false balance fallacy debate

The New Face of the False Balance Fallacy

You’ve likely encountered the false balance fallacy. If you read or watch any kind of news, you’ll know it straightaway.  It often occurs in discussions of hot-button topics like climate change and GMOs. Here’s a classic scenario.

A news show (or story) wants to present both sides of an issue. They pick a vocal proponent of each side of the issue to debate the validity of each one’s argument. Seems legit? Absolutely not. The problem lies with the issue itself.

With a topic like climate change, there is no debate in the scientific community. The debate exists with the general public, many of whom don’t understand the science. Instead, it boils down to a matter of beliefs. The same is true of GMOs. GMOs are safe—and necessary.

By creating a “debate,” the media gives equal weight and voice to each viewpoint. Unfortunately, it elevates the wrong view and legitimizes it. This action creates doubt where none should exist. We end up wasting time arguing about an issue that is settled.

The New Face of Fallacy

Welcome the new spin on the false balance fallacy, renewable energy. Let me say outright that I haven’t any grudge against renewable energy. Based on the evidence I’ve read, I believe that several serious problems exist with implementing large-scale renewable wind or solar power plants.

All lives matter, especially birds and bats. We can’t forsake major pollinators and dispersal agents, to say nothing of biodiversity and ecological impacts.

The new false balance fallacy gives equal weight to renewable energy sources like wind and solar to put them on the same level as fossil fuels. As much as we hear about it, it sounds like the evil corporations of fossil fuels are refusing to let up their stranglehold on the Earth’s future. This scenario could not be further from the truth.

All sources of renewable energy provided 13 percent of our electricity in 2014. Fossil fuels supplied just over two-thirds, with nuclear contributing 19 percent. What about wind and solar, you ask? Wind power came in at 4 percent and solar with less than 1 percent.

Yet, if you listen to the debates about wind and solar, you’d think that they contributed much more. Just like the climate change skeptic, they are given an equal standing on the energy debate forum. It’s another misleading example of the false balance fallacy.

Fallacy Risks

In this case, the fallacy encourages hate against legitimate industry. It clouds our judgment about the serious impacts of wildlife loss on the environment.

It also engages in its own version of astroturfing or fronting. By putting out a message of being safe for the environment, it ignores the devastation needed to bring those power sources to market. All energy is dirty and environmentally destructive. It’s the price we pay to live our lives as we do.

By recognizing the misleading nature of the false balance fallacy, we can view the energy debate with a more informed understanding. The burden of electricity generation may even out. However, for today, the reality is fossil fuels.

http://exploring.weborglodge.com/By Chris DR

photo credit: Great Debate, “Wah wah, wah wah, wah, waaah.” via photopin (license)

bobolink grassland bird

Update: Wind Turbines and Birds

There is more disturbing news on the green energy front concerning birds. A study by the US Geological Survey looked at the effects of wind turbines located in North and South Dakota on grassland bird populations. Researchers found that wind turbines displaced seven of nine species. Displacement continued for two to five years after construction.

Native Grassland Birds in Danger

As the study points out, the bird species in question are already in serious decline. Native grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. It makes sense that wildlife populations would also suffer. This case represents a disconnect between green energy and the value placed on these habitats.

The American Wind Energy Association identified states such as North Dakota as having a high potential for wind energy. Its grassland habitat, after all, offer unobstructed vistas, perfect for wind farms. Low populations densities also add to the potential.

However, the fact that some ideal places for wind farms also happen to be in prime grassland bird habitat underscores the need for more study and more informed management decisions. One has to applaud the fact that this study was funded by both the US Geological Survey and NextEra Energy, Inc., the top clean energy of North America.

The Nuances of Environmentalism

One also can’t help but see the irony that the study exposes too. Here we have a situation in which environmentalists of the climate change flavor are pitted against environmentalists of the conservation biology side. And this isn’t going to be the only one that comes along.

The fate of the planet and its many species will inevitably create other conflicts of interest. The difference lies in the fact that the battles will include those on the supposed same side. We tend to think of them occurring between the two political parties rather than within.

In any case, conflicts like this one will challenge us in the years ahead. Resolutions will demand rational thinking that sets aside the politics associated with climate change.


photo credit: Bobolink, male via photopin (license)

business statistics

Statistics in Popular Media

Statistics are powerful weapons. Marketers and politicians weld them well when the situation demands it. Unfortunately, this skill often results in misinformation and sometimes, downright lying.

How Statistics Are Misused

One way they deceive is by confusing the scientific process. Statistics summarize experiments and studies to get at the conclusions. But, they are not synonymous. A study is a situation in which data are observed. The investigator cannot control for everything that may influence the results.

An experiment is a controlled situation−ideally. A good experiment has a randomly selected representative sample along with a control group. It is big enough to be meaningful. It is also conducted double-blinded. Neither the researchers nor the participants know what group they are in.

Marketers may use studies and report the results like experiments. The problem with this scenario is that one cannot find causation with studies, only correlation. Yet, when journalists/marketers pick up on these stories, that line is blurred.

