Friday, May 28, 2010

The Social Construction of Ignorance: Amory Lovins and Energy

My definition would be a real expert is someone with a thorough understanding of the field they are discussing, who accurately represents the scientific literature and the state of understanding of the scientific enterprise. - Denialism Blog
The question of who is an expert is a central one in the problem of knowledge pollution. Very often knowledge pollution occurs because fake experts are given credibility by the mainstream media and by people who should know better.

The Denialism Blog also quotes the Oxford English Language Dictionary.
One whose special knowledge or skill causes him to be regarded as an authority; a specialist. Also attrib., as in expert evidence, witness, etc.
The Denialism blog also references Federal Judicial rules of evidence and other determinants of expert status within a Court Room setting,
Luckily the justices didn't just leave it at the federal rules of evidence and Blackmun created a set of guidelines for judges to determine if the expert was "reliable". They require the theory presented by the witness to have undergone peer review, show falsifiability, empirical testing, reproducibility, and a known error rate for a scientific theory to have some validity in addition to the general acceptance rule of Frye. While the individual states remain a patchwork of Frye, Daubert, and Frye-plus rules for admissibility of evidence, at least federally this is the new requirement (although it still does suffer from being a bit vague).

The experts that present such evidence must have some credentials and/or experience with the discipline, and the evidence they present must pass these tests. It's actually not a half-bad way to identify a trusted source, in particular if the judge is intellectually honest about the witness meeting these requirements.
The Denialism Blog also points to the work of philosopher and physical chemist Janet D. Stemwedel on evaluating the credibility of scientists, and the scope and limitations of scientific expertise. Beyond the scope of the the Denialism Blog and Stemwedel's discussion of scientific credibility and expertise limitations, a retired nuclear physicist who represented the United States as a technical expert, in nuclear arms reduction verification talks with the Soviet Union, Alexander DeVolpe offers discussions of fake expertise on the topic of nuclear proliferation.

