When Science is a Conveyor of Bad News

Science is a phenomenal institution. Sometimes I can’t believe we created this construct that works so incredibly well. It manages to convert human imperfections into a remarkably robust machine that has aided our growth juggernaut. Yet science seeks truth, and sometimes the truth is not what we want to hear. How will we respond? Will we kill the messenger and penalize the scientific institution for what is bound to be an increasing barrage of bad news this century as Earth fills beyond capacity?

I think for many people in our society, personal contact with science is limited to science classes in school or perhaps the dreaded science fair—or maybe as adults watching shows like Nova or tuning in to Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.

So let me take a moment to explain science as I have come to understand it. (You can skip if you already have a firm grip.)

The Scientific Method

The best description of the scientific method I have ever seen is from a conceptual physics textbook by Hobson. Paraphrasing:

The scientific method involves the dynamic interplay between theory and experiment.

That’s it. Perfect. As a scientist, I don’t come to work on Monday and make an observation, then form a hypothesis on Tuesday, devise an experiment to test some prediction on Wednesday, perform the experiment Thursday, and interpret the result on Friday. On any given day I would be hard pressed to tell you where I am in the process. All of the above, really. It’s a mess. It’s a constant back and forth comparing theoretical expectations to the final arbiter of any dispute: nature. Some people specialize in one aspect of the process, and can spend years chewing on some piece of it. But it is seldom done in isolation.

Meanwhile, science fair projects across the nation—under the advisement of teachers who themselves often do not have personal experience in how science really works—approach their subject in an uncharacteristically formulaic way.  Nine times out of ten the effort culminates in a proof that the initial hypothesis was right; as if that were the goal and criterion for success. The rare student is surprised by the data, admitting to a failure of the hypothesis, quickly reconsidering initial assumptions and driving into an unexpected yet rewarding direction (dynamic interplay). That’s the real scientist at work. Too bad the judges (in my experience as a judge) often don’t recognize this apparent failure as the true success.

I can’t pass up the opportunity to share with you the “best” high school science fair project I ever saw (when I was myself a student participant in the fair—and no, it was not my project): “Does light travel through the dark?” Setup: light-tight cardboard box painted black on the inside; flashlight shining through a hole in one end; a peephole in the other end to see if the light made it. Any guesses?

A Hungry Snake

What is so special about science is that it is constantly trying to tear itself apart, like a snake eating its tail. While such an action may not actually make a snake stronger, it does make science stronger.

This self-mutilation is driven by some of the less admirable traits of humans: ego, thirst for fame and status, the need to quell insecurity.

It works like this: Professor Establishment sees an opportunity to expose Theory X (be it evolution, general relativity, anthropogenic climate change, etc.) as a sadly misguided notion. What beckons is fame and glory, a Nobel Prize, and eternal validation—perhaps erasing years of victimization at the hands of bullies in school. All the incentives are there, for virtually every scientist on the planet.

I think this surprises non-scientists, who might perceive the scientific establishment as a sycophantic collection of losers who flock to consensus every time a bandwagon passes through campus dropping research funds off its tailgate. No. Scientists can be argumentative, clever, devious, competitive, possessive, and still manage to be really fun to hang around.

[Late addition: Lest I convey a slanted view of scientists, I should also point out that scientists are almost universally driven by curiosity, a spirit of exploration, and are in it because discovery and understanding are fun.]

What Holds it Together?

So with all these scientists itching to overturn the applecart, why isn’t the whole enterprise in a woeful state of chaos? Why do we see headlines about consensus views? Do I even know what I’m talking about?

Professor Establishment has one big problem. Data. Mountains of experimental data. For any new idea to be taken seriously, it has to demonstrate consistency with relevant data sets that came before. But a new theory that adequately describes existing data is in itself not enough to make headlines. To be considered interesting or superior, it either has to also explain anomalies that the current theories can’t seem to handle—or better, correctly predict the outcome of an experiment that had not yet been performed, while the older theory fails to match the resulting experimental data.

I’ve been talking about Professor Establishment rather than Joe Schmoe. Joe Schmoe has lots of really mind-bending ideas all the time—and e-mail access, unfortunately. Maybe  there are some gold nuggets in there. But the Cinderella-scientist seldom has sufficient awareness of the mountain of data, the acumen to perform any meaningful analysis, or the mathematical skills to formulate their idea in a useful way. (Fed up with a constant stream of unsolicited crackpot e-mails, I finally put up a self-test page, which has, alas, reduced the flow.)

So years of professional training and research experience, reading and writing journal articles, and following developments in theory and experiment give Professor Establishment a substantial leg up when it comes to dealing a deadly blow to a well-rooted scientific theory. Scientific revolutions almost always come from within the establishment. And before you jump to the Swiss patent clerk as a counter-example, be aware that this fellow had a Ph.D. in physics, had published a number of articles in the leading physics journal of the day prior to 1905, and was known to leading physicists across Europe. Einstein was not the outsider many think him to be.

I’ve known several scientists who jumped onto global warming confident that they could bring a wrecking ball to the hype and expose mistakes in analysis, data, or interpretation—only to find that the thing is much more robust than they imagined at first. They generally change their tune after personally experiencing the weight of evidence. I am not claiming that every detail is wrapped up, or that there is no chance that the whole story may unravel someday. But the odds get slimmer with every failed attempt.

Emergent Robustness

The result of all this scheming is a sort of scientific Darwinism. Prominent new theories stand out as bigger prizes for the taking, attracting more gunfire. Every failed shot gives the theory more strength, feeding a cycle of continued challenge. In the process, more experiments are conducted and the mountain of data grows. Eventually, exhausted scientists cease fire, and start working with the theory as a useful and as-far-as-we-know accurate description of nature, often providing a stepping stone to explore new frontiers. One upshot is that the emerging consensus does not come easily. Meanwhile, some scientists will continue to probe the foundations of all the important theories in the high-stakes game of seeking ultimate truth.

Very rarely, revolutionary ideas do prevail, but generally in a way that preserves the key qualities of the preceding theory in some well-tested regime. Einstein’s general relativity renders Newtonian gravity as fundamentally wrong, but still accurate enough in most situations to be darned useful to this day and forever more. General relativity may well falter some day, but its replacement must preserve the general-relativistic (post-Newtonian) aspects of nature that have already been measured and confirmed to moderate precision.

I like to say that physicists did not gleefully adopt quantum mechanics, general relativity, or ghostly neutrinos because they were eager for the novelty, or thought the idea just sounded really cool, or deferred to some authoritative figure (like Einstein) whose opinions on such matters were not to be questioned. Rather, ideas of this sort were forced down the throats of fussy physicists who didn’t want to adopt these strange notions. And it is the tight agreement between theory and experiment that does the throat-cramming.

Is it Truth?

It would be too strong a statement to claim that science achieves truth. But truth is certainly the aim, and at the very least science achieves an admirable level of Truthiness. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that science provides us with the best version of the truth we are currently capable of realizing.

All the same, science is never written in stone: it cannot become religious dogma. It’s only as good as the observations that support it, and the door is always open to new observations and new interpretations. So we can never call it Truth with a capital “T.” It’s just a whole heck of a lot better than anything we could spout from the comfort of our armchair—being vetted by nature and experiments.

The Good, the Bad, and the Jerk Called Science

The preceding exposition serves to emphasize the fact that science builds into itself a level of objectivity despite depending on the efforts of subjective practitioners. Science therefore acquires a certain indifference, exercising little in the way of value judgments. It’s jerky that way.

