Saturday, January 16, 2010

What is wrong with energy/environment journalism?

Tyler Hamilton yesterday offered on his blog Clean Brake a post on the problems of environmental/energy journalists. The post is also up on the Energy Collective. Hamilton discusses what he sees as the decline of environmental/energy journalism as a profession. Hamilton is sometimes a foil for me, because of his quite overt and poorly informed hostility to nuclear power, and the fact that he sometimes acts as an uncritical cheerleader for dubious renewables energy schemes.

In my view environmental and energy journalists like Hamilton have not done as good a job as they could or should have. For example, many environmental journalists pay far to much attention to AGW skeptics, and ignore the weakness of their arguments. Energy journalist as a group are poorly informed on nuclear technology, and often promote the views anti-nuclear myths of figures like Amory Lovins, and organizations like Greenpeace. Such behavior, in my view, impedes the struggle to control AGW.

Energy/environmental journalist appear to be untrained in the art of parsing press releases. Often the most important information in energy related press releases lies in what they do not say, or in hedges. Sometime the full implications of a press release has to be deduced. For example, a press release may talk about the cost of a German off shore wind project, with out mentioning rated capacity or capacity factor. These may be deliberate omissions. The German organization that originated the press release is not interested in the public knowing that the cost per rated kW of the off shore wind is actually higher than the cost per rated kW of electricity from a nuclear plant, or that when capacity factors are taken into account, the wind mills will cost over two and a half times as much per unit of output to build.

Unfortunately, I have been forced to the conclusion that some of the failings of energy journalists stem form inadequate education, a lack of professional skills and personal prejudices. Energy journalists appear to be poorly informed about nuclear power, and often they simply do not understand fundamental concepts, such as defensive and natural nuclear safety. Energy journals also appear to lack he analytic skills needed to distinguish between fact and hype in press releases. Finally, the writings of many energy journalists appear to reflect anti-nuclear prejudices.

As a consequence of their poor training, lack of analytic skills and prejudices, energy journalists contribute to the current public confusion about energy issues, rather than to clarify them. The fundamental problem with energy journalists is that many of them do not do a good job, and from the viewpoint of a general assignment editor, they have little to contribute beyond what a general assignment reporter has to offer.

One of the consequences of these failings is that people like Dan Yurman, Rod Adams, Kirk Sorensen, Barry Brook, David Walters and yes even myself, have stepped into the gap, at least on the Internet. Thus when Wired Magazine's Richard Martin wanted to do a story on Thorium he consulted with Kirk Sorensen, but not with energy journalists. Martin specializes in science and technology journalism. There should not be a difference between energy and environmental journalism and science and technology journalism, but unfortunately there is, and that difference does not reflect well on the energy and environmental journalists as a group.


DV8 2XL said...

Why should environmental and energy journalists be any different than any of the other excuses for journalists we see in print media today. Hardly a day goes by that I do not find myself appalled by some item in the newspaper that a high school sophomore would have been embarrassed to hand in in our day.

And it's not just English journalists that are failing in this regard ether. All over the press is yellowing at an alarming rate. Thank God that the internet and bloggers are stepping into the gap because it would be bleak indeed if this wasn't the case.

Frank Kandrnal said...

My personal thanks to all of you guys who devote your time for the struggle against anti nuclear propaganda and unacceptable journalism of those who distort the truth.

M. Simon said...

The problem with tying yourself to AGW is that it may prove false (Climategate). I have made a conscious effort in the Promotion of Polywell to avoid that and to discourage others from doing that.

What is undeniable is that longer term sources of energy are required. One hundred years (or even 500) is just the starter battery.

We need sources good for 10,000 years (long enough to get to the next step).

BTW on the limitations of knowledge (or why central planning leads to authoritarian government)

Hayek Nobel Lecture

also his book:

The Road to Serfdom

M. Simon said...

BTW I'm a former Naval Nuke and endeavor to bring these issues to a wider audience.

Search - IEC Fusion Technology

To see how I'm rated.

