A defense of science?

Susan highlighted a New York Times article about Bruno Latour, that I had actually seen and had been considering writing about. I have written about Bruno Latour before and I’m still not sure what to make of this article. One issue is that it seems somewhat revisionist; highlighting how he’s been misunderstood. If part of someone’s research is to understand the link between science and society, then you might hope that that they’d have some understanding of how what they said would be received.

I thought I would highlight a couple of things that caught my eye. The article says

Latour believes that if scientists were transparent about how science really functions — as a process in which people, politics, institutions, peer review and so forth all play their parts — they would be in a stronger position to convince people of their claims.

I do think that this is an aspect of the scientific process that we don’t highlight enough. I think it would be good if we were clearer about the actual messy business of doing science. I don’t, however, really think that this would put us in a stronger position when it came to convincing people, especially those who are pre-disposed to reject some scientific information. I also think it’s important to distinguish between the details of the scientific process, which involves people and is infuenced by various societal factors, and the ability of this process to uncover information about whatever is being studied.

What might help is if there were people who studied the link between science and society, they could be the ones making the broader public more aware of how science really functions, while also being clear that this does not mean that the scientific “truths” that emerge are somehow strongly influenced by the various societal factor that influence the underlying process. Maybe we could call these people Science and Technology Studies researchers?

The article then goes on to say

Climatologists, he says, must recognize that, as nature’s designated representatives, they have always been political actors, and that they are now combatants in a war whose outcome will have planetary ramifications.

I think this is mostly wrong, but he’s not alone in making this kind of suggestion. There seem to be quite a lot of people who recognise the seriousness of this issue, but still seem to think that the responsibility for communicating this lies with climate scientists. I think climate scientists do have a responsibility to communicate their research, but I don’t think they’re really “nature’s designated representatives” and that they have some obligation to fight this “war” (ironically, I had thought that there was a tendency amongst science and society researchers to criticise war metaphors). Rather than passing the buck back to climate scientists, why don’t those who recognise the importance of this, get out and communicate it themselves (to be fair, Latour does seem to be doing some of this)?

I would be interested to know what others think of the article. There were parts that were interesting and some good points were made. I have written quite a lot about Science and Technology Studies (STS) and have quite often been less than impressed, so this may somewhat colour my interpretation of the article. A great deal of what I’ve seen from STS has appeared rather confused. Of course, this could simply be the messy business of doing research and maybe there are amazing insights emerging from this that I’m somehow missing. If so, I’d be keen to have them pointed out. However, I’d also be keen to understand how a discpline that itself is engaged in the messy business of doing research, thinks it can somehow also comment on the messy business of doing research. It feels as though there must be a point at which it becomes essentially impossible to objectively comment on a process in which you’re also involved, but maybe someone can convince me that this isn’t the case.

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71 Responses to A defense of science?

  1. brigittenerlich says:

    I have to confess that I haven’t properly read the article, just some snippets that people posted. One about scientists not talking enough about the messiness of their work, made me cringe a bit. They do. So I tweeted this:
    And let’s not forget the millions of videos scientists and #scicomm people are putting out there showing how they live and work their science. I esp. recommend a decade of http://www.sixtysymbols.com/ and http://www.periodicvideos.com/ and there are many many more
    see: http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2013/01/22/bringing-science-to-life/
    People who want to know about the messiness can find stuff out there! But do they want to know?

    I also saw this quote:
    “What journalists, scientists and other experts fail to grasp, Latour argues, is that ‘facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media.'”
    Ok, so, let’s say we have established the fact that recent global changes in climate are caused by humans. Let’s say this is a robust fact. Would the robustness of that fact be less robust if we lived in a culture that denied that fact and where the media ignored it or where people didn’t trust institutions, i.e. in our world? I just wondered….

  2. Everett F Sargent says:

    Yeah, I wasn’t too keen on that article either (although the ocean waves insight was most welcomed).

    But it is all rather simple: From a distance we all look like ants, very big ants. Playing a tug-of-war with other very big ants, over things we find on the ground.

    Next time you’re found, with your chin on the ground
    There a lot to be learned, so look around
    Just what makes that little old ant
    Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
    Anyone knows an ant, can’t
    Move a rubber tree plant
    But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes
    He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes
    So any time you’re gettin’ low
    ‘Stead of lettin’ go
    Just remember that ant
    Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant
    Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant
    Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant
    When troubles call, and your back’s to the wall
    There’s a lot to be learned, that wall could fall

  3. Brigitte,
    Thanks. Yes, I didn’t particular like that claim about facts either. As far as I’m concerned, something is true whether we accept it or not. Our knowledge of that truth will depend on whether it’s accepted within our culture, but it doesn’t change its existence. It sometimes does seem as though what is meant is the former (societies understanding of a “truth”) but the rhetoric often implies the latter (that “truth” is somehow a societal construct).

  4. brigittenerlich says:

    Yes exactly, but social scientists should have a bit a feeling for semantics! I know too well that one cannot always exactly say what one means but one should at least try to minimise misunderstandings not maximise them!

  5. dikranmarsupial says:

    I agree with ATTP that the robustness of scientific “facts” does not depend on culture or reliable institutions, only our understanding of those facts (maybe).

