Intel and the ignoranti

The controversy around Intel's smokestack emissions is getting nasty. Pro-Intel letters to the editor are calling hundreds of ill Corraleños “ignoranti,” and suggesting tranquilizers be put into the water to calm down the “crazies.”

This smear campaign is directed at people who claim Intel has a long and predictable history of emitting toxic chemicals into the air that has caused them severe and often debilitating illness. Intel's experts and some state officials disagree. Intel whistle blowers, state epidemiologists, and other experts side bravely with Corrales residents.

The petty name calling sounds like an excerpt from the documentary “The Corporation.” The film is a withering expose' of corporate coldheartedness. It works from the premise that some corporations, as legal entities, often behave like pathological personalities who care for nothing but their own financial advantage, having abandoned social conscience for the bottom line.

This says nothing, of course, of the solid citizens and good people who work for corporations. But the Intel issue isn't just about money. It's also about science, and what Jane Jacobs has called “science abandoned” in her latest book “Dark Age Ahead.”

Science is an error-driven, open-ended, and open-minded enterprise in which reality tests hypotheses. It has nothing to do “with wishful thinking” in respect to evidence, or with protecting the bottom line. Corporate science often abandons the scientific method and frame of mind to fulfill the wishes of its employers.

At Intel, and in virtually every other environmental dispute I can think of between citizens and big companies, scientific investigation morphs into legal investigation. The search for truth is replaced by the proving or disproving of fault.

Legal investigation is adversarial. Science is not. When it is practiced honorably, it is purely in pursuit of what's true. It is unintimidated by power. It explores all options. It is beholden to nothing but what is real, as it reveals itself in increasing exactitude.

Science has long been abandoned in the Intel controversy. It's all about stonewalling, denial, and evidence collecting for potential days in court. No hypothesis testing, no controlled experiments, no healthy view of error, no ongoing “question chain” which “sustains science as a coherent process,” as Jacobs says, has been part of the dispute that I can tell.

The state, and the company it's supposed to regulate, have beat up on the folks who are ill. That's the way it seems. Money and power, or corporate might makes right. Science, “rather than the will of scientists or the judgments of patrons and grant givers,” Jacobs says, “directs its own organization, along with providing automatic and continual self-renewal.” Legal investigations don't do that. They are about “reasonable doubt” and “plausible deniability.”

“If a body of inquiry becomes disconnected from the scientific state of mind,” she writes, “that unfortunate segment of knowledge is no longer scientific.” Nasty name calling indicates that one side, at least, has disconnected completely.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
August 3, 2004