M. Simon said...

And let me add, the whole AGW argument is based on models and the biggest term in the models, clouds/water vapor is poorly understood as even the modelers admit. Don't tie yourself to that horse. You might find yourself dragging a dead horse.

Also the models vs reality shows a contradiction and the contradiction is easily proved by some one intimate with control theory. Which I assume given your degree in philosophy you are ignorant of.

Let me put it to you this way. Among engineers the acceptance of AGW runs to 10% to 20% at best.

You can find my e-mail at "Power and Control" on the sidebar. I'm at the top of the search lists. Iwould be glad to discuss it with you.

I'm an aerospace engineer and one of my specialties is control theory.

In fact I will say you fall into the same category of error you complain of.

Short version: if the feedback is positive as the proponents claim the system should be unstable (i.e. it should already have "run away"). That the system is stable (within natural variation) proves that the feedback is not positive.

It is really too bad that control theory is not a part of elementary education (the basics are simple) because the propagation of frauds like AGW would be impossible.

So may I suggest you get a simple text on feedback control theory and study it. Otherwise you will be a victim too.

The ignorant are easily duped.

Charles Barton said...

M. Simon, your citation of the so called climategate, is way out in right field. I first learned about AGW at ORNL, long before it became a political issue. he scientific community accepts AGW, with the exception of a very small minority. Climategate is a dig that won't hunt, get past it. I am familiar with Hayek, and arguments for the limitations of knowledge, but Hayek did not intend to support skepticism about science. I have argued that acceptance of AGW does not justify abolishing the human right to make choices, but that market prices should include taxes that will cover the social cost of producing harmful products. Thus tobacco costs should include a tax to cover the cost of treatments for lung cancer and other tobacco related illnesses.

Charles Barton said...

M. Simon, Among scientist acceptance of AGW probably runs to 90% or better, You are still hunting with a bad dog.

DocForesight said...

Charles, you said "many environmental journalists pay far too much attention to AGW skeptics". As a percentage of overall reportage spanning the past 30 years, which side has received the vast majority of coverage, those promoting AGW concerns or those questioning man-made influences?

As you know, I share M. Simon's concern of pro-nuclear advocates hitching their wagon to the UEA-CRU, NASA-GISS and UN IPCC studies or proclamations. Water vapor and cloud cover have been largely ignored by the climate models, as admitted by IPCC in AR4.

What do you say about what Dr. Roy Spencer has recently presented about cloud cover and feedbacks?

I appreciate your blog and so many others and, like a buffet, I pick out the most delectable items that inform me of nuclear power superiority.

crf said...

I don't think Tyler Hamilton is really all that bad. At least when he wrong, he is wrong in identifiable, correctable and teachable ways. And he isn't trying to make the climate and energy story disappear (the biggest story in humanity's history, in my opinion).

He also has a blog, and apparently reads his comments.

All you skeptics: Charles isn't writing a climate blog. (And everything you've written here has been written elsewhere.)

M. Simon said...

Since you are so strong in reactors may I suggest you look at reactor theory.

And find out why gains of greater than one - positive reactivity coefficient - (as posited in climate science) lead to runaway heating/cooling. And not in a century but in a year or less.

Here is something I wrote on the subject as it relates to climate science including a bit on reactor control theory.

And scientists have believed a lot of crazy stuff in the past (butter or margarine?) Or phlogiston.

And remember - bicycle mechanics invented the airplane - not scientists. James Watt made the steam engine practical.

Engineers are harder to fool because they are tested by the real world.

There was a philosopher of science who once said something to the effect

"Science advances not by new theories over coming the old in scientists. It is advanced with the death of scientists".

So I don't expect you to change your mind.

In any case the need for new energy sources is a sounder basis for promotion of nuclear energy than a theory which may prove false no matter how many are convinced.

As Einstein said: "It only takes one." And you know in his day the old scientists were not convinced. In fact Einstein didn't like quantum physics. So the fact that you have consensus or I have consensus (pick your group) is meaningless.

But as I said control theory in general and reactor control theory in particular says the AGW catastrophism is not very likely.