Many regard science as a good thing: providing the foundation for technology and bringing with it medical advances, creature comforts, security, and twinkies. Some see the bad aspects: nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, environmental degradation, and twinkies.

But science, like the honey badger, doesn’t care. Science enables humans to understand the evolution of the universe since the big bang? Shrug. Science cures polio? Yawn. Science unsettles us by revealing the ultimate demise of the earth, sun, and universe? All in a day’s work. Science unlocks the secrets to making nuclear bombs that are used to destroy all life on a planet? No matter. So science is a bit like an ornery uncle.

And it’s what this ornery uncle has to say about our future that makes me sit up. Uncle Science says:

  • Our familiar growth phase is a temporary phenomenon, as any exponential function must be;
  • The chief energy source that brought us to this place is finite and will wane over the next century or so;
  • Modern agriculture is dependent on finite fossil fuels, requiring roughly ten calories of energy input for every one calorie delivered to the table;
  • Population will continue to grow even if birthrate suddenly dropped to replacement levels around the world due to demographic inertia (a young-laden distribution not yet at reproductive age);
  • Escaping the bounds of this planet does not constitute a likely escape hatch due to both energy constraints and the hostile environment we find away from the eggshell-thin layer around the earth;
  • Our fossil fuel bonanza has created an unauthorized global-scale climate experiment that may wreak havoc on crops and the interconnected web of species on the planet.

Burn the Observatory

So my main question is: how will the public react to grumpy Uncle Science as the message pivots away from telling us about all the amazing things that are possible to detailing why some of our dreams are not possible? As our planet “fills up,” the balance will certainly shift—as it has begun to do already—to the negative side effects and to pointing out practices that cannot continue without dire consequences.

An example of such bad news crossed my path last week. A common dream is that once societies achieve a certain level of education, comfort, economic scale, and energy use, the population stops growing, and can even contract slightly. This so-called demographic transition is a main ingredient in many people’s hope for the future. Our goal, it is said, should be to foster growth in developing countries to speed them on their way to this state (and surely no one will object if we developed countries experience more economic growth as well, right?). A recent study (see also this related article) looked at the correlation between energy availability and population growth rate, concluding that the break-even value is at a per-capita energy intake rate of 13,000 W. Combining this with various projections for future energy availability, it was found that population will continue to surge to levels well above the UN projections by mid-century. The amount of energy necessary to achieve a global demographic transition (if the current correlation is to hold) is absurd. Uncle Science says not likely. Another dream dashed.

Look for more examples in newspapers near you. I predict an increasing drumbeat of scientists pointing out limitations to our ambitions. It’s not because that’s what’s “in” right now. It’s where the mountain of evidence is leading us.

This all makes me very worried. I cherish the scientific institution for its ability to transcend petty human shortcomings: actually building on those weaknesses to create a strong approximation of Truth. Science is a pursuit of luxury, borne by the citizenry out of a sense of goodwill, curiosity, and promise. It has served as a catalyst to economic growth not only by paving the way to a world full of gizmos and new capabilities, but also through the development of sophisticated methods for locating underground resources in the form of energy and materials. As long as science keeps it up, everyone is happy. But as the century wears on, the words “can’t,” “won’t,” and “shouldn’t” will likely appear more often in connection with science. Not so popular with the peoples.

Will funding for science wither as a result? Will we decide to stop paying for more bad news? Will scientists feel political pressure to stay away from “downer” topics after people get fed up or the dire news is deemed to be bad for morale and therefore a psychological impediment to economic growth? I hope we will always keep the door open to truth, even when it’s not music to our ears. But I am not so certain this will be the case—especially when money is on the line.

Taking insight from the Simpsons—that fountain of wisdom on matters of human nature—a favorite episode of mine starts with Bart discovering a comet while messing around with a telescope. As the local observatory confirms, this comet is barreling straight toward Springfield. All attempts to avert disaster only make the situation worse (like the missile sent to destroy the comet veering off course to blow up the only bridge out of town). Homer is the only one unconcerned, speculating that the comet will burn up in the atmosphere, reduced to the size of a chihuahua’s head by the time it makes landfall. Having completely botched any coordinated attempts at mitigating the disaster, the whole town ends up squeezing into Ned Flanders’ deluxe shelter, forcing Ned out. In a rare display of guilt, Homer follows Ned out to face “the end” together, shaming the rest of the town out into the open with them. The comet indeed burns up during entry—the remnant managing to strike and destroy the abandoned shelter, rolling to a stop at Homer’s feet where a chihuahua conveniently happens by for a favorable size comparison.

This is all amusing enough and I highly recommend the episode. But as etched as the story is in my memory, the part that is really seared into my brain is the reaction of the crowd. Moments after experiencing relief, anger boils to the surface in response to the emotional roller coaster to which the townsfolk had been subjected. An angry mob forms to march off to the observatory, intent on burning it to the ground “so that nothing like this ever happens again.”

Sadly, I think this could portend the fate of science. And it also captures the inaccuracy of public opinion: the observatory played a minor role in the story, let alone the larger point that knowledge of the approaching comet should only be viewed as a useful service. Perhaps I’m not justified in taking a cartoon as poignant commentary. What matters is what we do in the real world.

Whether dealing with predictions of global warming, limits to growth, ecosystem collapse, pollution, crop failure, aquifer discharge, fisheries depletion, or any number of similar warnings—when the anticipated fate befalls us, will our reaction be to blame the institution that brought awareness? Will we burn the observatory, shun science, and close our ears to further cautions? I hope we can be smarter than that. Meanwhile, keep a lookout for signs that science is waning in popularity—as I suspect it will in the decades to come. In fact, I sense that it has already started.

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88 thoughts on “When Science is a Conveyor of Bad News

  1. Right on again!

    Your revelation of The Energy Trap is central to our emerging fate, and is favorably cited in this this 12-page article from Real-World Economics Review: Degrowth, Expensive Oil, and the New Economics of Energy by Samuel Alexander (http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue61/Alexander2_61.pdf). While I think he underestimates the role of financialization in our current crisis, he raises inconvenient yet ultimately inescapable issues, and sets the stage for my own ever-evolving list of Ten Things We’ll Mostly Have to Give Up in a Steady State Economy (SSE):

    1. pay raises;
    2. interest on savings and appreciation of investments;
    3. retirement as we know it, including pensions and Social Security;
    4. endowments (meaning funding for universities, scholarships, foundations, science, the arts, NGOs, and more);
    5. the housing industry and its subsidiary industries;
    6, the auto industry and its subsidiary industries;
    7. the tourism and convention industry and its subsidiary industries;
    8. many/most white collar jobs which in an SSE will transition into farm jobs;
    9. extensive government services;
    10. most credit.

    There is a hint if not abundant evidence that in each of these ten areas things are already problematic – even while we are still at the top of your energy-consumption-over-time stalagmite graph!

    Which explains why we’re in the MO of Drill, Baby, Drill; Burn, Baby, Burn; All of the Above; and Climate Be Damned right now – desperate to postpone tumbling down the right side of that stalagmite.

    BTW, my real world experience TOTALLY VALIDATES The Energy Trap. Just two examples: my colleagues and I attempted to:

    1. place a very small charge on utility-emitted carbon in Colorado w/ revenues used for Energy Efficiency and Renewabe Energy upgrades and offering a very fast payback; and
    2. update Denver’s zoning code to modestly expand solar access.

