Women ‘don’t understand’ fracking due to lack of education, industry chief claims

Or so ran the headline in The Independent newspaper today.

If you live in the US or the UK, it’s likely you have come across hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ in the media. This relatively new approach at extracting fossil fuels has generated plenty of controversy, both for it’s potential to restore fuel security and drive down prices and rising concerns regarding environmental impact.

Now professor Averil MacDonald, chair of science engagement at the University of Reading has given a statement to The Times saying that women disagree with fracking because they “don’t understand” the science and instead rely on their gut reaction.

Ah, where to begin… I have three main complaints about this statement; that it contravenes a responsibility in scientific engagement, that it harms dialogue and finally that it focuses on the wrong point. I will deal with these in turn.

1. Duty to scientific engagement

Firstly, the idea of a professor of science engagement accusing women of effectively making the ‘wrong choice’ because they are uneducated is both short-sighted and potentially derelict of a scientific duty to put evidence first.

Professor MacDonald’s opinions are clearly partisan – she has recently been appointed chair of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, an industry group – and she makes no pretence otherwise. That is not a bad thing; scientists, like other citizens, can take sides on public issues, it’s part of what makes a democracy vibrant. However, her responsibility as chair of scientific engagement is to provide a balanced account that puts evidence first, as is the role of all scientific engagement with the public. Whether she states these opinions in her capacity, as UKOOG chair is irrelevant – her academic responsibility extends to all public engagement activities, a point sorely missing in discussions of the recent Tim Hunt affair.

For someone who emphasises the role of ‘facts’ in determining the role of fracking in the UK, it is rather curious that any evidence on scientific education or decision making in women is conspicuously absent form her argument.

2. Harming dialogue

At a fundamental level, what could possibly be accomplished by making these public statements? If you are a woman who disagrees with fracking, you will likely feel patronised and potentially less likely to listen to arguments from the pro-fracking camp, given that instead of communicating evidence they are now resorting to unnecessarily gendered attacks. If you are a woman who agrees with fracking, you will also likely also feel patronised, because the argument made is that you have somehow subverted your automatic emotional response (you are, after all, “naturally protective of your children” unlike men, according to MacDonald) and have risen to accept facts. And if you are a man, you are perhaps, like me, wondering what all of this has to do with fracking in the first place.

The issue of fracking is a complex, multi-faceted issue that draws in considerations of economic development, energy security, fuel efficiency, environmental impact and disruption of rural communities, among others. It is certainly not an issue that can be reduced to “women don’t know better because they are poorly educated”. First, suggesting that someone cannot make an informed decision because of a lack of formal education is belittling and elitist, and dismisses the important democratic contribution of opinions from all sectors of society. Second, while women are under-represented in science and engineering, things are changing fast – many young women today will have an excellent scientific education and will be able to digest the complex evidence for and against fracking.

In short, these kind of reductionist attacks will do more to alienate the kind of people that both sides need to appeal to, people who do want to be convinced by evidence, but who feel pushed away by sweeping generalisations and unfair portrayal in the media.

3. Focusing on the wrong point

This may strike our readers as obvious, but talking about why one group or another is for or against an issue, is not addressing the issue. If we are to have a constructive dialogue between those wishing to improve the financial and energy development of the this country, and those wishing to minimise the environmental impact and risks to human health, we need a common ground, and that common ground is provided by evidence. Focusing on evidence allows both sides to present their cases in a rational framework and most importantly, allows for compromise to be reached over facts that are agreed to by both sides. And attacking the education of decision-making skills of your opponent most certainly does not fall under this category.

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The Times (paywall) published the original interview with Professor MacDonald, which has also been covered by The Independent, Telegraph, Guardian and others.

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