I can be convinced. Explain to me how control theory supports high gains (greater than and much greater than one posited by the current claimed consensus in climate science).

The one attempt I have seen that comports with delayed neutrons in reactor control theory, heat in the pipeline, has not been found.

Now do I believe that a doubling of CO2 will (with no other factors) cause a 1 C rise in temperature? Yes. That is not controversial.

What the argument now is about is this: is the gain less than one? A gain of .5 +/- .1 is a number I have seen - arrived at by different methods or is he gain of the system between 1.5 to 4 or more?

You might want to compare a Schmidt Trigger to a feedback amplifier.

Any way. The above is why the engineers have a harder time with the assumptions of the majority of the IPCC scientists.

Again: my guess is that you do not have the tools to personally evaluate the above.

C.P. Snow outlined the problem a long time ago. Philosophy and natural philosophy have diverged.

BTW your piece on Schopenhauer is what brought me here. It is a good one. Your error is that you are reduced to arguing by analogy rather than being able to argue from what we absolutely know (engineering). And why do I leave science out? Because unless science is tested by engineering its conclusions are tentative.

After all Carnot came after Watt. i.e. we had practical steam engines before we understood even a little of the thermodynamics.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charles. On global warming I am agnostic, but our energy course of action should be the same either way. A massive R&D effort, mostly D, to develop better sources of energy that are cheaper than fossil fuel. We won't need cap n trade or a carbon tax to promote a rapid transition all over he world.

Regarding cigarettes, they tend to kill people approaching or past the end of their productive years. If economics is the only issue we should send everybody past middle age a carton of Camels each week, or go straight to Meth at retirement. Keep up the good work.

Bill hannahan

Finrod said...

And scientists have believed a lot of crazy stuff in the past (butter or margarine?) Or phlogiston.

What was so bad about the phlogiston hypothesis? It was a credible attempt to explain an observed phenomenon, and conformed to the falsifiability requirement. When it was disproved, scientists switched to the new model.

Before you go declaring AGW dead, lets see how things proceed now that the sun is emerging from an unusual prolonged quiet period. After all, greenhouse theory explained the current temperature of this and other planets well enough and without great public controversy before the AGW concerns caused it to be massively politicised.

Septeus7 said...

I think people are forgetting the abolition of the use of coal and the desalination of water is the main reasons we should supporting nukes not primarily AGW.

Coal particulate has a long history of creating environmental disasters and its use continues do so.

All good environmental policy will address the alleged causes of climate change regardless of whether or not you believe in AGW or even global cooling. The goal should be to advanced technology and infrastructure enough to protect human civilization regardless of climate changes.

As for Hayek his arguments and most neoclassical economics have been proven false as evidenced by history as free market shock therapy in places like Russia, Georgia, and Chile created authoritarian societies and places like Norway, Finland, and France that practice dirigism have most the equality and social mobility and much more advanced education and living standards.

Look at the United States after the free market reforms of Nixon and Reagan and how our society has more become more centralized and authoritarian despite our free market policies.

All economies are planned and any attempt to “decentralize” is a political sham by special interests to take power away from the public where it rightly belongs.

If you want to read some real scientific developmental economics please read Alexander Hamilton, Friedrick List, Henry Carey, Otto Von Bismarck, the Asian Tigers, etc…

Essentially, read the people who engineered the real world industrial economies and ignore the theoretical neo-feudal economics of the Austrians and European aristocrats at Mont Pelerin who raped the third world using Hayek' "El Model."

M. Simon said...

The information argument Hayek made is still true. No 535 people can know what 300 million know. Especially not their desires. One size fits all vs 300 million sizes.

The collusion with business argument (the fascist model of economics) is only possible when government has too much power. Which was what our Constitution was supposed to prevent. Then came the continental railroads (or maybe the Erie Canal) and things haven't been the same since.


But consider: the only thing that shutting down coal fired plants will do is to impoverish the people (it is already happening in Britain) if there is no economical alternative IN PLACE.


The AGW argument will rage and eventually it will get sorted. The most important thing at this point in America is that the political tide is turning against it. For the same reason Bill Clinton couldn't get Kyoto passed. No one in Congress has enough votes to send jobs to China.


