Germans Reconsidering Nuclear Power?

I don’t think so!  Less than a century after H. L. Mencken wrote that the Uplift was a purely American phenomenon, there may now be even more of the pathologically pious in Germany per capita than in the U.S.  They all think they’re far smarter than the average human being, they all see a savior of mankind when they look in the mirror, and almost all of them are cocksure that nuclear power is one of the Evils they need to save us from.  Just last November tens of thousands of them turned out in force to block the progress of a spent fuel castor from France to the German radioactive waste storage site at Gorleben.  The affair turned into a regular Uplift feeding frenzy, complete with pitched battles between the police and the peaceful protesters, who were armed with clubs and pyrotechnics, tearing up of railroad tracks, etc.  It’s no wonder the German government finally threw in the towel and announced the country would shut down its nuclear power plants.

At least the decision took the wind out of their sails for a while.  As Malcolm Muggeridge once said, “nothing fails like success” for the Saviors of Mankind.  Success tends to leave them high and dry.  At best they have to go to the trouble of finding another holy cause to fight for.  At worst, as in the aftermath of their fine victory in establishing a Worker’s Paradise in Russia, they’re all shot.

It would seem the “bitter dregs of success” were evident in a recent article on the website of the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, entitled “Electricity is Becoming Scarce in Germany.”  Der Spiegel has always been in the van of the pack of baying anti-nuclear hounds in Germany, so I was somewhat surprised by the somber byline, which reads as follows:

The nuclear power shutdown has been a burden for Germany’s electric power suppliers in any case.  Now the cold wave is making matters worse.  The net operators have already had to fall back on emergency reserves for the second time this winter, and buy additional electricity from Austria.

That’ s quite an admission coming from the Der Spiegel, where anti-nuclear polemics are usually the order of the day.  Even the resolutely Green Washington Post editorialized against the German shutdown, noting, among other things,

THE INTERNATIONAL Energy Agency reported on Monday that global energy-related carbon emissions last year were the highest ever, and that the world is far off track if it wants to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, after which the results could be very dangerous.

 

So what does Germany’s government decide to do? Shut down terawatts of low-carbon electric capacity in the middle of Europe. Bowing to misguided political pressure from Germany’s Green Party, Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed a plan to close all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022.

 

European financial analysts (estimate) that Germany’s move will result in about 400 million tons of extra carbon emissions by 2020, as the country relies more on fossil fuels. Nor is Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, who ominously announced that Germany has put coal-fired power “back on the agenda” — good for his coal-rich nation directly to Germany’s east but terrible for the environment and public health.

…and so on.  Not exactly a glowing endorsement of the German Greens optimistic plans to replace nuclear with solar in a cloudy country that gets cold in the winter and lies on the wrong side of the 50th parallel of latitude.  Poland’s prime minister is right to worry about being downwind of Germany.  In spite of the cheery assurances of the Greens, she currently plans to build 26 new coal-fired power plants.  It’s funny how environmental zealots forget all about the terrible threat of global warming if its a question of opposing nuclear power.  But Poland has a lot more to worry about than Germany’s carbon footprint.

It’s estimated that 25,000 people die from breathing coal particulates in the U.S. alone every year.  The per capita death rate in Poland, directly downwind from the German plants, will likely be significantly higher.  Then there’s the radiation problem.  That’s right, coal typically contains several parts per million of radioactive uranium and thorium.    A good-sized plant will release 5 tons of uranium and 10 tons of thorium into the environment each year.  Estimated releases in 1982  from worldwide combustion of 2800 million tons of coal totaled 3640 tons of uranium (containing 51,700 pounds of uranium-235) and 8960 tons of thorium.  China currently burns that much coal by herself.  The radiation from uranium and thorium is primarily in the form of alpha particles, or helium nuclei.  Such radiation typically has a very short range in matter, because it slows down quickly and then dumps all of its remaining energy in a very limited distance, the so-called Bragg peak.  On the one hand that means that a piece of paper is enough to stop most alpha radiation.  On the other it means that if you breath it in, the radiation will be slammed to a stop in your sensitive lung tissue, dealing tremendous damage in the process.  Have you ever heard of people dying of lung cancer who never smoked a day in their lives?  If you’re looking for a reason, look no further.

