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  • Whither Nuclear Power? A Few Comments on Thorium and the End of the “Nuclear Renaissance”

    Posted on September 2nd, 2017 Helian No comments

    About a decade ago there was much talk of a “nuclear renaissance” amid concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and the increasing cost of fossil fuel alternatives.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission received applications to build no less than 31 new nuclear plants as the price of crude oil spiked to over $140 per barrel.  Now, however, with last month’s decision by SCANA Corp. to abandon the V. C. Summer project, a pair of nukes that had been under construction in South Carolina, nuclear’s future prospects look dim, at least in the United States.  Two plants remain under construction in Georgia but, like the ones abandoned in South Carolina, they are to be AP1000s, designed by Westinghouse.  Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in March.  Delays and massive cost overruns similar to those that led to the demise of V. C. Summer also afflict the Georgia project, and its future seems doubtful at best.

    In short, the dream of a nuclear renaissance has evaporated.  For the time being, at least, nuclear in the U.S. is no match for more agile competitors like wind, solar, and natural gas.  However, there may be a silver lining to this cloud.  Plants like Westinghouse’s AP1000 waste most of the energy in their nuclear fuel, creating massive amounts of avoidable radioactive waste in the process.  To the extent that it makes sense to build nuclear plants at all, these are not the kind we should be building.  To understand why this is true it is first necessary to acquire some elementary knowledge about nuclear physics.

    The source of the energy produced in the core of nuclear reactors is a nuclear fission chain reaction.  Only one material that exists in significant quantities in nature can sustain such a chain reaction – uranium 235, or U235.  U235 is an isotope of uranium.  Isotopes of a given element consist of atoms with the same number of positively charged protons in their central core, or nucleus.  Like all other isotopes of uranium, U235 has 92.  There are also 143 neutrally charged neutrons, making a total of 235 “nucleons.”  Natural uranium consists of only about 0.7 percent U235.  Almost all the rest is a different isotope, U238, with a nucleus containing 146 neutrons instead of 143.

    When we say that U235 can sustain a nuclear chain reaction, we mean that if a free neutron happens to come within a very short distance of its nucleus, it may be captured, releasing enough energy in the process to cause the nucleus to split into two fragments.  When this happens, more free neutrons are released, that can then be captured by other uranium nuclei, which, in turn, fission, releasing yet more neutrons, and so on.  As noted above, U235 is the only naturally occurring isotope that can sustain such a nuclear chain reaction.  However, other isotopes can be created artificially that can do so as well.  The most important of these are U233 and plutonium 239, or Pu239.  They are important because it is possible to “breed” them in properly designed nuclear reactors, potentially producing more usable fuel than the reactor consumes.  U233 is produced by the reactions following absorption of a neutron by thorium 232, or Th232, and Pu239 by those following the absorption of a neutron by U238.  In other words, we know of three practical types of nuclear fuel; U235, U233 and Pu239.  The first occurs naturally, and the other two can be readily “bred” artificially in nuclear reactors.

    Let’s consider what this means in the case of conventional nuclear reactors like the Westinghouse AP1000.  These are powered by fuel elements that typically are enriched in U235 from the naturally occurring 0.7 percent to from three to five percent.  The remaining 95 to 97 percent of the uranium in these fuel elements is U238.  When the fission process starts, some of the neutrons released are captured by the U238, eventually resulting in the production of Pu239.  Some of this plutonium fissions along with the U235, contributing to the total energy produced by the fuel elements.  However, only a small fraction of the U238 is converted to Pu239 in this way before the fuel is consumed and it becomes necessary to replace the old fuel elements with fresh ones.  In addition to a great deal of U238, these spent fuel elements contain a significant amount of plutonium, as well as other transuranic elements such as americium and curium, which can remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years.  The “waste” plutonium might even be used to produce a nuclear weapon.

    Obviously, if possible it would be better to extract all the energy locked up in natural uranium rather than just a small fraction of it.  In fact, it is possible, or very nearly so.  Breeder reactors are feasible that could burn nearly all the U238 in natural uranium as well as the U235 by converting it into Pu239.  In the process they could destroy much of the transuranic waste that is the main source of radioactive danger from spent fuel.  In as little as 500 years the residual radioactivity from running a nuclear plant for 30 years could potentially be less than that of the original naturally occurring uranium.  Unfortunately, while all this is scientifically feasible, it is not economically feasible.  It won’t happen without massive government subsidies.  Perhaps such subsidies are warranted in view of the threat of climate change and perhaps not, but, regardless, breeder reactors won’t be built without them.  Since they are really the only types of reactors it makes sense to build, we would probably be better off, at least for the time being, building no reactors at all.  That’s the “silver lining” I referred to above.  Perhaps a time will come when the world runs out of expendable sources of base load electrical power, such as oil, coal and natural gas, and no way has been found to take up the slack with renewables.  In that case, it may once again make economic sense to build breeder reactors.  Until that time, the United States would do well to build up a healthy stockpile of uranium, and put a stop to the stupid, wasteful, and counterproductive use of depleted uranium that could potentially become a source of vast amounts of energy to produce munitions and armor.

    But wait, there’s more!  What about thorium?  Thorium by itself can’t sustain a nuclear chain reaction.  It can, however, be converted into U233 by neutron absorption, and that is an ideal reactor fuel.  Among other things, it generates more neutrons per fission at lower neutron “temperatures” than either Pu239 or U235.  That means that extra neutrons are available to “breed” fuel at those lower temperatures where nuclear reactors are easier to control.  By “temperature” here, we’re referring to the average speed of the neutrons.  The slower they are, the more likely they are to be absorbed by a nucleus and cause fission reactions.  Neutrons are slowed in “moderators,” which can be any number of light types of atoms.  The most common is plain water, consisting of the elements hydrogen and oxygen.  Think of a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball head on.  It comes to a complete stop, transferring its energy to the other ball.  The same thing can happen with neutrons and the proton nucleus of hydrogen atoms, which are of approximately equal mass.  To breed plutonium effectively, reactors must be run at significantly higher neutron temperatures.

    There’s more good news about thorium.  It can be dissolved in various exotic mixtures and breed U233 in a reactor with a liquid instead of a solid core.  This would have a number of advantages.  In the first place, a “meltdown” would be impossible in a core that’s already “melted.”  If the core became too “hot” it could simply be drained into a holding pan to form a subcritical mass that would quickly cool.  It would also be possible to extract waste fission products and introduce fresh fuel, etc., into the core “on the fly.”  As a result the reactor would be able to stay in operation longer between shutdowns for maintenance and refueling.  The necessary technology has already been demonstrated at places like Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Shippingport, Pennsylvania.  Recently, a Dutch team finally began experiments with molten salt technology intended to take up where these earlier experiments left off after a hiatus of more than 40 years.

    Perhaps thorium’s biggest problem is the tendency of its proponents to over-hype its promise.  It even has a founding myth based on bogus claims that thorium technology isn’t dominant in the energy industry today because “it’s much harder to weaponize.”  For example, according to the article about the Dutch experiments linked above, entitled, ‘Safer’ thorium reactor trials could salvage nuclear power,

    But, if it’s so safe and reliable why hasn’t thorium been used all along? Because (unlike uranium) it’s much harder to weaponize. As a result, it’s historically been sidelined by nations in search of both energy and a potential source of weapons-grade plutonium.

