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Talk Story: Peter Adler

LIHUE — Peter Adler talks about science and data with conviction.

When the mediator talks about people reading studies and poring over numbers, he has all the fire of a football coach crafting a game plan.

He uses words like “self-discipline” and “rigorous,” but they don’t come off as cliches as they do on the sports broadcasts.

“I love doing this because I learn a lot,” said Adler, the Honolulu planner and mediator for ACCORD 3.0 Network, which is beginning a joint fact-finding study on genetically modified crop production and pesticide use on Kauai. “And I love helping a smart group of people on different sides of an issue learn.”

Adler steps into an issue that’s been a whirlwind of controversy and political discourse for over a year. He knows that. He’s not too swayed by that. He just wants to read scientific data about pesticide use on Kauai. The one question he keeps repeating, as he sets about forming his team of joint fact finders, is, “What can we learn?”

“I got no dog in the fight,” Adler said. “I’m really trying to understand the best evidence on both sides.”

Having done his undergraduate work at Roosevelt University in Chicago and earned a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary social science, Adler’s specialty is multi-party negotiation and problem solving. He’s worked in joint fact-finding groups on contentious issues before, such as the dangers of exposure to geothermal hydrogen sulfide in Puna on the Big Island.

“I’m going to run a really rigorous meeting,” Adler said about the public meetings the group will host on Kauai next year. “And not let it turn into slogans.”

An Oahu native, he spent his time on Kauai last week to meet locals as he begins to set up his joint fact-finding team.

He’s looking for a group of around nine people with a cross section of backgrounds who are interested in reading and interpreting evidence over the next year. The mission at hand is learning what we know about pesticides and, just as importantly, what we don’t know.

Adler’s company will do a bulk of the report finding. The joint fact-finding group on Kauai will look at the reports and interpret them. In the end, it will bring greater clarity to the assertions on all sides and make a recommendation on what the island should do next on the issue.

Those who are interested in joining the team can email a resume and a short bio on themselves to Adler at padleraccord@gmail.com.

Adler sat down with The Garden Island last week to chat about what the next year will bring as he delves into a topic that’s polarized Kauai.

The Garden Island: What is your goal with the group?

Peter Adler: I’m interested in creating a port in the storm, a place where we can get people of reasonable intelligence, reasonable good will, and people who might disagree with each other but are willing to put fresh eyes, take a fresh look at the evidence and the data, knowing that the science can be incomplete, on health, on pesticides, on many different things. But nobody has pulled all the puzzle pieces onto the table and that’s what we will do.

TGI: What kind of stuff are you going to pull to the table? Is it Department of Health studies? Is it anybody’s study?

PA: We will give the data sources and studies all the weight that they deserve. Just to give you an example of one piece, I’m very interested in where complaints have gone when they feel they’ve been exposed to a pesticide. When they say I have a nosebleed or my eyes hurt, where do they take the complaints? Where do they go? Do they go to the Department of Health? I think they go to a variety of places. If we can get it, we’ll pull together a profile, and say, here’s what we know about where the complaints have come from. … We’ll go to the health information and say, what’s the health profile? What do we know about the health of this island? … And what areas were there health challenges, health problems, and are those problems linked in any way, shape or form to pesticides?

Think of this as a giant puzzle piece and we’re trying to pull the puzzle pieces together on the table. Even though we may not answer everything, we ought to be able to come up with a pretty good answer to some of the specific questions and assertions that have been made.

TGI: At the end is a recommendation?

PA: Yes. What more information do you need? And what is the priority? We have to get a priority because there might be 40 questions that people want to ask. What’s the top priority?

TGI: Are you talking doctors? What about anecdotal stories?

PA: I was talking to one of my professors in graduate school who said the plural of anecdote is data. So multiple stories. But we’re not doing original research. We’re more interested in, what do we know from the hospitals? What do we know from clinical reports? What do we know that’s been reported to the Department of Health? Even if it’s not complete, we can give it a discount factor. … Personally, I think this is a really good process when we have a highly controversial topic that has a lot of complicated science. The traditional way these things get dealt in is in litigation and the political process where you have expert wars. Your expert testifies … my expert tries to discredit.