No matter.  As Stalin said, one death is a tragedy.  One million is a statistic.  Germany’s Greens will continue to ignore such dry statistics, and they will continue to strike noble poses as they fight the nuclear demon, forgetting all about global warming in the process.  For them, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

Geoffrey Gorer and the Blank Slate

Geoffrey Gorer was a British anthropologist, essayist, long-time friend of George Orwell, and, at least in my estimation, a very intelligent man.  He was also a Blank Slater.  In other words, he was a proponent of the orthodox dogma that prevailed among psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and other experts in the behavioral sciences during much of the 20th century according to which there was no such thing as human nature or, if it existed at all, its impact on human behavior was insignificant.  He defended that orthodoxy, among other places, in Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by Ashley Montagu, and an invaluable piece of source material for students of the Blank Slate phenomenon.

Now, of course, after one of the most remarkable paradigm shifts in the history of mankind, the Blank Slate has gone the way of Aristotelian cosmology, and books roll off the presses in an uninterrupted stream discussing innate human behavior as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  How, one might ask, if Geoffrey Gorer really was such an intelligent man, could he ever have taken the Blank Slate ideology seriously?  Well, I speak of intelligence in relative terms.  Taken as a whole, we humans aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are and, as Julius Caesar once said, we have a marked tendency to belief what we want to believe.

And why did Gorer “want” to believe in the Blank Slate?  I submit it was for the same reason that so many of his contemporaries defended the theory; their faith in socialism.  I do not use the term socialism in any kind of a pejorative sense.  Rather, I speak of it as the social phenomenon it was; for all practical purposes a secular religion posing as a science.  It is scarcely possible for people today to grasp the power and pervasiveness of socialist ideology in its heyday.  We have the advantage of hindsight and have watched socialist systems, ranging from the Communist authoritarian versions to the benign, democratic variant of the type tried in Great Britain after the war, fail over and over again.  Earlier generations did not have that advantage.

More or less modern socialist theories were prevalent in England long before Marx.  By 1917 they had taken such root in the minds of the Russian intelligentsia that Maxim Gorky could write that he couldn’t imagine a democratic state that wasn’t socialist.  A couple of decades later, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, Malcolm Muggeridge remarked that,

In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.

Anyone doubting the influence of similar ideas in the United States at the time need only go back and read the New Republic, The Nation, The American Mercury, and some of the other intellectual and political journals of the mid-30’s.  In a word, then, socialism was once accepted as an unquestionable truth by large numbers of very influential intellectuals.  It seemed perfectly obvious that capitalism was gasping its last, and the only question left seemed to be how the transition to socialism would take place, and how the socialist states of the future should be run.

There was just one problem with this as far as the social and behavioral sciences were concerned.  Socialism and human nature were mutually exclusive.  The firmest defenders of genetically programmed behavioral predispositions in human beings have never denied the myriad possible variations in human societies that are attributable to culture and environment.  Socialism, however, required more than that.  It required human behavior to be infinitely malleable which, if innate behavioral predispositions exist, it most decidedly is not.

Which brings us back to Geoffrey Gorer.  In an essay entitled, appropriately enough, The Remaking of Man, written in 1956, we can follow the intellectual threads that show how all this came together in the mind of a mid-20th century anthropologist.  I will let Gorer speak for himself.

One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.  This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.

Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.