Cherry Picking the Results

Another devious tactic involves the results. Don’t like what the study or experiment shows? Throw it out! With over a million papers published yearly, you’re likely to find something you like better.

I’m not suggesting all papers are examples of good science. Stinkers get through each year. Just ask Andrew Wakefield or Gilles-Eric Séralini.

Spotting the Fraudsters

There’s one surefire way to spot a liar fraudster. They break a cardinal rule of science. You probably see this whopper all the time. And it’s so blatantly false. Whenever you read or hear someone claim that something is scientifically proven,  you’re being had.

Science is provisional. This means, according to Merriam-Webster, “existing or accepted for the present time but likely to be changed.” In science, there is no truth with a capitol T.

Some people may find this statement uncomfortable. It’s not meant to be. Rather, this is an accurate assessment of what science is. Don’t be afraid of it. Ignorance is not always bad. The late Richard Feynman offers sage advice.

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

So, the next time a marketers tries to sell his scientifically proven best widget, give him a dose of Mark Twain and tell him,

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.”

http://exploring.weborglodge.com/By Chris DR

photo credit: Numbers And Finance via photopin (license)

water pollution

How Humans Have Impacted the Environment

The other day, I wrote about a study that concluded that forces other than climate change are impacting the environment. I’d like to revisit it in light of another study by the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE).

Underestimating Land Use Impacts

The researchers reviewed about 700 life cycle assessment studies. These analyses considered the impact of land use on ecosystems. They concluded that these assessments have underestimated the effects humans have on the environment. Considering that these assessments help dictate public policy, there is a real danger that that authorities do not have the proper information to make decisions.

Underestimating a risk means that it may continue unabated. Moreover, it could lead to other problems and create a cascading effect. Natural processes like reforestation which could alleviate carbon emissions with carbon sequestration are hampered.

Immediate Problems versus the Future Issues

Climate change has become the poster child for the environmental movement. However, the planet faces grave dangers from land use that have nothing to do with global warming. Those are the risks that could cause greater harm in a more immediate way.

Because the dialogue about climate change focuses on the future, we may ignore the problem outside our window. We focus on carbon emissions at the expense of polluting our rivers. Just ask the EPA.

Somehow, we need to extract the politics from the environment. It is, after all, by far the greatest source of pollution. We need to act to protect the environment just for the sake of the environment.

Other factors that we can’t control influence climate change too. That is why we need to set boundaries around what is feasible for us to do. The immediate problems of water and air pollution are things we can fix now. The environment should not have to endure another Animas River disaster.

http://exploring.weborglodge.com/By Chris DR

photo credit: Plastic bottles and garbage on the bank of a river via photopin (license)

raptor on tree branch

Compounding the Problems with Renewable Energy

No matter what form, energy production has costs. From a fire to a coal-burning power plant, bad accompanies the good. It’s a fact of life. The costs are unique to the form of energy. Renewable energy sources are no exception.

All Lives Matter

Unfortunately, wildlife is often the causality. I wrote about this earlier when I discussed the varying reports of bird losses associated with the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System and wind turbines overall.

The numbers are staggering. With the former, estimates put the losses at 28,000 birds—for one plant. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that wind turbines take upward of 440,000 birds per year. These figures use present-day capacity.

Putting It in Perspective

According to the US Energy Information Administration, coal provided about 39 percent of the electricity in 2014. Natural gas came in next at 27 percent, followed by nuclear power at 20 percent. Renewable energy sources made up the balance at 13 percent.

Of that number, wind energy fueled 4 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. Solar power provided less than one percent. Despite what the popular media would have you believe, renewable energy lags well behind fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Many tout wind power as the renewable of choice, citing its potential. Let’s look at what that means for wildlife. First, let’s set aside solar energy effects for the moment. Second, let’s assume that fossil fuels and nuclear won’t go away forever. Finally, let’s consider the bold move of 75 percent of our electricity from wind turbines.

If you crunch the numbers, you’ll see that this figure is 18.75 times the wind energy we get now. Assuming present-day technology and its foibles, we’re talking upward of 8,250,000 birds killed per year by turbines. How long do you think bird populations will survive with those losses?

The Takeaway Message

My point is not to trash renewable energy sources. I, for one, think we should explore nuclear energy again. What I am suggesting is the red flags are there and waving furiously. We need to re-examine our current technology to examine these issues.

Remember, one of the ecological risks of climate change is a loss of biodiversity. Losing over 8 million birds a year would have an impact. To put it into further perspective, current annual bird losses from wind turbines are twice that of the Exxon-Valdez spill and the Deepwater Horizon disaster—combined. And that’s not the only consequence.

While bees have received much of the attention, birds are also major pollinators. They are important seed dispersal agents too. Bird losses, therefore, can have far-reaching effects. These impacts don’t even consider the consequences on bat populations. Before we get too excited about wind energy, let’s consider what’s on the line.

 http://exploring.weborglodge.com/By Chris DR

photo credit: _MG_8631-16.jpg via photopin (license)