    I’m not sure Latour really understand how science is done. From my comment on the previous thread:

    “[Einsteins] obsession with transporting information through transformation without deformation; his passion for the precise superimposition of readings; his panic at the idea that observers sent away might betray, might retain privileges, and send reports that could not be used to expand our knowledge; his desire to discipline the delegated observers and to turn them into dependent pieces of apparatus that do nothing but watch the coincidence of hands and notches…”

    Bruno Latour (apparently) discussing Einstein’s “twin paradox” thought-experiment, in which an identical twin sent of at near light speed to another star system finds on his return that the other has aged considerably more than himself, quoted from Massimo Pigliucci’s (jolly good) “Nonsense on Stilts – How to Tell Science from Bunk” (page 255).

  6. dikranmarsupial says:

    “Latour believes that if scientists were transparent about how science really functions — as a process in which people, politics, institutions, peer review and so forth all play their parts — they would be in a stronger position to convince people of their claims. ”

    I’m not sure that is even true. I have often wondered whether Einstein’s thought experiments are genuinely the way he pursued his research or whether they were post-hoc explanations for the ideas. I suspect it is a mixture of the two, but the hours that Einstein undoubtedly spent reading papers by other scientists and working on the maths rarely get mentioned in public communication of the story of relativity. But the public clearly accept Einstein without the details of how he actually got there anyway.

    The story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars is interesting in itself, but does it do anything to convince anybody that pulsars are what they are? I’d say no.

  7. Dave_Geologist says:

    I’m not sure Latour really understand how science is done.

    I’d already concluded that, dikran, from the “Latour believes…” and “Climatologists … as nature’s designated representatives” snippets. But, full disclosure, I arrive with a pre-existing opinion.

    I second the Nonsense on Stilts recommendation. The follow-up is also pertinent:

    First of all, Latour is criticizing a popular book by Einstein, not a technical article, presumably because Latour simply cannot understand a technical paper in fundamental physics (full disclosure: nor can I, nor most people living on the planet – but some of us try not to write commentaries about things we do not understand).

    Pigliucci is quoting Sokal, whose research “lies in mathematical physics and combinatorics. In particular, he studies the interplay between these fields based on questions arising in statistical mechanics and quantum field theory”. So not your average fundamental-physics naif, but self-aware enough to know he’s no Einstein. And yes, I know, Sokal is open to the criticism that he doesn’t understand post-modernism, but that didn’t shut him up.

    Although, back to Einstien, the Special Relativity paper is actually quite readable, at least in English translation (or did Einstein do his own translation?. Clearly, from his popular-science works, he had a way with words). Even the maths isn’t too bad. You just have to pay very close attention. Maybe even read it two or three times*.

    *Haha. Whenever someone complained that I’d have to rewrite something because a section had to be read two or three times to be understood, I’d say: “It’s not a novel. it’s OK if the difficult bits have to be read two or three times. They’re difficult.” I haven’t tried that one lately – I’d probably get short shrift from a Millennial!

  8. dikranmarsupial says:

    I’m usually somewhat disappointed by a paper I understand on the first reading* ;o)

    I think it is worth mentioning that even journal papers are not an account of the way a research programme was conducted. Their purpose is to convey information to an audience, so usually the story will have been tidied up a bit, and better explanations provided than were available when the work was actually being done etc.

    I often write the introduction and methods sections of my papers before doing the research, because it helps me to understand what it is I am trying to do, which helps design better experiments that are more likely to clearly answer the research question (whether positively or negatively). I also write with a fountain pen, because it is better not to write faster than you think. There I have set out some of the messiness of my science, do you think it will help anyone be more convinced by it? I sincerely hope not, because it is entirely irrelevant.

    * but always try to write mine so that they are – ironic, huh? ;o)

  9. The trolls, lukewarmers, deniers want to move the conversation to anything other than the hard science behind fundamental conclusions/facts about AGW, such as:
    1. CO2 and CO2e cause the globe to warm
    2. Human beings and our activities are the primary reason that CO2 and CO2e has risen so dramatically over the past 150 years
    3. Human beings now have to undertake dramatic and unprecedented changes in the ways we live to stop the rise of CO2 and CO2e because the warming is driving an extinction event
    4. Extinction events are no fun for living things

    Over and over, the discussion turns anything other than the fundamental conclusions/facts about AGW. Cui bono?

  10. Of all the founders of STS , Bruno Latour was the first to focus on the connection between science and semiosis. The creation and manipulation of symbols by scientists is by no means limited to equations on blackboards, and Latoiur has very creditably refused to turn a blind eye on the reframing of climate models as political oracles –and energy publicists deploying scientific memes in order to shape policy outcomes.

    Two weeks ago, he took a poke at Marxistante Anthropogogues, like the authors of Climate Leviathan who wander off into metaphysics when theorizing about the earth as a system.

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2018/10/enter-climate-jacobins.html

  11. I got something quite different from reading it than what I’m seeing here. I’m not sure how much of that has to do with the deficits in my education and the intense hatred of facts that we face front and center here in the US.

    I strongly recommend focusing on the second half of the NYTimes article. They are making an effort to increase understanding and fight intolerance of reality-based, well, no better word for it, reality. I don’t think people steeped in the scientific method and scientific communities realize quite how odd and privileged we all appear to be. I grew up with Eisenhower attacking “eggheads”; Europeans in general are not familiar with the deep-seated dislike of smart kids that starts in early school and pervades our “culture” (if you can call it that, when it goes there). We just assume if we point hard enough and often enough at “facts” people will see them. They don’t.

    I am, however, trying to reach outside the scientific way of thinking, which is in both my DNA and my cultural heritage, and I was heartened that Latour seems to be making a “thing” of presenting for climate science and climate action.

