Suppose I told you there was a form of energy so plentiful it could encourage huge economic growth, a source so plentiful here in the United States that it could truly make America energy independent and vastly enhance our global political influence. That would be good news, right?
But suppose I also told you that capturing this energy source means drilling, and smashing the underground rocks with a pressurized mix of water and sand and industrial chemicals, and that the liquid that returns to the surface from this process sometimes contains low doses of toxic chemicals and even radioactivity, and that breaking up all that underground rock could cause earthquakes and let potentially dangerous gasses leak up to the surface, and there would be a lot of air pollution from all the heavy equipment needed to get the drilling going in the first place. And this process will make oil companies even richer. Sounds a little different now, right?
Welcome to the fracking debate, which is producing a lot of natural gas, and a growing amount of hot air about whether fracking is a good thing or a bad thing, opinions that have less to do with the facts than with how those facts are framed, and what frame of mind people are in as they form those opinions. Fracking is yet another example of the subjective, instinctive, affective way human cognition deals with risks, and it offers sobering lessons about the limits on our ability to reason about complex modern issues like this.