Syracuse University Professor of Geology Donald Siegel delivered a wide-ranging talk on Nov. 29 on his experience researching the impacts of hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) and the relationship between scientific research, media and public policy.
Siegel is a scholar of hydrology and geochemistry. He has published numerous articles on subjects ranging from the movement of water through peat bogs to groundwater contamination, worked for the United States Geological Survey, and testified as an expert witness in environmental cases at the state and federal level.
Recently Siegel has turned his expertise to investigating claims of drinking water contamination related to hydrofracking—a comparatively new technique used in the extraction of natural gas. In hydrofracking, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals are pumped miles below the surface at extremely high pressure to break apart rocks and release otherwise inaccessible gas.
While the technology was perfected in the 1990s, a recent boom in exploration and drilling throughout the United States has led to a contentious debate with advocates claiming lowered risks and impacts compared to other methods of oil and gas extraction.
Meanwhile opponents have raised concerns about possible contamination of drinking water and increased earthquakes related to the practice of disposing of fracking fluid (the water-based mixture pumped into wells) by pumping it into disposal wells.
Siegel was thrust abruptly into the middle of this debate by the 2015 publication of a journal article where he and his co-authors stated that they had found no connection between fracking in the mid-Atlantic region and methane levels in drinking water sampled from wells across the state.
Proponents of fracking immediately praised the study while many environmental groups argued back citing earlier studies with a smaller sample size that had produced conflicting results. The debate over Siegel’s article likely would have ended there were it not for an unfortunate oversight. Siegel failed to disclose that Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas company, had funded the collection of the water samples used in the study and paid him the equivalent of a month’s salary for his participation.
After this detail surfaced, Siegel provided a broad disclosure statement detailing the limited compensation he had received and defending his study on the grounds that his team had simply run statistical analyses on the data and commented on the trends the observed—leaving no room for manipulation.
Despite Siegel’s disclosure, condemnation was swift. Critics called for his removal or resignation at Syracuse University and demanded an ethics review from both the University and the journal that had published his article. Criticism continued despite an inquiry that found he was in full compliance with all University internal disclosure policies. Even a later study by Penn State researchers that repeated Siegel’s methods using a larger data set and produced similar results did not quell the matter.
For Siegel the experience prompted much reflection on the relationship between science, media, and public policy—a central theme of his presentation. He condemned the practice of selectively highlighting scientific studies that align with policy goals noting, “it’s not just industry that does the cherry-picking, the liberal environmental community does the cherry-picking at the same time.”
Siegel also used the term “truthiness” to describe the behavior of “believing what we want to believe about an issue rather than following the facts,” stating, “we’re all guilty of “truthiness” in the process of advocating for what we think is right in science today.” Finally, he made a call to investigate contentious matters from a rational scientific viewpoint rather than resorting to selective use of studies and deceitful talking points.
Siegel ended the talk on a more light-hearted note. In addition to his academic expertise, he is an amateur chef and jazz guitarist—he closed the presentation with a rendition of the jazz standard “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” simultaneously showing off his skills as a musician and summing up the message of his talk at the same time.