    This yarn about a benign source of energy that might have benefited all mankind being torpedoed by evil weaponeers might sound good, but it’s complete nonsense.  Thorium itself can’t be weaponized, because it can’t sustain a nuclear chain reaction on its own.  The sole reason there’s any interest in it at all as a source of nuclear power is the possibility of transmuting it to U233.  Of course, it can’t be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.  However, there is no better material for making nuclear bombs than U233.  As is the case with Pu239, four kilograms is sufficient to make a nuclear weapon, compared to the 25 kilograms that is a sufficient quantity of U235.  It’s main drawback as a weapons material is the fact that small amounts of U232 are produced along with it in thorium-based reactors, and U232 decays into radioactive daughters that are deadly sources of powerful gamma rays.  However, the amount of U232 produced can be reduced dramatically by cooling the neutron spectrum to a low “temperature.”  In short, thorium could definitely be used to make weapons.  The reason it isn’t the dominant technology for that purpose is the same as the reason it isn’t the dominant technology for producing electric power; it would be significantly more complex and expensive than using natural or slightly enriched uranium as a fuel.  That reason is as valid now as it was in the days of Little Boy and Fat Man.  The “dominant technology” would be the same as it is today whether nuclear weapons had ever been produced or not.

    When it comes to the technology itself, thorium proponents also tend to be coy about mentioning problems that don’t afflict other reactor types.  For example, the materials needed for practical molten salt reactors are extremely corrosive.  There has been progress towards finding a metal that can hold them, but no ideal alloy has yet been found.  This isn’t necessarily a show stopper, but it’s not an insignificant problem, either.  Such material issues have been largely solved for conventional reactors.  If, as would seem to be the case, these are no longer economically competitive with their rivals, then molten salt is pretty much out of the question, at least for the time being.  It’s important to point out that, if breeder reactors ever do become economically feasible again, it will always be necessary to insure that they are secure, and that the materials they produce can’t be diverted for making weapons.  That concern applies to both plutonium and thorium breeders.

    Meanwhile, it might behoove our political leaders to consider the question of why it was once possible to build more than 50 experimental reactors at what is now Idaho National Laboratory alone in a relatively short period of time for a small fraction of what similar reactors would cost today.  Merely negotiating the regulatory hurdles for building a power reactor based on anything as novel as the thorium fuel cycle would take the better part of a decade.  All these hurdles have been put in place in the name of “safety.”  That begs the question of how “safe” we will be if we lack reliable sources of electric energy.  There is a point beyond which excessive regulation itself becomes unsafe.

  • Nuclear Fusion Update

    Posted on October 17th, 2016 Helian No comments

    At the moment the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is in a class by itself when it comes to inertial confinement fusion (ICF) facilities.  That may change before too long.  A paper by a group of Chinese authors describing a novel 3-axis cylindrical hohlraum design recently appeared in the prestigious journal Nature.  In ICF jargon, a “hohlraum” is a container, typically cylindrical in form.  Powerful laser beams are aimed through two or more entrance holes to illuminate the inner wall of the hohlraum, producing a burst of x-rays.  These strike a target mounted inside the hohlraum containing fusion fuel, typically consisting of heavy isotopes of hydrogen, causing it to implode.  At maximum compression, a series of shocks driven into the target are supposed to converge in the center, heating a small “hot spot” to fusion conditions.  Unfortunately, such “indirect drive” experiments haven’t worked so far on the NIF.  The 1.8 megajoules delivered by NIF’s 192 laser beams haven’t been enough to achieve fusion with current target designs, even though the beams are very clean and uniform, and the facility itself is working as designed.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Chinese paper is not their novel three axis hohlraum design, but the fact that they are still interested in ICF at all in spite of the failure of the NIF to achieve ignition to date.  To the best of my knowledge, they are still planning to build SG-IV, a 1.5 megajoule facility, with ignition experiments slated for the early 2020’s.

    Why would the Chinese want to continue building a 1.5 megajoule facility in spite of the fact that U.S. scientists have failed to achieve ignition with the 1.8 megajoule NIF?  For the answer, one need only look at who paid for the NIF, and why.  The project was paid for by the people at the Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for maintaining the nuclear stockpile.  Many of our weapons designers were ambivalent about the value of achieving ignition before the facility was built, and were more interested in the facility’s ability to access physical conditions relevant to those in exploding nuclear weapons for studying key aspects of nuclear weapon physics such as equation of state (EOS) and opacity of materials under extreme conditions.  I suspect that’s why the Chinese are pressing ahead as well.  Meanwhile, the Russians have also announced a super-laser project of their own that they claim will deliver energies of 2.8 megajoules.

    Meanwhile, in the wake of the failed indirect drive experiments on the NIF, scientists in favor of the direct drive approach have been pleading their case.  In direct drive experiments the laser beams are shot directly at the fusion target instead of at the inner walls of a hohlraum.  The default approach for the NIF has always been indirect drive, but the alternative approach may be possible using an approach called “polar direct drive.”  In recent experiments at the OMEGA laser facility at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, the nation’s premier direct drive facility, scientists claim to have achieved results that, if scaled up to energies available on the NIF would produce five times more fusion energy output than has been achieved with indirect drive to date.

    Meanwhile, construction continues on ITER, a fusion facility designed purely for energy applications.  ITER will rely on magnetic plasma confinement, the other “mainstream” approach to harnessing fusion energy.  The project is a white elephant that continues to devour ever increasing amounts of scarce scientific funding in spite of the fact that the chances that magnetic fusion will ever be a viable source of electric power are virtually nil.  That fact should be obvious by now, and yet the project staggers forward, seemingly with a life of its own.  Watching its progress is something like watching the Titanic’s progress towards the iceberg.  Within the last decade the projected cost of ITER has metastasized from the original 6 billion euros to 15 billion euros in 2010, and finally to the latest estimate of 20 billion euros.  There are no plans to even fuel the facility for full power fusion until 2035!  It boggles the mind.

    Magnetic fusion of the type envisioned for ITER will never come close to being an economically competitive source of power.  It would already be a stretch if it were merely a question of controlling an unruly plasma and figuring out a viable way to extract the fusion energy.  Unfortunately, there’s another problem.  Remember all those yarns you’ve been told about how an unlimited supply of fuel is supposed to be on hand in the form of sea water?  In fact, reactors like ITER won’t work without a heavy isotope of hydrogen known as tritium.  A tritium nucleus contains a proton and two neutrons, and, for all practical purposes, the isotope doesn’t occur in nature, in sea water or anywhere else.  It is highly radioactive, with a very short half-life of a bit over 12 years, and the only way to get it is to breed it.  We are told that fast neutrons from the fusion reactions will breed sufficient tritium in lithium blankets surrounding the reaction chamber.  That may work on paper, but breeding enough of the isotope and then somehow extracting it will be an engineering nightmare.  There is virtually no chance that such reactors will ever be economically competitive with renewable power sources combined with baseline power supplied by proven fission breeder reactor technologies.  Such reactors can consume most of the long-lived transuranic waste they produce.

    In short, ITER should be stopped dead in its tracks and abandoned.  It won’t be, because too many reputations and too much money are on the line.  It’s too bad.  Scientific projects that are far worthier of funding will go begging as a result.  At best my descendants will be able to say, “See, my grandpa told you so!”

  • Of Solar Energy and Amateurish Agitprop at Fox News

    Posted on October 31st, 2015 Helian 1 comment

    Reading the “news” can be a painful experience in our time.  Most of it consists of a blend of sensationalism, human interest stories, accounts of the lives of various vapid celebrities, and attempts to inspire virtuous indignation based on a half-baked knowledge of some ideologically loaded issue or other.  One finds very little that could be accurately described as useful knowledge about things that are likely to have a major impact on our lives.  I generally find Fox News less painful to read than what is commonly described as the Mainstream Media because I happen to be emotionally conservative.  However, I must admit that Fox can occasionally be more ham-handed than the competition when it comes to dishing out propaganda.

    A story that recently turned up on the Fox website is a case in point.  It happened to be about the Ivanpah solar generating system that was recently completed in California’s Mojave Desert.  The word “solar” should enable most readers to predict the ideological slant on the story one is likely to find at Fox.  Sure enough, the title of the story is, “Taxpayer-backed solar plant actually a carbon polluter.”  In the article itself we learn that the plant,

    …is producing carbon emissions at nearly twice the amount that compels power plants and companies to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program.

