The environment continues to be a hot battleground for various groups. While the main theater of war has been climate change, there are also side battles involving other matters, such as the threat posed (or not posed) by mercury. Not surprisingly, many of the folks who argue against climate change and contend that health risks of things like mercury are exaggerated tend to be associated with companies that produce substances alleged to cause climate change and/or be a health threat.
While the EPA has often been accused of being a mere lap-dog to corporate interests, it recently issued 946 pages of new rules governing the emission of mercury and other pollutants by power plants. The main argument for these laws is utilitarian. According to the EPA’s Lisa Jackson, while the rules will cost companies $10.9 billion a year, they will save 17,000 lives and provide as much as $140 billion in health benefits. Even if the lives are left out of the equation, this seems like a rather good idea. After all, getting $140 billion in benefits certainly seems to be worth the $10.9 billion. Naturally, it is worth noting that the cost will be paid by the companies and the benefits will be reaped by the people who will avoid the harm done by the pollutants. However, this seems morally acceptable and it would seem hard to argue that the companies have a right to save $10.9 billion by costing other people their lives or health.
Obviously enough, this argument has merit only if the numbers involved are accurate. Not surprisingly, there are those who are questioning their accuracy. There are, of course, always grounds for questioning such numbers. The first is, of course, the inherent problem of induction: whenever engaged in inductive reasoning, the conclusion can always turn out to be false even if the premises are true. Of course, this is a fairly weak method of challenging since it applies to all inductive reasoning. What is, of course, needed is something more substantial.
Willie Soon and Paul Driessen recently wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal raising a substantial criticism, To be specific, they claim “the EPA systematically ignored evidence and clinical studies that contradict its regulatory agenda, which is to punish hydrocarbon use.”
In critical thinking terms, they are accusing the EPA of trying to make the public a victim of the fallacy of incomplete/suppressed evidence and they are also accusing the EPA of bias. If the first charge is correct, then this would be a serious problem. After all, when drawing a conclusion there is a logical (and ethical) requirement to consider all the reasonably available significant evidence. Also, if the EPA officials are biased, then this impacts their credibility in a negative manner. Obviously enough, the same standards apply to Soon and Driessen.
One concern about Soon is that while he is at Harvard, he is an astrophysicist. This raises some questions about his expertise in assessing the impact of mercury on the population. While any competent scientist (or critical thinking professor) can engage in legitimate criticism of methodology, assessing the actual causal impact of mercury falls under the domain of other areas of expertise. There is also some concerns raised by the Soon and Baliunas controversy. A general concern about Driessen and Soon is the same one they leveled against the EPA: the possibility of bias. While the EPA might have an agenda, Soon and Driessen can also be regarded as having an agenda of their own. As such, it is well worth considering their claims in the light of potential bias.
Since I am not an expert on mercury, I will not enter the fray other than to point out the obvious: mercury is well established as a toxin and it seems like a good idea to reduce the amount of the substance being released into the environment. However, I am willing to consider all the available evidence and arguments in terms of what level of pollution would meet an ethically acceptable balance between the costs to reduce the levels and the harms inflicted by this pollutant.