Do women really oppose fracking because they don’t understand science?

The new chair of the fracking industry body has annoyed a lot of people today by apparently saying women oppose shale gas extraction because they’re driven by instinct, not facts.

In the Times (£) interview (also quoted here), Professor Averil Macdonald said “women have not been persuaded by the facts [about fracking, and] more facts are not going to make a difference… They know that they don’t know and they don’t understand… we have got to understand the gut reaction… women are always concerned about threats to their family more than men. We are naturally protective of our children.”

It’s ok if you want to take a few seconds to smash everything.

Back with me? Right, let’s look at the facts.

First, are women less supportive of fracking? It certainly seems so. The latest YouGov/Nottingham poll finds 58% of men in favour, compared with 32% of women. The DECC tracking poll (the one I think is too expensive) finds a similar split*, and a YouGov/Sunday Times poll shows an even bigger gap.

So, the first part does look to be true: women are more likely to oppose fracking.

Secondly, are women less likely to be persuaded of the facts about fracking?

Since the facts about shale – like whether it causes earthquakes, contaminates drinking water, will cut energy bills or reduce our emissions – are disputed, it’s hard to say whether women accept the ‘facts’.

What Professor Macdonald presumably means is that women tend not to be persuaded by what she considers to be facts, ie that fracking is safe and generally a Good Thing.

If that was all, her comments perhaps wouldn’t be that controversial: she’d be saying women don’t support fracking because they disagree with the industry’s arguments. But that wouldn’t be very interesting and she’s, understandably, had a go at explaining why. Hence the claim, “they also know that they don’t know and they don’t understand”, so they go on gut instinct.

This, we can partly test. The Notts poll provides a bit of evidence for it: 85% of men correctly identify the process of ‘fracking’ as producing ‘shale gas’, compared with 65% of women.

This tells us only a little. At best, it shows that men are more likely to be aware of the terms relating to shale gas: it doesn’t say anything about their understanding or acceptance of the ‘facts’ relating to it.

What’s more, other polls show that men are more likely to claim to know things they don’t. When Carbon Brief tested recall of climate stories last year they included some made-up stories as a benchmark. For the most ‘recalled’ of those fake stories, men were a third more likely than women to say they’d heard it: about the same proportion as the difference in the shale question. So, some of the apparent evidence for men knowing more about shale could be to do with women being less willing to guess when they’re not confident. This can’t explain all the gender gap though, as you’d expect many of the winging-it men to get the wrong answer about shale gas.

But, this notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to go along with Professor Macdonald so far: women are less likely to support fracking and seem less confident than men in their knowledge about it.

That’s not enough though. Macdonald suggests a causal link: she argues women don’t support fracking because they know that they don’t know much about it, and so they go with their feminine instincts to protect their families and oppose such things.

There are a couple of problems with this (leaving aside the massive claim that women care more about their families than men do. Show me evidence or don’t make such big claims.)

Firstly, there’s indeed a similar gender gap in views on nuclear power. That’s another complicated topic, with difficult science and uncertain risks, so perhaps the same thing is going on. But, women are as likely as men to support wind farms – which also bring complex arguments and disputed claims of risk. So, uncertain risks and complexity alone don’t seem to be sufficient to put off women.

And opposition to fracking has grown significantly over the last couple of years (from August 2013 to May 2015). Yet over about the same time, the proportion (of everyone) who said in the DECC tracker that they knew a little or a lot about it went from 52% to 72%. So, opposition has grown at the same time that people have felt they know more about it. This isn’t a matter of people hearing about fracking for the first time and realising the depth of their ignorance: more are now saying they know more about it.

For me, this undermines Macdonald’s claim that women oppose fracking because they “know they don’t know and they don’t understand”. If she was right about this, you’d expect support to rise as more people came to feel they knew more about it. In fact, the more they think they know, the less they like it.

So, Macdonald’s right that women are more likely to oppose fracking, and she might be right that they’re less confident in their knowledge about it – but she’s probably wrong in claiming a positive relationship between self-declared knowledge and support.

What other explanations might there be for the gender gap?

Macdonald puts forward women’s concern about their families, which is apparently greater than men’s. My instinct is to be outraged by this, but let’s be kind and boil the claim down to “women are more risk-averse than men”.

This has some support in the literature, though it’s far from clear cut. Still, let’s just accept it as a general, though not absolute, rule for now – because I don’t think it changes much. Essentially, all it would indicate is women would be more likely than men to oppose fracking if they thought it was risky.

But the evidence doesn’t really support the idea that increased fears about fracking are behind the growth in opposition. While the Notts poll suggests that concerns of ground-water contamination have risen by around a third since mid-2013, fears of earthquakes caused by fracking have fallen by about a quarter since their 2012 peak – so perhaps roughly balancing out.

Another possible explanation is the weakening of the “because it’s worth it” argument.  Since the start of 2014, according to the Notts poll, the proportions that associate shale gas with energy security and cheap energy have both fallen: neither by a great amount, but perhaps enough to shift the balance a little.

Since YouGov/Notts don’t seem to publish their data tables, it’s hard to tell whether this has affected women disproportionately – but from the evidence we have, it seems as plausible an explanation as that women are more bothered by the risks.

Professor Macdonald has had a go at answering the question of why women oppose fracking more than men do. She hasn’t offered any evidence to support her claims that women are more protective of their families and likely to see fracking as risky, and part of her account seems to be undermined by the fact that the recent rise in opposition to fracking coincided with both an increase in claimed understanding of it and little overall change in perception of the risks. It seems at least as likely that the growing opposition is the result of doubts that it will bring worthwhile benefits to the UK as that it’s to do with fears about its consequences.

This hasn’t really brought us any closer to answering why women are more likely to oppose fracking – and nuclear – but it has weakened Macdonald’s claim that women’s opposition is based on a gut reaction borne out of ignorance. Whatever the explanation, it probably hasn’t been helped by the shale gas industry’s poor communications over several years about the risks and benefits – or today’s suggestion that women understand too little science to appreciate fracking.


* Though with a far higher proportion undecided, probably because the Notts poll seems to ask a lot of other fracking questions before the support/oppose question.

  1. Mark Pawelek says:

    Neither men nor women go on “gut instinct”. We go on what we’ve learnt but we don’t learn from facts, or science. We learn from the media. In the case of fracking the media reproduce the green movement’s lies and exaggerations. Women, more so than men, value information that stresses danger and harm. Macdonald says that’s because women are more protective of children. Note: The same polls results are found with nuclear power and GMOs. Women are more likely to be against, men less so. Anyone who has a spare poll to run on one of these issues (GMOs, fracking, nuclear power) might want to ask men and women, whether they have children, the children’s ages, …

    “My instinct is to be outraged by this” <- I'm not surprised your PC instincts are outraged. About 5 women were very upset with me for suggesting: it's about the children.

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