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Reason for Optimism

 Mark E. Jones, PhD
Mark E. Jones, PhD

There are lots of things I don’t know how I know. Facts ricochet around my head with no recollection of where I learned them. No real indication of their veracity. I learned 105 kcal/mol is the bond dissociation energy for methane. I just looked it up. It is still the bond dissociation energy for methane.  6.023 X 1023 molecules per mole was what I learned. 6.022 X 1023 is what it is now. The change is slight, but it still befuddles me. I must reflect for a moment every time I use Avogadro’s number, pausing to remember what I learned and then selecting the other option. 

Occasionally, I know exactly where I learned something. I learned that urban birds use the cellulose acetate from cigarette filters to build nests. I remember the room I was in, where I was sitting, who stated the fact and how she stated it. It was stated as yet another example of how humans were wrecking the planet. After I learned that birds were using cigarette butts as nesting material, a paper came out concluding that the birds were choosing the filter material because it reduced insect pests in the nest[1]. Chicks raise in nests containing tobacco-tainted material were healthier. More recently, the same researchers raised the potential of longer-term, chronic health impacts. The chicks were healthier, but some metrics indicated adult birds hatched in tobacco laden nests suffer longer lasting, chronic harm[2]. 

Science is, in part, observational. The observation that birds use cigarette filters for nesting material is now a scientific fact. Determining the impact of those filters is more complicated, more difficult to interpret, more nuanced.

Science builds on observations to be predictive, linking causes and effects. Science guides actions. Compelling science on the merits of cigarette butt nests could lead me to offer cigarette butts to the bluebirds and robins currently nesting in my yard. I am not a smoker. I have no ready source of used cigarette filters. I don’t see myself collecting them given current understanding of the causes and effects. Compelling science indicating the filters cause harm to birds would spur very different action. I could use forums, like this, to implore responsible disposal, disposal that eliminates the chance they ever end up in nests. I already make a point of picking up trash, but currently don’t bother with the infrequent cigarette butt. Cellulose acetate and paper degrade rapidly in the environment and I find them kind of disgusting. I would overcome my disgust if I knew birds were being actively harmed. Were the science more settled, it would guide action. 

I fall victim to motivated reasoning. Things that sound right, things that I want to believe are accepted easily. Things that I don’t want to believe are more easily ignored, more easily called unsettled science. I don’t do it intentionally, but I am likely to hold onto preexisting beliefs, yearning for new while clinging to the familiar. “No level of alcohol consumption improves health” is the title of a 2018 meta-analysis on alcohol consumption[3]. The title is amazingly succinct and direct.  It could have easily been “Don’t drink alcohol, it is bad for you”. The analysis concludes that any slight potential benefits are more than offset by negative impacts on health. Motivated reasoning let me drink a glass of wine last night. There is some subjectivity to the measure of benefits and detriments. It is nuanced, at least nuanced enough, to let me hold hope the wine I drank last night wasn’t bad for me. I’ve been exposed to data, but I’ve not yet turned those data into knowledge. Synthesis of knowledge from data requires processing. That processing is flawed, not just for me, but for all of us. Motivated reasoning lets me drink.

Things get more complicated when trying to ascertain group knowledge. My wife and I clearly offer different responses to data on the deleterious impacts of alcohol consumption. Two reasonably intelligent people confronted with the same data act differently. I can state with some certainty when my family knew bluebirds built a nest in the yard, a simple observational fact immediately shared. I don’t know whether my wife spent even one clock cycle pondering cigarette butts and birds.  Even if the science were completely settled, my knowledge does not translate to family knowledge. My family doesn’t know about, doesn’t have a position on, birds and cigarette butts, any more than we have a unified position on alcohol consumption. Even with a small group, determining when consensus interpretation of complicated data is reached is challenging. Yet, it is surprisingly common to ask when a company, a group of people, knew something. 

Darren Woods, the current CEO of ExxonMobil, recently wrote about carbon capture in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal[4]. The climate journey of ExxonMobil is exceedingly well described. Entire books are written about it[5]. The discussion is disproportionately about when and what the company knew about climate change. Mr. Woods outlines intent to make a business of carbon capture.  It is not a treatise on acceptance of scientific consensus or impacts on existing company business. Mr. Woods never states in this most recent piece whether he or ExxonMobil believe in human-caused climate change. Previous CEOs clearly stated they didn’t[6]. Questions were raised about whether best available science was used to inform company decisions[7]. These investigations make a point of highlighting documents indicating when data were presented[8]. An epiphany by one member of a group, one employee in a company, doesn’t indicate an epiphany by the entire group or company. Motivated reasoning, spiced with cognitive dissonance, means that reaching consensus within any group can be slow, especially when the data are challenging and nuanced. It is my conjecture that defining an exact moment a company knew something is impossible. It isn’t a reasonable question of any group of people short of directly observable facts. 