As I said firstly. No point in tying a good technology to what is at this point in time a dead political horse.

Nice to see Bill hannahan agrees.


Cigarettes? The taxes are punishing schizophrenics. Which is not very civilized IMO.

Schizophrenia and Tobacco

As with so many political movements: the movement against tobacco operates with half knowledge. Psychological intake nurses in hospitals know about the relationship of schizophrenics to tobacco. How many of the rest of you do? And why isn't the anti-tobacco movement giving people all the facts? Well it would weaken their case for punitive taxes wouldn't it?


And what if the AGW movement is really political i.e. a way for wind solar and nukes to discredit coal and natural gas?

Can't happen?

Edison did it against Westinghouse/Tesla.

What makes our modern industries immune? Nothing.

Which is why proponents should stay away lest they be perceived as industry shills should something like that come out.


Any way - tying technology to irrelevant politics is always a dangerous game.

You can look up James Hansen's ties to Enron. Suppose that gets well known? The political tides will turn further.


Let the science and technology speak for itself.

M. Simon said...

Another more extensive bit on the Hansen/Enron connection.

Charles Barton said...

M. Simon, It is quite possible for 535 scientist to know what 300 million people do not know. The public often lacks scientific literacy, and may be misinformed by a poorly informed press. As I understand Hayek's theory, it is about economic choice, not about the sociology or politics of science. You are way off topic, and are in danger of being classified as a troll if you continue these lines of arguments. The assumption of Nuclear Green is that even AGW skeptics will have good reasons for supporting the development of LFTR technology, because the wide scale adoption of LFTR technology will be consistent with greater personal economic choice, and will not require large scale government direction of our economic behavior. My own view is that economic libertarians marginalize themselves as far as AGW mitigation discussions by their ongoing insistence to make their objections to the AGW hypothesis their sole issue, while ignoring problems such as peak oil, and the impact of fossil fuel use on health related public and private expenses. Environmental intrusions by byproducts of fossil fuel burning and their health and safety consequences should be an issue for libertarians, because fossil fuel burners violate the rights of others to live in a pollution free environment.

Finally you marginalize yourself, by offering Hayek as a critic of science.

M. Simon said...

OK. I'm a troll.

But I agree with you here:

The assumption of Nuclear Green is that even AGW skeptics will have good reasons for supporting the development of LFTR technology, because the wide scale adoption of LFTR technology will be consistent with greater personal economic choice, and will not require large scale government direction of our economic behavior. My own view is that economic libertarians marginalize themselves as far as AGW mitigation discussions by their ongoing insistence to make their objections to the AGW hypothesis their sole issue, while ignoring problems such as peak oil, and the impact of fossil fuel use on health related public and private expenses.

Well except for peak oil. If oil is abiotic. And long chain hydrocarbons are made by heat and iron catalysts using methane that may have been sequestered 5 to 15 miles underground during planet formation (in a process similar to Fisher-Tropsch) then we may be 10,000 years away from peak oil.

So I guess my disagreement with AGW is not my only issue. What it suggests though is that there is no need for a desperate rush to change technologies. We can do it in a neat and orderly low cost fashion.

The deal is: I have seen so much corruption of science for political gain that I do not much trust science that can not be turned into engineering.

i.e. I don't believe in Polywell, I don't believe in LFTR, etc. until it is reduced to practice. Should we be doing experiments and reducing it to practice? Yep. We could end the Drug War and have plenty of money for the effort. Well that is another hobby horse of mine (BTW journalists are ignorant [or refuse to report] what we know about drug use. And not just from proponents of change. They don't even report what the NIDA says.)

So the corruption of the media is not just in one area. It is epidemic and endemic.

How to fix it? It would be good if newspapers actually assigned engineers and scientist to report on science instead of the credulous fools we have now.

Some one who could look at a partial differential equation and know what it means even if the person couldn't do the math. i.e. practical engineering level math.

Other than blogs I don't expect to see it in my lifetime.

