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Monday, May 20, 2013

Arguing from ignorance, part 1: Is absence of evidence evidence of absence?

An argument from ignorance is a conclusion that a proposition is false because it has not been proven to be true. A new paper from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University published in Science magazine avoids that argument, finding that, while there is no evidence of water contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania's Marcellus region, the actual impact of hydraulic fracturing on the environment remains unknown because monitoring infrastructure and technology have not kept pace with drilling.

Impact of Shale Gas Development on Regional Water Quality reviews the current status of shale gas development and discuss the possible threats to water resources and takes the argument from ignorance issue head-on.  In a U.S. News interview, University of Pittsburgh professor and paper co-author Radisav Vidic said that the density of monitoring sites in Pennsylvania is much lower than the density of wells, “which raises the question of our ability to actually pick up [evidence of contamination] with our current monitoring network. If somebody spills millions of gallons [of fracking wastewater], by the time you get down to where you have a gauge, you may not have picked it up at all.”

In addition, Vidic said that both industry and federal agencies have data that is not being shared with researchers “because of privacy issues or potential litigation, so we're doing the best we can with what we have available.”

This is a critical issue where arguing from ignorance could obviously prove to be disastrous.  Transparency and robust, ubiquitous monitoring for environmental impacts must be part of responsible production of natural gas. Until then, when it comes to shale gas development, absence of evidence must not be taken for evidence of absence.   

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