Science is a game of guess and test. It is no surprise that facts are questioned, reconsidered and updated. The hesitancy of the petrochemical enterprise to embrace climate change is now a thing of the past. Motivated reasoning held back acceptance. Now motivated reasoning is enabling it. Like ExxonMobil, many oil companies are now seeing opportunity in carbon storage[9]. Motivated reasoning prompted by fear is now superseded by reasoning motivated by opportunity. Change in collective thought takes time.  

CO2 Volume at Different Depths

An illustration of CO2 volume changes as depth increases. Depth in kilometers. Volume in Liters.  Depth 0. Volume: 1000. State: Gas. Depth: 0.4. Volume: 20. State: Gas. Depth: 0.6. Volume 11. State: Gas. Depth 0.8. Volume 3.8. State: Gas. Approximate critical depth. Depth  1. Volume 3.2. State: Liquid. Depth 1.5. Volume 2.8. State: Liquid. Depth 2. Volume 2.7. State: Liquid. Depth 2.5. Volume 2.7. State: Liquid.
An illustration of CO2 volume decreasing as depth increases. Depth in kilometers. Volume in liters. 1000 liters of CO2 shrinks to just a volume of just 2.7 liters as it moves from the surface to a depth of 2.5 kilometers. Beyond a depth of 0.8 km, CO2 changes from gas to liquid.

I am optimistic that I will soon see fledged bluebirds flitting about my yard. Other than the money thrown at them in the form of $6 per pound mealworms, I haven’t actively intervened to ensure their health. My exposure to data on the impacts of nesting material failed to drive action. I do run a periodic search looking for “tequila is good for you”. So far nothing has turned up, but I remain an optimistic victim of motivated reasoning. I am also optimistic about the change in mindset in the petrochemical industry regarding climate change. The decision to be part of the solution, long in coming, is reason for optimism regardless of the motivation.

References:

  1. Suarez-Rodriguez Monserrat, Lopez-Rull I. & Macias Garcia Constantino "Incorporation of cigarette butts into nests reduces nest ectoparasite load in urban birds: new ingredients for an old recipe?", Biology Letters, 9 (1), 2012, 20120931-20120931. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0931
  2. Suárez-Rodríguez, Monserrat; Montero-Montoya, Regina D.  and Macías Garcia, Constantino; "Anthropogenic Nest Materials May Increase Breeding Costs for Urban Birds" Front. Ecol. Evol., 03 February 2017.  doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2017.00004
  3. Burton, Robyn; Sheron Nick;  "No level of alcohol consumption improves health", The Lancet,  22 September 2018;392(10152):987-8.  doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31571-X
  4. Woods, Darren W.; Blommaert, Joe; "ExxonMobil’s Plan to Capture Carbon", The Wall Street Journal, 20 April 2021.  www.wsj.com/articles/exxonmobils-plan-to-capture-carbon-11618871420
  5. Banerjee, Neela; Cushman, Jr., John H.; Hasemyer, David; and Song, Lisa; Exxon:  The Road Not Taken,  InsideClimate News (October 28, 2015) and is available from Amazon and other sources.
  6. Former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond made statements at the Detroit Economic Club in 1996,
  7. www.climatefiles.com/lee-raymond-collection/1996-exxon-raymond-moving-forward-together-economic-club/, and at the World Petroleum Congress in 1997, www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/1997-exxon-lee-raymond-speech-at-world-petroleum-congress/
  8. Schwartz, John; "Rex Tillerson Testifies in Exxon Climate Change Case", The New York Times, 30 October 2019. www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/climate/rex-tillerson-exxon-climate-change-case.html
  9. Hall, Shannon; "Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago", Scientific American, 26 October 2015, www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/
  10. McFarlane, Sarah; "Oil Giants Turn to Carbon Storage", The Wall Street Journal, 20 April 2021. www.wsj.com/articles/shell-exxon-look-to-profit-from-capturing-customers-carbon-emissions-11618824602

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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