Has science lost its power of persuasion?

Craig Liska

I am not a curmudgeon, but since Andy Rooney is no longer with us to continue his long-time  “60 Minutes” tradition, I thought I would take a crack at being one…

During the 32 years I’ve worked in the EHS/Sustainability field, I’ve noticed that many EHS professionals inherently want to do “the right thing,” and are much more comfortable than most people using science as a means to help decide what is right.  Traditionally, one of our profession’s biggest challenges has been convincing senior management that what is scientifically the “the right thing” to do can also be good for the business.  And using a scientific rationale has typically been more appealing to the public as well.  Customers and end users are more likely to rally around an idea based on good science rather than one motivated by political ideals, and I think trust has much to do with this.

Have you noticed, though, that recently there seems to be a growing tendency to defer to the short and simple solution regardless of what may be scientifically correct?

One example of this that you might have encountered is the use of recycled paper.  Everyone agrees that using recycled paper is good for the environment because it keeps paper out of the landfill and reduces carbon emissions.  So, the simple solution has been to use as much recycled paper as possible in every type of paper.  But what if good science (Life Cycle Assessment) tells you that it is not that simple and finds that it actually depends on which type of paper you are reusing it in?

Using recycled paper in magazines can require significant processing to remove the inks before it is bright enough for use, while using recycled paper in cardboard boxes would require less de-inking with their lower brightness requirements.  This extra processing usually involves fossil fuel-based electricity along with higher CO2 emissions. Most of the energy used to make virgin magazine paper, on the other hand,  comes from renewable energy. Although it requires more energy to make than recycled paper, virgin paper may  wind up having lower carbon emissions (thanks to the use of renewables).

So, which is better to use: recycled paper or virgin paper?  The answer is, “It depends.”  Unfortunately, many people don’t like that answer or want to spend the time to understand the issue more clearly.   I find one of the biggest challenges in our profession is being able to communicate that complex, scientific “right thing to do” in simple terms that are persuasive.  I am sure you all have similar stories on digging too deep into the weeds.

What have been your successes in communicating complex solutions in simple terms?

About Craig Liska

Craig Liska is Vice President of Sustainability for Verso Paper Corp., where he is responsible for integrating the company’s sustainability into decisions affecting all aspects of the business. This involves decisions from procurement and manufacturing, to product development and final disposition of products. He served as the President of NAEM from 2005-2006.

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1 Comment
  1. Jim Renner

    November 29, 2011

    You are correct – it depends. The example of life cycle analysis indicating that virgin magazine paper is actually “better” than recycled magazine paper because it is usually produced with renewable energy is valid only if the most highly valued concern is carbon emissions and global warming. If instead we are concerned with aquatic biodiversity then all that “renewable” energy from hydroelectric sources starts to look pretty bad. It’s a tough challenge to communicate complex issues in simple (comprehensible) terms. Instead, the mistake we often make is to simplify the issue rather than the communication.

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