In Gorer’s opinion the problem wasn’t human nature.  It couldn’t be, or socialism wouldn’t work.  The problem was that we simply hadn’t been using the right technique.  For example, we hadn’t been relying on proper role models.  Gorer had somehow convinced himself that female school teachers had played a decisive role in altering the character of immigrants to American, “transforming them within a generation into good citizens of their countries of adoption, with changed values, habits and expectations… In our original thinking, this role of the school-teacher, and the derivatives of this situation, were idiosyncratic to the culture of the United States.”  According to Gorer, the introduction of police in England had had a similar magical effect.  By serving as role models, they had, almost sole-handedly, brought about “the great modifications in the behavior of the English urban working classes in the nineteenth century from violence and lawlessness to gentleness and law-abiding.”  They had, “…provided an exemplar of self-control which the mass of the population could emulate and use as a model.”  If the phrase “just so story” popped into your mind, you’re not alone.  Of course, one man’s “just so story” is another man’s “scientific hypothesis.”  It all depends on whether it happens to be politically convenient or not.

Proper role models, then, were one of the ingredients that Gorer discovered were needed to “change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.”  He discovered no less than four more in the process of reading Margaret Mead’s New Lives for Old, which he described as “account of a society which has transformed itself within twenty-five years.”  The society in question was that of the Manus, inhabitants of the Admiralty Islands, which lie just north of New Guinea.  And sure enough, their society did change drastically in a generation and, if we are to believe Mead, for the good.  This change had been greatly facilitated by one Paliau, a charismatic leader of the Manu who luckily happened along at the time.  Gorer admitted this was a fortuitous accident, but he saw, or at least imagined he saw, several other ingredients for radical change which could be applied by properly qualified experts.  In his words,

The availability of a man of Paliau’s genius is obviously an unpredictable accident which cannot be generalized; but the other four conditions – readiness for change, the presentation of a model for study and observation, the sudden and complete break with the past, nurture and support during the first years of the new life – would seem to provide a paradigm of the way in which men may be changed in a single generation.

Human societies certainly may change radically within a very short time.  It is an adaptive trait that accounts for the fact that we managed, not only to survive, but to thrive during times of rapid environmental change.  The brilliant South African, Eugene Marais, was the first to make the connection.  In his words,

If now we picture the great continent of Africa with its extreme diversity of natural conditions – its high, cold, treeless plateaux; its impenetrable tropical forests; its great river systems; its inland seas; its deserts; its rain and droughts; its sudden climatic changes capable of altering the natural aspect of great tracts of country in a few years – all forming an apparently systemless chaos, and then picture its teeming masses of competing organic life, comprising more species, more numbers and of greater size than can be found on any other continent on earth, is it not at once evident how great would be the advantage if under such conditions a species could be liberated from the limiting force of hereditary memories? Would it not be conducive to preservation if under such circumstances a species could either suddenly change its habitat or meet any new natural conditions thrust upon it by means of immediate adaptation? Is it not self-evident that in a species far-wandering, whether on account of sudden natural changes, competitive pressure, or through inborn “wanderlust,” those individuals which could best and most quickly adapt themselves to the most varied conditions would be the ones most likely to survive and perpetuate the race, and that among species, one equipped for distant migrations would always have a better chance than a confined one? Are not all the elements present to bring about the natural selection of an attribute by means of which a species could thus meet and neutralise one of the most prolific causes of destruction?

This is not advanced as a demonstrable theory. It is no more than an attempt to show that it is hardly possible to imagine conditions existing anywhere in nature at any time which would not in some degree tend towards the evolution of such an attribute. If these present conditions are self-evidently likely to select it, how much more likely, for instance, would not its birth and growth have been during the earlier history of the planet, during the Pleistocene period, when cataclysmic movements of its crust and great and repeated climatic changes still belonged to the usual and customary category of natural events.

These astounding insights occurred to a man, working mainly alone in South Africa, in the early years of the 20th century.  Marais was indeed a genius.  Unfortunately, at least from Gorer’s point of view, while his theories accounted for mankind’s extreme adaptability, they in no way implied that that adaptability would enable well-meaning ideologues to reinvent human character at will to convert us into suitable inmates for whatever utopia du jour they were cooking up for us.  It would seem that’s what Gorer overlooked in his sanguine conclusions about the Manu.  Their society had indeed adapted, but it had done so on its own, and not as programmed by some inspired anthropologist.  He concludes his essay as follows:

The great merit of New Lives for Old is that it opens up a whole new field for observation, experiment and speculation, a field of the greatest relevance to our present preoccupations.

