Thursday, June 28, 2007

Not when turbines are placed next to towns and residences

Submitted by Paul Faber, the following was also printed in the Hays Daily News, June 2007:

Once in a while you hear from an old student — sometimes second-hand — that you actually made some contribution to the student’s education. It’s most pleasant, of course, when the student seems to have actually understood what you were trying to teach and is finding it meaningful.

But it probably happens almost as often that the student will say something like, “I have always remembered when you taught us that the earth is flat,” or some other thing that you never in your wildest dreams tried to teach.

In fact, a few students studying logic sometimes seem to get the point just backward about fallacies. Fallacies are mistakes in reasoning. They look like logical arguments, but if you study them under the microscope you find there is a flaw in the reasoning.

We teach about fallacies so that people will avoid them in their own thinking and writing and speaking, or at least so we think. But every once in a while we run into someone who studies fallacies and thinks he ought to start using more of them.

The feeling that I’ve run into people who prefer to use fallacies has returned recently.

In the ongoing debate about the application for a conditional use permit for CPV Wind Hays, an application, that is, for legal permission to erect near Hays about 130 400-foot tall structures with wind turbines on top, a fallacy of relevance has popped.

Fallacies of relevance occur when someone puts forward some purported evidence for a position when that evidence is actually not relevant to the truth or falsity of the position. The evidence itself may very well be true, and it might even be emotionally appealing. But it just does not offer logical support for a position.

Here is an example of that sort of fallacy in an exaggerated form. Suppose that I claim that Mitt Romney will be our next president. When asked for my evidence I say, “Because coal is black.” It is true that coal is black, but it is just not connected to, not relevant to, the truth or the falsity of my prediction about Mr. Romney.

Here is an example of the fallacy that is a little less obvious. Suppose someone says that global warming seems to be happening and that therefore the county ought to grant CPV Wind Hays’ application to build the industrial wind complex near Hays.

Now global warming does seem to be happening. The evidence in the argument — the premise, as it is called — is true.

And there is a connection between global warming and the desirability of wind-generated electricity. Though I will not go into that whole connection, the mechanisms producing global warming are now well-known, even if known somewhat imperfectly, and the use of wind promises to be an alternative to some coal-fired power plants.

But that reasoning, even if we were to develop it in detail, shows at most (and even this is in dispute) that developing wind power is a good idea.

It does not show that this particular development of wind power is a good idea.

To say that global warming is happening and therefore we ought to build this particular wind project next to Hays is a fallacy.

It is like saying, “Open heart surgery is a good thing. Therefore you ought to have open heart surgery.” The “location” of the surgery — the person, his or her medical condition, and his or her need for the surgery — are crucial to the determination of whether or not this particular use of open heart surgery is something that ought to be done.

Similarly, using the wind to generate electricity is a good thing. But as is the case with heart surgery, the location is important.

Given the health and safety risks, the aesthetic considerations, and the unjust burdens it places on those who would reside near a turbine, the location is crucial.

Many of us support using the wind to generate electrical power, but we do not support putting them next to residential areas when there are better alternatives available.

Politicians from the eastern part of Kansas may state that the dying towns of western Kansas should be happy to host a minor level of economic development. And it may be rational for some people to accept the risks of industrial wind development to stave off the dying just as it is rational for some people to accept the risks of open heart surgery.

Wind power may be good.

But that does not prove that the CPV Wind Hays proposal to put those turbines next to Hays is a good idea. It’s not.

Submitted by Paul Faber
Hays, Kansas

Paul Faber has been teaching philosophy at Fort Hays State University for 20 years.

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