as clear as spring water.
However, highly soluble toxins can indeed be carried through. You can get a slowly spreading 'plume' downstream of the source. Its motion is usually very slow and quite predictable. (You could think of it as a bit like an underground glacier.) You're not going to get it turning up tens of miles from the source within mere weeks or months of it starting.

So are any of the substances used in oil/gas drilling a problem in this sense? Drilling mud I'm not sure about, but I suspect it's not. Oil definitely is. Mostly it's immiscible and floats to the top, but there are organic components that can mix with water. Gas isn't. It's not particularly soluble, is totally non-toxic, and could not reach explosive concentrations except close to the well head. And fracking fluid isn't - it's so non-toxic that several fracking company directors *drank* some of the stuff for a publicity stunt.

Fracking fluid is mostly water, a bit of detergent, something to make it denser so it will sink under the high pressures down a well bore - cornstarch is often used, which is like the 'white sauce' you find in some foods. And they normally put in some bactericides (like bleach floor cleaner) to stop the cornstarch going off. It's the last of these that causes most of the fuss. Oh, and sand, which while not really eatable, isn't regarded as especially toxic, either. We sit on it on the beach. It's also not soluble.

So for a more familiar example - after you have mopped and cleaned your kitchen floor, the mucky water in the bucket is about the level of toxicity we're talking about.

OK, so much for toxic pollution. How about earthquakes? Well, I don't think I'd like to try it in a known fault system like the San Andreas, but then you wouldn't get oil and gas retained if there were big cracks in the rock. You can, briefly, get very small shockwaves from fracking, but they're generally on the edge of detectability. It takes a huge amount of energy to shift big chunks of land significantly. Every cubic kilometre of rock weighs about 2,000,000,000 tons, and you're talking about moving hundreds of them. How high do you think they're going to be able to lift it with *that* little pump?!

What else? There's all the lorries and drilling rigs and lights and noise, but that goes on for two or three weeks while they drill the hole, and then it all goes away for the following years of production. But that is indeed a legitimate concern.

Of course, the same objection applies to a lot of industry - including wind farms, which are also an *ongoing* source of noise.

There are the worries about water supply - that used to be an issue, but nowadays I'm told they recycle most of the water they use. And it's far less than they would use to water a golf course in a hot climate over a year, say. Globally, we're not short of water.

There have been reports of engineers storing pools of used fracking fluid on the surface, and these leaking. That sounds more plausible and more concerning. As noted above, it's not *especially* toxic, but it's also probably not good for local wildlife in million-gallon quantities. That sort of thing *does* need to be regulated, and so far as I know already is.

So I've yet to hear anything about fracking that would particularly concern me. They've been doing it for many years with no major problems so far. And we currently allow some far more dangerous/polluting industrial processes without batting an eyelid. (Although I'm sure there are environmentalists who think we shouldn't - values again.)

So the only reason I can think of for the sudden eruption of opposition is that it promises a new round of cheap fossil fuel, undercutting solar and wind, along with all the geopolitical arguments, and thus stands in opposition to all the climate action politics, which is why the climate activists have manufactured this campaign against them, and which is why the sort of people who listen to climate activists have also heard that 'fracking is dangerous'. The same networks of experts are in favour and opposed.

Other people here no doubt have a different perspective. It might be interesting to compare and contrast, to see where the arguments diverge, and study the details of how people can look at the same facts and come to such different conclusions.

March 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

I'd make a couple comments I think are mostly unrelated to each other:


In my experience basically no one outside the oil/gas industry has a clue what they're talking about regarding fracking. Hydrolic fracturing was developed in the 1950's and has been in widespread use since the 1960's. It is by no possible meaning of the word a "new" technology. The natural gas explosion in the last 10 years is due to an actually new technology: the ability to drill a well downward, turn it at a right angle, then continue drilling horizontally.

So imagine if the curious member of the public had been told, "fracking? OK, some natural gas deposits sit underneath rock formations that are so hard that it's extremely difficult or impossible to drill through them. So what oil and gas companies have started doing lately is finding a soft spot off to the side of the rock formation, drilling down through it until they're beneath the hard formation, then turning the well sideways to reach the gas deposit." I may be wrong but I highly doubt her response still would have been "oh my god what about earthquakes!"


I suspect there is type 3 pathology similar to climate change because most people perceive the fracking debate as more or less an integral part of the global warming debate. All it really requires one to know is that fracking means producing and using a lot more natural gas. From there the knees simply jerk. I don't know if you've gathered data regarding the Keystone pipeline, but I suspect the same phenomena.