The “present preoccupation” which required the “remaking of man” was, of course, our happy transformation to a socialism.  Unfortunately, the wishful thinking of a generation of Gorers made no impression on the genetic programming responsible for our behavioral predispositions.  It remained stubbornly in place, spoiling who knows how many of the splendid Brave New Worlds that noble idealists the world over were preparing for us.

In retrospect, socialism ended, as the old Bolshevik Leon Trotsky suggested it might in 1939, just before Stalin had him murdered, in a utopia.  It was a secular religion that inspired a highly speculative and mindless faith in a collection of untested theories in the minds of a host of otherwise highly intelligent and perfectly sane people like Gorer, who all managed to somehow convince themselves that the socialist mirage was a “science.”  As E. O. Wilson so succinctly summed it up, “Great theory, wrong species.”  And that, perhaps, is the reason that the Blank Slate was defended so fiercely for so long, in the teeth of increasingly weighty scientific evidence refuting it, not to mention common sense, until its conflict with reality became too heavy to bear, and it finally collapsed.  It was an indispensible prop for a God that failed.

 

Geoffrey Gorer

On the Morality of Terraforming Mars

Ron Bailey just posted an interesting article on the ethics of extraterrestrial terraforming at Reason.com.   It illustrates, once again, that before entering into deep philosophical debates about morality, it’s useful to know what you’re talking about.

Before taking up the article in question, let me lay my own cards on the table.  I consider human morality to be the expression of behavioral traits that exist because they evolved in a species with a large brain.  Thus, good and evil are subjective categories that depend for their existence on emotional responses in the minds of individuals.  As such, it is impossible for them to have any independent objective existence as things in themselves.  As subjective emotional responses elicited in individual minds, there is no way in which they can acquire objective legitimacy.  Elaborations on this theme may be found here and here.

Of course, one can dispute my take on morality, but, in that case, it will be necessary to somehow explain away the increasing flood of findings relative to what some call hardwired morality now appearing in academic and scientific journals and the popular media, not to mention the increasingly compelling evidence of analogs of the behavioral traits we associate with morality in other animals.

What does all this have to do with the ethics of terraforming?  Simply this – arguments about whether terraforming is morally good or evil are absurd, and efforts in futility.  They amount to attempts to apply behavioral predispositions that have evolved over millions of years in circumstances utterly unlike the present, and that exist for the sole reason that they promoted the genetic survival of the creatures who carried them, to a situation completely unrelated to the conditions and causes under which they evolved in the first place.  Such arguments are completely senseless failing the assumption, long cultivated by philosophers, but nevertheless delusional, that good and evil can somehow acquire an objective legitimacy and objective existence of their own.  In view of what we now know about the evolved roots of morality, belief in the existence of good and evil as things in themselves is no longer rationally supportable.

The article in question, entitled Does Mars have Rights, argues that terraforming is good, contradicting an earlier essay by Australian philosopher Robert Sparrow entitled The Ethics of Terraforming that claims that, at least for the present, it is evil.  Let’s take up Prof. Sparrow’s essay first.  He uses what he calls an agent-based virtue ethics to support his claim that advocacy of terraforming reveals “a shocking moral bankruptcy at the heart of our attitude toward the environment.”  An agent-based ethics is motivated by the observation that “It is much easier to point out those who are cruel or benevolent in a community than it is to provide a description of what counts as a cruel or benevolent act.”  It is based on the assertion that it is “the virtuous (or vicious) character of the actor which makes the act virtuous (or vicious).”  As such it is easier to apply in practice that an alternative system of virtue ethics, namely, agent-focused ethics, which Sparrow describes in his essay.  Basing his conclusions on such an agent-based ethics, Sparrow argues that “terraforming reveals two serious defects of character.  First, it demonstrates that we are suffering from an ethically significant aesthetic insensitivity,” and, “Second, it involves us in the sin of hubris.”

