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Ideological Tug of War

Objectivity in environmental science can turn to subjectivity when human nature takes its course

March 29, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 13

A tide pool in summer 2001 shows residual oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.
A tide pool in summer 2001 shows residual oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

Environmental Science is a tricky game. While we trust that research studies reported in peer-reviewed journals are objective, the subsequent interpretation of the data can be quite subjective, depending on which side of the fence you are standing on.

Massaging numbers to advance one's point of view is common and expected. However, the reason people pick a side--the reason for the subjectivity--is complicated. Policy decisions generally are politically motivated, while business decisions are most often driven by financial interests. Efforts by environmental advocacy groups also can be politically and financially motivated, but they are influenced more by personal beliefs.

People often interchange these political-business-advocacy roles from one issue to the next, depending largely on their feelings. People also choose their jobs and careers--and researchers choose their field of research--based on their passions.

This role of being human--establishing our self-identity--usually escapes recognition when it comes to discussing the environment. The broad range of relationships that people have with nature is just beginning to be studied by psychologists, sociologists, and scientists. This is an important beginning, because a better understanding of how our emotions and beliefs influence decision-making could go a long way in helping to formulate a global environmental policy that works and is acceptable to everyone.

An example that helps illustrate this idea is the ongoing saga of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The Valdez ran aground in March 1989, releasing some 11 million gal of crude oil into a vibrant and complex coastal ecosystem. Although ExxonMobil and some scientists monitoring the long-term effects of the spill believe the Sound has recovered, another set of scientists has concluded that a surprising amount of oil (about 20,000 gal) persists in some shoreline sediments and continues to affect ecosystem recovery where the oil is most persistent (C&EN, Dec. 22, 2003, page 11).

There are definitely some financial interests for both sides. ExxonMobil has spent more than $3.5 billion on the oil spill and its aftermath, which includes a $1 billion civil settlement and compensation for fishermen and coastal towns. Some of the funds are controlled by a trustee council of federal and state agencies that was created to oversee long-term environmental monitoring of Prince William Sound. Research funded by the council is being carried out largely by government scientists. ExxonMobil is separately conducting its own monitoring studies through funds that it provides to academic researchers.

A clause in the civil settlement stipulates that ExxonMobil will have to provide an additional $100 million for remediation and monitoring studies if any unanticipated environmental damage comes to light before 2006. ExxonMobil obviously doesn't want to pay the extra money, and the government agencies would love to have the research funds at their disposal.

Scientific disagreements between the two sides are expected, but it has been interesting to observe the emotive stance taken by some of the researchers. Following a 2002 trustee council review of research results, one ExxonMobil consulting scientist challenged the research of a government scientist, saying it was biased in the choice of test sites, did not perform all the work described, and exaggerated the amount of oil remaining.

This challenge was treated as a potential charge of scientific fraud. A National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration internal review concluded that the allegations did not have merit, but this episode cranked up the heat. Since then, the researchers have civilly challenged the conclusions of each other's papers in environmental journals.

Thickening the plot, ExxonMobil is still waiting to see how much money it will have to pay in punitive damages because of the oil spill. The original award of $5.3 billion in 1994 was reduced to $4 billion in 2001 on appeal. But in January, it was reset at $4.5 billion. The final tally should be known soon.

During the appeals process, ExxonMobil funded research by psychologists, economists, and law and business school faculty that concludes juries are generally incapable of performing the tasks the law assigns to them in punitive damage cases. In other words, juries can be erratic and unpredictable--they are emotional--in awarding punitive damages. ExxonMobil has cited these peer-reviewed journal papers in court. Indeed, other companies and judges are citing the studies in other court cases.

As for politics, the long-term impact of the spill could affect future decisions on developing oil reserves in Alaska.

I'm not approving of or condemning ExxonMobil's actions. For me, the Valdez spill is just one of a string of examples of how chemicals of the industrial-consumer age can unexpectedly rise up and impact society: DDT, dioxins, asbestos, CFCs, mercury, MTBE, nitrogen oxides, phthalates, perchlorate, and more.

Taking an extra minute to understand the degree to which our emotions and beliefs interfere with our better judgment based on sound science will be increasingly important as global development continues. Actually, it will be imperative if a balance is to be achieved between the economic cost and social value of pollution prevention, regulation, and compliance.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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