    In fact, the plant does emit CO2 because it burns natural gas to avoid damage to equipment and to serve as a baseline source of power to meet electricity needs at night or during cloudy days.  A bit further on, we learn from a “research fellow at the Heartland Institute” named H. Sterling Burnett that,

    …designers also erred in placing Ivanpah between the tallest mountains in the Mojave where there is significant cloud cover and dust which would interfere with the sunlight.

    He adds that,

    …They say it is green, but that assumes that there is a power source without any environmental impact.

    I don’t find anything as egregious as actual lies in the article.  Rather, Fox limits itself to “creative” use of the truth.  For example, it may be quite true that the plant, “…is producing carbon emissions at nearly twice the amount that compels power plants and companies to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program,” but it’s also true that it produces far less carbon per unit of electricity delivered than a purely fossil fuel fired plant, a fact that is left unsaid in spite of its much greater relevance to the underlying issue of climate change.  A researcher at the Heartland Institute is quoted without mentioning that the institute is funded by the fossil fuel industry, and is considered a source of blatant disinformation by environmentalists.  That charge may be unfair, but one can hardly claim that it is irrelevant and should be ignored.  As for his claim that, “designers also erred in placing Ivanpah between the tallest mountains in the Mojave,” etc., I invite interested readers who may happen to visit Las Vegas to drive out and have a look at the plant.  It’s actually quite a spectacular sight.  It certainly doesn’t appear to be sitting in the shadow of towering mountains, and the cloud cover is generally minimal, as one can confirm by Googling nearby locations.  As for the dust, one surmises that it would have been worse if the plant had been built on the Los Angeles side of the mountains.  As for Burnett’s last remark, as far as I am aware not even the most wild-eyed and fanatical environmentalist has ever claimed that the description of a power source as “green” implies the assumption that it has no environmental impact at all.

    The reality is that the plant is reasonably sited given the location of the major consumers of the power it produces.  Given the current limitations in our ability to store and distribute the excess power produced by renewable energy sources like wind and solar, some form of baseline power is always necessary to insure a steady supply of electricity when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.  My own choice for that purpose would be nuclear, but given the regulatory hurdles in the way, that would probably have been impractical for Ivanpah.  Natural gas produces significantly less CO2 than, for example, coal, and was probably the best choice.

    In short, the article is an example of what I have referred to above as “attempts to inspire virtuous indignation based on a half-baked knowledge of some ideologically loaded issue or other.”  If the goal at Fox had been to inform rather than propagandize, they would have provided the reader with “fair and balanced” information about the cost of electricity produced at Ivanpah compared to alternative sources, the amount actually produced in comparison with predictions, the amount of CO2 it produces per unit of electricity in comparison to coal or oil fired plants, the relative advantages of solar and nuclear in limiting greenhouse gas emissions, etc.  None of what I write here should be taken to imply a belief that solar should be preferred to any alternative.  In fact, my own choice would be to reduce the regulatory burden to rational levels and build next generation nuclear plants instead.  However, regardless of the technology involved, I would prefer to see it judged on a level playing field.

    I know, I know, the MSM is hardly innocent of slanting the news.  Indeed, its hysterical response after the announcement that Sarah Palin would be John McCain’s running mate puts anything I have ever seen at Fox News completely in the shade.  Generally, however, it tends to be at least marginally more subtle.  For example, instead of attempting to slant important news stories that don’t fit its narrative, it will often simply ignore them.  If the story is too big to ignore, it will vilify the messenger instead.  Of course, such techniques reflect a greater maturity and experience in handling agitprop than is available to the team at Fox News.  However, that doesn’t prevent them from learning by example.  Given that we will be subjected to propaganda no matter which “news” source we choose to follow, we should at least be able to demand that it not be crudely done.

    Ivanpah

  • The Regrettable Overreach of “Faith versus Fact”

    Posted on June 12th, 2015 Helian 10 comments

    The fact that the various gods that mankind has invented over the years, including the currently popular ones, don’t exist has been sufficiently obvious to any reasonably intelligent pre-adolescent who has taken the trouble to think about it since at least the days of Jean Meslier.  That unfortunate French priest left us with a Testament that exposed the folly of belief in imaginary super-beings long before the days of Darwin.  It included most of the “modern” arguments, including the dubious logic of inventing gods to explain everything we don’t understand, the many blatant contradictions in the holy scriptures, the absurdity of the notion that an infinitely wise and perfect being could be moved to fury or even offended by the pathetic sins of creatures as abject as ourselves, the lack of any need for a supernatural “grounding” for human morality, and many more.  Over the years these arguments have been elaborated and expanded by a host of thinkers, culminating in the work of today’s New Atheists.  These include Jerry Coyne, whose Faith versus Fact represents their latest effort to talk some sense into the true believers.

    Coyne has the usual human tendency, shared by his religious opponents, of “othering” those who disagree with him.  However, besides sharing a “sin” that few if any of us are entirely free of, he has some admirable traits as well.  For example, he has rejected the Blank Slate ideology of his graduate school professor/advisor, Richard Lewontin, and even goes so far as to directly contradict him in FvF.  In spite of the fact that he is an old “New Leftist” himself, he has taken a principled stand against the recent attempts of the ideological Left to dismantle freedom of speech and otherwise decay to its Stalinist ground state.  Perhaps best of all as far as a major theme of this blog is concerned, he rejects the notion of objective morality that has been so counter-intuitively embraced by Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist.

    For the most part, Faith versus Fact is a worthy addition to the New Atheist arsenal.  It effectively dismantles the “sophisticated Christian” gambit that has encouraged meek and humble Christians of all stripes to imagine themselves on an infinitely higher intellectual plane than such “undergraduate atheists” as Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens.  It refutes the rapidly shrinking residue of “God of the gaps” arguments, and clearly illustrates the difference between scientific evidence and religious “evidence.”  It destroys the comfortable myth that religion is an “other way of knowing,” and exposes the folly of seeking to accommodate religion within a scientific worldview.  It was all the more disappointing, after nodding approvingly through most of the book, to suffer one of those “Oh, No!” moments in the final chapter.  Coyne ended by wandering off into an ideological swamp with a fumbling attempt to link obscurantist religion with “global warming denialism!”

    As it happens, I am a scientist myself.  I am perfectly well aware that when an external source of radiation such as that emanating from the sun passes through an ideal earthlike atmosphere that has been mixed with a dose of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, impinges on an ideal earthlike surface, and is re-radiated back into space, the resulting equilibrium temperature of the atmosphere will be higher than if no greenhouse gases were present.  I am also aware that we are rapidly adding such greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and that it is therefore reasonable to be concerned about the potential effects of global warming.  However, in spite of that it is not altogether irrational to take a close look at whether all the nostrums proposed as solutions to the problem will actually do any good.

    In fact, the earth does not have an ideal static atmosphere over an ideal static and uniform surface.  Our planet’s climate is affected by a great number of complex, interacting phenomena.  A deterministic computer model capable of reliably predicting climate change decades into the future is far beyond the current state of the art.  It would need to deal with literally millions of degrees of freedom in three dimensions, in many cases using potentially unreliable or missing data.  The codes currently used to address the problem are probabilistic, reduced basis models, that can give significantly different answers depending on the choice of initial conditions.

    In a recently concluded physics campaign at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists attempted to achieve thermonuclear fusion ignition by hitting tiny targets containing heavy isotopes of hydrogen with the most powerful laser system ever built.  The codes they used to model the process should have been far more accurate than any current model of the earth’s climate.  These computer models included all the known relevant physical phenomena, and had been carefully benchmarked against similar experiments carried out on less powerful laser systems.  In spite of that, the best experimental results didn’t come close to the computer predictions.  The actual number of fusion reactions hardly came within two orders of magnitude of expected values.  The number of physical approximations that must be used in climate models is far greater than were necessary in the Livermore fusion codes, and their value as predictive tools must be judged accordingly.

