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Energy, Ignorance, Lies and Bullshit

By reading some of my posts on energy, you now understand that a modern society cannot exist without huge amounts of energy flowing through it day and night.  In fact, I have argued, the modern society fails if these energy flows diminish, just like a starved mammal becomes sick and eventually dies from lack of food.

Further, I have explained that almost all of your electricity and transportation fuels comes from fossil fuels, uranium, and water behind dams.  I showed graphically that renewables are but a small addition to our daily energy portfolio.

Finally, I compared the energy sources and energy use in two important U.S. states, Texas and California.  These states are perceived quite differently.  California's image is synonymous with progress and clean energy, while Texas is regarded as overly conservative, and prone to using fossil fuels.  Yet, as I demonstrated, electricity sources in these two states are not that much different, and Texas produces 1/3 more renewable electricity than California.  Fundamentally, California lives on imports and borrowed time, while Texas is self-sufficient in electricity and petroleum, while exporting plenty of natural gas and transportation fuels to the rest of U.S.

I think that 99% people in the U.S., when asked about energy and energy sources, would not arrive at conclusions similar to mine. In particular, almost everyone would significantly overestimate the role and potential of renewables, including wind, geothermal, biomass, biofuels, and photovoltaic panels and solar concentrators.  Most people would not think too much about the consequences of cutting off flows of certain types of energy, such as electricity from coal or uranium.  After all, we all know that electricity comes from the reliable outlets in our homes.
Why are energy facts so different from perceptions?
There is no simple answer to this question.  Human psychology and general lack of science education in the U.S. are the root causes of the discrepancy between what is and what we wish were. But there is more...

A famous philosopher from Princeton, Harry Frankfurt, described ignorance in this splendid little book.
The problem with ignorance and error is, of course, that they leave us in the dark. Lacking the truths that we require, we have nothing to guide us but our own feckless speculations or fantasies and the importunate and unreliable advice of others. As we plan our conduct, we can therefore do no better that to spin out uninformed guesses and, shakily, to hope for the best. We do not know where we are. We are flying blind.
On Truth, pages 60 - 61.

Add the quintessential American narcissism and arrogance to ignorance, and you have an explosive mixture that may yet lead to the downfall of our great country. Why do I think about Thomas Friedman when I am writing these words?  Maybe because of how he has been overselling "clean tech," a "hydrogen economy," and the renewables. And he is one of the best journalists we currently have.

Now on to the lies.  Again, Harry Frankfurt summarizes the corrosive influence of lies better than anyone else:
Lies are designed to damage our grasp of reality. So they are intended, in a very real way, to make us crazy. To the extent that we believe them, our minds are occupied by fictions, fantasies, and illusions that have been concocted for us by a liar. What we accept as real is a world that others cannot see, touch, or experience any other way.
On Truth, page 78.

OK, I admit that I almost never watch cable TV news channels. If you do, and your mind is not yet fried (like Dwayne Hoover's mind after reading the novel about free will and robots by  Kilgore Trout in the "Breakfast of Champions"), you will recognize that Harry's crystal clear description of liars fully applies, for example, to Fox's Murdochisms.  (Personally, I cannot watch Fox News for more than five minutes, because I get violent nausea and throw up.  It must be my not-so-fond memories of the similarly lying, corrupt, and hate-mongering communist propaganda.  There is a difference, however.  In the old communist Poland legally there was nothing but propaganda.  Here we have PBS, NPR, CSPAN, BBC, and a few internet choices.  So why would anyone voluntarily watch the fair and balanced Fox News?  Or MSNBC? Or that pitiful, irrelevant leftover of the once mighty news channel, CNN? Below you see a hint of an answer.)

"Something deeply insidious and corrupt is at work that has been on view in both Britain and the United States. It involves the takeover of politics by money and spin and massaged images and privileged coteries. It is the death of statesmanship." Roger Cohen, NYT,  Read more...

Bullshit is an intellectual analog of carelessly made, shoddy goods.  You might recognize here much of contemporary journalism.   Unlike a liar, a bullshitter has no relationship with truth.  He says whatever is convenient or expedient.  Sometimes what he says coincides with the truth, and sometimes it does not.

A shoddy journalist merely records whatever is fed to him/her, makes sure that the package looks attractive, and moves on to he next job.  Bullshit has been the bane of most reporting on "advanced biofuels." I would also say that much of the recent spate of articles on gas shales falls into the same category of bullshit.

Everyone knows a bullshitter or two.  I knew an outstanding one at Berkeley.  Whenever I confronted him about another lie or misrepresentation on the record, he would say: "I was misinterpreted," or "a journalist didn't understand what I meant."  Never mind that he could correct his statements when the same journalist submitted a transcript of an interview to him.

Charming bullshitters are very dangerous, because they can easily mislead us if we are not careful. These bullshitters usually end up in positions of power. Most people are not careful, and that's why we are where we are in the understanding of energy and other complex issues.

P.S. 7/24/2011. The recent murderous rampage of a Norwegian right-wing religious nut shows how lies and hatred can produce a really crazy person.  Remember Timothy McVeigh?  He was our own mega-nut of the same ilk.  Now please look back at the image above, stop, and reflect for a moment.


  1. Great to see, that there are respectful engineers and Professors, who tell the truth about our addiction to cheap energy. And yes, truth hurts. Be aware, that the BBC is biased, too. And Timothy McVeigh, there is another story to tell.


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