    But in both cases (and others) the political-business establishment was unwilling to tolerate even a very small cost now for greater resilience in the very near future…just as you’ve laid out!

    The fate of civilization really is on the line. Thanks as always for your heroic efforts to wise us up in time! And to show what can be done. Next year one of those Nobels ought to be yours!

    Gerry Todd

    • I agree with you. Your list can be condensed down to one thing though. We’ll have to abandon:
      1) Capitalism

      • I agree Todd. Capitalism has as its central purpose the creation of capital in a society via maximizing economic “productivity”. Unfortunately, science demonstrates that capital, if defined as energy and material things you can buy (basically anything that modern society deems to be “valuable”), is not at all created by our economies — it is taken — from the natural world. Of course, we are taking way more than can be sustainably provided due to our rapacious consumption of non-renewable fossil fuels.

        Therefore, capitalism is a zero-sum game. That doesn’t jive with obscene wealth “creation” and concentration which so many today aspire to as solutions to the current lack of adequate economic “productivity”. Therefore, anything approaching free-market capitalism will not work because the natural tendency of unregulated biological systems that have the ability to take greater and greater amounts of energy from their underlying ecosystem is for wealth to concentrate.

        The problem, of course, is that the polarized alternative to capitalism, communism, is even worse. What’s needed is a balance somewhere in the middle that combines the benefits of both (fair distribution of harvested wealth that socialism aspires to, plus the incentives to work that capitalism provides) and tries to minimize the drawbacks (tendency for communism to result in corrupt central control, and tendency for capitalism to result in extreme wealth concentration). All this needs to be done within a fundamentally overhauled economic model that is built around the flow of energy and materials from the natural world through our economies and back again (aka, “ecological economics”). We need to roll this out for a complete implementation, on a global scale, within the next 5 years (actually, more like 20 years ago). Hahaha, are you laughing too?

        Unfortunately, I think everyone will agree that society is becoming increasingly polarized to extreme left or extreme right ideologies as things start to fall off the rails and the average person doesn’t understand why. Environmental issues, which are at the fundamental root of most of our problems (we admittedly have always had profound structural and financial problems with how our societies and economies are organized, but these were always previously buried under the rising tide of perpetual economic growth), are falling off the public’s radar. If we are running out of resources and need cheaper oil, then the solution is to drill baby drill, not find ways to conserve and transition away.

    • Most of those don’t make any sense.

      1) Even if overall productivity stops growing, an individual’s productivity will still grow within their lifetime as they gain experience and skill, thus earning pay raises. (Not to mention inflation.)

      2) While interest rates might be low in an economy richer in capital than investment opportunities, the discount value of time and the risk of default will still apply. If you want to borrow something from me, I’ll want payment for not being able to use it for the risk you won’t return it.

      3) It’s easier to save for retirement at an individual level if you have high interest rates, but it’s not needed. Retirement can live off savings you accumulated. Or be supported by your children. Or by everyone’s children, which is how social security actually works.

      4) Endowments are easy, just let them own land and collect rent. That’s the traditional method for millennia.

      5) Housing industry:, uh, people still need to live in homes.

      The rest are equally flawed, but Tom doesn’t like lengthy comments. But I’ll say they have nothing to do with steady state per se, and everything to do with the tech and energy level of that steady state. And realistically, our tech level is permanently higher now than it was in 1900, even if we run out of oil. We *know things* that improve productivity even without rich energy sources, and nuclear and solar are likely to provide rich energy sources.

      • 2) About lending : it’s a sound economic decision to lend money at loss if not lending the money would result in even MORE loss. It’s just that this is not a situation familiar to us living in a rather safe age of moderate inflation, age that will probably come to an end when energy will start to get scarce.

      • A pay raise paid for w/ inflated dollars is not a pay raise.

        And while we may need a daily supply of fresh food, we do not need a daily supply of new homes – not unless we’re eating them! Not with a stable population, not in a Steady State Economy.

        Yes, an individual’s productivity can grow as s/he matures in the job. But our “productivity gains” are largely illusory. They are functions of:

        (1) genuine human ingenuity, for which we deserve great credit; but some of that ingenuity has also been in the form of

        (2) leveraging our human labor with our temporary enslavement of 100 mind-boggling energy-dense fossil energy slaves per capita (in the US). These energy slaves, however, in a now-full world competing for finite resources, will be “escaping” as fossil fuels become more scarce and more expensive; and

        (3) externalizing (= off-the-book transferring of) costs to the disempowered – the poor and future generations.

        Items (2) and (3) have exaggerated any honest valuation of productivity. In Tom’s stalagmite graph, most of today’s “skills” won’t be very useful as we stumble down the right side of the graph – where he legitimately worries we’ll eventually be burning physics journals to stay warm.

        At least two items on the Ten Things list suggest there’ll also be fiscal pressure to sacrifice the Science Messenger – by “reallocating resources” to meet what will be deemed “more immediate” needs.

        This would essentially, effectively, be the prelude to burning those journals.

        All reasons, I hope, for ACTION now to move ourselves toward resilience, genuine sustainability, and the softest landing possible.

  2. Just FYI, where you have “reek havoc” above I believe it should be “wreak havoc”. Philology!

    Also, A Canticle for Leibowitz is still pretty believable.

  3. Also, the meat of the article, for those who already know about science, begins with the section headed “The Good, the Bad, and the Jerk Called Science”. Perhaps include a hyperlink to there at the top?

    • Thanks for the pointers: both done. But surely dropping a bag of used diapers and having it split open would reek havoc, yes?

  4. I have basically came to your conclusion quite a while ago. It is inertia keeping me from emigrating (and my wife not wanting to move, but I could have an impact if I was motivated). When I read articles that talked about 47% of the people believing in creation I assumed that meant that the other 53% believed in evolution, but was rudely shocked to read one recently that only 15% of the (US) population believes in evolution. I won’t get started on the idiocy in our government. I would like to think that my apocalyptic rants are a gross overreaction, and some days I can get by thinking that, but late at night as I lay in bed trying to get to sleep these thoughts come bubbling up and I start to think again what a long slippery slope we are on and how we gain speed every second.

  5. Science and economic growth have long gone hand in hand – science has helped to discover oil fields, build nuclear reactors, and gave us the internet and mobile communications. As long as science delivered clear benefits, scientists were resepected and supported. When science throuws doubt on the continuation of the economic growth model, it is not surprising that science comes to be regarded as a conspiracy, and is discredited by “Merchants of Doubt” (http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/). Or worse, science funding is cut off, as has happened with Canada’s marine pollution (http://goo.gl/rjC3M) and ozone monitoring (http://goo.gl/Xpvvi) programmes. These cuts hit science where it hurts most by interrupting the supply of data which are the basis of scientific work.

    • Well said. I do believe this is the central conflict, and I would have done well to point out the past relationship between science and growth as you have done. I have made some tweaks to the text to reflect these valuable points.

    • This may be slightly off topic, but just to provide an example of the kind of propaganda that is being pushed on the masses by the Canadian Conservative government in its agenda to destroy science, check out the government’s weather website to see what we are subjected to daily from all media sources up here:


      Scroll to the bottom to see the three blue boxes. The one on the left dangles out the carrots, what people want — jobs, prosperity, money, and the message that of course to get there we need growth. And with a world backdrop of economic collapse and riots in Europe as the alternative, it isn’t hard to sell that message.