March 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

NiV -

"So for a more familiar example - after you have mopped and cleaned your kitchen floor, the mucky water in the bucket is about the level of toxicity we're talking about."

Do you work in the industry? I thought that the ingredients in fracking fluid are proprietary trade secrets, and that the fracking industry has turned to the courts to prevent the fluid contents from being publicly available information.

So the only reason I can think of for the sudden eruption of opposition is that it promises a new round of cheap fossil fuel, undercutting solar and wind, along with all the geopolitical arguments, and thus stands in opposition to all the climate action politics, which is why the climate activists have manufactured this campaign against them, and which is why the sort of people who listen to climate activists have also heard that 'fracking is dangerous'

An "argument from incredulity?"

Actually, I"d say that the "reason" for opposition that you describe is likely operational for only very few people.

For most, at least in the regions that I'm familiar with and that are affected by the "sudden eruption" in interest from drilling companies, there is concern that the processes will pollute their water with harmful chemicals. For some others, there is concern that the processes will despoil the natural environment (where it is taking place on national and state forest lands). For others, there is concern that the drilling companies wield excessive influence over regulatory processes by virtue of hundreds of millions in campaign contributions - and as a result, are undermining the basic rights of local municipalities to regulate their own communities. For others, the concern is over increased truck traffic and road building negatively impacting local infrastructure. For others, the concern is over noise and light pollution in properties that are in close proximity to their own properties, and that could lower their own property values. For others, the concern is that drilling companies have the right to drill under their land even if they don't want drilling on their own land ("forced pooling"), or that the effects from drilling on a neighbor's land might not be contained - in other words, the potential for "subsurface trespass" onto their land. For others, the concern is about the disposal of wastewater, and the inadequacy of existing water treatment infrastructure to deal with fracking wastewater - some of which seems to have relatively levels of radioactive ingredients, and some of which is put into injection wells that do seem to be associated with increases in amounts of small earthquakes (and they are concerned about the possibility of increasing the chances for larger earthquakes) For others, the concern is over the high demand on water resources. And for others, the concern is that even if the basic process itself has no negative health or environmental outcomes, accidents do happen, and they don't have a basic trust in the industry to be accountable for those accidents.

The notion that all the people (or even a significant % of the people) who oppose fracking are some kind of climate warriors doesn't jibe with my experiences traveling in, and living in communities in PA and NY where the fracking issue is playing out.

Maybe you should consider adding to the reasons that you can "think of," the possibility that even if you are completely certain that there is no real potential from harmful impact from fracking, some people are concerned about the related uncertainties as opposed to pursing climate activism, or as opposed to simply being the dupes of climate activists?

March 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Do you work in the industry? I thought that the ingredients in fracking fluid are proprietary trade secrets, and that the fracking industry has turned to the courts to prevent the fluid contents from being publicly available information."

The contents of kitchen floor cleaner are proprietary trade secrets.

If you've got some advantage over the competition because of the particular type of detergent you use, you don't want the information splashed all over the internet where your rivals can see it just because a bunch of people are terrified that your floor cleaner contains deadly toxins that are going to poison them. It's just detergent.

"Actually, I"d say that the "reason" for opposition that you describe is likely operational for only very few people."

Interesting. Because the majority of the items on your list were things that I had just mentioned. Is this a case of people looking at the same data and seeing different things?

The only difference appears to be that where you mention the potential problem, I mention the potential problem and then list the reasons why it's either not a problem or is less of a problem than many other industrial processes that we routinely allow. You're looking at it as if identifying any potential problem is enough reason to stop it, while I'm weighing the impact of problems on some scale ranging from the intolerable to the tolerable, with the implication that if the risk or impact is low enough we should allow it. You seem to be looking at it as spoiling people's unspoilt homes, gardens and parks, while I'm looking at it as part of an industrial society.

We live in towns and cities full of industry: - chemical factories, power plants, refineries, battery-makers, car manufacturers, glassworks, paper mills, incinerators, steel works, coal mines, metal mines, electronics factories, recycling centres, and so on. They all pollute. They're all ugly. They all have the potential to poison us, our water or our air, or to intrude onto or under our property, or our scenic views. But we have them by the thousand, and few people argue that we shouldn't have them, only (sometimes) that they shouldn't be built right in their back yard.

So I'm looking at all the things we do and don't protest about, and wondering what's different with fracking? It's not a new technique - we've been doing it since the 1950s, I think. The difference today is that with horizontal drilling (where the drillbit can be steered around curves) we can drill lots of holes from one site and recover more gas from less permeable rocks. So why all the fuss about it, and why only now?

