Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Skeptical Blog

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My interest in the offshore drilling debate introduced me to the work of John Tierney, who often disputes scientific studies published in the media. For example, Tierney’s most notorious article, “Recycling is Garbage,” argues that recycling is not cost effective and philosophically unsound. In 1996, this article probably lifted guilt off the shoulders of millions of people who don’t recycle.

In a sense, he works against the fear-mongering news media described in Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear. Part of this book argues that America’s culture of fear comes from the media, which “bombard us with sensationalistic stories designed to increase ratings.”

But unlike Glassner’s extensive study of the media and surveys from various universities, Tierney’s articles use a “less-than-thorough glance at the research,” according to Daniel Luzer who writes for Polite.

In reference to his arguments for offshore drilling, I’ve found his use of facts to be questionable. For example, in “Global Warming vs. Offshore Drilling,” Tierney dismisses drilling opponents’ fear of oil spills by citing a study from 2003: ““only 1 percent of oil that entered the U.S. waters during the 1990’s came from extraction operations […] it amounted to only 3 percent of the total […] oil as entered through natural seepage from the ocean floor” (italics added).
This reference to a 2003 study regarding statistics of the 1990’s eliminates our consideration of the environmental damages caused by Hurricane Katrina two years after the study. Because the more intensive storms of this decade occurred after the study, the information regarding the 1990’s almost seems irrelevant.

While it’s true that recent oil spills from storms have not impacted the environment as extensively as they did forty years ago, the concern for oil platform damages is not a small worry. When Fernbank science center’s geologist, Dr. Bill Witherspoon reviewed this article, he said, “The 3 percent figure sounds obscenely high to me considering how much oil has been produced. That is an enormous quantity of poison loosed on the environment over time.”

Tierney also uses the idea that statistically, most spills come from tankers bringing oil to the coast, not from platforms off the coast. However, oil platforms built far off the coast rely on such tankers to transport oil from the wells to refineries on land. This statistic might actually include tankers that operate in conjunction with oil platforms, so the increased number of platforms off the continental shelf could remain just as risky as foreign tankers.

I can’t review a huge amount of Tierney’s writing in one post, but for more fact checking, visit Krum’s thoroughly researched blog post on the TierneyLab.

This post reviews Tierney’s skepticism from recycling to global warming, but it leaves out his take on the fuel debate. I’ll forward my thoughts to Krum for his insights.

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