    I see Latour doing this. And somewhat beside my point, he references another oddity, Sloterdijk: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/26/a-celebrity-philosopher-explains-the-populist-insurgency For Sloterdijk, Trump’s true significance lies in the way that he instinctively subverts … “He’s an innovator when it comes to fear … Instead of waiting for the crisis to impose his decree, his decrees get him the emergencies he needs. The playground for madness is vast.”

    My current favorite for illustration cultural differences is Barbara Kingsolver, whose Flight Behavior (and Poisonwood Bible and others) present this conflict in education and cultural bias in a less judgemental way.

  12. Susan,

    I strongly recommend focusing on the second half of the NYTimes article. They are making an effort to increase understanding and fight intolerance of reality-based, well, no better word for it, reality.

    Thanks, I’ll read that again. I think there are aspect of the role that STS has – in my view – played that is somewhat colouring my interpretation of this article, but I’ll try to look past that.

    My current favorite for illustration cultural differences is Barbara Kingsolver, whose Flight Behavior (and Poisonwood Bible and others) present this conflict in education and cultural bias in a less judgemental way.

    I have read Poisonwood Bible, which is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read. I haven’t read Flight Behaviour, but will put it on the list.

  13. I looked up the NYT author: “Ava Kofman is a contributing writer for The Intercept”. This is her first article for the magazine.” https://theintercept.com/ As such, the reporting is down to her, not to Latour. Since Glenn Greenwald went full Assange (here’s a good review on that – https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/03/glenn-greenwald-the-bane-of-their-resistance as well as some fine in-depth coverage on Assange – https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/08/21/julian-assange-a-man-without-a-country – really, you don’t have to go there, *very* long reads) the Intercept has tried to provide more unbiased coverage, see their front page today) they’ve broadened their reporting base, and are better now. Today, for example …

    I’m a particular fan of Elizabeth Warren (now I’m really going off topic). When the “left” in the US started labeling her “corporate”, I saw people who should know better going French Revolution (nobody good enough, kill ’em all), encouraged by various troll factories (Russian, and our home-grown extremists and underoccupied teenagers with violent instincts). She is as sound as it is possible to be on a multitude of issues, including especially climate.

    Nobody is frozen in time, particularly people of thoughtful intellect. My particular point of view is informed by ignorance of Latour’s past. I thought, from what I read, that he is trying to help. Perhaps he will help, perhaps he’s too “ivory tower” to matter much.

    aTTP: Yes indeed, Poisonwood Bible is a book that I started as one person and emerged as another. That is the highest praise I can offer. Flight Behavior goes there too.

  14. Harry Twinotter says:

    “they would be in a stronger position to convince people of their claims.”

    I don’t understand this at all. Scientists don’t have to convince others of their claims, they just have to explain to others the evidence they have gathered and the reasoning they used to come to the conclusion that a particular fact is evidence for a particular thing.

  15. brigittenerlich says:

    I have only just got round to reading this properly. It is a very good piece of journalism! I came across this paragraph, which I think is core to the STS engagement with science, also the basis of its critique of science: “Day-to-day research — what he termed science in the making — appeared not so much as a stepwise progression toward rational truth as a disorderly mass of stray observations, inconclusive results and fledgling explanations. Far from simply discovering facts, scientists seemed to be, as Latour and Woolgar wrote in “Laboratory Life,” “in the business of being convinced and convincing others.” During the process of arguing over uncertain data, scientists foregrounded the reality that they were, in some essential sense, always speaking for the facts; and yet, as soon as their propositions were turned into indisputable statements and peer-reviewed papers — what Latour called ready-made science — they claimed that such facts had always spoken for themselves. That is, only once the scientific community accepted something as true were the all-too-human processes behind it effectively erased or, as Latour put it, black-boxed.”
    I wonder what scientists make of that. I also wonder what a similar paragraph about social science research would look like. If what’s described here is not going on in social science, then how is social science DONE and how can social scientists themselves speak with authority?
    And of course one can also criticise this paragraph when reading it more closely. Where is the evidence, for example, of scientists talking about ‘indisputable’ facts; where do scientists speak about facts speaking for themselves? This leads us to the eternal STS strawpeople, such as scientists apparently proclaiming absolute truth and certainty, etc.

  16. Brigitte,
    I think I agree with some of that. It’s not a simple, linear process; it is messy and scientists do often work with data that is uncertain. Scientists do also write papers, and go to meetings, with the hope of convincing others that their analysis is correct. However, this is still more about the evidence than about how convincing they appear to be (although the latter does play a role). I don’t quite follow scientists having “foregrounded the reality”. I think scientists regard themselves as trying to uncover reality that exists whether they do so, or not. Our confidence in that reality is presented by uncertainties, and there are some things about which we’re very certain and some things we’re not.

    What you say at the end of your comment about the social sciences, was what I was trying to get at at the end of the post. If the social sciences are also undertaking research, then surely this applies to them as much as it does to the physical/natural sciences. If it doesn’t then does it mean that they think they can somehow undertake research without the issues applying to them, or does it mean that the social sciences don’t undertake research in the same way as in the physical/natural sciences, in which case how is this different from simply having opinions?

