My father was an MD and I grew up listening to MDs espousing on every topic under the sun. For much of my youth I believed that MDs knew everything because my dad’s friends seemed to have strong opinions on everything. However as I grew older, and more informed, it became apparent that these folks were not as well versed in many of these topics as I was led to believe. After he retired I asked my dad about my experiences and he told me something that has stuck with me ever since. He said: “never trust an MD on any topic that is not related to medicine”. He explained that most MDs were the top students in their classes and the brightest lights in their peer groups. That is how they grew up to become physicians. Because of this, most physicians are simply used to being right and thus tend to believe that their insights are more informed than those of everyone around them. Professionally, physicians spends their days being more informed than their patients and spend a lot of time explaining things to others. This can lead to a sense of self-confidence that may spill over into fields outside their area of expertise.
The reason I bring this up is that recently I was introduced to a group of MDs who I feel may be overstepping their expertise. The group I encountered was the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment BC (BC CAPE). Specifically I was directed to their BC election post “Getting Ecological Health Factors Into the Election Debate“. Now I am all for people expressing their opinions (heck just look at this blog) but reading this post I realized that it could be the poster child for a discussion about the Dunning-Kruger effect. The BC CAPE post presents superficial research on five topics, four of which (Fracking, Carbon Tax, Site C and the Kinder Morgan Pipeline) are in areas well-known to this blog. In all four they present either superficial or very preliminary data as the basis for their arguments. Over the remainder of this blog post I will attempt to briefly describe where they go wrong in each of their arguments.
Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking)/Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)
The BC CAPE blog post starts by talking LNG and don’t make a good start of it. They provide a discussion of water use and then include a citation for their factoid that does not actually mention the figure it is purported to support. The BC CAPE post then moves on to discuss the biological effects of fracking water. Well I have already spent several thousand words discussing the misleading use of toxicology in discussions about fracking so won’t say much more on this topic except to point out that the papers they cite are essentially irrelevant or represent initial studies where the primary conclusions are that more study is needed. Heck the “babies with congenital heart disease and neural tube defects” paper discusses an “association” between the health conditions and fracking. To be clear in science-speak an “association” is used when you don’t have enough data to even use the word “correlation“. It is not even in the same planetary system as proof. It is used to suggest that more study should be carried out on a topic but that the authors had insufficient data to make any conclusions. Not the basis for a serious policy decision.
The remainder of this section of their blog post is a reminder why non-experts should think twice before talking about areas outside their area of expertise as the physicians go on to conflate the conditions in Colorado and Pennsylvania to those in BC. The problem is that fracking varies greatly based on the geological formations being fracked and the geology of BC is substantially different from the geologies of Pennsylvania and Colorado. If I told a physician that the knee and the ankle were essentially the same because thy were both joints I would get laughed out of their office. So to have them turn around and inform me that fracking in Colorado and Pennsylvania is the same as fracking in the Peace District should draw a similar level of scorn. Finally the CAPE MDs cite the Howarth study “A Bridge to Nowhere”. That study (and the underlying studies upon which it was based) has been so thoroughly debunked that I’m not even going to bother addressing that topic in this post.
Readers of this blog know that I strongly support carbon taxes. However, I do so based on my personal evaluation of the benefits versus alternative means to price carbon. The folks at BC CAPE, meanwhile, don’t even consider the alternatives in their blog post. They cite a Lancet study that says that climate change is bad (okay I am paraphrasing here) and then declare from on high that carbon taxes are the only way to go. Well carbon taxes are one way to approach the problem but a carbon tax is not the only way to address the problem. When this group declares that carbon taxes represent the only approach they immediately demonstrate an absence of rigour in their thought and another reason to discount their opinions without further ado.
Site C Dam
If you are looking for an absence of intellectual rigour the BC CAPE argument against the Site C Dam is what you are looking for. They start with an appeal to authority by citing a letter signed by a group of “concerned scholars“. The problem is that the list is made up mostly of scholars with no expertise in energy policy. If I was looking for comments on themes of embodiment and liminality or wanted an Australian view on gender and cultural studies then this would be the group I would talk to, but only a handful of the signees actually work in the fields covered by the statement. Appeals to authority seldom have much of an effect on me, but they have even less when the people making the appeal aren’t even authorities on the topic being discussed.
BC CAPE then completely changes direction and moves to the topic of food and farming. According to the documentation about Site C, it is expected to flood around 5500 hectares of agricultural land. To put this flooded area into perspective consider that the Peace River Regional District includes about 1.4 million hectares of land within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), comprising about 27% of ALR lands in BC. There are nearly 825,000 hectares of land farmed in the Peace Region, accounting for 31% of land farmed in BC. To make the numbers more clear there are approximately 2.6 million hectares of land being farmed in BC. BC CAPE claims that risks to food security represent a reason to not construct the Site C Dam. The Site C Dam will flood approximately 0.4% of the agricultural land in the Peace District or 0.2% of the agricultural land in BC. I know the land up there is rich, but if the loss of this particular 0.2% will risk our provincial food security then we are in much worse condition than I knew.
