On “Shilling” for evidence-based decision making

In the last couple weeks I have had a very interesting time on my social media platforms. As many of you might know I have a regular blog at the Huffington Post. I use that blog to present shorter versions of topics presented on this blog. While the topics of this blog are diverse, for my HuffPost blog I stick to topics where science is either misunderstood or used badly in decision-making. Since I prefer that my HuffPost blog is read, I try to stick to topical subjects in a shortened, more approachable style.

In the last couple months at the HuffPost I have written blog posts on the overblown risks of synthetic soccer fields, so-called “toxic” molds, the Nocebo Effect and Electromagnetic hypersensitivity, Wi-Fi in schools, and local is not always better in agriculture. As you can probably guess by reading that list, I appear to have made a habit of poking some angry bears and most weeks have seen me on the receiving end of a good deal of vitriol. By this point I am pretty much used to waking up the morning after one of my blogs has been posted to find some pretty impressive/insulting comments in my inbox.

By far the most common suggestion is that I am a paid “shill” for whichever cause I am writing about on any given day. As I wrote in one of my most popular blog posts: On “Bullies”, “shills” and using labels to shut down legitimate debate the word “shill” is usually used in an attempt to diminish the ideas and information provided by someone who holds an opposing point of view. The Oxford Dictionary defines a “shill” as “someone who pretends to give an impartial endorsement of something in which they themselves have an interest”. In my experience, however; the term “shill” is pretty much reserved as an attack against people who tend to agree with the status quo. As I wrote before, the common thread in the use of these terms is that the activists yell “shill” when they have no case to present, nor data to support their point of view. Ad hominems and name-calling are used by the desperate to distract and to interfere with or stop all debate. They are not used by people who can marshal facts in defense of their opinions.

So am I a “shill”? Well, I have never been paid to write a blog post and receive no compensation for any of my blogging. I have been asked to appear on the radio a number of times, but for that I do not get paid either. I earn my living working for a great private sector employer, but none of my blogging is done on behalf of that employer. My direct supervisors and managers are aware of my blog and I have assured them that I will avoid any potential conflicts between my work and my blog. Sometimes this means I won’t blog on a topic where my personal intellectual interests and my company’s corporate interests intersect. I do that willingly as I enjoy and appreciate my job too much to risk it by blogging on such topics. The contents of this blog are my thoughts and opinions only and do not reflect those of my employer. Arguably my blogging actually costs me money since any blog post I write detracts from the amount of time I have to work on my real work from home.

So I don’t get paid to blog and receive no compensation for my blog posts. By definition I cannot, therefore, be considered a “shill”. That being said, maybe there is a loophole. You see I do have one important interest in my blogging. As I noted in an earlier post Environmentalism and Pragmatism, the two aren’t mutually exclusive – A blast from my past back in 1995 the earliest part of my thesis research included looking at a number of areas of scientific discourse and research to identify the basis for policy decisions. I realized at the time that a lot of important decisions were being made in spite of the quality of the information available to the decision-makers. From that experience, I realized that it was up to scientifically literate individuals, like me, to stand up and inject some science and defensible data into debates that often seemed mostly about politics and emotions and seldom considered the critical component of what we knew or what we could prove. I came to recognize that if we continued to waste all our built-up moral and intellectual capital on emotionally-charged and scientifically-indefensible projects (a modern example being the Leap Manifesto) then we wouldn’t have any to spend when it came to making real changes that could make tangible improvements locally, regionally and nationally.

In a modern perspective, look at the recent decision by the Notley government in Alberta. Unlike other decisions made by governments (like President Obama with Keystone) Premiere Notley went about finding the best science advisors she could. The panel, headed by one of my favourite economists Dr. Andrew Leach from the University of Alberta, asked the right questions, did the hard analyses and came up with a report that provides the information needed to make a sound evidence-based decision. Was Premiere Notley’s resulting policy perfect? Probably not, because like all policies it had to accept some political compromises, but it is better than they had before and it is better than a policy built on a foundation of bad science.

Going back to the premise of this blog posting, am I a shill? Well maybe I am, but I am not a paid shill in the thrall of some corporate interest. Rather, I will think of myself, hereafter, as an unpaid shill for good science and intelligent evidence-based environmental decision making. Because as a citizen I have an interest in how good science can allow us to move towards good answers and how a misuse of science can have real, negative repercussions. Consider some of the topic I have addressed in the last months.

The existence of all-weather soccer fields at our local park mean that our soccer organization can use our fields up to 18 hours a day virtually year-round. As a child I remember soccer regularly being rained out and portions of our fields being mud-holes by early November. My children, meanwhile, can play almost every weekend on safe fields that give true bounces and result in fewer injuries. If we allow unsubstantiated fear to force us off these fields, field availability on the natural fields will decrease substantially. Fewer kids will get a chance to play and the smaller number of kids will get to play fewer games. If there are fewer spots to play, soccer will become more exclusive and given the nature of our society the hardest hurt will be those with the fewest resources. My kids will do fine, but others will not be as lucky and our society will be worse off as a consequence.

The presence of Wi-Fi in school means that my kids can have access to teaching resources that were unheard of in my days. These resources are regularly threatened by individuals who don’t even appear to know what band of the radio spectrum Wi-Fi is broadcast on. Eliminating Wi-Fi in the classroom to assuage unalloyed fears will eliminate those teaching resources. Once again, because our school has the resources, my kids will probably be fine. Once again the schools with the fewest resources will be hit the hardest. Schools that are told they cannot use Wi-Fi and cannot afford to hard-wire Ethernet connections will be left in the dark.

Finally to go to my personal bugbear (the topic that finally drove me to speak out), I have watched local and international activists fighting oil and gas pipelines while doing nothing to address our society’s use of fossil fuels. We know that the safest, most environmentally responsible way to get fossil fuels to market is via pipelines and the least environmentally responsible ways are via rail and/or truck. These misguided activists, meanwhile, work hard to block our pipelines while doing little to curb even their own personal consumption of fossil fuels. So while we transition away from fossil fuels I will continue to work to ensure that we use the safest modes of transport in order to protect our joint ecological heritage.

So to conclude, my intention in my blogs is not to court conflict. Rather, I want to highlight the misuse of science in environmental decision-making. The reason for this is simple. We live in a world of limited resources and when we make bad decisions we foreclose on opportunities. The best way to get to good decisions is by looking at all the data and all the alternatives. I see my role, as a shill for good science and intelligent evidence-based environmental decision making, as helping make good decisions possible.

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7 Responses to On “Shilling” for evidence-based decision making

  1. Nice post. The “paid shill” myth is bizarre. I wrote about it here. There is no evidence for it – in fact there’s plenty of evidence against it – but it’s now well established thanks to the bogus claims of activists in academia like Oreskes and Brulle. I see it as an imaginary creation by these people as a cover for their own failings.

    “I want to highlight the misuse of science in environmental decision-making” is a good summary of your motivation.

    And welcome to WordPress. Did you write about the reasons for switching?


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