      The middle box tries to allay people’s fears about the environmental destruction that this extraction activity would imply. We are being hit with a slick campaign of TV ads too, alleging that our pipelines are safe, and depicting beautiful blonde girls with hair blowing in the wind under a hydro dam. This, despite the government totally axing environmental departments and gutting our environmental laws.

      The box on the right is what is used to rally the troops behind the new nationalism, and we also get these messages on TV. Apparently the US invaded Canada in 1812, and we won and fought them back (though I have very little trust of history as taught to us). That’s what is being touted as national pride these days. Oh, and also how there is no “can’t” in Canada, only “can”, which is why we as a country should rally behind the oil sands development.

  6. I fear you are correct. I wish I saw more evidence that you are wrong, but I just don’t. I think the increasingly faith-based decision-making you see around us shows this clearly. Here I am not talking about religious beliefs per se, but rather the the tendency to act on a belief in something (and there are many such things, growth, technology, economics, etc.), absent any, or even in contradiction to existing, evidence. People seem increasingly willing to believe not just in things for which there is ambiguous, inconclusive, or even no evidence. They are willing to believe in things for which there is virtually unassailable contradictory evidence. Their beliefs are faith-based, rather than science- or fact-based.

    There seem to be certain aspects of human nature that, as a whole, we cannot easily or quickly shake. We prefer good news over bad, and will largely ignore bad news if any marginally believable (not necessarily credible or possible, let alone probable) good-news story can be proffered. We extrapolate relentlessly, generally using the most recent good situation as our baseline curve (see point 1). We prefer sooner rather than later (since the future is good, see point 1), so we discount any and all bad future events and impacts. Bad news, when it happens, is somebody else’s fault as long as any plausible story supporting that view can be made (and it can almost always be made… see point 1).

    There are many such elements to our human nature. These barely scratch the surface, but, I think, will do for this discussion.

    Unfortunately, these traits are not conducive to scientific pursuit. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are not conducive to scientific pursuits that produce unwanted results. They are, however, wonderfully conducive to the blaming and persecution of the scientists and the science itself that present us with long-term bad news. These traits allow for the complete dismissal, if not outright persecution, of both the message and the messenger.

    People will ignore the message, shoot the messenger, and continue to find faith in their various, business-as-usual-supporting stories. This will continue until reality forces the acceptance of other alternatives. Then people will ask, “Why weren’t we told?”, “Why didn’t science protect us?”, “Why don’t you supposedly brilliant people have a solution to this?”

    Homo sapiens? Really? Seriously? I guess we’ll see.

  7. So what’s your plan B if science isn’t an option anymore?
    I can write Ruby scripts, I can write papers, I can write project proposals, I can take good pictures, but I feel that I’d be completely useless in a post-oil society.
    Time to learn gardening, carpentry and start repairing stuff!

    • I often advise people to develop skills that will be useful no matter what our path. There is substantial overlap—mainly in physical, low-tech skills, or skills relating to community dynamics.

      • the best decision i’ve made in my life (to date) was to bail out of academia early and run off to become an artisan baker. best case scenario? i’m selling $8 loaves and $4 croissants to the well-to-do. worst case? wood-fired oven in a field, mill the wheat myself, barter loaves for chickens. it may not be the most glamorous life, but it’s pretty robust.

        also, fantastic blog – a perfect level of detail for the layman reader. don’t stop what you’re doing.

  8. ” A recent study (see also this related article) looked at the correlation between energy availability and population growth rate, concluding that the break-even value is at a per-capita energy intake rate of 13,000 W”

    What? No country, except maybe some oil state, uses 13 kilowatts per capita, and many countries are at sub-replacement birth rates with energy use far below the 10 kW of the USA.

    • I believe this is the result of a trend line to the scatter. Some countries have scattered below the trend line into sub-replacement territory. At least this is my initial guess. Check the links to be sure.

  9. As always, great read, thanks. You might enjoy Ludwik Fleck: »Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact«. He ponders a great deal about scientific progress and what happens if someone has evidence pointing in a direction the rest of her scientific community doesn’t like. Thomas S. Kuhn borrowed heavily from Fleck and even Foucault is much simpler to understand afterwards.

  10. Tom, I think you should adapt your self-test page to the energy context. I suggest the following modifications:

    1. Do you have an idea that could revolutionize the way we generate and use energy, providing an abundant, cheap, and environmental friendly source for the entire planet?
    2. If so, does this idea deal with physics yet poorly understood, or does it require some extensions to the laws of thermodynamics?
    7. If you have suffered such rejections, do you tend to conclude that the purveyor of the rejection is disingenuously motivated by protecting the big oil companies?

  11. Your description of how scientists are motivated to find flaws in others’ results reminds me of the cold fusion episode, which happened when I was in college. Years after it made big press I was in graduate school for physics at Columbia and started working in its labs.

    Once someone mentioned cold fusion and a few people who had been in the labs at the time started talking about how a number of graduate students (maybe even professors) immediately took time out of their work to try to reproduce the experiment.

    I think most people think of cold fusion as a weird episode of misguided would-be scientists talking too early to the press. Maybe it was, but my personal experience led me to think of it as a great demonstration of how science works. Those scientists at Columbia didn’t just talk about what they read about in the press. Whatever their preconceptions, they did experiments, gathered data, analyzed their results, and shared their conclusions. They didn’t consider cold fusion a matter of opinion or op-ed pages a useful place to resolve debates.

    They considered it, as a potentially natural phenomenon, a matter of evidence and controlled experiment the best way to gather evidence. I wish I had been there at the time. Confirming cold fusion would put them at the forefront of what, if it panned out, would be an incredible new filed. Invalidting it would help clarify an unexpected result. It must have been exciting. And fun.

    • Thanks for bringing that up. More recently we had the faster-than-light neutrino episode. Here again, the press went absolutely bonkers with the story, even though in my opinion the scientists behaved responsibly. They tried on their own to explain the result, themselves not confident in its veracity. Yet they could not turn up the flaw, and reported their tentative result in a way that invited others in to either verify or invalidate their conclusion. Ultimately, some very subtle instrumentation effects were pinned down and all is well with c again. It was science working as it should, with a somewhat unfortunate kerfuffle in the press.

  12. I might propose a couple slight refinements to two concepts — truth and how to evaluate theories.

    This may be splitting hairs, but since I don’t think error bars can ever go to zero, I don’t think of science as seeking truth — just smaller error bars. Also, I think of a lot of science in more human terms of satisfying curiosity and honestly reporting results, independent of whatever outcomes result — that is, the pleasure of finding things out. If someone wants to explore the forest for new species or sky surveys for evidence of planets, I’d call that science when they honestly share what they find, even if they found nothing, and even if their goals were just to have fun. For that matter, if they notice something interesting (say about mold on bread or isotropic background radiation), I’d say they were practicing science just by paying attention to what they saw.

    You said for a new theory to be considered interesting or superior it would have to explain something another couldn’t. I’d call a theory interesting that didn’t predict anything new but was simpler to understand or looked at things from a different perspective. Different formulations of classical mechanics (Lagrangian/Hamiltonian) and quantum mechanics (wave/matrix) come to mind. We can say they’re equivalent today, but I’d say each was interesting before people knew that.

    Even if these points split hairs, I consider it important to think about scientists’ motivations — especially kids exploring their worlds — and simplicity and usability of tools.

    • Great points. And yes, I left out curiosity as a major driver for science.

      I added the sentence:

      Lest I convey a slanted view of scientists, I should also point out that scientists are almost universally driven by curiosity, a spirit of exploration, and are in it because discovery and understanding are fun.