There's a nice picture here that shows the impact on the natural landscape. There are 11 gas wells in the picture, fracked back in the 1970s, so likely at a higher density than we would do it today. Can you spot them?

Here's a hint - this is what one looks like close up.

March 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

There may be polarized views on fossil fuels in general, enabling views on fracking to reproduce the pattern fast with minimal knowledge.

March 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAn igyt


I agree 100% about the names & associations etc. Surely, "fracking" was ill considered!

On the other hand, I think, as the exchange w/ the receptionist illustrates, it's hard to imagine anyone learning anything about "fracking" w/o getting the sort of info that was in my spare parenthetical. If that in fact is enough to trigger the affective reactions -- & connections to other environmental risk issues (@An igyt's & @Ryan's points)-- that we are talking about, then it's hard to see how any name change would have helped ("Kittening"? "Synbioipad"?)

March 16, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


On "what's in a name point," see above answer to @Scott.

The "agency" issue is definitely involved ... The idea that "voluntariness" of exposure & "control" influence risk perceptioin was part of the suite of really cool findings that made up Slovic et al.'s classic "psychometric paradigm".

At same time, it's clear that *whether* someone will perceive "lack of voluntariness/control" & other features that trigger affective apprehension of risk is often shaped by cultural meanings attached to risk source -- generating individual differenes, polarization, etc., wi/ the Slovic et al. framework. E.g., Peters, E.M., Burraston, B. & Mertz, C.K. An Emotion-Based Model of Risk Perception and Stigma Susceptibility: Cognitive Appraisals of Emotion, Affective Reactivity, Worldviews, and Risk Perceptions in the Generation of Technological Stigma. Risk Analysis 24, 1349-1367 (2004).

March 16, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


Sure, earthquakes. The receptionist might well be right on this one -- but the apprehension that behaviors that violate norms are source of all sorts of natural calamities is a perennial, and not particularly accurate!

As for what "I don't know much" means -- as the link provided suggests, there is only a weak correlatoin between self-rated knowledge of new technologies & actual knowledge. But the weak correlatoin is positive -- so I don't think it's particularly likely that the responses on "fracking" are understating public's current familiarity (or lack thereof)

March 16, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Looking at the various cases (global warming, x-rays, fluoridation, gm foods, fracking) I try out my "tragedy of the commons" idea. Shepherds graze their flock on a common area, are incentivized to graze the land down to the dirt before the other guy does. The left complains about yet another failure of the free market (hey, its unregulated, it must be a free market!) and demand central regulation while the free-market right says no, there are no property rights, so no free market, and they demand privatization of the commons. They are right, definition and enforcement of property rights are vital to a free market. So what happens when property rights are ill-defined and/or hard to enforce? The mindless left smells blood and blows it out of proportion while the mindless right grumbles about some communist conspiracy to enslave us all. Global warming is the canonical example. Who owns the atmosphere or the air that we breathe, can private ownership be defined and enforced? That's very hard, so you have a stage 3 pathology. X-rays, not so much. My money, my x-rays, your money, you do what you want. As regards fracking, it seems to me to be ready made for stage 3 pathology. The major danger in fracking is in screwing up the aquifer with toxic chemicals. Fracking is to the aquifer as pollution is to the atmosphere, property rights are hard to define and enforce. My theory flounders on gm foods and fluoridation. Maybe. As regards gm foods, if respondents think its just a matter of buying or not buying gm foods, then there is no property problem. If they are aware of possible cross-contamination of non-gm crops, then there is. It would be interesting to see if attitudes varied based on the respondent's understanding of these two aspects. As regards fluoridation, its harder for me to explain that away. Maybe the ubiquity of fluoride toothpaste, dentist's fluoride treatements? Still, for the right, it's an example of that hated central control. I don't know.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL


The "agency" issue is definitely involved ... The idea that "voluntariness" of exposure & "control" influence risk perceptioin was part of the suite of really cool findings that made up Slovic et al.'s classic "psychometric paradigm"....

At same time, it's clear that *whether* someone will perceive "lack of voluntariness/control" & other features that trigger affective apprehension of risk is often shaped by cultural meanings attached to risk source -- generating individual differenes, polarization, etc.

First, thanks for the link to the second paper- hadn't read that.

Second, that gets me wondering, how much of a chicken-egg problem is this, or is just the illusion of such? Am I misunderstanding the implications? What I mean: if someone's perception of control/agency with regard to a risk helps determine their assessment of the risk itself, but that cultural meanings and other affective significance attached to the risk help influence that perception of control/agency, where does that feedback loop begin or end? Or break?

