PhD Hubris

Feb 07, 2019

How having a PhD in Biology, Conservation Biology, Climate Science, or anything else really doesn't necessarily qualify you to speak on energy issues. Having actual expertise on energy issues is more important as without the prerequisite 10,000 hours of study you just won't know what you don't know.

On a Facebook page called the Arctic News I got into an argument with some Guy McPherson (a conservation biologist) fan club boys about global dimming. The thrust of their position was that because of global dimming caused by aerosols put into the atmosphere by dirty power plants (all kinds including mobile ones) it would not do us any good to try doing anything about global warming.

The thrust of their argument is that based upon a 2001 study of planet warming caused by the suspension of air traffic in the United States following the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 means that if we were to eliminate air pollution from dirty global warming sources the planet would warm up an additional 1 degree Celsius to 1.5 degrees in the matter of a few weeks. The couple week lag is for the time it takes for particulate matter to fall out of the air basically.

None of this proven in any prima fascia way mind you, it is just extrapolated from data gathered from one incident of involving one event in the United States lasting a few days in the year 2001.

While studying this event is useful and it is something we need to do it doesn’t mean we should make the conjectural leap to the idea that society at large should not bother even trying to combat climate change by installing renewable energy, switching to electric drive vehicles, or improving energy storage and efficiency. It is my position this idea is just wrong regardless of if the foundational premise is true.

Later I ran across a James Lovelock (another biologist) You Tube Video where he was talking about how human numbers need to be reduced to less than one billion people for our civilization to have any chance to being sustainable. This is a position I have held for quite a while based upon the historical evidence we have. Mysteriously Lovelock says it is a waste of time for humanity to try to reduce their carbon emissions by switching to renewable resources also. Somehow magically if there were less than one billion humans all would be fine (presumably even if we all were still using fossil fuels?) but reducing carbon emissions now while we are in population overshoot would be a waste of time.

What gives here, am I missing something or am I witnessing a Podsnap flourish? I think what Lovelock is really saying is that given the context of population overshoot (by a factor of 10X) that renewables, and carbon emission reduction schemes won’t save us. That has been my position also, but that doesn’t mean these things are worthless efforts, or that we should not do them. It is all about the context, and in this instance the context is unstated.

This kind of advice is not only bad advice; it is poorly articulated to be charitable about it. Guy McPherson stayed at our house once in preparation for giving one of his talks for the ASLC in town here. While he was here I showed him a LED light bulb and explained to him that it was literally thousands of time more efficient at producing light then a kerosene lantern. He seemed unimpressed in a Rumsfeldian kind of way.

In other words he didn’t know what he didn’t know. Neither Guy McPherson nor James Lovelock are experts in the field of energy matters. Having a PHD in another field and general scientific knowledge may lead them to think they are expert enough to speak on matters they don’t have expertise in really. If I were to trust a climate change scientist (not a conservation biologist or a biologist) in energy matters I would be more inclined to trust Kevin Anderson of the Tyndale Center in England who really seems to know his stuff about current energy issues

Who am I to judge this you may well ask? I have been interested in energy issues since the early 1980’s. I was the Vice President of an energy efficiency company called Negawatts Inc. for 10 years. I also worked at power plant for over 24 years at NMSU operating boilers, chillers, and a jet turbine that generated 4.2 megawatts of power for the campus. This a long with my abiding interest in energy issues qualifies me more than a PHD who just thinks they know about a field they really have never studied or experienced in any depth.

I heard this kind of talk from “Doomers or Collapsitarians (parroting the Guy McPherson line) all the time. While the word “Hubris” doesn’t normally apply to this kind of speech it helps to think of it that way.

So called experts making broad stroke assertions about Near Term Human Extinction and the uselessness of any steps to even try to address climate change are just way out over their skis in the mental ski jumps they are making.

In the first place the climate system has proven to be astonishingly complex and over the last thirty years has thrown lots of curve balls at the climate scientist studying the issue. While we do know it is being caused by human activities we do not know in any great detail about how it will play out over the next fifty years, if we have that long? Anyone who claims they do know is either oblivious to their ignorance on the matter, suffering from their own form of hubris, or both. Giving advice to society at large not to act is foolish in the same way it is foolish to tell a young person not to bother with automobile insurance because they likely will not get into an accident.

Since renewable energy sources like solar and wind are now cheaper than fossil fuels such advice runs counter to what society is now likely to do anyway for least cost decisions. Electric drive for example uses one third less energy per mile, so why would you advise people to throw away money on petro cars when they have a better option. It is the same all down the line as the advice runs completely counter to the best economic decisions people make if they were acting on the best enlightened self-interest.

There is one last caveat, so what if we are all going to die soon, that doesn’t make a prima fascia case for wasting money or resources. I will be 69 years old this year and I can guarantee you I am not going to be throwing away money needlessly. Even without NTHE (Near Term Human Extinction) I will probably die of natural causes in twenty years. Even so, I am advising my children to buy efficiencies and electric drive for their next car purchase. I don’t know enough to tell them it is a waste of time and they shouldn’t bother trying. We have grandchildren and if these efforts buy them years, or even just a day the effort is justifiable in my mind.

What is on display here with our PHD friends and fan boy followers, is not their knowledge or insight, it is the poverty of their ignorance about energy matters generally, and their inability to imagine a world not being run on fossil fuels. They just don’t know what they don’t know, or seem appreciate the fact that there are unknown unknowns. A little humility in the face of their and our collective ignore-rance is what is called for here. Such arrogance about ignorance is the very root cause and meaning of the word “Hubris”.

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