Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A string of anecdotes does not make an argument

Previously I have posted that one key to giving a good talk is to never offer undefendable ground. i.e., don't make dubious claims that will distract your audience from your main point and undermine your credibility.

On Friday at UQ, David Jamieson, Head of the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne gave a colloquium Physics, Power, and Climate change.

I found the colloquium rather disappointing and frustrating because he made a number of debatable claims. But, perhaps I mis-heard or mis-understood him. I welcome others to clarify or correct me.

1. He began by briefly promoting his own research saying "it is difficult to imagine future technologies if you are not working in our centre", referring to the ARC Centre for Quantum Computing and Communication Technologies, which works on the Quantum Internet.

2. Chemists may find  strange the claim that quantum computing was essential to understanding how caffeine works.

3. People in the majority world need access to electricity so they can get on Facebook!
Actually, I thought more people in India have access to mobile phones than to clean water!

4. It was claimed that arguments for the widescale adoption of solar power were flawed "because they ignored the second law of  thermodynamics", i.e. the problem of the low efficiency of solar cells. I felt this was a cheap shot since I have never heard anyone who advocates photovoltaic cells claim they were anything more than 10-20% efficient. The internal combustion energy and coal-powered stations also suffer from the second law. I believe a Carnot efficiency of the latter is about 20-40%, but we are quite comfortable with that.

The climax of the talk was the idea that power from nuclear fission is the only viable option for responding to climate change.

5. He stressed how dangerous hydroelectric power, citing an accident in Russia which killed 75 people.This was compared to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident which killed no-one. Furthermore, it was claimed that since then there are been no major nuclear accidents since then.

The colloquium normally ends by 5pm but Jamieson was still speaking at 5:20pm and so I left. [Never go overtime. To me it just communicates either arrogance, rudeness, or dis-organisation]. But, perhaps I missed some important qualifiers in the conclusions and question time.

He began to discuss pathologies of argument concerning climate change and
alternative energy. It seemed to me Jamieson himself adopted some of these same pathologies himself. e.g., arguing by anecdote, by analogy, gaining emotional sympathy by tapping into peoples frustration about biased and unbalanced media coverage,...

The colloquium was entertaining and thought provoking. I learnt a few things I did not know. But, to me the debatable claims above created too many credibility problems for me to be convinced of the conclusions.

Some might claim that I did not like the colloquium because I did not like its conclusions. However, I am actually quite open to the possibly painful conclusion that the future energy mix must include a nuclear fission component.

Much better talks on this subject are those given by David MacKay (Cambridge) and by Nate Lewis (Caltech) which you can watch online. To me they are thorough, balanced, and scholarly.

This friday Paul Meredith from UQ will present a colloquium Sun, Power, and Energy: Opportunities and Perspectives for a Solar Powered Australia. Unfortunately, I will miss it as I will be in Sydney.


  1. My thought on (4) is that he most disappointingly dismissed solar, while not even mentioning thermal solar power, which makes more sense than PV on a power plant scale. But I guess Paul will clarify that for us on Friday.

    As to (5), it quite correctly proves the point that most other forms of energy bear their own risks, some of them far more severe than nuclear power. The Russian accident was the most recent but later, Jamieson also mentioned the far worse Banqiao dam incident, which is believed to have killed almost 170000 people. Compare that to Chernobyl, which according to the latest UNSCEAR report has caused 6000 deaths (most of them avoidable) and Fukushima, which so far hasn't cost a single human life.

  2. He also made another claim, which I doubt is true in that scale: Namely that wind energy harvesting in Germany is saturated as the addition of more windmills would slow the wind down so that the other mills would be less efficient.
    A secondary claim to this was, that the total potential for the CONTINENT of Australia was equal to that of Germany. Being from Germany, it wasn't that much windier there, so simply by looking at the available space, Australia should have about a 10x larger potential, which then by James numbers would mean that Australia could run solely on wind in 2050 (Due to Germany's current overall larger power demand) . This thought obviously discounts the problem of the inconsistency of wind power.

    Further to (4) he suggested that Chernobyl was excluded as it did not occur in a western country. By that argument, the Russian hydro accident should have been excluded as well. (As he did with the Banqiao accident.)

  3. I really didn't like this talk. Stylistically, I thought it was all over the shop without a clear solution. I sort of got the idea that he likes fission, but other than that the take-home message for me was "oh dear, we're all going to die".

    This and other talks on climate change leave me unconvinced that it is a useable advertisement for fundamental energy research. Honestly, if a 90% reduction in emission relative to pre-industrial levels is required to prevent catastrophe, then it is hardly worth talking about prevention anymore. Instead, the problem becomes one of mitigating the inevitable. This means that research should be diverted AWAY from fundamental physics and into biology, medicine, social science and engineering! However, I keep seeing talk after talk about how money should be poured into energy research in the (vain, I think) hope that a "big discovery" will emerge and allow a 90% (!!!!!!) reduction in emissions without creating huge problems of its own on the presumed forty year timescale. This is just laughable.

    In short, I went home depressed and not thinking I had heard anything new at all.

  4. Just a quick comment. I missed the talk but it sounds as though he may have made a common error: seeking a single 'magic bullet' solution. Oil was one - it's astonishingly handy stuff in its energy density and a number of other characteristics. Short of some kind of massive breakthrough that isn't even on the horizon yet aside, the solution is going to be 5 or more things working together, not one thing. Some solar (thermal for big power stations and PV on houses), wind, geothermal, tide... and yes... possible some fission as part of the mix but not the one true solution. Or maybe not - the cost of nuclear plus the public relations nightmare after Fukushima might have killed it. The point I want to make, though, is not about any one energy solution but the fact that what's needed is a blend... and also a mix of distributed stuff in houses and businesses as well as centralised generation and distribution will be required.

  5. I'm also firmly in the 'disappointed with this talk' camp. I thought he promised to do the numbers? As far as I can tell there's a whole lot of sunlight out there and we dont have to spend our lives walking around the continent to pick it up - that's what transmission lines are for!

    Interestingly Jamieson's colleages at Uni Melb. released a report last year (ZCA2020 plan) that says the opposite to Jamieson - that in principle it's possible to have 100% renewable energy supply in just 10 years. I think that they were over-optimistic in some respects, but in principle I think that they made their point.

  6. RE Bravus:
    He did point out that you can have other technologies contribute. He just stated that nothing will be able to shoulder the load by itself, except for nuclear.