While DeVolpi makes significant contributions to answering the question, "who is an expert on nuclear proliferation," I am going to focus on a single figure who DeVolpi has singled out for criticism as a fake expert on nuclear proliferation and nuclear energy. That fake expert is anti-nuclear expert par-excelente, Amory Lovins, who DeVolpi charges engages in a charade of expertese on nuclear matters. DeVolpi
applies qualitative tests to Lovins’ 1980 predictions about (1) nuclear-power’s demise, (2) weapons-proliferation propensity, and (3) plutonium-demilitarization utility. NONE of his predictions have come to pass. His most egregious flaw is total lack of statistical context; his papers fail scientific-publication standards. Lovins has been so indifferent to scientific methodology that he should not be accorded credibility. While still adamant about nuclear power’s demise and proliferation risk, he now concedes that commercial reactors effectively demilitarize weapons materials.
DeVolpe's discussion of Lovins Charade of nuclear expertese meets the the Denialism Blog's definition of fake expertise,
a fake expert is usually somebody who is relied upon for their credentials rather than any real experience in the field at issue, who will promote arguments that are inconsistent with the literature, aren't generally accepted by those who study the field in question, and/or whose theories aren't consistent with established epistemological requirements for scientific inquiry.
It should be pointed out that Lovins has never answered DeVolpe's critique of his expertise, but then Lovens has failed to respond to many accusations regarding lapses in his expert facade. Robert Bryce and David Bradish have offered critiques of Lovins' pretended anti-nuclear expertise, and indeed his pose as an energy expert. Despite promises of comprehensive answers to the charges Bryce and Bradish made against his claim to expertise, Lovins has never responded to Bryce, and abandoned his attempt at self-defense against Bradish charges. Indeed both Bryce and Bradish, along with energy writers Vaclav Smil, Peter Huber and Mark Mills, raise fundamental doubts about Lovins claim to expertise on all energ matters. Bobert Bryce asked Smill,
In your writings, you point out how many times Amory Lovins, the energy efficiency advocate who heads the Rocky Mountain Institute, has been wrong in his predictions regarding the adoption of renewable energy. I laughed out loud when I read your line, “Inexplicably, Lovins retains his guru aura no matter how wrong he is.” Why has Lovins been wrong so often? And why does he continue to get so much fawning press coverage?
To which Smill responded
mory has become a celebrity after wholesaling his fairy-tale of “soft” decentralized small-scale energies as THE solution (with its deep countercultural, Berkeleyish appeal), and it is the first law of celebrity-hood that, right or wrong, coherent or not, you retain the status. Combine that with the just-noted mass scientific ignorance of the population and with Amory’s sleek offerings of no-pain solutions (nothing will cost anything, or as he famously put it, “abating climate change for fun and profit”) and you have new believers signing up every time he speaks. By the way, by this time we all should have been driving nothing but Lovinsian hypercars (something like 200 mpg, made like new Boeing 787s solely from carbon composites) whose conceptual design he launched more than a decade ago; have you seen any?
Bryce notes that common and largely unanswered charges made by Lovins critics include foure Lovin's claims made that have proven to be in error, Those claims are,
1. Renewables will take huge swaths of the overall energy market. (1976)
2. Electricity consumption will fall. (1984)
3. Cellulosic ethanol will solve our oil import needs. (repeatedly)
4. Efficiency will lower consumption. (repeatedly)
The first claim comes with an illustration that clearly illustrates the failure of the first Lovins' prediction. This graph shows Lovins's forecast that "soft technologies" would 50% of all energy in 2010, while natural gas and could produce a declining percentage of energy, while energy use is declining through greater efficiency. Lovens has never acknowledged the extent of his erroneous predictions, or offered an explanation of his past forecasting mistakes. Alexander DeVolpi observed,
None of Lovin’s predictions have come to pass. That’s startling in itself, except that he keeps shifting to new topics, dropping the worn out ones. He’s still flailing nuclear power, but 30 years later it keeps on going. He’s still faulting its proliferation propensity, but not a single instance can be found in 30 years. Only by the processes of uncovering omissions or directing inquiry can one find that he now realizes that commercial reactors can effectively demilitarize weapons materials, a position he adamantly and eloquently opposed for the past 30 years.
Since there are no assigned traffic cops in this business, it is left up to some of us volunteers to try to straighten things out. Nevertheless, Lovins has a strong reserve of believers for his soft-energy goals. I too share some of that optimism, but not at the sacrifice of quantitative evaluation and humble context for alternatives. However, when his enthusiasm spills over into matters of which he has no expertise — trained or acquired — everyone should be wary.
In fact the increase in energy efficiency, although real over time, has not displaced carbon-emitting technology to anything like the extent which Lovins foresaw. One of the major problems with Lovins forecast of efficiency related declines in energy use is his ignorance of Jevons Paradox. David Bradish offered a discussion of Lovins errors with respect to Javons Paradox. In the second Gristmill response to Bradish, Lovins wrote
Mr. Bradish has posted part three of his critique, claiming that RMI has overlooked Jevons Paradox, which undoes and reverses the intended energy savings from more efficient end-use. We have rebutted this invalid claim in a response to Mr. Bradish's cited primary source -- an article by Robert Bryce in his newsletter. Completion of our response was delayed by travel, but we expect to finish it shortly, and will then post it on RMI's website, in this blog, and (Mr. Bryce has assured us) on his site.
In fact the case against Lovins as an energy expert is much stronger than DeVolpi is aware. Lovins' promised response to Bryce and Bradish has never appeared.

It would thus appear that Amory Lovins is both a fake expert on nuclear power and on energy issues in general. Lovins' accounts of nuclear energy and other energy related matters must be regarded as disinformation, and is a grand source of knowledge pollution. Amory Lovins is a discredited fake expert, but word of how discredited he is has not reached the mainstream media or energy decision makers. People would like to believe that what Lovins says is true, and key political decision makers as well the media look to Lovins to reassure them about difficult energy matters. Yet among energy experts, Lovins must be considered among the living dead, one who can offer no legitimate claim to expertise, who has no credibility. Lovins is to energy expertise what Zombie are to living human beings.

No comments:


Blog Archive

Some neat videos

Nuclear Advocacy Webring
Ring Owner: Nuclear is Our Future Site: Nuclear is Our Future
Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet
Get Your Free Web Ring
Dr. Joe Bonometti speaking on thorium/LFTR technology at Georgia Tech David LeBlanc on LFTR/MSR technology Robert Hargraves on AIM High