What I Know: An Opinion


I am catching up on some Daily Show episodes I missed when I was away for a week and I was particularly taken by one of their pieces on the recent Brexit vote. It was interviews with a dozen or so people who had “voter remorse” and explained that they had not expected the “Leave” side to win so felt safe to vote Leave as a protest vote.

I was in Ireland during the vote and saw some of the coverage there with my Irish friends. For a moment I felt like that gave me some “special” knowledge about it because I was “there.” As I saw the coverage here I realized it was much the same. It’s certainly true that the impact on Ireland is orders of magnitude greater than here in the US, but that didn’t mean the coverage was different. It got me thinking once again about the information I use to form opinions.

The Daily Show coverage resonated with me because it fit in with my view of the world. I viewed the “Leave” case as being based on partial truths and lies and appealing to people’s discouragement with government. Much of the coverage I saw, or at least saw and remembered, supported this point of view.

The question I started asking myself was, “What do I really know about the EU and Britain’s relationship with it?” The answer to that is fairly straight forward: I know what I hear on the media streams I choose to glean for information. For me, National Public Radio is my most trusted source of information. I find its coverage “unbiased” but that is only because its biases are in harmony with my biases. Fox News seems biased because the conclusions they arrive at are different than my own and I suspect they report things that aren’t true. To a lesser extent MSNBC and Democracy Now don’t resonate either, but I don’t mistrust their “facts.”

Having said that, I wonder how I came to that conclusion? Did I “fact check” Fox? Probably not, instead I probably heard it fact checked on some other media stream. Do I fact check NPR? No. How does one “fact check” anyway? I’ve never been to Afghanistan or Iraq or Nigeria or even Flint, MI. I can only check “facts” that are reported by someone else. Ultimately we have to use the preponderance of evidence rather than facts, but more often than not, what we believe is based on who we believe.

Fiction (aka lies) aside, there are a vast number of facts and experiences that have relevance to a story and reporters and news curators must make decisions on which ones they report and send on to the audience. Judgments must be made and these result in an inevitable bias. As one journalist once said, “We can never be unbiased; the best we can do is to be ‘fair.’”

More than ever, media covers the “impact” of an event as much as the facts. Mass shootings are covered with interviews with the victims’ families, funerals, the outrage. More than facts this visceral reaction stimulates our emotional reaction. These visceral reactions can lead to good legislation, but Hitler rose to power not on facts but on emotional appeal.

So where does this leave me? First, it leaves me less confident that I know much of anything. To those who know me, this may come as a surprise as I do tend to state my opinions with confidence. I’m a master of self-deception. A mentor once said to me, “You said that with a lot of authority. Are you sure that’s true?” It was a pivotal moment for me. I realized that the less sure I was of something, the more authority I would add to my tone of voice. To this day, I use it as personal BS meter: I’ll say something, hear that tone of authority, and say, “Wait a minute, I take that back. I think I’m extrapolating beyond the data.”

Clearly this revelation has not stopped me from developing opinions. What it has done is help me remember that they are just opinions, not some ultimate truth. I still have trouble reinterpreting facts to allow my opinions to evolve and change, but I’m getting better at it.

Ultimately it’s how this plays out in how I live my life, that’s important. As someone who was once a strident activist, how do I approach controversial issues? Over the last 5 or 6 years I have been teaching (read learning) alternative and renewable energy at SUNY Canton. One of the biggest issues facing the North Country is wind power. At a cursory glance, it’s hard to see what’s not to like; the wind is there, why not use it? It’s not like we are going to slow down the spinning of the earth by adding air resistance (or at least we don’t think so).

However, there are significant issues, both for the community it’s sited in and the environment at large. And then there’s the wind business itself. What determines a person’s opinion about wind is as much how they weight the downsides against the upsides as it is the facts (and fictions) that they believe. One technical method for this weighting is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). It tries to take into account the long term costs of development and weigh them against the benefits. I like this method not because it arrives at some unassailable answer, but because it attempts to look at the big picture and it serves as a model that can take into account new information.

Where does it break down? There are two places: the accuracy and even availability of the data, and how “intangible costs” (like environmental, health and social impacts) are weighted. As wind farms have developed, there is more and more data on things like bird kill, but there is little quantitative data on health and social effects. Recent work on the impact of wind farms on property values, much of it done here in the North Country by Martin Heintzelman and his colleagues at Clarkson University, is starting to paint a picture, but it’s not a static picture.

Health effects, on the other hand, are primarily anecdotal. Another North Country resident, Dr. Nina Pierpont, has written a book on Wind Turbine Syndrome, but the dominant opinion is that health effects are rare. It is unfortunate that no one has seen fit to do a broader epidemiological study of potential health effects because as we know from tobacco, dominant opinions can be catastrophic.

In addition, there are social and economic factors that come into play. What is the value of the viewscape of hundreds of turbines? I can’t imagine getting approval for overhead powerlines today if none existed, but now we take them for granted. Leases are given for a relatively small plot around the base of a tower, but the impact goes far beyond the base and there is no requirement that impacted neighbors be compensated, partially because we haven’t quantified the impacts on them.

Wind power is an emerging industry and, like all other renewables (with the exception of large hydropower), is not competitive with traditional fossil fuels without government subsidies. Without these subsidies, new renewable energy sources wouldn’t develop until the depletion of fossil fuels raised their cost to a point where renewables could compete. Government incentives are designed to fast track the industry and get it competitive long before market forces could, maybe even before the world experiences serious impacts from climate change.

Finally there is the business of wind. Most of the wind power developed in the North Country is being done by Iberdrola, a Spanish company that dominates the wind industry worldwide. As with many controversial developments, these companies are less than transparent and tend to seek a foothold before going public with their plans. They have been accused of clandestine tactics such as offering leases to government leaders even if the potential for wind on that land is minimal. They operate in secrecy, insisting that lease holders sign non-disclosure agreements about what they are paid. All of these things raise red flags.

I’m sure that there are many other factors, some of which may turn out to be much more critical than the preceding inventory, at play. So I’m left with two options: evaluate the scanty evidence, weighted to my biases, and come up with an opinion, or withhold judgment. Opinions, flawed and otherwise, are what shape our future. Not having an opinion is like the “no-action” alternative, it plays a role in shaping the future, too.

At this point, I support wind power in general but there are places where it’s not appropriate.  I believe there should be changes in the process of development to address local concerns and openness would go a long way to allow the development of wind in a harmonious and appropriate manner. And I remain open to new facts and new points of view.

Wind power was a good issue for me to use to demonstrate the shift in my process. The progressive faction with which I identify is somewhat split on the issue, so like a good statesman, I am held upright by forces from both sides. On other issues, I have not yet become so pliable. On taxation and the redistribution of wealth, for example, I’m pretty dogmatic, supporting Bernie and Elizabeth Warren without a lot of fact collection and analysis.

I want to leave you with what started this inquiry back in 1974. I was listening to the ZBS radio serial, The Fourth Tower of Inverness, and one of the last parts was a reading of Hsin Hsin Ming. This quote stuck like a grain of sand in my shoe.

“If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.”

Hsin Hsin MingVerses on the Faith Mind by The 3rd Zen Patriarch, Sengstau


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