21 October 2016

False choices #nlpoli

It's not often you can see a "half-way" compromise as plainly as the one the provincial government announced on Wednesday about Muskrat Falls.

Government's starting point was to flood the reservoir now and not do any additional clearing of the area to be flooded.  The protesters wanted to hold off on flooding for a bit and to clear vegetation and topsoil from the flood area.

On Wednesday government opted to flood now but to do some clearing, plus have some folks do a study to see if more clearing would be good.  That's pretty much half way between the two positions.

And not long after that, you could see plainly that the attempt at compromise had no effect.

They got it wrong

The government crowd clearly didn't understand the issue and the political forces driving it.  It was always a binary choice:  the government was either going to clear the reservoir or it wasn't.  Since the government crowd started out with the original Nalcor position - no clearing - the only thing the politicians could sensibly have done is follow along.  Sure they'd take a political thumping but the government would take a thumping no matter what they did.

By giving at all on the protesters' demands,  the government signalled it was weak. The only logical response of protesters would be to keep going and,  as we noted in yesterday's post,  to expand the scope of the protest.  Just so everyone is clear, by the way,  that post went to bed shortly after the government announcement and just before news started arriving of  renewed and more active protests.  

This protest will end when the government caves entirely and promises to remove topsail and vegetation if not now then sometime early in the new year before they started filling the reservoir to its capacity.  That's the logical conclusion to the current arc of the story.  But frankly, we should be prepared for any kind of nuttiness.  That's because it is clear from the approach to this political crisis that the folks making the decisions don't really have a grip on the project as a whole,  what it means, what is driving the protests, and where it is likely to come out.  

You can tell no one knows what they are doing in the way they responded to this:  hide out for a couple of days and then spring a surprising and wrong-headed solution on everyone.  You can also see the fumbling in the line from the news release that said "the Provincial Government will be requiring Nalcor to fund a further study, to be conducted by Dr. Elsie Sunderland's research laboratory at Harvard University." 

Harvard was quick to kick the crap out of that line.  It wasn't true.    
"That's not the sort of work that Prof. Sunderland does or would do," Paul Karoff,  ​H​arvard's assistant dean for communications, told CBC.

"What's being discussed now is follow-up work that really entails monitoring. There are firms and people who do that sort of thing but that's not the sort of science she does."

More or less methylmercury, not none

The government folks weren't the only ones working in false choices.  People who talk of clearing as a way of lessening or eliminating methylmercury coming from Muskrat Falls are also missing the point.  if they are as concerned about methylmercury as they say,  then even doing all the clearing some scientists now recommend doesn't change anything.  If you build the dam, you will get increased levels of methylmercury.  Period.

Building the dam and clearing all the topsoil and vegetation is functionally the same as flooding and not clearing.  The only variation - entirely theoretically - is the rate at which you increase methylmercury production and accumulation.  The scientists who now advise that we should clear away the topsoil do not know for sure that this will have any effect at all.  They are just projecting based on models.  They might be better at forecasting than Wade Locke was.  They might not be.

This is not to say we ought to ignore scientists, as a rule,  or that we should doubt their conclusions, generally.  They could be right.  They might be right.   Then again, they might not be.  Environment minister Perry Trimper rightly noted that the conclusions reached by the most recent study are based in no small measure on the assumptions that sit underneath it.  Scientists are advising that we clear the topsoil not because there is an absolute certainty this will reduce methylmercury but that we should do it just to be on the safe side.

Making decisions the same way

The caution here is that we should be aware that we  are making the decisions in this situation in exactly the same way we did previously. The folks running around demanding topsoil clearing are opting to believe one bunch of experts who are forecasting a future they cannot know precisely. They are disregarding the opinions of  another bunch of earnest scientists who don't think topsoil clearance will make any material difference.  

We are being presented with another false choice, in other words.  The actual choice is whether or not to increase methylmercury not whether we can have more of it one way or the other.  The reality is that people who currently rely on wildlife connected to Lake Melville in some fashion for food will have to restrict their consumption of fish and other wildlife at some point in the future.  They may have to do it a few years earlier or later, depending on what happens in the next few months, but in the greater scheme of things,  this is largely an imaginary difference.   

The Fallacy of Evidence-Based Decision-Making

While we are at it,  we should take this as a good example of the shortcomings of the school of thought behind evidence-based decision making. Supposedly that's what the government does now.  They make decisions based on evidence.  The truth is they have always done that.  So there's nothing new in that.

What the "evidence-based" folks would have you believe is that they can find the one correct answer to any question.  That's supposedly new.  The truth is that a great many decisions do not show up in front of us as the result of crystal-clear choices.  Our knowledge is always imperfect, if nothing else.  Once upon a time, not so very long ago,  doctors thought smoking was good for you.  Now we know better.  In the mid-1960s  the Newfoundland government thought that a deal to sell electricity to Hydro-Quebec for a few dollars a megawatt an hour was such a great long-term deal that they actually tried to pressure the Quebec government into an agreement.  

We should approach decisions with the understanding that our current knowledge is imperfect. The people who believe that clearing topsoil is the only right answer are as fundamentally wrong in their approach as the folks who bulled ahead with Muskrat Falls, brushing aside any caution with the assurance that their experts always knew better.  The folks who brushed aside critics of Muskrat Falls or who accepted official statements as gospel because they were official statements are as dangerous as the people who these days would insist they are making better decisions because they will chose based on evidence.

What we tend to do around here is get all caught up with a movement,  put aside good judgement and then get surprised when things don't work out. Muskrat Falls was never presented as a business decision.  It was always about pride  or about putting the screws to Quebec or about the great money people could make off it.  Lots of people in the province put aside their better judgement and now that they are finding problems, they are pointing fingers at others to blame. Happened before and it is happening still. 

Sadly what happens next is that we fabricate explanations about evil foreigners, as in the 1969 contract,  or sudden new information, as in methylmercury  in this case.  The reality is that pretty well everyone went along with this, never exercised any judgement and left it all to someone else. All we are doing is trading one bandwagon for another. Approaching Muskrat this way isn't necessarily any better since we still have false understandings about the issues and the options.  The only thing that can result is another false choice.