  17. Fergus Brown says:

    Some issues. To my eyes, there’s little wrong with his interpretation of ‘mundane’ scientific practice, but then to me, the notion that ‘context is everything’ is quite familiar and unsurprising.
    However, I don’t feel that this characterisation of Science in its method and ‘self-World’ is adequately able to account for creativity, discovery or innovation.
    Yes, much of what is new in science is built on the shoulders of giants, but the creative process of transcending Latour’s ‘scientific enterprise’ and seeing something new is not entirely constrained by the context in which the ‘discovery’ is made – there is always, by definition, something more.
    The other peculiarity which isn’t discussed in the NYT article – though it may be in his works – is the consequence of the nature of science as he traditionally saw it; self-referential interaction between hypothesis, observation and analysis within and across fields leads to robustness and consilience. This would be simply a large-scale case of the worm eating its tail, were it not for the fact that something science has always been good at is weeding out the inconsequential; in other words, if a conclusion does not have some kind of utility, sooner or later it gets forgotten – think, for example, of early experiments in the theory of Magnetism, or of the concept of The Ether – Eugenics or any of a number of blind alleys. At one time all of these ideas were taken seriously, only over time as inconsistencies and inadequacies became evident, did they get supplanted by more useful – more practical – hypotheses and ideas.
    That science both creates and defines itself and the world it chooses to view does not disqualify it from its saving grace – that science is quite good at explaining the world and, at times, transforming it. Thus, the critique that science is ‘nothing special’ falls at the hurdle that it is, because it works, however it gets there.

  18. Fergus,

    The other peculiarity which isn’t discussed in the NYT article – though it may be in his works – is the consequence of the nature of science as he traditionally saw it; self-referential interaction between hypothesis, observation and analysis within and across fields leads to robustness and consilience.

    Indeed. I think if you look at the details of how science is conducted, you see people who have biases, experiments/models/observations that have flaws, interpretations that may be stronger than the research indicates, etc. However, if you step back and look at the broader process, then (as I think you’re saying) you see a collection of scientific information that is consistent and allows us to have confidence in our overall understanding. Of course, this isn’t always the case; sometimes there are situations where we have more confidence than the evidence indicates, but in many cases our confidence is based on the overall evidence, not simply on one line of evidence.

  19. I think I agree with some of that. It’s not a simple, linear process; it is messy and scientists do often work with data that is uncertain. Scientists do also write papers, and go to meetings, with the hope of convincing others that their analysis is correct.

    Some might. I do my best not to. The great thing about meetings is that your colleagues can give good advice on what may be wrong with your work and make the published paper better.

    Most of the being convinced and convincing is convincing yourself by looking at the problem in multiple ways, making sure your tools are appropriate and work as expected. Naturally you are never sure everything is right, that doing science is messy is inherent in doing something new.

    and yet, as soon as their propositions were turned into indisputable statements and peer-reviewed papers — what Latour called ready-made science — they claimed that such facts had always spoken for themselves.

    That sounds more like (science) journalism than like science, which may be how Latour learns about science. A peer reviewed publication is the beginning of a conversation. I wish journalists would stop their counter-productive fetish with just-published papers. There is a lot of stuff that is new to the public (me on most topics), while being based on science that has been digested a few years and thus much more reliable.

  20. Victor,

    Some might. I do my best not to. The great thing about meetings is that your colleagues can give good advice on what may be wrong with your work and make the published paper better.

    Fair point, but we still do research in the hope that we do something that adds to our understanding of the topic. Ultimately convincing others that it has value is part of that process (or, as you suggest, discovering that you could do more to improve it).

  21. A Migdal says:

    The question why doing research is messy, and why the end product is less so, should be quite easy to understand. In mathematics, and also often so in physics, it is much easier to see that a known solution is correct, than to look for an unknown solution.

    Obviously, in published papers it is then not useful to explain all the dead ends and wrong ideas the researchers went through first. Maybe in social sciences, being convinced of right answers is harder.

  22. Latour posesses in abundance two things often misssing from the climate conversation – politcal candor, and a sense of the sardonic concerning scientists who come to believe in the political playbooks they help frame.

  23. Hyperactive Hydrologist says:

    Huh?

    SR15, Figure SPM.3b P3 and P4 mitigation scenarios have a 501% and 483% increase in Nuclear in 2050 relative to 2010.

    What percentage should we be aiming for and what is the feasibility of achieving that percentage?

  24. I forget the exact numbers, but my understanding is that if we wanted nuclear to provide all the electricity, we’d need to build something like 4000 new reactors. We’re currently building about 60.

  25. Dave_Geologist says:

    Forbes wouldn’t be Forbes without windmills to tilt at…

  26. Ken Fabian says:

    Steven, I suppose Shellenberger (in the linked Forbes opinion piece) is consistent – that failure to address climate effectively is all the fault of greenies. This neatly overlaps with climate science deniers and obstructors – for whom people thinking there is a climate problem is all the fault of greenies. Accusations of Environmentalist infiltration of climate science and the IPCC hits all the right – that is, conservative-right – buttons I suppose.

    It neatly confirms existing conservative biases but it doesn’t move us any further, doesn’t offer any solutions, not even nuclear. It won’t even induce Forbes readers who already like nuclear to stop supporting fossil fuels; rather, it offers up the same, one size fits all, easy excuse for not doing so – greenies. In this case, greenies make nuclear too hard.

    If anti-nuclear/pro-renewables bias is the most significant, most deserving of attention issue he finds in the recent IPCC report it does tell us something I suppose. Yet I can’t see that anything the IPCC has ever said about energy choices has ever had much bearing on actual, on the ground energy choices – renewables or nuclear.

  27. dpy6629 says:

    Part of the problem here is that it is impossible to generalize about so diverse an activity as “science.” There is an older version of science that I learned in college physics classes of Newton’s laws and the clock analogy that God set in motion but that now runs by itself. Maxwell reinforced it with his electromagnetic theory. Then there was quantum theory and all simple thoughts like these are gone. Then there was chaos theory and even Newtons laws look like random noise generators on long enough time scales. But still, there are fields where this old model of science works perfectly well.

