Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Focus IV: Cargo Cult Science

In determining facts, our fact finding commission must be able to distinguish truth from what Francis Bacon called idols of the mind. In particular fact finders must recognize those idols of the market and the treater that are characteristic of cargo cult science

How is cargo cult science to be avoided?  Richard Feynman said:
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -- and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.
People, even scientists, confuse what they want to be true with the truth. Furthermore, people wish the truth to be consistent with their values, beliefs and actions. People don't like to be wrong, yet the road to human progress lies in the discovery of mistakes, in the overcoming of unknowledge, the state of being in error. Error is often perpetuated by strong emotion, and by the belief that others who disagree with us are devils or in league with the prince of darkness.

People believe that certain words are so powerful, that simply by invoking them, they can point to conditions that will bring them the cargo of energy.   The erection of a object, towering skyward like a giant phallus, is deemed to be a source of energy, by the current western cargo cult. Repeated building of these large phallic objects in long rows is believed to bring great power even when the wind does not blow. Surly building enough of them will cause the wind to always blow.

Such is the strength of the wind cargo cult, that even scientist who should know better ignore facts while arguing in the cult's favor. The rule is that the greater the passion involved, the greater the interest, the more likely mistakes are to go unnoticed. The fact that a person has an interest does not disqualify him or her from knowing, but once mistakes are uncovered, interest may be noted as a source of the error. In my last postI pointed to Malcolm Slesser's review of "Natural Capitalism", by Paul Hawken, Amory B Lovins, and L.Hunter Lovins. Slesser noted sometghing that other critics of Lovins have also noted, that Lovins theories of energy efficiency are built on two towering omissions:
Is it significant that neither 'rebound effect' nor 'thermodynamics' appear in the index of a book that is astonishingly rich in allusions to energy?
The first error which Slesser noted is the effect of human greed on energy consumption. Far from efficiency lowering the demand for energy,
The evidence is that when you get more from less, you just take advantage of the slack. Economists call this the 'rebound effect', and it is well documented.
The second error is the repeated assertions of potential energy savings that violate the laws of nsture:
One should not lightly buck the second law of thermodynamics, for no-one has yet succeeded.
Slesser shows us the Lovins' cargo cult science at its most alluring,
The book is a vast, well-documented tapestry of anecdotes of how more service can be (or could be) got from less materials and energy. Like the star-studded night sky the book is a constellation of options that twinkle beguilingly at the reader, beautiful to behold, but without a clear structure. . . .

Their technique is simple. Some recent technological developments are reported which can cut the energy and materials needs by (say) half. Then new ways of doing things can cut the need for that energy by a further half (half of a half equals a quarter), then, since we have cut some inputs to a quarter, other economies follow in their train. This a very dangerous argument. Here is a quote from page 244:
Over the next half-century, even if global economy expanded by 6 - 8 fold, the rate of releasing carbon by burning of fossil fuels could simultaneously decrease by anywhere from one third to nine-tenths below current rate. This is because of the multiplicative effect of four kinds of actions. Switching to natural gas and renewable energy, as fast as Shell Oil planners consider likely, would cut by one half to three quarters the fossil-fuel carbon in each unit of energy consumed."
Like any cult leader Lovins needs a devil, for as Eric Hoffer pointed out,
Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil.
Of course Lovins devil is the reactor. Hate for the demon "atomic energy" is at the heart of all 21st century energy cargo cults.   The danger posed by the Lovins cargo cult rests in Lovins popularity with the national elite of the United States.   The Lovins cargo cult finds support from leaders who should know better, including Al Gore.   Numerous recent energy plans, including the recent Google energy plan,  are fatally flawed by their embrace of Lovins notions, and their failure to acknowledge the one solution that can get us past the carbon based economy, nuclear energy.

Another 21st cargo cult centers on the extraction of energy from biomass, Thirty years ago, Alvin Weinberg who had the advantage of foresight noted:
To get 800 quads per year from biomass would require about 8 million square miles - roughly one-sixth the total land area of the earth. Thus the high biomass scenario seems implausible. Even to supply the 300 quads in Case B (electric transport) requires 3 million square miles -a very formidable demand.

It would seem that biomass simply cannot provide the basis for the abundant energy future I visualize unless the effective photosynthetic yields can be increased much above the 0.6 percent I have assumed, or unless really large-scale farming of the sea (say for kelp) becomes
feasible. Several possibilities suggest themselves: from improving crop management so as to harvest year in and year out those plants that in special situations now yield much more than 0.6 percent, to genetic engineering that might increase the effective photosynthetic efficiency,
say, fivefold. I have no idea whether photosynthetic efficiency five times higher than the present average is achievable -whether, say, this is more likely than the development of practical controlled thermonuclear fusion. These estimates merely suggest how important such an achievement would be, and suggest possibly vital directions for future genetic research.
It is an indicator of the unreal world of current biomass advocates that none have advocated genet research as arout to improved energy output.
Can the sun replace uranium?
Weinberg asked.
I hope I have made at least plausible that the sun, if it were to provide as much energy as the breeder, would cost man dearly: in land, in money, possibly in environmental pressure (OTEC, for example). No matter how one looks at it, one cannot escape the impression that the sun is a smaller energy system than is the uranium system.
he answered.

Our future fact finders should work to determine if Weinberg was wrong. So far the evidence Ihave been able to uncover suggests that he was entirely correct in his assessment, but the game cannot be counted as over yet.

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