We’re interested in joint fact finding. We want to get a reasonable cross section of people. Even if they hold some views, I’m not worried about that if we have people of reasonable intelligence and reasonable discipline. Self-discipline. This is going to be hard-working group.

TGI: Do you know how much work you’re going to put in?

PA: This is $100,000 and everyone thinks that’s a huge amount of money. I’m guessing my team and I are probably going to get 3 cents an hour out of this because it’s an expensive project to do. It’s time consum-ing. So, I don’t. I can’t tell you. I know we’ll be there for at least eight meetings over the course of the year and between the meetings I have a team that’s going to fact gather and bring it to the group.

TGI: If someone wants to be on the fact-finding group, do they come to you?

PA: Yeah. Send me your resume. Send me a little bit of background. I’m interested in a diversity of professional and personal backgrounds. And they don’t all have to be fancy people. They don’t have to be all toxicologists and chemists. I’m also interested in people who say, ‘You know, I’ve been farming for 30 years. I know pesticides and I’m willing to look at data.’ But they have to be science literate. That’s the key word … I’m looking for people who are comfortable reading through materials and are self-disciplined about that. So it’s not just pop off with a conclusion. No, no, it’s, ‘Here’s the evidence and here’s how I evaluate that.’

TGI: When you were appointed, did you know about this issue? Had you been following it?

PA: Yes. I wanted to work on this. Given the level of social and political discord, it’s kind of a kamikaze mission perhaps. But I want to work on it

TGI: You folks wanted to work on it?

PA: Yes, we did. And I wanted to try and create that safe place for people to deliberate and work on these issues. We need to have that in our society.

TGI: How do people turn away from political fight they may have been engaged in and start looking at data, round, dry numbers, which, let’s be honest, can be boring to read versus, say, a letter to the editor?

PA: Or reading a good novel or going to a movie. … Yes, we are going to read a lot, summaries of a lot of the studies. .. The people who come to the table will be science literate enough to work on this.

TGI: What about Maui or data from the Big Island? Will that be included?

PA: No. We’re more interested in local data. Stuff that’s coming from Kauai. … This is your place.

TGI: So the source is obviously a part of it. If someone provides something from a blog, let’s say, do you give it no weight?

PA: I’m return your question: What is the weight a reasonable group of people on different sides would give it? It’s not me. I’m not going to tell them. I’m not the judge and jury on this thing, but I would say when you hear this assertion and read what we know, that’s the weight you give it. And when somebody just comes up and says, ‘Here’s what I suspect, the question is, ‘Where’s the data you bring on this? … And that goes true for both sides.

The same question to everybody. Put your best data on the table. And let’s do it in a highly cooperative, give-and-take deliberation. I mean, as a democracy we need to do that. We have to do this stuff. It can’t just be red shirts and blue shirts. Those have an important place in the scheme of things.

TGI: What about the argument that there’s no scientific data out there that proves pesticides are harmful?

PA: I’d say show me the data that says it’s good. Bring your best evidence to the table. And you bring your best evidence to the table. And let’s weight it … It’s not that one side has to prove it. It really is, ‘What informs this?’

TGI: How much info are you expecting to compile?

PA: We’re going to have to pull out what we can pull out and I don’t know what’s there and not there. If there’s nothing there? I’m sure there’s something there.

TGI: Ever been involved in joint fact finding or mediation where it was so contentious it’s been hard to find people who aren’t polarized?

PA: No. … We did a joint fact-finding on a nuclear issue on the Mainland that brought different groups and organizations together to formulate the question of what would be the cost per kilowatt per hour under a new set of nuclear technologies. And it was very successful. … What it did was streamlined some of the debate. It doesn’t solve everything. It doesn’t tie it all up in a bow. But can we streamline it?

TGI: So is it safe to say when you’re doing this kind of work you’re brought in when the conversation has a big split?

PA: I’d say so.

TGI: What do you expect? What do you think this year will bring?

PA: It’s hard to know. Because we don’t have all the puzzle pieces yet so I don’t know what the puzzle will look like when it’s assembled. I think we will pull together the best information we can on Kauai’s health profile. People will say, ‘Oh that’s not new, we knew that.’ But nobody’s put it together in one place. We will bring together the best information we can on who’s using pesticides and where. And I think there may be some surprises in that.

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