    Latour’s view that scientists massage data and try to convince each other and in some sense “manufacture” truth is of course true. And recent work has shown that scientists have turned into positive results bias automatons in some fields. Particularly in medicine and its public policy implementation, there have been huge and inexcusable failures.

    The problem I fight every day is the cultural biases so prevalent in many fields. Among the most pervasive is that even chaotic simulations are like elliptic boundary value problems in that “if I run the simulation right I will get the right answer.” This bias is reinforced by career incentives and some of the training scientists receive as well.

    I agree with Latour that if people understood the inherent uncertainties in science and the process they might be better able to sort out what they trust and what they don’t trust. The problem here is really what I will call the pundits of science. They are journalists or politicians or in some cases scientists who are second rate but are sure that science supports their vision of mankind and of human society. They attack perceived opponents and use the media to give a one sided view. They poison the well of understanding and prevent real science from being communicated or understood. One old example was the battle between catastrophists and uniformitarians in geology. This battle in retrospect just exposed the prejudices of the most highly visible exponents. The truth as usual is that there is some truth in both of these views and the battle just obscured that fact for a long time.

  28. izen says:

    @-SM
    “here is a good defense”

    That is open to dispute.
    As Ken has already pointed out opposition to nuclear is exclusively at the door of the ‘Greenies’. And yet past evidence indicates that IPCC reports have also been shaped in the past by petro-States and fossil fuel interests that are also not known for their positive attitude to nuclear replacing their market.

    It is also dubious to say the least to imply dishonesty in the IPCC approach to nuclear power in an article that asserts that fears of nuclear proliferation are unfounded because;-
    “… no nation in history has ever created a nuclear weapon from civilian nuclear fuel under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

    All the Nations that have gained nuclear weapons have pursued proliferation outside the inspection regime. Most recently North Korea, but there is also China, Pakistan, India, Israel, South Africa, (decommissioned)… and it didn’t do much to stop attempts by Iraq, Iran, Libya ?

  29. Steven Mosher says:

    “That is open to dispute.”

    That That is open to dispute is open to dispute

  30. Steven Mosher says:

    “Steven, I suppose Shellenberger (in the linked Forbes opinion piece) is consistent – that failure to address climate effectively is all the fault of greenies.”

    I am more interested in what Wigly had to say

  31. izen says:

    One of the less mentioned problems with nuclear power, as France discovered, is that it is extremely inflexible.

    To provide ~80% of peak demand means that there is significant over-generation at off-peak times. Because ramping power generation up and down in a nuclear reactor is difficult, (thermal inertia) and maximum efficiency / minimum cost is with near full power generation, France has ended up as the world’s leading exporter of zero carbon energy.

    All the neighbouring Nations (including the UK) eagerly buy its cheap power for the ‘carbon credits’ it confers during off-peak times because France has to sell nuclear power at a loss during weekends and nights to avoid running reactors at less than full efficiency and avoid the problems of ramping the output.

    Any nuclear power generation beyond the absolute minimum demand level is uneconomic because of its lack of intermittency.

  32. Marco says:

    Izen, that’s the thing I noticed, too: the all-important qualifier used to dismiss the fear noted by the IPCC ignores that all countries that developed nuclear weapons did so without IAEA oversight. Heck, India even used plutonium from a research reactor that it was given with explicit demands it only be used for peaceful purposes.

    One *could* argue that having nuclear power stations isn’t enough to make an atomic bomb. It would be a correct argument. But it ignores that a country *would* build up experience with nuclear power, would be able to strongly argue it needs such experience to assure it can run those reactors…and thereby develop deep understanding of how to make nuclear bombs, too.

  33. Canman says:

    Izen,

    A lot of pumped storage was built for nuclear plants. From an old 70’s copy of Popular Mechanics:

  34. BBD says:

    Don’t let the nuclear tr0lling get to you. It’s all nonsense anyway. ~30% of global electrical generation by 2050 is the top end of plausible scenarios. The rest is rod-waving.

  35. BBD,
    Indeed, given how many nuclear reactors we are currently building, how long they seem to build, and the various societal/political issues associated with developing nuclear power, it does seem implausible that it could be the dominant electrical energy source by the middle of this century.

  36. DPY said:
    “Then there was quantum theory and all simple thoughts like these are gone. “
    Perhaps that’s your problem? After doing research in theory and application of electron diffraction, quantum mechanics started to become second nature to me.

    “Then there was chaos theory and even Newtons laws look like random noise generators on long enough time scales. “

    Such a defeatist attitude. Many cases of what looks like random noise has structure.

  37. Joshua says:

    ~30% of global electrical generation by 2050 is the top end of plausible scenarios.

    Don’t let a little bit of logistical reality get in the way of some good ol’ fashioned hippie-punching.

  38. Chubbs says:

    I don’t know looks like climate science is having a pretty good year. Its the naysayers that are being proven wrong in study after study. Time for the rest of society to pick-up its game.

  39. 1. A lot of pumped storage was built for nuclear plants.

    2. One of the less mentioned problems with nuclear power, as France discovered, is that it is extremely inflexible.

    To provide ~80% of peak demand means that there is significant over-generation at off-peak times… France has ended up as the world’s leading exporter of zero carbon energy.

    … France has to sell nuclear power at a loss during weekends and nights to avoid running reactors at less than full efficiency and avoid the problems of ramping the output.

