Archive | March 2015

Can We Not Trust Our Scientists?

Last weekend, I waited out a cold in bed, and watched the last half of a 1957 scifi flick, The 27th Day, which I had seen as a boy and vaguely remembered. The plot was simple enough. For their own reasons, aliens snatched up an American reporter (Gene Barry), a British woman, a Chinese girl, a German physicist and a Soviet soldier. (The females had no careers because this was 1957 and women just stayed home, or something.) To each they gave three capsules that could eliminate all human life within a 1500 mile radius of a given coordinate. The capsules would only function for 27 days, probably because the more advanced a culture, the faster its tech becomes obsolete. The aliens then sent them home, but shortly afterwards announced the situation worldwide. To their credit all five tried to avoid letting the weapons be used. The poor Chinese girl killed herself while the British woman sensibly dumped her capsules into the channel then less sensibly flew to LA to join Gene Barry in hiding. The Soviets needed torture, sodium pentathol and a good bit of lying to get the capsules from the soldier. The physicist happened to be in LA, too, and was being held by a US government that hadn’t yet adopted torture as a matter of course.

As it turned out, those pesky Soviets were waiting until the last minute to cleanse North America of capitalists, but like many movie scientists (and Spock and eventually Sheldon Cooper), the German physicist was also brilliant outside his chosen field. He analyzed some alien markings on the capsules and decided that he could use them to kill only the bad people. Luckily he didn’t screw up that alien conjugation, or he might have killed only the good people. Or the left-handers. In any case he killed a bunch of people whose only crime was being an Enemy of Freedom with no due process. How Randian.

In the movies there are always those good scientists who heroically risk everything to save the world and those evil scientists who risk destroying the world because they like science better than people. In the real world, most scientists spend a lot of time at the bench and test their stuff eight ways from Sunday before even writing a paper, but they are often funded by venal people that are more devoted to the necessities of commerce than the ideals of science.

In Should the Smithsonian and Other Museums Blow Off Big Fossil?, Greg Laden asks whether public institutions should dump the contributions of those venal people in the oil industry that are paying scientists to muddle the public debate over Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), or climate change. Such institutions rely heavily on corporate money because public money has dwindled under low taxation, so Laden and his commenters suggest raising taxes.

I wonder, though, if we can actually ever separate public money from corporate money. My opinion is that even Pharaohs, Caesars and Kings probably had to answer to the business interests of their era, and that Premiers, Prime Ministers and Presidents will always do the same. Probably the best we can do is to erect a bit of a firewall between those at the benches and those in the marketplace, and hope the scientists aren’t any worse than the rest of us.

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Will Fracking be the next Fischer-Tropsch?

Rigzone has posted an interesting article on the US drilling industry’s reaction to the drop in crude oil prices: US Drillers Scrambling To Thwart OPEC Threat

Exxon says it has cut the time it takes to drill a well in North Dakota’s Bakken formation by one-third over the past four years. It has also cut by half the cost of fracturing the rock and preparing the well for production. Exxon will run 13 rigs in the Bakken this year, the same number it did last year, despite the low prices.

Companies will save money in the coming months because service companies, rig operators and other suppliers to the industry will lower rates to keep business. Oil companies have been telling investors in recent weeks they expect to see cost reductions of 10 percent to 40 percent, depending on location and type of service.

Drillers are also focusing on the wells in the parts of formations that they know to be the most prolific, and cutting back drilling in places where they aren’t quite sure what’s below. That reduces overall spending without dramatically decreasing production.

U.S. shale drillers will never push costs as low as OPEC countries. But the U.S. industry may be able to survive — or even thrive — if drillers can learn to quickly adapt.

The conventional wisdom in the energy depletion punditry seems to be that hydraulic fracturing is doomed unless Brent and WTI prices push back to $75 per barrel, or more. But the ‘OPEC threat’ tenor of the Rigzone piece reminded me of the oil-stranded Third Reich’s efforts to produce gasoline from coal – despite the costs – during World War II.

I am wondering if a serious enough Middle East war might increase the WTI price enough to make fracking financially feasible – if only for a few more years. Because with the Ukrainian situation, ISIL, and Netanyahu’s right-wing swerve, a serious proxy war in the Middle East is looking more and more possible.

Can We Trust Our Scientists?