    In a word, we have no way of accurately predicting the magnitude of the climate change we will experience in coming decades.  If we had unlimited resources, the best policy would obviously be to avoid rocking the only boat we have at the moment.  However, this is not an ideal world, and we must wisely allocate what resources we do have among competing priorities.  Resources devoted to fighting climate change will not be available for medical research and health care, education, building the infrastructure we need to maintain a healthy economy, and many other worthy purposes that could potentially not only improve human well-being but save many lives.  Before we succumb to frantic appeals to “do something,” and spend a huge amount of money to stop global warming, we should at least be reasonably confident that our actions will measurably reduce the danger.  To what degree can we expect “science” to inform our decisions, whatever they may be?

    For starters, we might look at the track record of the environmental scientists who are now sounding the alarm.  The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg examined that record in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in areas as diverse as soil erosion, storm frequency, deforestation, and declining energy resources.  Time after time he discovered that they had been crying “wolf,” distorting and cherry-picking the data to support dire predictions that never materialized.  Lomborg’s book did not start a serious discussion of potential shortcomings of the scientific method as applied in these areas.  Instead he was bullied and vilified.  A kangaroo court was organized in Denmark made up of some of the more abject examples of so-called “scientists” in that country, and quickly found Lomborg guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” a verdict which the Danish science ministry later had the decency to overturn.  In short, the same methods were used against Lomborg as were used decades earlier to silence critics of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, resulting in what was possibly the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  At the very least we can conclude that all the scientific checks and balances that Coyne refers to in such glowing terms in Faith versus Fact have not always functioned with ideal efficiency in promoting the cause of truth.  There is reason to believe that the environmental sciences are one area in which this has been particularly true.

    Under the circumstances it is regrettable that Coyne chose to equate “global warming denialism” a pejorative term used in ideological squabbles that is by its very nature unscientific, with some of the worst forms of religious obscurantism.  Instead of sticking to the message, in the end he let his political prejudices obscure it.  Objections to the prevailing climate change orthodoxy are hardly coming exclusively from the religious fanatics who sought to enlighten us with “creation science,” and “intelligent design.”  I invite anyone suffering from that delusion to have a look at some of the articles the physicist and mathematician Lubos Motl has written about the subject on his blog, The Reference Frame.  Examples may be found here, here and, for an example with a “religious” twist,  here.  There he will find documented more instances of the type of “scientific” behavior Lomborg cited in The Skeptical Environmentalist.  No doubt many readers will find Motl irritating and tendentious, but he knows his stuff.  Anyone who thinks he can refute his take on the “science” had better be equipped with more knowledge of the subject than is typically included in the bromides that appear in the New York Times.

    Alas, I fear that I am once again crying over spilt milk.  I can only hope that Coyne has an arrow or two left in his New Atheist quiver, and that next time he chooses a publisher who will insist on ruthlessly chopping out all the political Nebensächlichkeiten.  Meanwhile, have a look at his Why Evolution is True website.  In addition to presenting a convincing case for evolution by natural selection and a universe free of wrathful super beings, Professor Ceiling Cat, as he is known to regular visitors for reasons that will soon become apparent to newbies, also posts some fantastic wildlife pictures.  And if it’s any consolation, I see his book has been panned by John Horgan.  Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad.  Apparently Horgan’s review was actually solicited by the editors of the Wall Street Journal.  Go figure!  One wonders what rock they’ve been sleeping under lately.

  • Nuclear Power and the Anti-Science Ideology of the “Progressive” Left

    Posted on February 22nd, 2015 Helian No comments

    The ideological Left is fond of accusing the Right of being “anti-science.”  The evidence often comes in the form of Exhibit A (climate denialism) and Exhibit B (Darwin denialism).  True, these maladies are encountered more frequently on the Right than on the Left.  As it happens, however, there are also scientific allergies on the Left, and there is little question that they have been a great deal more damaging than their conservative analogs.  The best example is probably the Blank Slate debacle.  In order to prop up leftist shibboleths, denial of the very existence of human nature was enforced for more than half a century.  The effect on the behavioral sciences, and with them the self-knowledge critical to our very survival, was devastating.  “Scientific” Marxism-Leninism is another obvious example.  However, when it comes to scientific allergies, the Left’s irrational and often fanatical opposition to nuclear power may turn out to be the most damaging of all.

    Those who seek to alarm us about rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and yet reject the most effective technology for bringing them under control, are not serious.  They are mere poseurs.  Thanks to these anti-science attitudes on the Left, dozens of dirty, coal-fired power plants will be built in Germany alone to replace the baseload generating capacity once provided by nuclear reactors.  The situation is no better in the U.S.  Both countries have developed some of the most advanced, not to mention safest, nuclear technologies known to man, and yet both, hamstrung by opposition coming from the Left of the political spectrum, have abdicated the responsibility to apply that knowledge.  Instead, they are exporting it – to China.

    As I write this, we are helping China to build a novel type of reactor that combines molten salt technology developed in the United States with a version of the “pebble” type fuel pioneered by the Germans.  Approved in 2011, the original target completion date of 2015 has now slipped to 2020, but both goals would be out of the question in the byzantine regulatory atmosphere of the 21st century United States.  U.S. knowhow will also be used to build the novel “traveling wave” reactor design favored by Bill Gates – also in China.  The Chinese are also actively pursuing the high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology that was proposed for the ill-fated Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), further development of which was recently cancelled in the United States.

    I certainly have nothing against China building advanced reactors using technology that was developed elsewhere.  It’s good that the knowledge in question is being applied at least somewhere on the planet.  However, I find it unfortunate that we no longer have the leadership, vision, or political will to do so ourselves.  It was not always so.  The U.S. commissioned the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, in 1954, little more than a decade after the successful demonstration of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago.  More than 50 experimental nuclear reactors were built at what is now Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in a period of about two decades stretching from the 50’s to the mid-70’s.  None has been built since.  The situation is similar at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), site of the world’s first molten salt reactor.  Instead of working, next generation reactors, INL, ORNL, and the rest of the U.S. national laboratories now turn out only paper studies – gigantic mounds of them – in quantities that would probably stretch to the moon and back by now.  The chances that any of them will ever be usefully applied in this country are slim and none.

    The technologies in question are not mere incremental improvements over the conventional nuclear power plants that now produce almost all the world’s nuclear power.  They have the demonstrated capacity to extract more than an order of magnitude more energy out of a given quantity of mined fuel material than conventional designs.  They can burn the long-lived radioactive actinides and other hazardous isotopes produced in nuclear fission that represent the most dangerous types of radioactive waste, reducing the residual radioactivity from operation of a nuclear plant to a level less than that of the original uranium ore is less than 500 years – a far cry from the millions of years often cited by hysterical anti-nukers.  Under the circumstances, it is worth taking note of where the opposition that stopped the development and application of these technologies in the past, and continues to do so today, is coming from.

    The regulatory nightmare that has brought the continued development of these technologies in the United States to a virtual standstill is primarily the legacy of the “progressive” Left.  The anti-nuclear zealots on that side of the political spectrum cling to bogus linear no-threshold models of radioactive hazard, grotesquely exaggerated horror stories about the supposed impossibility of dealing with nuclear waste, and a stubborn cluelessness about the dangers of the alternative coal and other fossil-fired technologies that their opposition to nuclear will inevitably continue to promote in spite of all their strident denials.  These are facts that it would be well to keep in mind the next time you hear the Left calling the Right “anti-science,” or, for that matter, the next time you hear them pontificating about their deep commitment to the fight against global warming.