Third, rather than asking about how the perception of control/agency influences an individual's assessment of risk, I'm wondering how that same perception can influence the degree of polarization within larger groups and populations. Like- as a predictive measure? I.e. if a particular topic, for whatever reason, succeeds at applying whatever emotional cues that in turn develop a stronger sense of helplessness or lack of agency for a generally large swath of the population, will that population in turn break out into stronger extremes in their response?

Does feeling less agency automatically translate into assessing something as a risk? Or could it also in some situations have the opposite effect, even in a single group of people? For a particular example where people feel very low agency or control, perhaps some will in turn take that feeling of lack of agency and decide it means the risk is a big danger, can someone else essentially wind up deciding its not worth worrying about something they can't control and coming out the other side, assessing the benefits high enough not to worry about it? I' wondering if there is some crazy way this happens in populations of people who, by whatever means, have all developed a sense of lack of agency/control, but then have different reactions to it and draw very different (polarized) conclusions about.

That, in contrast with a situation where people across the board feel very much in control and therefore tend to assess the benefits/risks of a topic similarly?

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJen

@Jen - In a simplistic way, I kind of think of "risk" as three components. Take global warming.

1) There is the question of objective risk, the risk of not acting to counter global warming. Whatever it is, its independent of anyone's opinion or scientific study.

2) There is the objective risk of favoring private solutions as opposed to public solutions. This risk is different for different people. The risk is low for people who see themselves as thriving in a privatized environment, people who see privatized solutions as an increase in their control/agency. The risk is high for people who see themselves thriving in a (democratically elected) centrally controlled environment, people who see such public solutions as an increase in their control/agency.

3) There is the risk of disloyalty to your political cultural group.

For global warming, assuming the objective risk is high, the argument for a public solution carries weight, because private solutions founder on the lack of the ability to define and enforce property rights.

There are three tendencies:

A) Everyone wants to say their opinion is based on #1 - an objective analysis of the facts.

B) Nobody wants to say their opinion is based on #2. Everybody acts as if #2 was not true, that if the "other" would just develop some much needed morality or character, stop being greedy/envious, and could be properly educated, this problem would go away. I think that's less than half true.

C) Nobody wants to admit #3 - that they hold a position because they are blindly loyal to their group, but it is in fact a strong factor.

You say "someone's perception of control/agency with regard to a risk helps determine their assessment of the risk itself". I think of it as saying they are motivated to inflate or deflate the objective risk #1 because of tendency B and C, they can't admit that their assesment of risk is colored by their perceived risk of a public or private solution, nor by their loyalty to their group

You say "cultural meanings and other affective significance attached to the risk help influence that perception of control/agency". In other words, cultural loyalty influences perception of public/private solution risk? I think yes, but as you say, it goes both ways. Perception of control/agency also determines which group a person joins and is loyal to. I'm not sure what you mean by "feedback loop" tho.

I think for your third point, the answer is "yes", the sense of agency/control will strongly (and wrongly) influence their assessment of the objective risk #1.

With regard to #2, there are also people who see neither public or private solutions as an increase in their agency/control - apathists I guess you could call them. I think saying "what does it matter" as regards global warming won't lead to assessing the risk as anything in particular. They are simply not motivated to form an opinion because they see it as a waste of time, and their resulting cultural group frowns on any sense of concern or commitment on their part. Isn't it the case that people who can't help worrying about it, can't help forming an opinion on what should be done?

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

You presented 46% as an overgenerous estimate of how many people could correctly identify "the resource" extracted by fracking (as a side note, that phrasing of the question greatly agitated me, as I correctly believed that fracking is used to extract both oil and natural gas... oil is not one of the possible answers to the survey question, though). It seems worth pointing out that 46% is quite close to what I consider "the best" and/or most justifiable estimate.

If you're willing to assume that (a) People who know the answer always select it, and (b) people who don't know the answer will either (i) abstain or (ii) select any of the answers with equal probability, then a simple system of two equations:

yes + 0.25*no = 51

0.75*(no) = 21

tells us that 44% of the populace knows the answer to that question, with 51% selecting the correct answer (of which 7 percentage points do it by chance), 21% selecting an incorrect answer, and 28% abstaining.

In fact, noticeably more people selected "coal" than "diamonds" or "silicon", but I'm not sure I'd want to count a bias towards fuel extraction *against* the populace's knowledge of what we get out of fracking.

April 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Watts

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