Sparrow goes into a great deal of detail in describing these two “sins,” but their legitimacy as “real” sins is based on their validation as “vicious” according to whether some subset of a population of animals with large brains “feels” that persons committing such acts are vicious.  I say subset because it has been demonstrated that even infants, presumably without the benefit of having read the ancient philosophers, judge “agents” according to their actions.  Prof. Sparrow does not go into a great deal of detail as to how that subset would be chosen.  Clearly, this “feeling” test does not actually call the sins in question into existence.  Rather, it is merely a means of detecting them once they have been committed.  In other words, in order to accept the validity of the system, it is necessary for us to assume, a priori, that the sins in question exist as things in themselves, independent of the actors and agents that allow us to detect them.  If, however, as I have maintained, morality is really the expression of a subset of evolved behavioral traits in a particular type of animal, this assumption is absurd, and the system collapses.  Regardless of my opinions about morality, it is irrational to simply assume the objective existence and legitimacy of good and evil as entities in themselves, as Sparrow has done, without making the slightest attempt to explain the rationale on which their existence and legitimacy are based.

And what of Bailey’s post at Reason taking issue with Prof. Sparrow?  He either doesn’t seem to have understood Sparrow’s definition of agent-based ethics, or has simply decided to ignore it.  Instead, he explains to us why terraforming would be “really good” in terms of his own system of morality, which comes with rather less philosophical ballast courtesy of Aristotle and company.  Addressing Sparrow’s two evidences of moral deficit, he writes,

Sparrow acknowledged that he did not offer an objective account of beauty, so the notion still resides in the eye of the beholder, as does desolate ugliness.  And as awesome as the view down Valles Marineris might be right now, it would arguably be even more so if it were teeming with life.  With regard to the hubris of terraforming, one initial response whould be a hearty “so what?”  Terraforming offers the promise of helping humanity toward practical moral improvement by increasing our understanding of just how precious terrestrial life is, aiding us in managing it toward greater integrity, stability, and beauty.

To this, Sparrow’s virtuous agent would presumably reply, “Yes, and your point is?”  In fact, there is no point, because Bailey missed it.  His reply simply ignores the role of the virtuous agent in Sparrow’s ethics, a role which the philosopher explained clearly enough.  He could simply observe that Bailey has self-identified as an “unvirtuous agent,” and his remarks about beauty and hubris are, therefore, neither here nor there.  Bailey’s implication that terraforming would be morally good because it, “offers the promise of helping humanity toward practical moral improvement,” is simply a statement of the circular argument that terraforming is moral because it is moral.

Again, while both author’s arguments depend on the existence of objective good, they simply assume it a priori, without troubling themselves to explain to us how they have deduced the existence of that holy grail.  Presumably it floats somewhere out there in the luminiferous ether, independent of any crude animal intelligence, and we are to take it on trust that, while it remains invisible to vulgar eyes, they have beheld it in all its glory.  If all life in the universe ceased to exist, it would still remain, one gathers, as some kind of potential energy, ready to hop into the brain of any sentient beings that happened to evolve, guiding them towards the light.

Our consciousness certainly leads us to perceive the Good as an objective thing.  In spite of that it was clear enough to Hume, Mill, and any number of other pre-Darwinian thinkers that no such object existed.  Still, the illusion is so strong that even now, after the recent “discovery” by our social scientists that such a thing as human nature exists, and morality is a manifestation of that nature, objective Good is still taken for granted in deep, philosophical debates by people who should know better.

And what does all this have to do with terraforming?  Simply this; morality is completely irrelevant to the question of whether we should do it or not.  My personal opinion is that we should, as soon as we are able, because it will enhance the chances that both terrestrial life in general and our species in particular will survive and continue to evolve.  Is our survival objectively good?  Certainly not!  Call it a mere whim of mine, if you will, but I submit that it’s at least a natural whim.  Virtually everything about me exists because it happened to promote the survival of the genes responsible for putting me together at some point or other in the past.  Furthermore, subjective though they may be, such whims make life not only endurable, but exciting and enjoyable.  I hope that others will share this whim, this preference for survival over oblivion.  If enough do, then terraforming will some day become a reality.