  • Of Smug Germans and Sinful Australians: Global Warming Update

    Posted on October 4th, 2014 Helian No comments

    No doubt the outcome of the Nazi unpleasantness resulted in attitude adjustment in Germany on a rather large scale.  Clearly, however, it didn’t teach the Germans humility.  At a time when a secular mutation of Puritanism has become the dominant ideology in much of Europe and North America, the Germans take the cake for pathological piety.  Not that long ago the fashionable evil de jour was the United States, and anti-American hate mongering in the German media reached levels that would make your toes curl.  In the last years of the Clinton and the first years of the following Bush administrations it was often difficult to find anything about Germany on the home pages of popular German news magazines like Der Spiegel because the available space was taken up by furious rants against the United States for the latest failures to live up to German standards of virtue.  Eventually the anti-American jihad choked on its own excess, and other scapegoats were found. Clearly, however, German puritanism is still alive and well.  An amusing example just turned up in the Sydney Morning Herald under the headline, “Merkel adviser lashes Abbott’s ‘suicide strategy’ on coal.”  The advisor in question was one Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Chancellor Merkel’s lead climate advisor.  A picture of him posing as the apotheosis of smugness accompanies the article, according to which he,

    …attacked Australia’s complacency on global warming and described the Abbott government’s championing of the coal industry as an economic “suicide strategy”.

    Alas, we learn that Schellnhuber’s anathemas also fell on our neighbor to the north.  The SMH quotes him as saying,

    Similar to Canada, Australia for the time being is not part of the international community which is cooperating to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions.

    Tears run down our cheeks as Schellnhuber describes Australia’s fall from grace:

     …it had been disappointing to see Australia’s retreat on climate policy after it became “the darling of the world” when Kevin Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2007.

    As readers who were around at the time may recall, the Kyoto Protocol conformed perfectly to German standards of “fairness.”  It would have required states like The United States and Canada to meet exactly the same percentage reduction in emissions from the base year 1990 as the countries in the European Union, in spite of the fact that their economies had expanded at a faster rate than most of Europe’s during the period, they did not enjoy the same access to cheap, clean-burning natural gas as the Europeans in those pre-fracking days, and, “fairest” of all, they weren’t the beneficiaries of massive emission reductions from the closing of obsolete east European factories following the demise of Communism.  In other words, it was “fair” for the US and Canada to shed tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in order to meet grossly disproportionate emissions standards while Germany and the rest of the Europeans cheered from the sidelines.

    What is one to think of this latest instance of ostentatious German piety?  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  For one thing, the apparent concern about climate change in Germany is about 99% moralistic posing and 1% real.  Solzhenitsyn used a word in The First Circle that describes the phenomenon very well; sharashka.  Basically, it’s a lie so big that even those telling it eventually begin to believe it.  The German decision to shut down their nuclear power plants demonstrated quite clearly that they’re not serious about fighting global warming.  Base load sources of energy are needed for when renewables are unavailable because the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.  Practical alternatives for filling in the gaps include nuclear and fossil fuel.  Germany has rejected the former and chosen one of the dirtiest forms of the latter; coal-fired plants using her own sources of lignite.  She plans to build no less than 26 of them in the coming years!

    It’s stunning, really.  These plants will pump millions of tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that wouldn’t have been there if Germany had kept her nuclear plants on line.  Not only that, they represent a far greater radioactive danger than nuclear plants, because coal contains several parts per million of radioactive thorium and uranium.  The extent of German chutzpah is further demonstrated by a glance at recent emission numbers.  Germany is now the worst polluter in the EU.  Her CO2 emissions have risen substantially lately, due mainly to those new lignite plants beginning to come on line.  Coal-generated energy in Germany is now around 50% of the mix, the highest it’s been since 1990.  Even as the German government shook its collective head at the sinful Australians, telling them to mend their evil ways or bear the guilt for wars and revolution, not to mention the bleaching of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef, her own CO2 emission rose 1.5% in 2013 over the previous year, while Australia’s fell by 0.8% in the same period!

    In a word, dear reader, for the German “Greens,” the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

  • Comments on Some Comments on the National Ignition Facility

    Posted on September 23rd, 2014 Helian No comments

    We live in a dauntingly complex world.  Progress in the world of science is relevant to all of us, yet it is extremely difficult, although certainly not impossible, for the intelligent layperson to gain a useful understanding of what is actually going on.  I say “not impossible” because I believe it’s possible for non-experts to gain enough knowledge to usefully contribute to the conversation about the technological and social relevance of a given scientific specialty, if not of its abstruse details, assuming they are willing to put in the effort.  Indeed, when it comes to social relevance it’s not out of the question for them to become more knowledgeable than the scientists themselves, narrowly focused as they often are on a particular specialty.

    To illustrate my point, I invite my readers to take a look at a post that recently appeared on the blog LLNL – The True Story.  LLNL, or Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is one of the nation’s three major nuclear weapons research laboratories.  It is also home of the National Ignition Facility, which, as its name implies, was designed to achieve fusion “ignition” by focusing a giant assembly of 192 powerful laser beams on tiny targets containing a mixture of deuterium and tritium fuel.  The process itself is called inertial confinement fusion, or ICF.  Ignition is variously defined, but as far as the NIF is concerned LLNL officially accepted the definition as fusion energy out equal to total laser energy in, in the presence of members of a National Academy of Sciences oversight committee.  This is a definition that puts it on a level playing field with the competing magnetic confinement approach to fusion.

    According to the blurb that appears on the home page of LLNL – The True Story, its purpose is “for LLNL present and past employees, friends of LLNL and anyone impacted by the privatization of the Lab to express their opinions and expose the waste, wrongdoing and any kind of injustice against employees and taxpayers by LLNS/DOE/NNSA.”  The post in question is entitled ICF Program is now Officially Owned by WCI (Weapons and Concepts Integration).  It’s certainly harmless enough as it stands, consisting only of the line,

    ICF program is now officially owned by WCI.  A step forward or an attempt to bury it out of sight?

    This is followed by an apparently broken link to the story referred to.  This gist can probably be found here.  Presumably the author suspects LLNL might want to “bury it out of sight” because the first attempt to achieve ignition, known as the National Ignition Campaign, or NIC, failed to achieve its goal.  What’s really of interest is not the post itself, but the comments following it.  The commenters are all listed as “anonymous,” but given the nature of the blog we can probably assume that most of them are scientists of one tribe or another.  Let’s take a look at what they have to say.  According to the first “anonymous,”

    If (takeover of NIF by WCI) is an attempt to keep funding flowing by switching milestones from energy independence to weapons research.  “Contingency Plan B”.

    Another “anonymous” writes in a similar vein:

    Reading between the lines it is clear that the new energy source mission of the NIF is over and now it’s time to justify the unjustifiable costs by claiming it’s a great too for weapons research.

    Perhaps the second commenter would have done better to read the lines as they stand rather than between them.  In that case he would have noticed that energy independence was never an official NIF milestone, not to mention its “mission.”  NIF was funded for the purpose of weapons research from the start.  This fact was never in any way a deep, dark secret, and has long been obvious to anyone willing to take the trouble to consult the relevant publicly accessible documents.  The Inertial Confinement Fusion Advisory Committee, a Federal Advisory Committee that met intermittently in the early to mid-90’s, and whose member included a bevy of heavyweights in plasma physics and related specialties, was certainly aware of the fact, and recommended funding of the facility with the single dissenting vote of Tim Coffey, then Director of the Naval Research Laboratory, based on that awareness.

    Be that as it may, the claim that the technology could also end our dependence on fossil fuel, often made by the NIF’s defenders, is credible.  By “credible” I mean that many highly capable scientists have long held and continue to hold that opinion.  As it happens, I don’t.  Assuming we find a way to achieve ignition and high gain in the laboratory, it will certainly become scientifically feasible to generate energy with ICF power plants.  However, IMHO it will never be economically feasible, for reasons I have outline in earlier posts.  Regardless, from a public relations standpoint, it was obviously preferable to evoke the potential of the NIF as a clean source of energy rather than a weapons project designed to maintain the safety and reliability of our nuclear arsenal, as essential as that capability may actually be.  In spite of my own personal opinion on the subject, these claims were neither disingenuous nor mere “hype.”

