Let’s debate facts – not feelings

South Africa has more than its fair share of emotive debates on complex issues. Land redistribution, statues of dead men and when MPs should be thrown out of Parliament; we have a lot to disagree on and we like to disagree robustly and loudly.

Of such debates is born the implementation of a healthy democracy.

But shouting at one another without the benefit of facts – when facts are to be had – is silly. Yet that is exactly what we have been doing. Whether we should frack the Karoo to exploit shale gas is perhaps a case in point. We do not yet know whether South Africa has shale gas reserves in the Karoo, yet there are strong, entrenched opinions on whether we should allow hydraulic fracturing (fracking) if they are there.

Critics tell us fracking will destroy biodiversity, water resources and livelihoods in this arid region, but there have been no scientific studies specific to our particular geography, nor risk calculations that we can believe. Proponents say this gas can change the game, keeping the lights on cheaply while saving us from more dirty coal-fired electricity, yet they have no idea how much it will cost to extract if it is even there.

In a rare show of the kind of leadership we so often call for, the government has created a task team to look at the technical and governance issues around fracking, and whether fracking is actually appropriate for South Africa. On paper the model this panel will use is an excellent one. The assessment team will be based at the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, which allows everyone with a stake to figure out what it is that they agree on and what needs negotiation. The team will be made up of experts from South Africa, rather than expensive consultants from other countries. And an online portal is due to show us their work, so citizens can watch progress, then watch policy-makers to see what they implement and what they ignore.

Inclusion, expertise, transparency, accountability. These form a rather excellent foundation from which we can then, once again, start shouting at one another. After all, facts do not preclude disagreement – and of that there will be plenty more.

But to debate on the basis of science-based evidence before making decisions is something we should aspire to in every field where it is possible. In South Africa, we have no shortage of contentious issues – from nuclear technologies and genetically modified foods to whether 10-year-olds should be given condoms and the legalisation of marijuana – but what we need are facts so that we can have meaningful debates, instead of shouting.

Government is taking a step in the right direction, and hopefully we will see many similar panels in many disparate fields in the future, calling on South Africa’s scientists and experts to help guide decision-making, and giving citizens a chance to formulate informed opinions and raise the tenor of debate in the country.

Sarah Wild is the science editor of the Mail & Guardian

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