A few weeks ago while looking at the changes in the latest dietary guidelines, I asked whether we could trust our experts. In his latest post, The View From Outside, John Michael Greer asks a similar question about the  scientific community as a whole:

Within the community of researchers, the conclusions of the moment are, at least in theory, open to constant challenge — but only from within the scientific community.

The general public is not invited to take part in those challenges. Quite the contrary, it’s supposed to treat the latest authoritative pronouncement as truth pure and simple, even when that contradicts the authoritative pronouncements of six months before. …

Especially but not only in those branches of science concerned with medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition, the prostitution of the scientific process by business interests has become an open scandal. When a scientist gets behind a podium and makes a statement about the safety or efficacy of a drug, a medical treatment, or what have you, the first question asked by an ever-increasing number of people outside the scientific community these days is “Who’s paying him?”

Tom Whipple takes energy depletion very seriously. In addition to his briefs for ASPO, Whipple has been posting a series called The Peak Oil Crisis in his hometown paper, the Falls Church News Press. In his latest installment, The Mother of All Black Swans, he once again reports that unlimited energy is the only “way out.”

Coming down the road are a pair of technologies that will produce nearly unlimited amounts of cheap, pollution-free energy, and have the potential to change life-as-we-know-it.

I am talking about the twin technologies of cold fusion and hydrinos, each of which, when widely deployed, will constitute a revolution in the history of mankind fully equivalent to the discovery of fire, the wheel, the agricultural revolution, or the industrial revolution. Both of these technologies are based on turning the hydrogen found in water into virtually unlimited amounts of energy at very low cost and without any harmful pollution. …

So where are these technologies and when can we expect to hear and read about them in the mainstream media, especially if they are getting close to becoming commercial products? The answer to this is simple. Both these technologies are based on science that is beyond that generally accepted by scientific community, especially those who have never looked into the results of the experiments. While those few scientists who have tested and are familiar with the details of these technologies tell us that they are for real, the bulk are waiting for irrefutable proof that they actually produce large amounts of cheap energy before they are willing to accept that our knowledge of nature may not be as complete as we like to think and that some scientific theories may be wrong.

Proponents of Cold Fusion, or Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) persistently claim that mainstream scientists ignore them, but when mainstream scientists do take the trouble to debunk their claims, LENR enthusiasts have an almost endless list of additional links to supposedly irrefutable evidence that LENR is just around the corner. They also cite oblique indications that NASA or some private firm is funding LENR research as proof that we will all soon be drawing almost free kilowatts of electricity from cold fusion devices in our basements.

Many mainstream scientists are more impressed with controlled ‘hot’ fusion, which has been just around the corner since the H bomb tests, and characterize any doubts about the fusion research at ITER as anti-science. They cite news releases that Lockheed-Martin’s SkunkWorks has a new design for a compact fusion reactor to support their belief that we will all soon be drawing almost free kilowatts of electricity from compact nuclear fusion devices just down the street.

Yet other mainstream scientists still hold forth that some configuration of fission reactor will be inherently safer, cleaner and more efficient than the ones we have built so far. They cite news releases about Thorium-MOX reactors to support their belief that we will all soon be drawing almost free kilowatts of electricity from nuclear fission plants a few miles upwind.

Nuclear power is not the only technology that is supposed to save us, though. When environmentalists express concern about crops of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), some scientists insist that only GMOs promise to produce enough food for the increasing world population. They’ve been promising that for almost as long as the fusion camp.

On ScienceBlogs, Greg Laden linked to an Atheist Radio interview of “GMO expert” Dr Anastasia Bodnar. Laden will also interview Dr Bodnar, but the comments of a plant evolutionary biologist, going by Laurent, echo Greer:

… pro-GMOs advocates are too often a bit naively scientistic in their approach of the issue, and quick and prone to label any less optimistic contender with an anti-science stamp that is just plain unfair. I understand this is because they are not used to meet with “resistance” or “lesser optimism” from people that understand GMO technology correctly, since most of the time this is about stumping onto not-so-knowledgeable tech-deniers. But still.

When I read in your comment that golden rice’s failure has directly its roots from people trying to prevent its production, I really wonder if you’re not dismissive of the fact that part of the issue is also adoption by local producers of the new technology / variety. This step is often overlooked, even though there are strong cultural and economic constraints to change. Hypertechnophiles tend to view real world change as a logical and self fulfilling prophecy, and that’s where they are bound to fail. GMO’s don’t escape this, because some subtleties are not even considered of importance. (And in the golden rice case, rice colour was itself a troubling matter for people that would have benefitted from the product).