Uh. I was not using Hayek to criticize science. I was using him to criticize government.

I'm of the opinion that the proper role of government is not the roll out of technology. It should be doing the science and engineering that makes that roll out possible. i.e. high risk research that private companies will not undertake.

For instance: no subsidy for wind deployment. Research into ways to reduce the cost of wind to make the roll out an economic process though is in order. And besides it is 1,000 times cheaper.

Any way the engineering method is to deal with all the pros and cons of doing something.

LarryD said...

We are both old enough to remember to "coming new ice age" scare back in the seventies. This was a reaction to a cooling trend that had been going on for over a decade. No one back then had the perspective to realize that the Northern Hemisphere has a warming/cooling cycle of about sixty years driven by the oceans (PDO etc). Which then switched to a warming cycle. A few years ago it switched back to a cooling cycle. It will be interesting to see if a weaker than usual solar cycle amplifies the cooling trend or not. If it does, we could get something like the Dalton Minimum as a result. The fears of a returning ice age are already showing up again.

The AGW models take none of this into account.

The Earth has, millions of years ago, had both CO2 levels and temperature way above Hansen's "tipping point". As Simon says (sorry), if the Earth's climate could run away, it already would have.

"most scientists ..."

This is just a form of the Appeal to Authority fallacy.

And since the climate scientists have generally kept their methods and data closely held, most scientists would have to have been taking their word for it, another form of the Appeal to Authority. Scientists are human, they can fall prey to fallacies and fashions just like anyone else. The whole point of replication of someones results by others is to catch mistakes, cheating and hoaxes.

Climategate tore the lid off, but is far from the end of it. New Zealand's NIWA certainly seems to have added a warming trend to it's graphs of New Zealand's average temperature that the data doesn't support.

And the NCDC Global Historical Climatology Network has been systematically corrupted, by dropping around 75% of the worlds stations. And the dropping isn't random, high latitude, high altitude, and rural station were culled in favor of urban sites, closer to the equator.

Charles Barton said...

Larry, most scientists accept the scientific evidence that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Thus if you increase the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, there are likely to be climate consequences. In fact the consequences predicted by AGW theory have been observed. The existence of alternative explanations for the observed climate shift, does not disprove the AGW hypothesis. Climategate proved nothing, it was a typical example of overblown rightwing anti-science hysteria. Now get off the soapbox. if you want to argue about your climate change theories, go to Real Climate, Grist or Joe Romm's blog and state your case.

DW said...

Ah...the abiotic theory of oil production. I actually am open to this fact the majority of both Russian and Ukrainian oil geologists come from this school (it represents the view that oil is created under pressure and heat in the lower debts of the Earth's crush and squeezed up, as opposed to be made from plant decay). It's also totally irrelevant to any serious discussion on the topic here on Nuclear Green.

Nathan2go said...

M. Simon and LarryD,
You're confusing the scientific (numeric) climate conclusions with the marketing pitch. (again, a problem with science journalism?)

Of course its true that if the Earth (or any system) had overall positive feedback, the climate would go to an extreme state and stay there forever. (yeah, I'm an engineer and I've studied control systems and schmitt triggers).

The climate predictions call for only a few degrees of rise, which does not conflict with any laws of control systems. i.e. if there are any tripping points, they are brought under control by negative feedback.

I have no particular interest in climate science (and I believe that nuclear power has enough to recommend it regardless), but it is significant that the scientific community has been saying essentially the same thing since well before Kyoto in 1997.

Charles Barton said...

M. Simon, As I have explained before, Nuclear Green is not a climate blog, and it is not my intention to debate climate issues on Nuclear Green. I have warned you that if you continued to make Nuclear Green a platform for treating for your climate related arguments, that I would treat you as a troll.
i will no longer post your climate related comments.

Soylent said...

M. Simon, there's perpetually at least a couple of climate science topics going on the JREF forums(in the "Science, Mathematics, Medicine, and Technology" section).

The resident AGW sceptics on the JREF boards do not provide much of a challenge, perhaps you'd be so kind as to put up a better show?


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