Ever since the invention of the wheel, scientific discoveries have underpinned human advancement. Yet most people have little understanding of the technologies they use every day, and harbour notions about them that have no scientific basis.
One myth gaining traction, for example, is that electromagnetic communication devices cause disease. I was reminded of this when delegates at last month’s convention of B.C. municipalities vigorously debated a resolution demanding a moratorium on BC Hydro’s wireless “smart meter” reading program. Seems none of the delegates knew they were using exactly the same WiFi technology when they turned on their laptops.
Politicians and regulators frequently come under pressure from ill-informed groups opposing a commercial venture, even when it’s clear it will have no discernible impact – environmental or otherwise. Consider the many proposals to bottle and sell water from four of B.C.’s remote coastal mountain streams. Although the amount of water involved is infinitesimal compared with flow volumes, and although the fresh-water streams go on to mingle with the salty Pacific, five environmental groups have demanded a full environmental assessment of “cumulative impacts.”
Politicians are prone to kneejerk decisions based on incomplete scientific analysis. A classic example is the ban on incandescent light bulbs. Calculations about energy savings from switching to compact fluorescent and halogen bulbs considered only the reduction in electricity use. That might be a acceptable in the southern U.S. and other warm regions, but it leads to erroneous conclusions in the Canadian climate. Heat given off by incandescent lighting offsets energy needed for space heating during our colder months. Our northern latitude gives us long days of sunlight in summer, further lessening the energy savings from fluorescent lighting.
Nor did the analysis used to justify banning incandescent lights examine the health and environmental impacts of mercury used in the manufacture of compact fluorescent bulbs. The federal government recently announced a two-year deferral of the phase out of incandescents, to the end of 2014, “to consider the concerns about … perceived health and mercury issues including safe disposal of compact fluorescent lamps.” Meanwhile, manufacturers have already moved to stop incandescent production. Hence, another kneejerk “green” policy fiasco based on incomplete scientific analysis.
Sometimes costly decisions are made in response to public perceptions, even when thorough scientific analysis shows an expenditure would not benefit, or might even harm, the environment. A current example is the proposed $782-million sewage treatment plan for Victoria. The city’s sewage currently undergoes primary screening before being pumped offshore into Juan de Fuca Strait. Huge tidal flows through the strait drive strong currents that break up and oxidize the sewage quickly and thoroughly. Measurements show that within only 100 metres of the Victoria outflow point, effluent quality as good as that disposed by much larger cities into rivers of comparatively tiny flow volumes.
An expert panel appointed by the Victoria Capital Regional District found no scientific evidence of significant contamination; and more than 10 marine scientists and six current and former medical health officers have stated that deep-ocean disposal has minimal impact on the marine environment and no measureable public-health risk. Yet the federal and provincial governments insist that a land-based treatment system must be built. Why? Prophetically, the expert panel’s report signalled that its conclusions might be ignored because of public sentiment based on “ethics, aesthetics or other factors that cannot be resolved on purely scientific grounds.”
But the pending victory of public perception over scientific fact doesn’t end there. Although ocean disposal was thoroughly assessed, the environmental impacts of land-based treatment were not. These include using good farm and/or recreational land for sewage treatment plants; odour emissions to nearby residential areas; substantial energy consumption; atmospheric emissions; and surface contamination from treating, transporting and disposing thousands of tonnes of sewage sludge annually.
Public-policy decisions that ignore scientific facts in favour of pressure from vocal minorities can kill job-creating commercial ventures, or cause unnecessary public expenditures. In both cases, society loses.