  13. Interesting point that people might not want to pay for bad news (from science). It seems more than obvious at first glance, but when I observe the world around me it does not seem to be the case:
    1) News from commercial media outlets (print, TV, internet, etc.) are mostly negative. If good news sold so much better they would have changed their focus.
    2) A lot of sects use dire predictions about the future to attract followers. I have not seen any sect promising heaven on (this) earth.

    Looking at these phenomena maybe this will lead to more interest and more funding for science … maybe I should go back.

    • Nope.

      People love hearing bad news about SOMEONE ELSE. Examples: THAT guy was murdered, THOSE companies got bankrupt etc. Most of us love to see OTHER people suffer (even though we don’t admit it). These negative news pay well.

      What science sometimes tells you is that YOU will suffer, and that’s YOUR OWN FAULT. Most people just shut down when they hear it.

      So no, science funding will not be increased because of bad forecasts.

      • Interesting point. I had not considered this distinction, but it seems you hit it on the head. I have learned that when I talk to others about the degree to which I save energy/resources and how much potential is at our fingertips this way, many people immediately get defensive about their own practices even if I try to frame things carefully in a guilt-free way. The point is that when it comes to personal impact people are not so hot to hear about it and would rather change the subject or cast aspersions—in my case on the hopelessness of my behavioral changes in a sea of non-change. In the case of climate change, etc., the negativity is directed at the scientists or environmentalists, etc. The common element is personal impact. No bueno.

  14. I would like to offer an outsider perspective here, in hopes of widening the discussion to understand science as a phenomenon well within the nature of human societies of the past.

    From my perspective, “Science” is industrial society’s Way-of-Knowing. All human groups have Ways-of-Knowing, from the most elegant and long-lasting tribes of the earth to the most zany and complex civilizations. Ways-of-Knowing among small groups emerge organically, as folks talk and gossip and tell stories usually with the best story coming through (not necessarily the “Truth” but a good story nonetheless). As the group size gets larger, a person emerges who plays the role of deciding what’s happening or what’s relevant, what the signs of the times mean, and how to lay out connections between them. As group size gets even larger and society grows more complex, this role becomes big enough and the need for information great enough to need not just one person for the job, but a whole class or order; I call this the the priest-class. They play the role of “divining” the culture’s-truth, and then propagate it out to the people and particularly the ruling class.

    It is my estimation that we can see Science then as another Way-of-Knowing, that like all Ways-of-Knowing puts together the culture’s-truth. Scientists thus form a sort of priest-class for our society, and go about divining the Truth. But it’s never been that Science has wrested the grip of the Way-of-Knowing from the more blatantly religious forces of society. It’s just become a competing wing of the Priest-class. Post-modernism, we could say, is the age of conflicting and ambiguous ways-of-knowing.

    Scientists can complain that the most riveting discoveries are largely ignored by mass society, which seems apparent, or bemoan that people don’t believe the “Truth,” but it seems to me that while internally Science has this mythos of being an objective search for truth, the actual effect of scientific inquiry on society and the planet is merely to create more and more novel ways for our species to self-destruct — atomic bombs, nuclear power, social engineering, genetic modification, toxic chemical proliferation, and so on. It’s interesting to me that religious zealots can deny climate science or biology, and yet have no problem turning to ag-scientists to engineer new pesticides or genetically modify crops or to physicists to build new missiles. Likewise, it’s interesting to me that scientists can lay claim to being, at first, observers and cannot seem to observe the effect that building mountains of Knowledge has.

    I think the great Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu says it best, and it’s particularly relevant for the new age of limits we are entering in a post-petroleum world: “Life has a limit; Knowledge has none. To seek what is limitless through what is limited is perilous. It is even more perilous to pursue knowledge with full knowledge of this fact.” (trans. Sam Hamill & J.P. Seaton)

    • I would answer that science is unique as a Way-of-Knowing in that it is testable, repeatable, and requires no leap of faith. That’s a big deal.

      • I call BS on the very term “Way of Knowing”. When english speakers say someone knows something, it is implied that what is “known” is true, and that the speaker is justified in claiming to know it by reasonable evidence. Otherwise we say that the speaker just thought or claimed he knew something, but really didn’t.

    • “merely to create more and more novel ways for our species to self-destruct”

      Merely? Says the person typing on a computer, posting something that can be read instantly by people all over the world.

      Interesting dismissal of vaccines, hand washing, medicine, dentistry, the eradication of smallpox and rinderpest, laundry machines, electric lighting, the telegraph and every other communication advance, solar power, satellites, bicycles, telescopes, microscopes…

  15. Is a stable-state economy anything like what Jaques Fresco refers to as a resource-based economy?

  16. In order to achieve technological progress, most importantly, the improvement of tools to most essentially extract nourishment for industrial society, science must precisely describe the environment upon which the tools will work. Most of the technology cannot be engineered to almost or back of the envelope tolerances. The resources extracted and consumed feed the scientific and engineering processes. We reduce, we describe, we engineer tools to manipulate and consume.

    The world described by science is not as emotionally satisfying as some beliefs. There is no great release of dopamine in realizing that we are dissipative structures spinning in the solar flow. That we were created by an all knowing being and are going to heaven is much more seductive. In a sense, the universe did create us, is all knowing and we (our waste heat) does end up in the heavens. But a simple story savored by the limbic brain doesn’t begin to give existence full justice.

    Even with incredible amounts of energy spent on education, it is mostly dedicated not to uncovering truth, but to preparing technicians in the extraction and various digestions of earth’s resources. Do chemotactic humans long for the truth, or do they long for more hits of dopamine that technology is temporarily able to deliver.

    • Maybe for some people, for me having a deep knowledge of the natural world is much more emotionally satisfying than some cryptic two millenniums old “old man in the sky” story.

  17. I prefer science to its alternatives. Do The Math is my favorite read. But my brain can’t make that leap of faith required to believe that the universe popped into being out of nowhere. When we say Universe, to me it means just one thing. That one thing includes everything that is. By definition there can be no boundaries to one thing. If you have a beginning then you have two things, before the beginning and after the beginning.
    A universe can only be infinitely large and infinitely small. It has always been here and will always be here. But then I’m just a farmer.

  18. Sitting on the optimist/pessimist fence, I am looking at what science is telling us in two very different perspectives. In the pessimistic perspective, I look at the very real data of climate change, skyrocketing CO2 levels, resource depletion, etc. that we all know so well and I start thinking that I need to spend less time at work and more time in my garden and teaching my kids about basic survival techniques. Yet, I work in such a special situation where I get to hope that maybe, just maybe, we might make it. I get to see PV technologies maturing daily. In 4 years, I’ve seen production prices drop by over half (somewhat to the detriment of certain highlighted companies). Nonetheless, real progress is being made and the world is starting to notice (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-10/saudi-arabia-plans-109-billion-boost-for-solar-power.html). You’ve devoted a lot of time to our solar resources and I am a firm believer that it’s our best option, hands down. I see this version of science daily and this science is decidedly more optimistic. There’s that societal hope for breakthroughs, but I am of the opinion that we physically have what we need. Politically, I’m not so sure…. I’ll get back on my fence.