    These two observations together actually go to the heart of the point that was being made in the earlier discussion (other thread) about the capabilities versus requirements for large-scale, long-term energy storage.

    Here you have a decades-long, national-scale urgent need for such a solution – one with a built-in, predictable and potentially huge profit potential – and essentially nothing meaningful was forthcoming. So much so that it was better economically to sell the electricity at a loss.

    And this for a solution that only had to deal with time-scales of hours to a few days, and fairly well-explored use cases of peak-shaving and time-of-use shifting.

    Some of the responses to this are glib, along the lines of “But what if everyone was charging their grid-smart-connected Tesla at night? It’s technically possible. Here is a paper.”, which tends to to just skate over the fundamental challenges.

    There has been a natural demand (I.e. profit potential) for economic high-density, fast-cycle power and energy (i.e. batteries) for over 100 years. Where are they? Early this decade, the US DOE ARPA-E established a “5-5-5” moon-shot-like program for electrochemical battery storage – “Five times the storage at one fifth the density and one fifth the cost within 5 years”. What happened? Did I miss some big announcement?

    This is a very, very difficult physical problem to solve.

    Actually, in looking for that old ARPA-E program, I see that they launched a new program earlier this year, looking for 100-hour+, national-grid scale solutions – describing both the challenge and pretty much acknowledging that best current technology paths (i.e. lithium ion) aren’t likely to be economic (or the economics of electricity will have to change one hell of a lot).

    By the way, the “sizing” (and rapid ramping with intermittent penetration) of the problem appears to at partially to have come from the Shaner, Steve Davis, Nate Lewis, Ken Caldeira paper last spring Geophysical constraints on the reliability of solar and wind power in the United States. Note that even for their work, the generous assumptions:

    … there is an ideal and perfect continental scale electricity grid [and] we are assuming perfect electricity transmission. We also assume that batteries are 100% efficient. We are considering a spherical cow.

    Anyway, as Caldeira mentions later, crossing the storage chasm is a ways out and should not deter from rolling out low-carbon electricity now. But neither should we proceed as though the chasm crossing is already solved…

  40. BBD says:

    Anyway, as Caldeira mentions later, crossing the storage chasm is a ways out and should not deter from rolling out low-carbon electricity now. But neither should we proceed as though the chasm crossing is already solved…

    Should it turn out that the physics of battery cells prevent them ever from scaling economically to GWh storage capacity, then IMHO, the lip of the storage chasm is pretty much right ahead. If we do need significant PHES capacity to cope with winter wind lulls, then how long will it take to build enough? Three decades? Four? With >80% decarbonisation targets set at ~2050, I’d say that means we need to start building out pretty soon, or it won’t scale to meet the (likely much faster) build out of wind capacity.

    One hesitates to keep bringing this up, as single-issue nutter is never a good look, but this is beginning to worry me.

  41. Canman says:

    ATTP: “… we’d need to build something like 4000 new reactors. We’re currently building about 60.”

    When you present these big numbers of nuke plants needed, do you ever think about how many wind and solar farms are going to be needed to replace just one?

    Thousands of nuclear plants are an optimistic tragedy. Millions of wind mills are a statistic.

  42. Canman says:

    If you don’t like nuclear power, you need to refute these guys:

  43. Joshua says:

    Canman –

    When you present these big numbers of nuke plants needed,…

    Asking such a question doesn’t address the logistical problems of a massive nuclear build up.

    How do you see the funding for a massive build up of nuclear taking place?

  44. BBD says:

    Or, put another way, why is it that all the energy mix scenarios seem to top out at or below ~30% nuclear for global electricity generation by 2050?

    Are you suggesting that they are all biased by greenies?

    Or what?

    (Remember that I am by no means an uncritical endorser of *any* of the low carbon technologies under discussion here, so if there were greenie bias then I would be likely to complain volubly about it).

  45. Canman says:

    Joshua: “How do you see the funding for a massive build up of nuclear taking place?”

    It’d come from the same hypothetical place as the funding for renewables, but without all the extra transmission and (nonexistant) storage.

    BBD: “Or, put another way, why is it that all the energy mix scenarios seem to top out at or below ~30% nuclear for global electricity generation by 2050?”

    It doesn’t for the two guys in the video.

  46. BBD says:

    It doesn’t for the two guys in the video.

    You didn’t answer the question. Have another go. It’s free.

    And as for ‘two guys in the video’ vs all the rest of the energy mix scenarios out to 2050… don’t be daft.

  47. Marco says:

    Canman, the two guys in the video are members of the Thorium Energy Alliance. They’ve been hyping it for years, and it’s *that* nuclear power they believe will power the world.

    Slight problem: there is currently about zero evidence that it really works nearly as well as claimed. Considering the current development work, we just may have something commercially relevant/interesting in about 20 years. That will then have to show itself worthy of further development, which easily takes another 20 years. And then it needs to be deployed. So, maybe around 2060 we could get their preferred energy generation method deployed on a large scale, assuming it works. Too late.

  48. Joshua says:

    Canman -.

    It’d come from the same hypothetical place as the funding for renewable…

    I don’t see how that answers my question. In addition to which, the economics are different, and so the funding would have to be as well.

    But let’s not go down that rabbit hole.

    I’ll ask again, in hopes this time you’ll answer.

    Where do you see the funding coming from?

  49. BBD says:

    While we wait, you may find this TLDR of the MIT Future of Nuclear Power report interesting wrt your question.

