Earth Day and Environmental Values Aren't Justification for Ignoring Evidence

04/23/2015 05:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

The voters of Concord Massachusetts decided a few years ago to ban the sale of single serving plastic water bottles. This was the result of a couple things; the strong environmental passions in the community, and the fact that Concord has an open town meeting form of government. Issues big and small are put before the public, and any local citizen who comes to the meeting gets to vote. It's about the purest form of democracy you can imagine. Which makes it, as Winston Churchill said, the worst form of government ever, except for all the others.

Town meeting is dangerously susceptible to decision making based more on values and emotions than evidence, a worrisome vulnerability in these days of increasing science denialism. Democratic, yes. Evidence-based intelligent decision making? Well, no.

But there can still be wisdom in the crowd, objective consideration of the scientific evidence about what would do the most good. The other night, Concord town meeting voters overwhelmingly defeated a call to stop fluoridating public drinking water, rejecting the proposal of a few who denied massive scientific evidence about the net benefits of fluoride and instead promoted excessive and largely unsubstantiated fears. And in another vote even more heartening for decision making based on the evidence rather than emotions, the town also rejected a move to block the use of artificial turf on playing fields.

The line of speakers in favor of that idea was long, their environmental passions fierce. Standard alarmist tropes like "toxic chemicals" (followed by a long list of scary polysyllabic examples) and "we're using our children as guinea pigs" were invoked. Simplistic faith in anything natural and demonization of anything artificial could be heard in pleas to "protect our natural environment", "grass is organic, plastic is not", and even "What would Thoreau do?" (It is not blasphemous to say that to some in Concord, Henry David has near Jesus-like status.)

Opponents of artificial turf brushed aside multiple thorough risk assessments that have found that these fields are not a health risk, using standard science denial language like "there is no proof these fields are safe" and "the research hasn't been done" and "if they contain toxic chemicals, it just stands to reason that the fields are toxic."

Several argued against artificial turf on grounds of environmental sustainability. A leader of the local environmental group charged that "a 2-acre artificial turf field generates 55.6 tons of carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases, pollutants and chemicals." This last claim ignored a preliminary life cycle analysis (Environmental and Health Impacts of Artificial Turf, A Review) that found that artificial turf fields are more environmentally favorable than grass fields, which also have environmental costs.

It was a stunning display of environmental values denying science evidence, from an intelligent group of passionate people who were pretty clearly looking at things through their environmental beliefs and ignoring or denying hard facts that didn't fit with their values. It was similar to the way ideology clouds the objectivity of those who deny the evidence on climate change.

A number of speakers challenged the move to block artificial turf. Many cited the robust evidence that such surfaces pose no health risk. Some introduced themselves as professionals or academics in environmental health sciences, and tried to address generic environmental chemophobia by explaining toxicology and risk assessment and even the basics of chemistry. One speaker even tried to dispel fears of "that chemical smell" from artificial turf. Apparently it's some form of sulfur.

But these speakers weren't really defending plastic grass. They were defending evidence-based reason. Most of them were clearly frustrated by the emotionalism of the other side. In the end this wasn't an argument about what kind of surface to put on playing fields. This was a deeper conflict between values and reason, about whether we should base our decisions on what our gut says or on what the facts say.

And encouragingly, reason won. 302 people voted to for the proposal to block artificial turf. But 454 rejected that proposal, because it seemed to be based more on emotion and less on an objective consideration of the evidence.

Many Concordians are proud that our town has become a national model with our ban on single serving plastic water bottles, a ban that got worldwide attention. But I suggest we should be even prouder of the vote we took the other night, a vote that demonstrates that open democracy can give fair voice to passionate values and still choose to rely on a thoughtful objective analysis of the evidence as people try to figure out what will do them and their communities the most good.