  19. IMHO, science in the U.S. suffers primarily from two ills:

    1. It’s taught as dogma in pre-University level .. and sometimes at the U. level too

    “Science” texts hand down a given model as truth and students must learn them rather than explore them and how they came to be. For example, the last 500 years of astronomy have provided astonishing insights, all based on careful observation and reasoning that moved us away from the Ptolemaic model. Today, kids are simply taught the earth goes ’round the sun, high-ho the derry-oh, it goes around the sun.

    2. Its suffers from a near monopsony in funding

    The Federal gov’t funds most research, esp. in pure research. Very few companies are putting in money, and many simple wait for the fruits of gov’t backed research to tumble out of the trees. Without different research goals (“Hey, we need some physics to get us to the asteroid belt in order to mine it cheaply”) we’re stuck with whatever the NIH/DOE/ONR/etc. choose. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

    The result is bad science or worse, political science. Lamarckian inheritance springs to mind, as does the dust up over climate science.

    • It’s caused beucsae the sun heats the planet differently, and over vast areas. As a place warms up, the air expands, causing a pressure change. Wind is simple high pressure air moving towards a low pressure region to balance things out. The boundaries are not normally so definite that you could notice the effect you described.Simply, it is caused by sun beucsae if no sun will there Then the no area will become hot, no air will rise, and no one will come to take the rising air’s placeHope it helps!!

  20. Anyone interested in the science of climate change should read the following:


    It’s a historical account of climate science, with the scientific process on full display. It’s longer than the average book, but well worth it.

    • Here, there is hardly a skeptic, however in the “real” internet world, there are vastly large percentages who faithfully challenge the very notion of global warming. They of course do not understand the supporting evidence (I barely do) because, usually, they believe it is just part of conspiracy theories. Therefore, I like to challenge the “non believers” by use of simplicity (and that makes it easy for me, too).

      First of all, I say “Humanity has converted over 100 CUBIC miles of fossil fuels into the proven excess of CO2… You do know how large just one cubic mile is, right?” Then I say “Even though I am not a real scientist myself, I do “know” that CO2 is an infrared absorber, which means that heat is more easily trapped.”
      They say something like “Believing in the climate change myth is the same as believing in the myth of religion (or that God granted us rights to the Earth)”.
      I then say “To be more precise, sunlight hits the Earth and is converted to infrared by dark surfaces. For the last few hundreds of thousands of years, a rather consistent fraction of that infrared escaped back into space, keeping Earth at a fairly “perfect enough” climate for which we depended on. With excess CO2, less infrared photons make it to their final destiny and instead slam into more CO2 molecules, get redirected back to Earth, get pissed off and heat things up!”
      They say “But there was WAY more CO2 in the air in geologic past – PROOF that it doesn’t hurt”. To which I say “Have you heard of an OAE or oceanic anoxic event? Go look it up as it usually goes hand in hand with the high concentrations of CO2 you have come to believe is ok. Furthermore, (and for those that believe in a Higher Power) it just isn’t right to alter the very air that the biosphere depends on as it exists TODAY”.

      With that, I usually get no feed back. Sometimes I point to a (very) simple video I made just to show how much humanity has converted… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_L8VZile_c. Somewhere, I found that someone actually admitted that even though he couldn’t find it in him to believe, that “my” evidence was very compelling… which gives me hope.

      I enjoy reading this site and will now click on that link to read more about the science. Thanks!

      • “But there was WAY more CO2 in the air in geologic past – PROOF that it doesn’t hurt”.

        Yes, for instance during the Eocene optimum, when the Earth was also MUCH hotter?

  21. Tom,
    Your article is right on target, as always.
    People don’t believe in something because it is true, they believe in it because it gets results for them.
    If you believe your rulers control the Nile floods (Egypt’s Old Kingdom) or the rains (Classic Maya), you’ll believe in them and support them as long as everything is going well. The dynasty will end when the Nile or the rains fail because you’ll think it is their fault.
    If you pray, and you seem to get good results from it, you’ll keep praying. If results don’t show up in a time of major crisis, you might “lose faith” or change to a new religion or spiritual leader.
    Most people today believe in science when they need an appendectomy. Science is good at fixing that problem. But a lot of people–even someone as smart and technical as Steve Jobs– abandon science when cancer looms, because science is not nearly so good at fixing cancer as it is at fixing appendicitis. They only really believe in science when it gets the results they want.
    Today a lot of people look to science to solve our biggest problems: to get cheap energy to return and to fix the looming climate disaster. When science fails to get those results, they will turn to something else–probably a new charismatic leader, or a new religion.
    In bad times, false hope is an easy sell.

  22. in fact i mostly agree with what you say. however, on some fundamental level i’m not so sure…

    you define science as:

    The scientific method involves the dynamic interplay between theory and experiment.

    now that obviously excludes math. i don’t know if you think that math is science or not? typically i think that in the philosophy of (natural) science (i’ll only consider natural sciences) there has been 2 goals:
    (1) to define science such that physics is included, and
    (2) to define science such that astrology is excluded

    whether those goals have been reached i leave as an exercise but i think it is clear that math doesn’t fit in this framework. of course administratively math is (included in) science. mathematicians are funded by same agencies as (natural) sciences.

    now to come back to physics, i think that you agree that modern physics is inconceivable without math. but on the other hand math is not science. so in the end physics, which is usually regarded as a model for hard sciences, relies essentially on math, which isn’t science at all…

    in some philosophical sense this is kind of awkward. so in the end when discussing “science” or “math” with laymen it’s unclear (at least to me) what one should (try to) tell them…

    • I would say math is the tool by which theory and experiment are compared. Math is clearly a key element in developing a physical theory. Math is the logical foundation. It’s the air that physics breathes. Math is not perceived as a weak link in the physical sciences, being logically self-consistent. The amazing thing is that we live in a universe that is ordered enough to obey mathematically-structured physical laws. Did it have to be that way?

      • ” Math ,being logically self-consistent.”

        well unfortunately we don’t know if this is the case! maybe you know that in the beginning of 20th century there was a lot of activity in “foundations of math”. the goal was to prove that a certain basis of math was in fact self consistent. then in 1930 gödel showed that it’s impossible to prove that a given (reasonable) system is consistent without going outside of this system. so math failed where baron munchhausen succeeded. (on the other hand computers can boot themselves).

        “Did it have to be that way?”
        this is not an answer but at least i think this is a helpful way to view this. the life is a local process. an animal in australia could not cope if its life would critically depend on what happens in china. also it could not cope if its life would critically depend on what happened 1000 years ago. hence to be able to survive the environment must be local both in space and time. in other words the world must be local to be comprehensible. but then differential calculus is precisely the way to describe local processes. and all physical theories (that i know of) are formulated in terms of pdes.

      • In the Linear Function the thing comes before the symbol. We might assume that symbolic thought and the language it produced is in fact functional from the thousands of languages now on Earth. Math is a highly functional language as evident from its global adoption. Big and small are relative symbols that work for everyday language. But science works because we have created the more precise symbols of math. With math we can all communicate, regardless of our spoken language, with exactly the same symbols.
        Math symbols can by presented in various graphic forms such as equations that allow precise analysis of the Universe that we observe. When the mathematical symbol represents something that we observe in the Universe we are on the path to truth.
        Mathematical symbols can also be used for speculation. If a series of equations support an idea of a parallel universe then we have a communications breakdown. We have all agreed that “uni” means one. To have parallel implies two. Our symbols are not representing a thing in the Universe but instead a thing in someone imagination. The thing being imagined may in fact exist but it can’t be another universe. It can only be part of The Universe. Physics is great but it can’t just change the rules of communication to make a better headline.
        I can’t over emphasize the value of numbers and math for the precise analysis and communication that they allow, but just because the story uses numbers and math doesn’t make it true. As a card carrying Joe Schmoe I don’t understand, “The amazing thing is that we live in a universe that is ordered enough to obey mathematically-structured physical laws.” Is this a kind of physics poetry? Aren’t the laws of physics a symbolic expression of The Universe that we observe? Somehow we have confused the hierarchy of thing and symbol and I think this is the foundation of our headlong rush toward species extinction.