    Another “anonymous” writes,

    What’s this user facility bullshit about?  Only Livermore uses the facility.  Cost recovery demands that a university would have to pay $1 million for a shot.  How can it be a user facility if it’s run by the weapons program?  This isn’t exactly SLAC we’re talking about.

    Here, again, the commenter is simply wrong.  Livermore is not the only user of NIF, and it is, in fact, a user facility.  Users to date include a team from MIT headed by Prof. Richard Petrasso.  I’m not sure how the users are currently funded, but in the past funds for experiments on similar facilities were allocated through a proposal process, similar to that used to fund other government-funded academic research.  The commenter continues,

    By the way, let’s assume NIF wants to be a “user facility” for stockpile stewardship.  Since ignition is impossible, the EOS (Equation of State, relevant to the physics of nuclear weapons, ed.) work is garbage, and the temperatures are not relevant to anything that goes bang, what use is this machine?

    NIF does not “want to be a user facility for stockpile stewardship.”  Stress has always been on high energy density physics (HEDP), which has many other potential applications besides stockpile stewardship.  I was not surprised that NIF did not achieve ignition immediately.  In fact I predicted as much in a post on this blog two years before the facility became operational.  However, many highly competent scientists disagreed with me, and for credible scientific reasons.  The idea that ignition is “impossible” just because it wasn’t achieved in the first ignition campaign using the indirect drive approach is nonsense.  Several other credible approaches have not yet even been tried, including polar direct drive, fast ignitor, and hitting the targets with green (frequency doubled) rather than blue (frequency tripled) light.  The latter approach would enable a substantial increase in the available laser energy on target.  The EOS work is not garbage, as any competent weapons designer will confirm as long as they are not determined to force the resumption of nuclear testing by hook or by crook, and some of the best scientists at Livermore confirmed long ago that the temperatures  achievable on the NIF are indeed relevant to things that go bang, whether it achieves ignition or not.  In fact, the facility allows us to access physical conditions that can be approached in the laboratory nowhere else on earth, giving us a significant leg up over the international competition in maintaining a safe and reliable arsenal, as long as testing is not resumed.

    Anonymous number 4 chimes in,

    I love this quote (apparently from the linked article, ed.):

    “the demonstration of laboratory ignition and its use to support the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) is a major goal for this program”

    Hey guys, this has already failed.  Why are we still spending money on this?  A lot of other laboratories could use the $$.  You’re done.

    The quote this “anonymous” loves is a simple statement of fact.  For the reasons already cited, the idea that ignition on the NIF is hopeless is nonsense.  The (very good) reason we’re still spending money on the project is that NIF is and will continue into the foreseeable future to be one of the most capable and effective above ground experimental (AGEX) facilities in the world.  It can access physical conditions relevant to nuclear weapons regardless of whether it achieves ignition or not.  For that reason it is an invaluable tool for maintaining our arsenal unless one’s agenda happens to be the resumption of nuclear testing.  Hint:  The idea that no one in DOE, NNSA, or the national weapons laboratories wants to resume testing belongs in the realm of fantasy.  Consider, for example, what the next “anonymous” is actually suggesting:

    Attempting to get funding for NIF and computations’s big machines was made easier by claiming dual purposes but I always felt that the real down and dirty main purpose was weapons research.  If you want to get support from the anti-weapon Feinstein/Boxer/Pelosi contingent you need to put the “energy” lipstick on the pig.  Or we could go back to testing.  Our cessation of testing doesn’t seem to have deterred North Korea and Iran that much.

    Yes, Virginia, even scientists occasionally do have agendas of their own.  What can I say?  To begin, I suppose, that one should never be intimidated by the pontifications of scientists.  The specimens on display here clearly don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.  Any non-technical observer of middling intelligence could become more knowledgeable than they are on the topics they’re discussing by devoting a few hours to researching them on the web.  As to how the non-technical observer is to acquire enough knowledge to actually know that he knows more than the scientific specialists, I can offer no advice, other than to head to your local university and acquire a Ph.D.  I am, BTW, neither employed by nor connected in any other way with LLNL.

     

  • Massimo Pigliucci on Hume and Human Nature

    Posted on May 4th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Massimo Pigliucci recently posted an article at his Scientia Salon website exploring the connection between the philosophy of David Hume and the concept of human nature.  Entitled Human Nature, a Humean Take, it’s an interesting artifact of current perceptions in academia of human nature in general and the Blank Slate episode in particular.  Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York.  He prides himself on the latter specialty, and will occasionally use it as a bludgeon against his intellectual opponents.   His article begins with the following:

    Human nature is a funny thing. Some scientists, like biologist E.O. Wilson and linguist Steven Pinker are pretty convinced it is a real thing, and that it seriously constrains what we are going to do with our lives (the entire discipline of evolutionary psychology, or sociobiology as it was known in its first incarnation, is predicated on it).

    Then again, plenty of philosophers I have talked to in recent years seem to be genuinely surprised that one could still talk about such a thing in all seriousness.  Surely that quaint idea went out the window after decades of criticism of genetic determinism, they say.  This, of course, despite the fact that there is a long and venerable tradition in philosophy of perfectly comprehensible talk about human nature.

    The first of these two paragraphs is amusing because one of Pigliucci’s pet peeves is “scientism,” and he has singled out Pinker for criticism as one of the foremost proponents of that ideology.  In spite of that, here we find him rattling off Pinker’s “Big Bang” revision of the history of the Blank Slate as if there was nothing in the least controversial about it.  Score one for Pinker.  His fairy tale is all there, complete with the guileless assertion that “sociobiology” was the first incarnation of the discipline of evolutionary psychology.  Of course, as anyone who’s been around long enough is aware, EP didn’t begin with the “Big Bang” of E. O. Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology.  “Ethology” was the vernacular term of choice for what later became evolutionary psychology more than a decade before sociobiology was ever heard of.  To swallow Pinker’s version of history, you have to perform a lobotomy on the 20th century, deleting a period of about a decade and a half starting around 1960, and pretend that the contributions of the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, last but by no means least, that greatest of all the unpersons of evolutionary psychology, the “playwright,” Robert Ardrey, were either insignificant or, as Richard Dawkins put it in The Selfish Gene, “totally and utterly wrong.”

    In the second paragraph of the above quote, we find Pigliucci all unaware that the “philosophers” who were “genuinely surprised” that there is, in fact, an entire academic discipline that does take the notion of human nature “in all seriousness,” are actually leftover Blank Slaters of a type it’s becoming increasingly hard to find outside of the academic echo chamber.  He also seems unaware that the “decades of criticism of genetic determinism,” really amounted to nothing more than the deification of a propaganda slogan.  For all I know, there may actually be “genetic determinists,” but if so, they must be as rare as hen’s teeth.  I’ve never actually seen one.  If any of my readers ever happen to run across the genuine article in a circus sideshow or some similar venue, I would be most grateful if they’d spread the word.

    Pigliucci continues,

    Indeed, even people like Pinker seem to be sending somewhat mixed messages about the whole concept: on the one hand he vehemently (and justly) attacks the idea of a “blank slate” (though I don’t actually know too many people who hold onto it in anything like the original, strong, Lockeian version. On the other hand, however, he claims — huge data sets in hand — that human beings have been able to yield to the “better angels” of our nature and have progressively built societies characterized by less and less violence.

