Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Obvious to the Oblivious

"The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him." -Leo Tolstoy

For some time now our community has been locked in battle over a proposed wind development on the outskirts of Hays. In full disclosure, I too have been involved in this debate and am decidedly against the location presently under consideration.

One of the most astounding things about the industrial wind debate in Ellis County is the polarization which has occurred. Polarization has been evident since the debate emerged in the public eye several months ago. Since the Commission vote, it seems to have intensified. Meanwhile, Iberdrola completely ignores the invitation to engage in an open community discussion, and the division rages on.

When reading the evidence concerning industrial wind power, it becomes quickly apparent that conclusions are mixed at best. There may be positive aspects of industrial wind generation but these benefits are very often offset by poor planning and placement. It also bears mentioning that the issues surrounding industrial wind projects are complex and difficult to sort out. That however does not excuse us from our responsibility to wrestle with the dissonance.

As such, I have been struggling to make sense of various claims and positions of some of my fellow citizens on both sides of this debate. Recently however, as I read an opinion piece in the HDN, the admonitions of my research dissertation chair began to reverberate loudly in my head, “BEWARE OF SELECTION BIAS”.

Regardless of which side a person is on in this debate, it seems that he or she has all the evidence on their side. If you don’t believe me, just ask them. Of course it is also apparent that their claims are biased. More specifically they reflect a particular type of selection bias known as “confirmation bias”. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek information that only supports your position while ignoring data that contradicts it. Therefore, you seek only what you want, and find it every time.

Confirmation bias explains a tremendous amount of what has occurred in this debate. It is evident that this “my side” bias accelerates polarization and distortion of logic. As just one of many examples, project proponents claim that a wide majority of perhaps 80% of the county populace supports them. On what basis do they make these claims? It’s simple really, because they associate with people that share their views, look for evidence that supports that view and discount the evidence that doesn’t fit well with their position. To be fair, there is a slim chance that 80% do agree with them, but they don’t know this and they display no intention to find out. It’s like saying “I have made up my mind already, so don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Even the most touted aspects of this proposal are wrought with confirmation bias. The economic impact questions are far from known. Those for the project are convinced it will be positive, while those against it, argue more will be lost than gained. Ask either side and you’ll hear an “irrefutable” answer that just so happens to agree with them.

This bias is so rampant that logic bears no burden in carrying even the most basic questions. It is nearly impossible to effectively argue (when considering all the issues) that the proposed location of this industrial development is the best location available in Ellis County. Other wind projects are almost always placed in isolated or economically declining areas. This project is proposed next to the only growing city in northwest Kansas. This obvious problem does not trouble those committed to this wind development. They skirt the issue entirely, try and confuse the issue by injecting arguments not related to the question and engage in defensive posturing, all in the effort to avoid challenging their pre-existing bias and thereby risk their personal interest.

As the interested parties of one side or the other bicker over who possesses the correct information regarding this proposed wind development, the real travesty continues unabated. While it may be academically interesting to posit who is right, the independent data that would support an unbiased answer to that question has never been collected. Meanwhile, the county commission is busy determining what will actually happen.

Though the vote has been taken and the project declined, Iberdrola vows to push on, in the effort to have this development approved. Many feel this decision is the most important decision Ellis County will face in our lifetimes. With these stakes, we should demand our decision makers base this decision on unbiased information collected by independent scientific study. We must demand a moratorium on this and future applications in order to take the time necessary to candidly study the impacts of developments this large on the city of Hays and the outlying county. This objective information can then be utilized to create a comprehensive land use plan, and reform the various zoning regulations that fail to support this plan. With this new vision and regulation, we can finally rest knowing that the true purpose of zoning, to protect all the citizens of Ellis County, is our authentic goal.

As it stands, two commissioners have signed letters of support fully two years prior to the application and subsequent public discussion. If they continue to deliberate, they do so without the benefit of a single independent study to shed light on even one of the many questions of this development. Without a comprehensive plan, better regulations and impartial information to inform the questions of this project, what will guide their decision? You guessed it, confirmation bias.

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