  23. My 2 cents…
    2+2 planets will always be 4 planets but there is NO science without humanity. People know that math is absolute but we may trust science only as much as we can trust each other.

  24. What about the treatment of LENR (“Cold Fusion”)? It’s in the opposite direction (compared to what the article is talking about) : obviously most people WANT it to be true. Which does not MAKE it true… but it also doesn’t make if false either.

    So, when are you going to take interest of it on this blog? I think you understand what a game-changer LENR would be if it was found out true.

    Rossi’s E-Cat did look like a scam for a while, but now there starts to be just too much intriguing data from elsewhere to simply dismiss it as a hoax.
    Some recent news:
    This is especially intriguing:
    (Is Francesco Celani a crook too? He looks like a quite “respectable” scientist : http://www.iccf17.org/popup/bio_5.htm )
    There’s a LOT of research papers on LENR there :
    Are ALL these people fooling themselves?

    One specificity of LENR seems to be that they require a very specific set of conditions (in materials) to occur. That would explain why the results are so hard to replicate (we don’t know exactly what those conditions are yet), and why they haven’t been observed in nature before (like lasers).

    • I could be wrong, but my sense is that LENR, Rossi, etc. smell very scammy, the champions being non-scientists or fringe scientists. In my visits to reputable physics departments, I have run across no one working on LENR.

      I didn’t mention the fact that some individuals in the science profession do not “get it” and do not conduct themselves in the usual ways of science. They have credentials, and may have even acquired prestigious positions—but they’re crack-pottish. We have (and have had) a few at UCSD. They tend to be shunned and ignored within the local community for not following the usual code of scientific conduct.

      The characteristic trait is being convinced of somethings’ truth and looking for ways to prove it, arguing/denying evidence to the contrary.

      I suspect that LENR is attracting the wrong sort of “scientist” and will not pan out or attract the attention of mainstream scientists. If those mainstream scientists are wrong, they’ll have egg on their face. But more likely, in my opinion, is that they will have saved themselves a big waste of time. This all comes with the caveat that I haven’t looked into this subject in detail, so only report my “spidey-sense” perceptions.

      • I’ve noticed over my life that most things that scale to commercial viability conform the Newton’s laws, and things that require Relativity don’t. Stuff that claims to exceed both sets are generally only found in finance.

        • The Global Positioning System is a good counter-example. Maybe it could work without taking Relativity into account, but it would be much less precise.

          • GPS would fail in one hour to provide a sensible solution to location without special and general relativistic corrections. But this is a rare case of GR in daily life.

  25. I never understand why people feel strange in referring to animated shows as a reference point. It is written by humans as smart as “playwrights”, it just happens to use animation as the medium. The Simpsons is a very poignant and witty look at human society as a whole and is often very correct in how we would act. As much as we all like to think we are so evolved, we always degrade into the “mob” that we so despise.

    Here is a classy reference, I saw a play by Henrik Ibsen called “An Enemy of the People” back when I was in college. It is about the towns people rioting against the scientist cause of his bad news about the towns drinking water. Interesting thing is that this was written in 1882.

  26. Tom, thanks for another wonderful article. You have established yourself as the funniest physics professor today. I know of no other physics professor citing “The Simpsons” to get their point across. This is exactly what we need to reach the masses. Unfortunately the masses are not reading this blog. They are filling up their SUVs at a gas station and wondering why we can’t just “drill, baby, drill” for more oil so that they pay less.

    “Kill the messenger” is the established modus operandi of people when the confronted with bad news. And this works horribly in a democracy! The last US president that told the American people some truths about their energy use was Jimmy Carter.

    Listen to this speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tPePpMxJaA

    “Each American uses the energy equivalent of 60 barrels of oil per person each year. Ours is the most wasteful nation on Earth. We waste more energy than we import. With about the same standard of living, we use twice as much energy per person as do other countries like Germany, Japan, and Sweden.”

    And what happened? The people burned the observatory of course! The observatory was symbolically burned as Carter was promptly voted out of office. People do not like bad news. Even when it is the truth. Politicians have learned never to talk about bad news or they will not get elected. So don’t look for political leadership any time soon.

    • And to further the message, Reagan had the solar panels atop the White House removed and destroyed (not installed on some elementary school) to make it clear that we have no energy problem.

    • “With about the same standard of living, we use twice as much energy per person as do other countries like Germany, Japan, and Sweden.”

      Sounds great, but it isn’t exactly true: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_energy_consumption_per_capita
      Granted things might have changed since 1980, but several countries use more than the US — including Canada and Iceland — and Sweden’s at around 75%. Germany and Japan are closer to 50%. But “about the same standard of living” is kind of dependent on the eye of the beholder: different sizes of housing and of car, different deployment of air conditioning, less use of laundry drying machines. Japan has fancy electronics but largely does *not* live in what many Americans would call the same standard of living. Germany I think has a nice climate than much of the US.

      “We waste more energy than we import.”

      Speech sounds good if you’re inclined to self-flagellation, but what does “waste” actually mean here? The thermodynamic ‘waste’ from heat engines? People leaving lights on when they’re not in the room? Burning oil to drive single-passenger cars rather than public transit?

      We use more energy than most countries yes, which implies we waste more in absolute terms. But whether we have more waste proportionally, or avoidable waste, as opposed to having a more energy-using lifestyle… that has to be shown, not asserted. And dismissing actual differences in standard of living as non-existent won’t help you convince people.

      • Labeling the considerate, wholly sensible practice of energy conservation as self-flagellation is deeply disappointing to me. Ridiculing people who make sacrifices for the wider world is not very helpful—a step beyond simply choosing not to engage in such non-destructive practices personally.

        • Sorry for the unclarity, but I wasn’t calling conservation self-flagellation. I was referring to a predisposition to believe that we (Americans) are uniquely bad and wasteful, despite lacking an explicit definition of ‘waste’.

          • I have seen this term used before in the former context (criticizing conservation efforts) enough times that I was primed to ignite on its next appearance in connection with dismissing conservation sentiments. Many have reacted to my own personal quest to dramatically shave my energy footprint with cynical statements that one person can have no effect, so the exercise is pointless. I strongly disagree, and suspect that some combination of guilt, perceived righteousness, and threat of lost comforts motivate such people to lash out at the self-sacrificers. Sorry you got caught in the crossfire.

          • Prof Murphy: Regarding your 10-22 15:50 response:

            Please do continue to take umbrage at anything and everything that denigrates sincere efforts at environmental responsibility, even those that are misdirected. It is not unreasonable to expect commenters to be careful in what they write.

            Insinuations that personal efforts to act in accordance to principles are in vain, a drop in the ocean, have long been with us. Why donate to «charity» — did not Jesus himself say, « …ye have the poor always with you…»? Besides, your piddly little contribution can make no difference anyway. Why fight for the rights and dignity of others? I have heard “You can’t force people to love everybody else by passing laws” a barfworthy number of times. Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you want to see” (recorded in various phrasings). St James also told us to put our money where our mouth is: “be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.”

