There has been predictable frothing at the suggestion by Professor Averil Macdonald, Chairwoman of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, that more women than men oppose fracking because women are more prone to follow their gut instinct than the science behind fracking. I am going to keep out of that debate, not because I fear for my chances of landing an honorary fellowship – if Tim Hunt’s experience is anything to go by, the world of academia will fall in on Professor Macdonald -- but because I am more interested in what fracking tells us of the attitude of the left towards science.
Over the past few years the left has tried to establish itself as the defender of scientific reason. Naomi Klein wrote an entire book attempting to make the case that there is a war between enlightened science on the one hand and nasty, greedy capitalism on the other. She and others have attempted to present climate change sceptics as people who deliberately blind themselves to empirical evidence because it suits their financial or emotional interests to do so.
But turn the subject to the safety of fracking and there is some frantic switching of horses. Suddenly, it isn’t empirical evidence which guides the thinking of the left but rumour and gut feeling. If a left-wing US documentary-maker once made a film showing people setting alight the gas which issues from their water taps then it must be evidence of the greed and callousness of the fracking industry, no matter how many times it is pointed out to them that the phenomenon had been misrepresented: the problem of water contaminated by methane in parts of Pennsylvania is a natural phenomenon which pre-dates fracking in the state and which is unrelated to it.
If you want to argue about that, don’t argue with me but with David Siegel, a hydrogeologist from Syracuse University, New York, whose team analysed data from 11,000 drinking water wells and found no correlation between methane content of water and fracking activity. And yes, George Monbiot, his paper – in Environmental Science and Technology in April -- was peer-reviewed.
The hysteria of the anti-fracking lobby hit new heights this week when Friends of the Earth claimed a linking between fracking and cancer, saying: 'Frack sand tends to contain significant amounts of silica which is a known carcinogen'. Well, yes, frack sand does contain rather a lot of silica – it is the defining component of all sand. But that doesn’t mean that injecting layers of rock with sand many hundreds of feet below the ground is going to put you at the risk of suffering from the lung diseases suffered by workers who spend a lot of time with silica dust. There is a far more likely place where most people will come into contact with harmless large grains of silica: the beach.
It was the same with GM crops, an industry forced out of Britain thanks to the anti-scientific scare stories of the left. If the left wants to be the champion of scientific reason it had better stop picking and choosing which bits of science it likes and which bits it doesn’t.