Beside, GMO’s will be an important convenience tool for the industry and the potent industrial agriculture occuring in the temperate western world, but one cannot assume that it will take over more complex agricultural spaces, especially in the tropics. We should stop arguing that it will put an end to starvation or local agricultural deficiencies, because their causes are way beyond the rather limited scope of gene-technology and involve many aspects of ecology, economy and culture that are actually far from understood.

GMO’s are an oversold technology, and should reasonnably be put back at their place (important, but not miraculous). First, researchers should be more carefull to not mimicking industry narratives as to how this tech will solve major societal issues. Yes, there’s some interesting potential, but no, we are not exactly filling the full bragged promises.

I remember as a youngie (that’s the previous millenium I realise), private industry breeders took scientists to the field trials for transgenic potatoes supposedly resistant to mildew in my homecountry. And guess what? GMO clones were the only diseased plants. Of course, we then discovered about gene silencing processes. We then discovered about RNA interference. We then discovered about small RNAi and transcriptional dynamics. All this knowledge came out thanks to transgene-tech. But on the other hand, there’s something quite disappointing: the discourse to promote GMO has never changed a iota over the first (and basic) failures, and never had any pro-GMO acknowledged these. Even you, you are saying words I’ve heard about twenty years ago already. To me, an unbalanced immutable narrative is not the sign of healthy or mature discourse.

Same happened when transgenes were not supposed to cross species boundaries, were not supposed to create environment selective for weed or insect resistance or lead to further the need for increased herbicide weed control, were not supposed to break free in human food tracks while supposed to stay in cattle grains and the list is still going on.

Of course, none of these documented events were that bad and catastrophic. But as the list was growing in the previous decades, it should have induced at minima a change in the narrative, so as to adjust to all the potential prescriptive bad luck events that had been correctly predicted by evolutionary biologists.

When you promise gold, people expect gold, not golden rocks. Frankly, while I completely understand how one is exasperated by anti-GMO bad arguments, I cannot despise the “anti”-crowd for thinking transgene tech is sort of a snake-oil. Because it sort of looks like it is.

Which lead to a question worth posing: in times of dire research funding, how much grant monney is diverted from potentially efficient alternatives to fuel biotech only approaches because of its inner narrative of miraculous solution?

I ask that, because it looks like conventional breeding has improved yield potential at a much larger scale, and GMO builds upon a success without acknowledging that part coming from hard blind genetics, taking gratification for a success it doesn’t compare to yet.

Pickens, Pipeline, Pet Coke

In the Calgary Herald, T. Boone Pickens writes, an OpEd, Calgary, I’m so sorry about the Keystone pipeline:

Because the pipeline crosses national boundaries, the State Department is charged with producing reports. Yet, after State made its report, the White House went “agency shopping” and asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take another look at Keystone. To no one’s surprise, the EPA fired off a letter objecting to pipeline construction, citing concerns of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Not once does Pickens mention that a primary objection to the KXL is that it will be carrying dilbit – a much hotter, more toxic raw material than ordinary crude oil – across the Ogallala Aquifer.

The problem with the EPA’s math is that Canadians don’t need permission from the U.S. to recover that oil and sell it. Canadians will extract it and ship it overland by train or via pipeline and tanker, not south to the United States, but west to Asia, or elsewhere. When oil prices come back up, Korea, Japan, China and others will benefit from the Canadian oilsands, not the U.S.

Pickens fails to mention that even with the KXL in place, all the oil from that dilbit will be shipped to Asia anyway. Nor does he mention that Canada does not currently have refineries with coker units needed to process the comparatively dirty dilbit. The US does have refineries with coker units near the Gulf of Mexico, but such refining would lead to additional carbon in the atmosphere both in the US and abroad.

Roughly 15% of dilbit ends up as a petroleum coke byproduct. ‘Pet coke’ is like a charcoal containing heavy metals, sulphur and other impurities removed from dilbit during the coking part of the refining process. Pet coke can be used as an alternative fuel in coal-fired powerplants, but produces 5 – 10% more greenhouse gasses than coal. Pet coke is often sold by North American firms to Asian and South American firms for energy production.

Pet Coke could be called Pet Koch, because the largest US sellers are Koch Carbon, owned by Charles and David Koch, and Oxbow Corporation, owned by William I Koch.