Aug. 12, 2011

A Response To Some of The Comments From "Game Changer"

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Sarah Koenig here. I’ve been away for the past month, so am just now responding to some of the comments about the gas drilling stories I reported for the "Game Changer" show that ran back in July.

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First, I’d like to correct an embarrassing error in the first half of the show, when Dan Volz from the University of Pittsburgh said one of the pollutants being dumped into water from fracking operations was "bromium." We got a bunch of emails, several from chemists, pointing out that there’s no such thing as bromium. Here’s one: "I can see the professor misspeaking, but when the producer goes on to say how bromium causes cancer, there should be a little more scrutiny."

I agree. I emailed Dan Volz about it, and he was chagrinned. He answered: "It was a slip-up—it is bromide—can’t believe I did it. Bromide in water becomes brominated compounds in finished drinking water after treatment." And those compounds can be bad for you. As for why I repeated the fake element of "bromium" in the script, I’m not exactly sure. I definitely looked up bromide to see what it did to you if you ate enough of it, but then must have just trusted that if Dan Volz called it "bromium," I should too. In any case, I apologize for the mistake, and I’m grateful listeners pointed it out.

The second thing I want to respond to is a press release that Penn State University issued after the show ran. (You can read the whole thing here.)

"The recent edition of This American Life relied solely on the views of one person, Dr. Terry Engelder. While Dr. Engelder is a distinguished researcher, a more thorough investigation into the variety of views held by a number of faculty members would have given a more accurate picture of the scholarly debate and constructive disagreement that serves as the foundation for Penn State’s research productivity in all fields of inquiry."

This is not true. Of course I didn’t only rely on Terry Engelder at Penn State. I talked both on the record and informally to at least a dozen faculty members about their Marcellus work—including geologists, a mining engineer, a chemist, several sociologists, a water expert—even an English professor who’s planning to start a humanities-based Marcellus project. I also made sure to say in the story that Penn State was not monolithic, and that there were lots of people doing all kinds of Marcellus research there. But my point was that at the beginning of the gas boom in Pennsylvania, PSU certainly looked like a booster of drilling. And that’s the reputation it quickly got. Broadcasting more interviews with other researchers wouldn’t have changed that fact. In any case, my story wasn’t a survey of Penn State's Marcellus work, it was a look at how research universities are tied to gas drilling in the state.

The PSU press release went on to say this: "What is most troubling is the suggestion by This American Life that the integrity of our research is a commodity that can be bought and sold. …The notion that we would accept a monetary donation in return for favorable research findings is insulting—baseless speculation rooted in a conspiratorial imagination."

This is perhaps a willful misinterpretation of what I say in the story. I never say research is bought and sold at Penn State. I did talk about the pro-industry economics report that the College of Earth and Mineral sciences put out, that was funded by the Marcellus Shale Coalition—initially without the authors acknowledging that. A report, by the way, that was criticized even by the college’s own dean, who said the researchers "may well have crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy."

As for the other research I mention, I never implied that it was skewed toward a certain result. Rather, I point out that funding from industry can tamp down dissent in an academic setting—which is most certainly true. For Penn State to pretend that the source of its funding has absolutely no bearing on how researchers do their work, on what they choose to investigate, or on how certain topics get publicly debated, is disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst.