Innovation Strategy -What Lies Ahead – Data for Emissions Monitoring – Is More Really Less?

By Michael Zimmer

We are seeing an advancement in post-truth politics in the U.S., the EU and parts of Asia. While arising in politics this year, I am concerned that the interplay of technology with emissions monitoring could lead to similar results on environmental, science and public policy. Current behavioral research is indicating that many humans do not naturally seek the truth. In many instances, humans consciously seek to avoid a confrontation with truthful reality. Familiar information is increasingly deemed more true and consumers are cherry- picking and selecting data to support their existing predilections and views. Daniel Kahneman in his recent book “ Thinking, Fast and Slow”, has characterized this phenomenon as “cognitive ease”. In this regard, our citizens have a tendency to avoid factual data that would force them to work harder or exercise deeper mental capacities. In other cases, the confrontation with corrective facts can strengthen the beliefs of people as well – no matter if the beliefs are right or wrong.

As technology and big data will increase data points in the fields of environmental science, biases and increased arguments over what is true, academic, scientific, legal, and accurate will escalate. Consensus will become harder to find. Will societies need to develop a truth-seeking infrastructure to process such big data by in the future for truthfulness where there is little or no independent evidence? Otherwise with increasing use of sensors creating data for the internet of things, private data investigators will increasingly rule coupled with advancements in social media techniques over academics, science and government regulation. Such a new regime for environmental monitoring will be constantly subject to abuse by the very citizens to whom it grants privilege. It may be slow to build up initially but will quickly accelerate, and actually adversely impact environmental policy, credibility and decision-making. In some instances, some have advanced the notion that the analytics function separate from the big machine function needs deep human involvement and may be rendered a critical public utility for the future to ensure effective social truths for informed policy making and decisions.

This is observed about technology and environmental monitoring because the public universe is facing a loss of trust in institutions that support truthful, scientific infrastructure in decision-making. Trust does not exist with the deep changes in the way knowledge of the world is developed, verified, synthesized and ultimately reaches the public. In many instances, the country has exceeded its tolerance for experts and decentralized monitoring for environmental emissions may accelerate those trends. This reflects a systematic removal of trust in institutions that have been undermined since the 1970s by social, political, Internet and other market forces. Climate policy has emerged as the epitome of post-truth politics in challenges to scientific inquiry in support of public policy decision-making. Many have decided to cast aspersions on the need for climate policy by stressing (to the point of distortion) uncertainties in the underlying science itself. We’ve seen this in the past in the automobile, tobacco, toxic chemicals, energy and environmental communities on critical issues of national importance.

New techniques for environmental monitoring could become the next wave for fostering post-truth politics in the marketplace. The data itself can be mismanaged and if analyzed improperly could foster continual lack of scientific certainty on critical environmental public policy issues. The uncertainty could be used to challenge, desecrate and deny full faith and credit in scientific conclusions to make the truth seem distant, (and not understandable) for public policy decision-making. Websites, sponsors and their hosts, and increasingly the scientific community with the political establishment along with the government itself have become targets for political parties, records of activist judges and the mainstream media. Thus, a citizen scientist movement spawned by technology may be driven by a mistrust of environmental regulators and industry. Those outcomes foster concern over data quality, ability to properly interpret the data, and political agendas to spin the data to support private agendas. A new dimension of risk is created, and risk becomes a new citizen’s weapon along with other dimensions of risk management.

This challenge is exacerbated by the increasing presence of the Internet and social media with the related services it has spawned. Pew Research Center has concluded that increasingly 66% of US adults now receive news on social media, and 20% use social media for news often. With various social media tools, content is no longer provided in standard formats. Social media can assume different techniques including virtual reality, videos, charts and tables, animation, and podcasts to convey information, data and conclusions. Increasingly social media is creating clusters around similarly thinking people seeking validation for internally derived decisions fostered by the ease and convenience offered by the Internet. Individuals with common interests seem to cluster around a source of information online rather than what is available off-line. Social media strengthens the members to exercise “group think”, under the ruse of collaboration rather than teamwork to merely strengthen each others beliefs. In the process, this “herd instinct” closes down contrary or contradictory information and research. This new social consensus becomes the basis of collective action. Best practices or benchmarking would be more desirable to counter this adverse outcome.

Facebook is a perfect example in that the social network centers on trapping its users in their own world according to the Economist. Its algorithms are created to provide news feeds to its users with content similar to materials they previously liked, but not fresh or contrary views. Since the news feeds conform with users’ predilections and previously established expectations they become a poor filter of the truth. Popular information vs. reliable information are two separate products and increasingly in the social media there is little advantage in being correct. Absent social media news reporting, the marketplace has not improved in separating truth from fiction along with reality. Online publications in the press increasingly face a lack of quality, declining advertising revenues and staffing reporting cutbacks in competing with the new alternative media sources. If coupled with a big data and new environmental monitoring data, increasing pollution of the digital media stream could occur which could impact in a detrimental manner the quality of environmental risk management, public policy decision-making and planning.

Neutrality in the quest of truth has seemingly passed with time in the face of the huge sea of information already derived, which is subjective rather than objective. In some instances, a glut of information is increasingly being used by government to flood the marketplace with distraction rather than exercise direct censorship as seen in China, Turkey and in the Middle East. Increasingly the marketplace is turning to fact checking sites, which have escalated in the United States where there are now nearly 100 such sites according to the Reporters Lab. These tools are only available when citizens effectively seek them out and put them to use. The alternative is to carefully watch environmental monitoring and not relinquish the power of scientific evidence in data collection and analytics to end-users on a decentralized basis. Instead, academics must seek to re-create the integrity provided by gatekeepers in the past. In the current social media world, it pays to be quick and outrageous but not necessarily accurate or truthful. Furthermore, there is increasingly little damage or reputational consequences in making false statements i.e. in the marketplace or current media outlets. Gatekeeper functions centered on best practices and benchmarking also do provide the specter of abuse but there is a rich history and opportunity to provide balance coupled with meaningful oversight and enforcement. This would avoid the more destructive outcomes of centralized environmental monitoring with a collaborative of sensory, big data opinions and no analytics inconsistently derived.

If not careful when coupled with social media, the end result of new data for environmental monitoring will not inspire confidence or satisfaction. Social media companies have no ethics or professional responsibility in their efforts. Shifting to algorithms will codify the bias of the programmers and code writers, while placing artificial intelligence in charge may create a worse outcome than anything we’ve seen to date. Finally, self-appointed gatekeepers and a regulatory or political outcome should equally be scrutinized as they suffer from a lack of objectivity, accountability and increasingly exposure to” pay to play” PAC fueled environment that has appeared in the US political system. That system may now be fostered for environmental monitoring and regulation under the Internet of things ahead. A new dimension of political risk lies ahead.


Michael Zimmer – Sustainable & Alternative Energy
Executive in Residence, The Voinovich School of Leadership & Public Affairs, Ohio University,

Michael J Zimmer has been an Executive in Residence at the Voinovich School and Russ College of Engineering & Technology since 2007. He also serves as Washington Counsel to the Microgrid Institute and Americans for Community Development. He also is Secretary to the National Institute of Building Technology CFIRE Committee. He currently is working on several issues with Ohio University on food, energy and water development, energy efficiency, technology development and finance, project management, environmental policy and public private partnerships in the Appalachian region. As a notable energy law practitioner for 35 years until his retirement in 2013, he successfully completed energy projects in 35 states and 20 foreign countries.

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