Monday, July 12, 2010

Has Science Failed Us With the BP Oil Spill?

I came across a quote in Time from Elizabeth Rosenthal, originally in the NYTimes on May 28th 2010, in which she says that America's belief that technology will save us (in general) is apparently misplaced because "scientists" haven't been able to stop the spill.

This is so many kinds of absurd that I felt motivated to write again. Remember that science is only a method by which we determine the probability of certain outcomes given specific circumstances. The more that circumstances are changed, the less able we are to predict outcomes.

Does America believe that science will save us?
I can actually go along with this, but it takes different forms when you look at subgroups of Americans. For example, your typical Republican or Libertarian thinks it's a great idea to remove pollution restrictions from products and companies because they believe science will help us fix the environment and cure cancer and so forth in the future (and they have completely disproven beliefs that consumers will force companies to be environmentally and health conscious by only buying responsible products). Your more liberal person may have the more accurate idea that science will certainly tell us what should be done to save us from various threats, as it greatly already has, but people have to actually take action and engage in prescribed behaviors to be saved. For example, science has informed us that obesity is very bad, and we can be saved from obesity by mindfully eating less, mostly plants, and getting exercise, but some folks keep stuffing themselves at McDonald's and waiting for a drug to be invented that will save them. So, science can certainly save us from threats when we actually use it to guide behavior, and when we have done enough science to make sure we have good results across real circumstances.

How does science relate to the spill?
There have been many oil wells and oil rigs over the last century. Some have spilled. Information has been collected and used scientifically to develop specific pipes, valves, computers, etc... to minimize the risk of spills. It seems that there is a disconnect, though, between the greedy businessmen who control the oil (BP) and construction (Halliburton) companies and the government (MMS) via lobbying and campaign contributions to ignorant shill politicians and actual scientists who are several rungs down the ladder in each organization. The greedy, irresponsible guys found out from their geologists that there was a huge oil deposit way deep in the gulf. It's relatively new to drill so far under water and down into the earth. Since this type of drilling is newer, there is less information, and we have less of an ability to predict what will happen. Science would inform us to be cautious, and maybe start with only a couple wells and monitor them for a long time before making more. The government authorized a whole bunch, though, because money told them to. There was not good oversight, not good monitoring, and an insufficient adjustment in the approach to the new conditions. The business approach was not scientific enough. Abnormally high-pressured oil combined with an unscientific approach to analyzing situations contributed to the failures that led to this spill.

Hasn't science failed to fix the spill?
Trying all of the different (seemingly crazy and often mocked) ideas of fixing the spill IS SCIENCE. Try a bunch of stuff and see what happens, then adjust your ideas based on the results and try new stuff. Has that process failed to fix the spill so far? Yes, but so what? There is nothing better to do. Doing nothing would certainly not fix the spill, and not give us information for the future. If we already knew how to fix the spill, we would have done that, which would have been the result of earlier application of science. We're having a hard time because of the new circumstances, but that doesn't make science the wrong thing to do. When we eventually fix the spill, it will be because of using the scientific method.

Should we pray to God instead of using science?
Louisiana just tried that. How did it work out? By the way, that's also science. The scientific method has shown us (in many contexts) that prayer doesn't do anything (oil spills are not subject to placebo effects). There is no evidence of an interventionist god at present.

Is this Obama's fault?
No. That doesn't even make sense. Why would the president, a former lawyer, know more about fixing oil spills than British Petroleum? What do you expect him to do? Tell the armed forces to fix it? Appoint a responsible person to head MMS? He already did that, and she was so overwhelmed by what a screwup agency it was that she left. We are facing a very large, systemic problem with how our government interacts with our corporate overlords. I'm amazed that Obama was even able to demand $20 billion from BP to compensate people for how the spill has affected their jobs, and Republican congressmen said BP shouldn't have to! I don't agree with everything Obama does, but he's doing some good things for American people, and it doesn't make a lick of sense to hold him responsible for this mess.