            It is natural to feel discomfiture at the thought of being caught on the wrong side of the sheep/goat divide. But such discomfiture should result in attempts at taking appropriate action, not deriding sheepishness or overly defending goatishness.

          • Welfare helps more people than charity does, and more reliably. Changing the laws about rights is, well, *changing the laws*, not just treating people better as an individual. I think the most common complaint here has been not “conserving energy is pointless” but “individual conservation isn’t going to save the world by itself”. If Alice burns less oil, she makes it slightly cheaper for Bob to keep on burning. Radical conservation by a small minority isn’t going to do much compared to a proper carbon tax.

            (There’s also been backlash by people thinking Tom overstates how easy his changes are to follow, especially for people not living in coastal San Diego, or that he understates the lifestyle change.)

      • Sweden was the wrong example but apart from that, Murphy is exactly right (see http://tinyurl.com/8mj7lfp): the US uses roughly twice the energy per capita than advanced economies like Switzerland, Germany, Denmark or Japan, and has little if anything to show for those extra 3-4000 kgoe per person. I never hear Americans after a visit to Germany or Switzerland report any dissatisfaction with the living standards there.
        It would be nice if we could at least start from acknowledging the facts.

        “different sizes of housing and of car, different deployment of air conditioning, less use of laundry drying machines.” Sure, the US has AC-supported desert cities. What’s that got to do with standard of living? It is nonsense to claim that the US has generally a less favorable climate than Europe. Much of the US is quite blessed climate wise. But Americans have also made the choice to live in large numbers in regions where they can’t stand the climate (actually hate it for most of the year). That is not heroic; it is stupid.

        Laundry drying machines as a matter of living standard? The size, as opposed to the functionality, of housing and cars? You are effectively defining energy use as living standard.
        Maybe “waste” is too judgmental a term for you. How about inefficiency? When you need two cars for the functionality that elsewhere is provided by one or none, that is inefficient. That is not a judgment, it’s an observation.

        • And the US uses less energy than Canada, Iceland, or Finland. More facts.
          A tourist visit is not the same as living somewhere.

          “It is nonsense to claim that the US has generally a less favorable climate than Europe”

          No it’s not. Europe has cooler summers and milder winters than most of the US. It kind of corresponds to the northern Pacific coast.

          “made the choice to live in large numbers in regions where they can’t stand the climate… stupid”

          That ‘choice’ goes back to the 1600s. We’re talking centuries-old settlement patterns here, not just Phoenix.

          “You are effectively defining energy use as living standard.”

          No, I’m defining size as living standard, and the size uses more energy. Bigger houses hold more stuff and people; ditto for cars, which also offer more safety in inter-vehicular crashes. Drying machines take less time and labor to use.

          Look, I’ve never owned a car and I like dense urban living. I’d like to think that a lot of Americans who hate the idea would like it if they tried it. But I also know it’s arrogant to hold up one’s preferences as the one true way, and that telling someone their A/C house and love of road trips are just waste is going to completely fail to convince them. Probably even sets back the cause of sustainability.

          Yes, you can have a good life with a lot less energy use, but the differences mean big changes in how a life is lived, and in ideas of what a good life is like, and also in public infrastructure and spending — which latter differences often prevent any individual change by an American.

        • “Murphy is exactly right”

          I was responding to a comment by TL who was quoting Jimmy Carter (and claiming the US wastes more energy than anyone), not Murphy. And I *agreed*, with a reference even, that Germany and Japan use close to half our energy — but Sweden doesn’t, and the US isn’t tops, contradicting what was said. Not sure why you provided your own reference agreeing with me.

          • “I was responding to a comment by TL who was quoting Jimmy Carter (and claiming the US wastes more energy than anyone), not Murphy.”

            My mistake. Makes me wonder however why it was so important to quarrel with the details of a 20+ year old quote. Carter’s observation was and still is right in substance, whether or not Canada now uses slightly more energy than the US. As to how to measure living standard, we apparently disagree and this may not be the space to quarrel that out but I would at least say that there is no indicator of living standard that is consistent with Switzerland having only half of what the US has. I don’t think anybody with knowledge of both countries would take that claim seriously.

            “The differences mean big changes in how a life is lived” – sure. It’s called path dependency. The US has made bad (i. e. unnecessarily wasteful) energy choices for decades – against the warnings of Carter and others. That is precisely what we need a national debate about – how to get away from that wasteful energy path.

  27. Americans can`t get behind the idea of limits in part (I suspect) because their science education is designed to portray science and technology as these marvelous magical devices that always overcome every challenge. That here are things that are impossible, and can scientifically be shown to be impossible, is just not part of the science paradigm that most Americans are exposed to during their education. In my anecdotal experience, none of the college students I am interacting with have ever been seriously exposed to the laws of thermodynamics. I’m afraid my feeble attempts at correcting that deficiency have little success. As George Monbiot used to say, “Tell people something they know already and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new and they will hate you for it.” Tell Americans that there is something they can’t do, and they will definitely hate you.

    This blog is unique and unusual in that it takes the physical constraints we are subject to seriously. I would hope that you consider putting your results and insights into a more accessible form for educational use. As I said, I’m not optimistic that people will listen to your message. But what else can we do but try?


  28. “A recent study (see also this related article) looked at the correlation between energy availability and population growth rate, concluding that the break-even value is at a per-capita energy intake rate of 13,000 W…
    The amount of energy necessary to achieve a global demographic transition (if the current correlation is to hold) is absurd. Uncle Science says not likely. ”

    Sorry but that is hardly a scientific conclusion. It’s a correlation of the kind “GDP is correlated with my shoe size”. Which it most certainly is. It is also noteworthy that both the US and China – the world’s two biggest economies and the two biggest consumers and polluters – fail to conform to the correlation: the US with a much higher and China a much lower birthrate than predicted. I’m also puzzled by that figure 13,000 W. Could they possibly have meant to say kWh?

  29. Mr Damian

    Ref: Your response to me, time-clock punch 2012-10-23 at 13:55

    I appreciate your support of the Carbon Tax. I have been pushing for it (quite unsuccessfully, unfortunately) since the 1970’s. The Carbon Tax Center presents it very well:
    and I would not be surprised were you a regular reader.

    A successful and effective implementation of such a Carbon Tax would do wonders, starting immediately. Nevertheless, this of and by itself would be insufficient to end Climate Disruption and Resource Depletion, as there are so many other factors involved. Population growth. Control of wastes. Et cetera, ad nauseam. (It is true that a proper Carbon Tax would impact all these, albeit to lesser degrees.) But these uncomfortable factors do not justify refraining from working for the Carbon Tax.

  30. Prof Murphy’s dedication to demonstrating that a lifestyle with heavily restricted carbon (&/or energy) consumption is not only possible but enjoyable has an effect that far transcends the benefits to the world of his family’s reductions. Furthermore, there is no hypocrisy in his travel by facile-fueled airplane, motor vehicle, etc. (The nature of this effect, and how it operates, could — and should, I feel — be a subject of several essays.) And that San Diego is not completely representative of, for instance, my home town of Chicago is irrelevant: our water problems are altogether different (as well as far more complex than meets the casual eye)…

  31. “[Science] is the search for fact, not Truth. If it’s Truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

    Honestly, I was taken completely by surprise at how well “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” sums up one of the points of this post.

  32. British Columbia, in 2008, implemented the first and so far, only carbon tax in North America.

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