    This is certainly an odd assertion, following on the heels of his assertions that he knows other philosophers who don’t believe in human nature.  I daresay that their version of the “blank slate” is likely to be a great deal “stronger” than Locke’s.  In the first place, it’s ridiculous to link the “blank slatism” of Locke with that of such later thinkers as John Stuart Mill, or the “blank slatism” of Mill with that of such latter day ideologues as Ashley Montagu or Richard Lewontin.  To do so denies to each of them their right to be taken seriously as individual thinkers.  Locke’s “blank slatism” followed from his religious principles.  Mill’s is probably best described as due to the misfortune of writing his Utilitarianism before his thought could be informed by Darwin’s great theory.  For many of the 20th century versions, “blank slatism” was a necessary prop for the assorted utopian social schemes they happened to favor.  Locke’s version was probably not as “strong” as theirs, or, for that matter, as that of Pigliucci’s “philosophers.”  For example, quoting Locke,

    Nature, I confess, has put into man a desire of happiness and an aversion to misery: these indeed are innate practical principles which (as practical principles ought) do continue constantly to operate and influence all our actions without ceasing.

     Principles of actions indeed there are lodged in men’s appetites.

    One can find a whole menagerie of latter day Blank Slaters whose versions are a great deal “stronger” than this by thumbing through the pages of Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968.  As for the claim that Pinker is sending a “mixed message” in his The Better Angels of our Nature, it’s nonsense unless you believe that one must either be a Blank Slater or one of those unicorn-like Genetic Determinists. Apparently Pigliucci really believes these two extremes are the norm, and imagines himself in the benevolent role of providing adult supervision.  For example,

    Because of my original training as an evolutionary biologist interested in nature-nurture issues, I guess I never understood the (alleged) dichotomy. My basic take is that human behavioral traits (“human nature”) are the result of a continuous and inextricable interaction between our genes and our environments — which means that it makes no sense to ask what percentage of what we do is “caused” by genes and what percentage by the environment. If you add the well established concept, in evolutionary biology, of phenotypic plasticity — the idea that different sets of genes help produce wider or narrower ranges of behaviors in response to the quality of environmental inputs, and that the majority of these environmental inputs are nowadays the result of cultural forces — you’ve got a fairly solid framework to argue that yes, there is such a thing as human nature, but no, it isn’t unchangeable.

    You might think that this would reassure both the scientists who insists (rightly) that human beings are not infinitely malleable blank slates, and the humanists who are (again, rightly) weary of the sinister socio-political implications of strong biological determinism. Everybody wins, can we go home now?

    In fact, as far as human nature is concerned, no such dichotomy has ever existed outside of the fevered imaginations of Pigliucci’s Blank Slate “philosophers.”  If he would trouble himself to read the first chapter of any undergraduate Evolutionary Psychology textbook, he will notice that the point is usually forcefully made that no such dichotomy exists.  Certainly such Pinkerian unpersons as Lorenz and Ardrey constantly insisted there was no such dichotomy, as did E. O. Wilson.  When Pigliucci claims that “percentages make no sense,” he is simply misrepresenting the claims of the users of the mathematical techniques he alludes to.  Finally, when he claims that, “yes, there is such a thing as human nature, but no, it isn’t unchangeable,” he reveals a deep misunderstanding of what is actually meant by the term, “human nature.”  The term is both meaningless and useless unless one is referring to a bag of behavioral traits whose ultimate cause is to be found in our genes.  The fact that the expression of those traits can take on an infinity of different forms does not imply any change in that ultimate cause.  The only way in which “human nature” can change is via genetic change.

    Which brings us to David Hume.  He was a brilliant thinker, and what he had to say about human nature is one of the best refutations of “scientism” I am aware of.  Anyone who thinks science has made philosophy irrelevant needs to read him.  The question is, why was he relevant?  I think the best answer to that question was given by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind.  Indeed, Haidt is now at NYU, and Pigliucci could do worse than to jump on the subway and ride down to the other end of Manhattan for a visit.  Here’s what Haidt has to say about Hume in a sub-heading entitled The Birth of Moral Science beginning on page 114 of the hardcover version of his book:

    Hume’s work on morality was the quintessential Enlightenment project:  an exploration of an area previously owned by religion, using the methods and attitudes of the new natural sciences.  His first great work, A Treatise of Human Nature, had this subtitle:  Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.  Hume believed that “moral science” had to begin with careful inquiry into what humans are really like.  And when he examined human nature – in history, in political affairs, and among his fellow philosophers – he saw that “sentiment” (intuition) is the driving force of our moral lives, whereas reasoning is biased and impotent, fit primarily to be a servant of the passions.  He also saw a diversity of virtues, and he rejected attempts by some of his contemporaries to reduce all of morality to a single virtue such as kindness, or to do away with virtues and replace them with a few moral laws.

    Haidt continues with a quote of the great philosopher himself,

    Morality is nothing in the abstract Nature of Things, but is entirely relative to the S3entiment or mental Taste of each particular Being; in the same Manner as the Distinctions of sweet and bitter, hot and cold, arise from the particular feeling of each Sense or Organ.  Moral Perceptions therefore, ought not to be class’d with the Operations of Understanding, but with the Tastes or Sentiments.

    For someone writing long before Darwin, it’s hard to think of anyone, philosopher or scientist, who came up with an insight more brilliant than that.  For the reasons for that statement, by all means, read Haidt’s book.  Unfortunately, Pigliucci, who piques himself on his profound philosophical insight, can’t leave it at that.  He insists on teasing something more out of Hume.  Eventually, after ruminations which I leave the interested reader to peruse for himself, he gets from point A, the actual writings of Hume, to point B, which he states as follows:

    At any rate, the basic, somewhat Humean (or Hume-inspired) outline of what I’m thinking about is that human nature — i.e., what it is to be human, as opposed to, say, being chimpanzee — evolves both genetically and culturally, with the two constantly interacting with each other, and yet, I think, with the cultural component becoming more and more independent of the genetic one.

    One must hope that Hume would have disavowed this fanciful interpretation of his work.  The “cultural component” would not exist without its genetic ultimate cause.  This amounts to the same thing as claiming that, because culture has enabled our legs to perform intricate and unprecedented dances, and to jump unprecedented distances, and to climb Mount Everest, our legs are therefore becoming independent of their genetic origins.  In other words, it’s nonsense.  Pigliucci continues,

    Consider, as a controversial example, Pinker’s own theory in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that violence has more or less steadily gone down throughout human history (yes, despite two world wars in the 20th century!) at the least in part because of our ability to talk to each other and originate and spread (philosophical) ideas about democracy, justice, and so on. If Pinker’s outline is even remotely close to the truth, then we have a situation where pre-existing feelings of intra-group fairness and cooperation, which we inherited from our primate ancestors, gradually, via cultural evolution, got more elaborated and became applied more broadly, generating what Peter Singer refers to as our enlarging circle of empathy and moral concern.

    The idea is that if, indeed, we are making moral progress (as Singer suggests, and as Pinker-style data seem to confirm), then this in an important sense counts as a change in human nature, but it is one achieved largely via cultural evolution, itself grounded in our specific genetic heritage as social primates.

    In other words, by enlisting Hume in a cause I daresay the great philosopher would have strenuously objected to were he still among us, Pigliucci ends by claiming that there actually is something as un-Humean as “moral progress,” and that the fictional existence of such a thing counts as a “change in human nature.”  He tops it off with the non sequitur that this “change in human nature” is “achieved largely via cultural evolution, itself grounded in our specific genetic heritage as social primates.

    What can I say?  I suppose that, first of all, I must congratulate Steven Pinker.  His imaginary “history” of the Blank Slate has apparently been swallowed, even by someone who is one of his most eloquent academic opponents.  In other words, his fiction is well on the way to becoming the “truth.”  And who is likely to ever question the “truth?”  After all, most serious history is now written by academics, and what academic is ever likely to draw down the ire of the rest of his tribe by insisting that the “men of science” were full of crap for more than half a decade, but were finally forced to admit they were wrong by a playwright?  Good luck with that.