BC CAPE then shifts gears again to topics of energy supply, a subject about which I have written so many posts I don’t know where to begin but since my last post was on that exact subject why not start there. If BC CAPE is so hell-bent on fighting climate change then they must know that we need to electrify much of our transportation system and essentially eliminate the use of fossil fuels in housing to meet our Paris Agreement commitments. Energy efficiency will simply not do the trick. As for their suggestion that we go to solar power? Well I addressed that topic in my last post as well, the two words of import: “solar insolation”.
The Kinder Morgan Pipeline
Saving the best for last BC CAPE ends by going after the Trans Mountain expansion project (TMX) and once again demonstrates that their research is miles wide and inches deep. They start by making a demonstrably wrong claim: “The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project does not take into account the potential health and related economic costs due to the very real chance of an oil spill, air pollution, and climate change.” This is, of course, a load of gibberish. Entire sections of the regulatory filing are dedicated to these topics.
BC CAPE then directs us to a single study about health impacts of the pipeline which doesn’t even explain how this health issue will be influenced by the pipeline. The study presents a tremendous amount of information about the potential harm of benzene and 1,3-butadiene to people but doesn’t explain in any realistic way how this is related to TMX except to point out that these two compounds are found in crude oil and the pipeline will transport crude oil. Literally their comment says:
“If the expansion project goes ahead, a higher level of benzene can be expected to be present in the atmosphere since the increase in pipeline infrastructure releases would be added to the level of benzene already released into the environment through gasoline”
To be clear, these researchers don’t look at existing concentrations, background concentrations or relative release concentrations they just say that the new pipeline will make things worse. They spend 70 pages talking about how bad this stuff is for you but don’t go through the simplest step of determining whether the releases from the pipeline will exceed a de minimis risk. Honestly is this the best they can do? Will the TMS detectably increase 1,3-butadiene concentrations in the atmosphere? The authors don’t know so and don’t tell us? They just say the stuff is bad and it is in gasoline so we should abandon the pipeline?
BC CAPE moves on to addressing mental illness (apparently this is somehow related only to the TMX and not to rail spills or any other type of spill). BC CAPE then segues to discussing climate change, a topic I have addressed ad nauseam at this blog but was best summarized in my presentation to the TMX Ministerial Panel. On the whole their section is a mishmash of arguments none of which is convincing on its own and together looks like an attempt to make a Jackson Pollock out of couple spilled jars of paint.
There is a reason why, when I blew out my knee I went to see an orthopedic specialist. He was a great doctor and knew exactly what to do. Similarly there is a reason I do not go to a physician when I want to decide how to best design the casing for a monitoring well that runs through a mixed stratigraphy. I want someone trained in hydrogeology to help me with that task. Physicians tend to believe what they want and the people they trust the most are other MDs. This would probably explain why in their list of “Good Information Sources on the Environment and Health” virtually every reference is to a medical/physician link. Environment Canada and Heath Canada have incredible web sites dedicated to these topics and yet the MDs at BC CAPE are sending people to their pet web sites to get more information?
To conclude this post I am going to paraphrase my father from the introduction of this post. While I trust MDs on matters relating to my health and wellness, I will stick with subject matter experts on topics that are not related to medicine. With this in mind I would suggest my readers do likewise and take the BC CAPE blog post with a very healthy pinch of salt.
I always enjoy this comment in the Times Colonist. An on-the-ground comment by someone with some background, experience and common sense in the Site C issue: http://www.timescolonist.com/opinion/op-ed/comment-site-c-s-farmland-losses-are-wildly-overstated-1.2305527
Physicians are also in an unusual industry, because people generally are not balancing alternatives to getting well and the opportunity costs of spending money on treatment. When people are sick they will pay pretty much what it takes to get well. They will bankrupt themselves to pay for a life-saving treatment.
Politics, on the other hand, is about opportunity cost and lost options when we refuse to do things. No Dam C, then how will we get electricity? No pipeline, then how will we transport the fuel?
So BC CAPE propose bankrupting BC to prevent climate change now, because they treat climate change as if it is an imminently life-threatening disease — and an acute life-threatening disease requires an all out attack. More sensible heads realise that a long view is required on climate, and mitigation might be at least considered in the short term. It’s no good destroying the economy in order to save it.
Superb article. Keep up the good work!
Excellent as usual Blair. I noticed a comment in the Time Colonist today that just begs a response.
I understand your ambivalence with the project, but I am fed up with the barrage of hysterical and mostly bogus, unreferenced “studies” that seem to be so prevalent in BC.
I hope you have time to reply to this item.
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