We’re trained to trust numbers when analyzing complex issues. The assumption is that numbers don’t lie and will take us to the answer – the truth. But is that always the case?
Consider this Great Lakes math example.
Waukesha, Wis. submitted its long-awaited request for Great Lakes water this week.
It’s a tome full of data and analysis designed to justify the Milwaukee suburb’s desire to divert 10 million gallons of Lake Michigan water each day. Waukesha is not in the Great Lakes basin and therefore is not automatically entitled to it.
Most of us won’t read the formal request and we don’t have to. It will be scrutinized by regulators and experts with the requisite technical and legal skills and by interested parties with different political persuasions and agendas.
But Waukesha wants to make its case to a greater audience than the officials who will render a decision.
It wants – probably needs — to convince the public in other states in the region plus two Canadian provinces that it deserves Lake Michigan water. That’s where the math comes into play.
The quantity of water Waukesha wants is the equivalent of taking “a teaspoon out of an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” says Dan Duchniak in an oft-repeated line from his diversion stump-speech. Duchniak manages the Waukesha Water Utility and is the city’s point-person for the diversion request.
Duchniak stresses that Waukesha is less than two miles from the Great Lakes basin and by the terms of the Great Lakes Compact is entitled to Lake Michigan water. In the next breath he emphasizes that the Compact prohibits water from being shipped to Las Vegas which is 2,000 miles from Lake Michigan.
Water needy cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix are the bête-noire when it comes to diversion threats. But Waukesha went further and also mentions China as a threat in a FAQ document. China is nearly 7,000 miles outside the Great Lakes basin and Waukesha only two.
There it is.
It’s the classic dodge of comparing the biggest possible number to the smallest one to make your case. But it’s not the math that’s faulty, it’s the logic.
According to Duchinak’s big number-small number comparison, who would deny water-needy Waukesha a pittance of Lake Michigan water? The important goal is to keep it from Las Vegas and horrors, China. Who wouldn’t agree with that?
But the issue isn’t about the quantity or distance, it’s about the precedent the decision will set.
The region needs to get the Waukesha decision right using the correct criteria because other cities barely outside the basin are sure to follow with requests. If Waukesha gets a pass they will want one too.
At stake with the Waukesha decision is the strength and integrity of the much-hyped Great Lakes Compact. Can it stand as a viable protector of six quadrillion gallons of water?
That’s what this is about. Not a few million gallons that will be returned to the lake anyway or the city’s proximity to Las Vegas and China.
Duchniak and Waukesha aren’t alone in taking license with number comparisons.
Hydrological fracturing – fracking – is another hot-button water issue with a math component used to justify the taking of tens of millions of gallons of groundwater in a short period.
The issue caught the attention of Michigan meteorologist Mark Torregrossa who was asked by readers if water taken for fracking could be a cause of low lake levels.
Fair enough, but it’s the wrong question and Torregrossa should have told his readers that.
Water taken for fracking can impact groundwater levels and high-quality streams in particular, but not levels of the Great Lakes.
Instead Torregrossa “did some math” using the big number-small number comparison and proved that fracking doesn’t impact levels of the Great Lakes.
He could have provided a better service for his readers and viewers if he had directed them to the right question.
When the Great Lakes Compact was under review, industry apologists said bottled water took so little water that it wasn’t a threat to the lakes.
They conveniently ignored the real issue that the exemption may have set a precedent by which the Compact could one day be tested in a court.
Distorted comparisons to sell a policy aren’t always limited to numbers. Exaggerated rhetoric can play a role. Let’s go back to the selling of the Great Lakes Compact.
The term “ironclad protections” was repeatedly used to describe how the Compact would protect the Great Lakes. Merriam-Webster defines “ironclad” as “too strong to be doubted or questioned.”
Even in 2008 and especially now does anyone really believe with water in demand and courts that have been politicized that the Compact is too strong … to be questioned? I don’t.
The Alliance for the Great Lakes doesn’t think so either. It recently released an analysis of the implementation of the Compact listing deficiencies that make it vulnerable legally. Ironically the Alliance is one of the groups that pushed hard to pass the Compact, bottled water and “ironclad protection” warts included.
I can hear the chirping now from critics of my numbers analysis. They say I should drop the principled stance and accept how the policy game is played today.
Inconvenient facts are set aside in favor of facts that support a position. Competing views are ignored or derisively dismissed and critical thinking is subservient to talking points and staying on the approved message.
The end result is all that matters and if truth and honesty are diminished, that’s the cost of doing business and achieving one’s goal.
That perfectly describes the mess of a government we have in Washington right now, especially in the House of Representatives.
Is that how we want to protect these waters that we pitch as a “national treasure?” By sinking to the lowest form of discourse and governance?
Certainly our treasured waters deserve an honest level of policy discussion, don’t they?