    Other than that, apparently the concept of “human nature,” a vernacular term understood by virtually every member of our species above the age of 10 as something constant and unchanging in our behavioral repertoire, is not so understood in academia, or at least not universally.  It remains to find a ten-year-old with sufficient influence and charm to explain the concept to the academics.

    David Hume

    David Hume

  • Helpful Hints on the Morality of Parenthood

    Posted on April 16th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    One Thomas Rodham Wells, who apparently fancies himself a philosopher, has posted an article entitled Is Parenthood Morally Respectable? over at 3quarksdaily.  It explains to the rest of us benighted souls why it’s immoral to have children, except in situations where the number is limited to one, and the prospective parents’ motives in having children are scrutinized for moral purity, presumably by a board of philosophers appointed by Wells.  Such tracts have been popping up in increasing numbers lately, mainly emanating from the left of the ideological spectrum.  I really don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see them.  They’re the ultimate expressions of what one might call a morality inversion – morality as a negation of the very basis of morality itself.  Moral objections to parenthood are hardly the only manifestations of such suicidal inversions observable in modern society.  For example, often the very same people who consider parenthood “evil” also consider unlimited illegal immigration “good.”  I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised.  Jury-rigging a large brain on a creature with a pre-existing set of behavioral traits, and then expecting the moral emotions to catch up with the change overnight would be a dubious proposition even in a static environment.  Plump that creature down in the environment of today, radically different as it is from the one in which its moral equipment evolved, and such “anomalies” are only to be expected.

    On the other hand, Darwin happened.  He certainly had no trouble making the connection between his revolutionary theory and moral behavior.  It was immediately obvious to him that morality exists because it evolved.  The connection has been just as obvious to many others who have come and gone in the intervening century and a half.  In this post-Blank Slate era the fact should be as obvious as the nose on your face.  It should serve as a check on the intellectual hubris of our species that, in spite of that, so many of us still don’t get it.

    I won’t go into too much detail about how Wells rationalized himself into a morality inversion.  It’s the usual stuff.  Parenthood is selfish because it imposes social costs on those who choose not to have children.  Parenthood is irresponsible because the carbon footprint of children will melt the planet.  Parenthood is unfair because the burden of other people’s children on the childless don’t outweigh their advantages.  And so on, and so on.  As usual, all this completely misses the point.  The “point” is that the ultimate reason that morality exists to begin with, and absent which it would not exist, is that it increased the probability that individuals of our species would survive and have children who would also survive.  In other words, using morality to encourage genetic suicide is manifestly absurd.  It is basically the same thing as using one’s evolved hand to shoot oneself, or using one’s evolved feet to jump off a cliff.  One can only conclude that, in the midst of all his complex moral reasoning, Wells never bothered to consider why, exactly, there is such a thing as morality.

    Should one go to the trouble of pointing all this out to him?  Why on earth for!  The rest of us should be overjoyed that he and as many others like him as possible are delusional.  If anything, we should encourage them to remain delusional.  If they have no children, we won’t have to feed them, educate them, the planet may not melt after all, and, best of all, there will be more room for our children.  As for me pointing this out to my readers, I admit, it does seem somewhat counterintuitive.  On the other hand, so far there aren’t enough of you to seriously risk melting the planet, and if you’re smart enough to “get it” it’s probably worth my while to keep you around to provide a little quality genetic diversity in any case.

  • China Bets on Thorium Reactors

    Posted on March 21st, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    According to the South China Morning Post (hattip Next Big Future),

    The deadline to develop a new design of nuclear power plant has been brought forward by 15 years as the central government tries to reduce the nation’s reliance on smog-producing coal-fired power stations.  A team of scientists in Shanghai had originally been given 25 years to try to develop the world’s first nuclear plant using the radioactive element thorium as fuel rather than uranium, but they have now been told they have 10, the researchers said.

    I have to admit, I feel a little envious when I read things like that.  The Chinese government is showing exactly the kind of leadership that’s necessary to guide the development of nuclear power along rational channels, and it’s a style of leadership of which our own government no longer seems capable.

    What do I mean by “rational channels?”  Among other things, I mean acting as a responsible steward of our nuclear resources, instead of blindly wasting them , as we are doing now.  How are we wasting them?  By simply throwing away the lion’s share of the energy content of every pound of uranium we mine.

    Contrary to the Morning Post article, thorium is not a nuclear fuel.  The only naturally occurring nuclear fuel is uranium 235 (U235).  It is the only naturally occurring isotope that can be used directly to fuel a nuclear reactor.  It makes up only a tiny share – about 0.7% – of mined uranium.  The other 99.3% is mostly uranium 238 (U238).  What’s the difference?  When a neutron happens along and hits the nucleus of an atom of U235, it usually fissions.  When a neutron happens along and hits the nucleus of an atom of U238, unless its going very fast, it commonly just gets absorbed.  There’s more to the story than that, though.  When it gets absorbed, the result is an atom of U239, which eventually decays to an isotope of plutonium – plutonium 239 (Pu239).  Like U235, Pu239 actually is a nuclear fuel.  When a neutron hits its nucleus, it too will usually fission.  The term “fissile” is used to describe such isotopes.

    In other words, while only 0.7% of naturally occurring uranium can be used directly to produce energy, the rest could potentially be transmuted into Pu239 and burned as well.  All that’s necessary for this to happen is to supply enough extra neutrons to convert the U238.  As it happens, that’s quite possible, using so-called breeder reactors.  And that’s where thorium comes in.  Like U238, the naturally occurring isotope thorium 232 (Th232) absorbs neutrons, yielding the isotope Th233, which eventually decays to U233, which is also fissile.  In other words, useful fuel can be “bred” from Th232 just as it can from U238.  Thorium is about three times as abundant as uranium, and China happens to have large reserves of the element.  According to current estimates, reserves in the U.S. are much larger, and India’s are the biggest on earth.

    What actually happens in almost all of our currently operational nuclear reactors is a bit different.  They just burn up that 0.7% of U235 in naturally occurring uranium, and a fraction of the Pu239 that gets bred in the process, and then throw what’s left away.  “What’s left” includes large amounts of U238 and various isotopes of plutonium as well as a brew of highly radioactive reaction products left over from the split atoms of uranium and plutonium.  Perhaps worst of all, “what’s left” also includes transuranic actinides such as americium and curium as well as plutonium.  These can remain highly radioactive and dangerous for thousands of years, and account for much of the long-term radioactive hazard of spent nuclear fuel.  As it happens, these actinides, as well as some of the more dangerous and long lived fission products, could potentially be destroyed during the normal operation of just the sort of molten salt reactors the crash Chinese program seeks to develop.  As a result, the residual radioactivity from operating such a plant for, say, 40 years, could potentially be less than that of the original uranium ore after a few hundreds of years instead of many thousands.  The radioactive hazard of such plants would actually be much less than that of burning coal, because coal contains small amounts of both uranium and thorium.  Coal plants spew tons of these radioactive elements, potentially deadly if inhaled, into the atmosphere every year.

    Why on earth are we blindly wasting our potential nuclear energy resources in such a dangerous fashion?  Because it’s profitable.  For the time being, at least, uranium is still cheap.  Breeder reactors would be more expensive to build than current generation light water reactors (LWRs).  To even start one, you’d have to spend about a decade, give or take, negotiating the highly costly and byzantine Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process.  You could count on years of even more costly litigation after that.  No reprocessing is necessary in LWRs.  Just quick and dirty storage of the highly radioactive leftovers, leaving them to future generations to deal with.  You can’t blame the power companies.  They’re in the business to make a profit, and can’t continue to operate otherwise.  In other words, to develop nuclear power rationally, you need something else in the mix – government leadership.

    We lack that leadership.  Apparently the Chinese don’t.

     

    Thorium metal

    Thorium metal