  50. Everett F Sargent says:

    ATTP,

    “Indeed, given how many nuclear reactors we are currently building, how long they seem to build, and the various societal/political issues associated with developing nuclear power, it does seem implausible that it could be the dominant electrical energy source by the middle of this century.”

    … should be …

    Indeed, given how many of any type of non-fossil fuel power generators we are currently building, how long they seem to build, and the various societal/political issues associated with developing new generating capacity of any kind, it does seem implausible that these new forms of power generation could be the dominant electrical energy source by the middle of this century.

    It is called build out, (super ?) exponential build out!

    You see in the comments above the bickering that goes on between people who strongly believe that AGW is real and should be an immediate concern (really serious build out should have started by 2020 (I’ll wager a very serious bet that that does not happen), before that it should have been 2010, before that it should have been 2000, then 1990, then 1980, then 1970 (yes, 1970 that’s about the time of the 1st renewables “so called” revolution).

    The “so called” system has too much societal inertia. Population growth. NIMBY. FF interests which are currently ~10% of global GDP. The climate system is responding on human generational (~20 years/generation or multidecadal) timescales, at best. People have much more immediate concerns (a 30-year mortgage or a retirement plan is the longest any single human plans for, and that is their planning for themselves exclusively, not others that they will never know).

    I am quite fine with any non-low-carbon solutions. But I’m also pretty certain that humanity will not turn the FF corner until sometime after 2030.

    Every day of bickering is one less day for actually doing something. The build out curve only continues getting steeper.

    The imperfect is the enemy of the good, as there are no perfect solutions. Air-water-land-biota are all literally effed no matter what we do, get use to it. Humanity is currently not, at the same time, sustainable as a species and non-invasive of all other species and environments (land-sea-air).

    :/

  51. izen says:

    The way science is communicated to a general population is a minor factor in how public perception and policy evolve in response to scientific developments with impacts on a society. The inertia of political, social and financial interests shapes the discourse much more strongly than the way OHC is reported.

    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0651-8.epdf/

    The local and personal can override the general resistance to acceptance and change in some situations.
    Who would have predicted a Republican in the midterms running an attack ad against his Democrat opponent for links to ‘Dirty Coal’ and therefore unlikely to take effective action to combat climate change. Can you guess were in the US local factors have prompted this inversion of the political status quo ?

    https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/energy/gop-attacks-florida-democrat-for-alleged-ties-to-dirty-coal-money

  52. On the subject of what people care about and paying attention, climate change is now getting bloody obvious and is a lot more front and center. We just had Massachusetts gubernatorial debate, and it was interesting that both Republican and Democratic candidates emphasized climate change more than usual (Boston, of course, is exposed and heavily liberal in general). Though the Democrat is, as usual, more sound on the real issues, it requires some sophistication and knowledge to see that. Meanwhile, Charlie Baker (who is honestly appealing), scored points by saying that the best business opportunity is dealing with climate change and promoting renewables (this was only slightly dishonest). I think if Republicans ever come to their senses Charlie Baker as candidate would win the presidency in a landslide.

    My concern about communication has shifted away from insisting that people improve themselves and “get” science. We need everyone on board, and sneering at those with less experience/education or apparent cliquishness doesn’t help. I like to talk about the weather more as the trends make sense in terms of people’s day to day experience. It’s too bad it took so long, but obvious is good.

  53. Dave_Geologist says:

    Everrett: “It is called build out, (super ?) exponential build out!”

    Other RE looks kinda, dare I say it, exponential (in the layman, non-mathematical sense of course). It may slow now that subsidies have been removed. Or it may have reached a critical point where it competes on its own (under the old subsidy regime, offshore wind was bidding at 2/3 of the price Hinckley Point C nuclear has been guaranteed to get it over the starting line).

  54. Dave_Geologist says:

    As I mentioned on one of the other threads, the UK has to keep an eye on gas generating capacity as some of the first-generation power stations go offline. They were tied to offshore fields producing cheap sour gas which was too costly to clean up to grid spec. At least some of those will go offline when their supplying field is decommissioned (Peterhead already has). They’ll struggle to compete with modern plants if they have to buy gas at market price, and although they’ll have been built with acid-resistant metallurgy, that will have been for a design life linked to their supplying field, and at minimum they’ll need a massive overhaul to get decades of additional life.

  55. BBD says:

    EFS

    You see in the comments above the bickering that goes on between people who strongly believe that AGW is real and should be an immediate concern

    I don’t think Canman would agree that AGW is an ‘immediate concern’ in the way that other participants in that exchange do 🙂

    So I’d dispute that the rest of us were bickering – we’re all pretty much on the same page.

  56. Willard says:

    > we’re all pretty much on the same page.

    Just wait till AT writes another post…

    Meanwhile, maybe we should stop talking about our grandchildren:

  57. Hey, Willard,
    why would it be a good idea to stop talking about our children and grandchildren? I think this is a way to reach folks who are starting to realize that AGW is real. Also, this is a real concern to me. I am old enough that I will miss most of the impact of AGW, but my kids and grandkids will both get to see heavier impact and this is a real concern to me. It’s not rhetorical to me.
    Mike

  58. BBD says:

    Anything Hansen said must be bad…

    My son is eleven. The shit will hit his fan if he lives a reasonable length of time. So I think uncle Jim should retitle his book Extreme weather events, coastal inundation, food insecurity and consequently escalating geopolitical instability of our children. Catchy, no?

  59. rustneversleeps said:

    ” Early this decade, the US DOE ARPA-E established a “5-5-5” moon-shot-like program for electrochemical battery storage – “Five times the storage at one fifth the density and one fifth the cost within 5 years”. What happened? Did I miss some big announcement?

