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Negotiating the Facts
Peter S. Adler
Editors’ Note: Many believe that in negotiations as elsewhere, facts are the bedrock, the only things that can be firmly ascertained and then relied on, in a shifting universe of personalities, perceptions and preferences. Adler, steeped in the mediation of scientific disputes, begs to differ. Facts in science are routinely challenged. Factual disagreement is also at the heart of many public policy disputes, and cannot be successfully papered over by focusing either on interests or positions. Yet after years of experimentation, public policy negotiators and mediators have made considerable progress in developing systems and structures for uncovering the assumptions and data that underlie many difficult disputes. This makes it possible to address fact-driven disputes more productively—and the technology now exists to do this on a wider scale. Adler shows how. This chapter should be read in conjunction with Wade on Dueling Experts.
As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life—so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls.
“Are We Being Poisoned?”
Most of us were taught that a “fact” is something that has been proven through scientific, legal, or rules-of-logic reasoning. Once established, facts become incontrovertible and irreversible knowledge until better proofs appear. But are facts really established only through analysis and competing assertions of the truth of a particular matter? Aren’t many “facts” actually negotiated? Consider the following.
A dozen people are gathered in a room at a local community center. They are halfway through an expected yearlong odyssey to answer a dozen similar questions. The suspected and feared culprit is hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a chemical compound that is emitted as a colorless gas with the odor of rotten eggs. Everyone has smelled it and the human nose is extremely sensitive to it even at low concentrations. H2S is heavier than air and potentially poisonous, corrosive, and flammable at high levels and acute exposures. But what about chronic low-level exposure: Is that harmful? Are people exposed to this chemical, from common sources like sewers, septic tanks, old buildings or hot springs, slowly being damaged like the proverbial frog in a slow-boiling pot?
The particular emissions in question are a periodic byproduct from a 38-megawatt geothermal energy plan in the Puna District south of Hilo on the Island of Hawaii. The plant is near Kilauea Volcano. Hawaii is committed to clean energy independence and geothermal is an important part of the emerging fuel mix to get away from fossil fuels. Hawai?i Island has the hottest geothermal resources in the state. It is the Iceland of the Pacific. But there are problems.
Neighbors and anti-geothermal advocates claim damages and resent the intrusion of an industrial energy plant in a rural bucolic area. For some, it is a not-in-my-backyard issue, with H2S and other science and health questions merely part of a larger battle strategy. For others, H2S exposure is an open question that needs answering. Plant operators and local and federal regulators see no evidence to substantiate the health harm claims. Local community members think otherwise.
So in the face of escalating and often vitriolic local arguments, the Mayor of Hawai’i County, Billy Kenoi, has commissioned a Joint Fact Finding Study Group that is investigating a number of the science issues that the community has raised. The group is composed of knowledgeable and science-literate community members on both sides of the issue, plus several outside experts who have academic backgrounds in gas chemistry, bio-statistics, epidemiology, and volcanology. The questions: Does the plant emit H2S, is the H2S damaging people’s health, how is H2S being monitored, and what studies should be done to ensure the community’s long term health and safety?
The Mayor is committed to taking the results forward, finding future funding, and moving ahead with whatever negotiated result the group can offer. He is a rare politician....
For full contents please purchase The Negotiator’s Desk Reference.
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