    This is a very, very difficult physical problem to solve.

    Actually, in looking for that old ARPA-E program, I see that they launched a new program earlier this year, looking for 100-hour+, national-grid scale solutions – describing both the challenge and pretty much acknowledging that best current technology paths (i.e. lithium ion) aren’t likely to be economic (or the economics of electricity will have to change one hell of a lot).”

    We got several million dollars from a DARPA energy program and the greatest benefit in my estimation was the amount of spin-off material it created. None of it was classified, and it was all essentially released public domain so the ideas are free for the taking.

  60. Willard says:

    > Anything Hansen said must be bad…

    C’mon, BBD. You know I love the guy. He’s my favorite Republican after Richard Alley.

    Jim simply wrote his book 10 years ago. It feels like nothing changed. Perhaps it’s a ClimateBall bias:

  61. BBD says:

    C’mon, BBD. You know I love the guy.

    Sure, I know you do, but it wasn’t you doing the kvetching about vocabulary… it was those other people, on Witter.

    Good vid btw.

  62. Canman says:

    BBD, you’re right. I don’t think it’s an ‘immediate concern’. Any phrase that includes both ‘immediate’ and ‘climate’ is bound to have an oxymoronish quality.

  63. Willard says:

    How Zenonian of you, Canman. Considering that you’re referring to a guy who was playing ClimateBall more than 25 years ago on a well-known Freedom Fighter show, paradoxes may not be enough to explain the extent of your decadal minimizations.

    But you’re right – concerns we should have started to take srsly 25 years ago are not that immediate.

  64. BBD says:

    Ah, Canman, there you are at last. Had almost given up.

    Since you can’t or wont answer the question about why nobody serious thinks we can plaster the world in nuclear reactors over the next few decades, let’s hand the mic to the World Nuclear Association [cheers; clapping].

    One would expect the World Nuclear Association to provide the most optimistic view of nuclear potential by 2050, yes? Well, this is what it looks like (my bold):

    World Nuclear Association Harmony programme

    The World Nuclear Association has published its Harmony vision for the future of electricity, developed from the International Energy Agency’s ‘2°C Scenario’ (2DS) in reducing CO2 emissions*. This IEA scenario adds 680 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2050, giving 930 GWe then (after 150 GWe retirements from 2014’s 396 GWe), providing 17% of world electricity. Harmony sets a further goal for the nuclear industry, drawing on the experience of nuclear construction in the 1980s.

    * See section above on the 2015 edition of the International Energy Agency’s Energy Technology Perspectives.

    The Harmony goal is for the nuclear industry to provide 25% of global electricity and build 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity by 2050. The World Nuclear Association says this requires an economic and technological level playing field, harmonised regulatory processes to streamline nuclear construction, and an effective safety paradigm which focuses safety efforts on measures that make the most difference to public wellbeing. The build schedule would involve adding 10 GWe per year to 2020, 25 GWe per year to 2025, and 33 GWe per year from then. This rate compares with 31 GWe per year in the mid-1980s. The Harmony goal is put forward at a time when the limitations, costs and unreliability of other low-carbon sources of electricity are becoming politically high-profile in several countries.

    Source: WNA

    25% of global electricity generation by 2050, with certain favourable assumptions.

    I hope this clarifies why nuclear is not regarded as a silver bullet for decarbonisation, not even by its own industry association.

    Perhaps you can drop the nuclear tr0lling now that you know that not even the nuclear industry agrees with your nonsense.

  65. Canman says:

    Here’s my new policy suggestion — take the various subsidies away from wind and solar and give them to batteries. Make tax credits for batteries (eg. powerwalls) instead of solar panels.Pay wholesale instead of retail rates to rich homeowners. Change Renewable portfolio standards to non-carbon portfolio standards. Take Warren Buffett’s investment tax credits away from his wind farms and tell him he can only use them to buy big batteries.

  66. BBD says:

    Stop blanking the WNA 25% nuclear *problem* that overturns your position.

  67. Joshua says:

    Canman –

    take the various subsidies away from wind and solar and give them to batteries. Make tax credits for batteries (eg. powerwalls) instead of solar panels.Pay wholesale instead of retail rates to rich homeowners. Change Renewable portfolio standards to non-carbon portfolio standards. Take Warren Buffett’s investment tax credits away from his wind farms and tell him he can only use them to buy big batteries.

    How much money would that generate, and how much nuclear would that money build?

  68. Joshua says:

    From a very, very quick Google, it looks like your finding plan might build about 1 (maybe 1.5) nuclear plants a year?

  69. Willard says:

    > Here’s my new policy suggestion […]

    Here are my own ClimateBall suggestions, Canman.

    First, next time you wish to talk about subsidies, start with those donated to the fossil fuel industry:

    Second, next time you wish to talk about a libertarian, start with Jerry:

  70. Susan Anderson says:

    W’alp, Ted Cruz is in charge of science in the Senate for the foreseeable future (thanks, vote cheating). I’m just about ready to give up. It’s a definite advantage to be 70 and childless.

    OTOH, oddly new Justice Kavanaugh did not vote against letting Juliana go forward: https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/us/federal-lawsuit/
    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07214-2
    (historical note, the 2 who voted to suppress include Neil son of Anne Gorsuch of Reagan infamy.)

    Meanwhile, the big trouble is upon us, and at a guess 15 years should be enough to get through to the otherblamers and messenger killers that it’s not a good idea to go up against earth, which bats 1000 and has the only seat at the table.

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