Japan’s Birthrate “Problem”

Japan’s health and welfare ministry has released another lugubrious report on the nation’s declining population.  If current trends continue, it will decline by a third in the next 60 years, and 40 percent of the population will be over retirement age by 2060.  Of course, many other industrialized countries face a similar problem, if you can call it that.  I question whether it’s really a problem.

Why, after all, would Japan want to maintain a population of over 100 million?  The ultimate cause of all our environmental problems is, after all, excessive population and Japan certainly has her share.  The overcrowding there is extreme, or certainly seems so to anyone who isn’t used to such a high population density.  Then there’s the question of whether such a large population is really sustainable in the long run.  Go to any graduate library and look up stories about Japan that were printed in the political journals between the wars, and you’ll find that the problem of feeding her people seemed insurmountable at the time, when her population was only about half what it is now.  The modern, high yield rice strains that have given Asia some breathing room had not yet been discovered, and, with her limited agricultural land already fully exploited, it seemed inevitable to many, especially in Japanese ruling circles, that she would gradually starve unless she could secure more territory overseas.  The aggression this fear inspired and the disaster the country suffered as a result of it are familiar to anyone who has read a little history.  Is it really impossible that a problem that seemed so insurmountable within living memory should recur?  What if there is another collapse of world trade as occurred during the Great Depression, and Japan can no longer afford to import sufficient food or the fertilizer to maintain production at home?  What advantage will a large population be then?

What problems will she face if her population declines as expected?  A shrinking economy for a time?  She suffered a far more severe “shrinking” of her economy during World War II, but somehow managed to not only survive that, but thrive in its aftermath.  A reduction in benefits for her retired citizens?  Will their lot be any better if the problem of overpopulation is simply allowed to fester until a major economic crisis comes along, as it eventually will?

Global warming, overfishing, polluted water supplies, and all the other environmental problems we face may appear more or less severe depending on ones ideological predilections.  Regardless, the fact is that the ultimate cause of every one of them is overpopulation.  Instead of panicking over declining birthrates, I suggest it might be better to consider them a boon.  Instead of gambling that the fragile environment of our planet will continue to sustain an ever increasing population, would it not be better to step back for a while and give it time to recover from some of the damage we’ve already done to it?  Given that this is the only planet we have to live on for the time being, does it make sense to take such absolutely unnecessary risks?

As for Japan, she is likely to benefit more than most countries from the “problem” of declining population.  Given her history and culture, it is unlikely that her rulers will be driven to the irrational extreme of importing masses of alien workers to “solve” it.  Unfortunately, this “solution” is already being tried in several other countries, and is likely to end in disasters far worse than the problem it was intended to cure.

Of course, I do not mean to imply that you, dear reader, should have fewer children.  The fecundity of the readers of this blog is unlikely to contribute substantially to the global population problem one way or the other.  If we get to that point I will let you know.

The Forgettable Philosophy of Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz was a great man.  A careful observer of animal behavior, he noted the many similarities between the innate traits of some of the species he studied and the behavior of human beings.  In view of the fact that we are the products of a similar process of evolution, and the improbability of the supposition that our ancestors had suddenly shed all these innate traits in the relatively short time it took them to evolve large brains, he came to the seemingly obvious conclusion that the ultimate cause of these analogous characteristics was to be found in the genetic programming of the brain.  It was not, however, obvious to a great number of sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and other professional “experts” in human behavior, including the vast majority of them in the United States, over a period of many decades.  They persisted stubbornly in the belief that no such innate traits existed, that all human behavior worth mentioning was a result of culture and education, and that the human mind at birth was actually a “blank slate.”

The absurdities of blank slate orthodoxy are sufficiently obvious that the ease of debunking them is akin to that of shooting fish in a barrel.  In fact, there were numerous debunkers during the decade of the 60’s and early 70’s when the theory was still in vogue.  Of these, Lorenz was the second most effective.  The most effective was Robert Ardrey.  As proof of this assertion, we have the testimony of the blank slaters themselves, conveniently assembled in an invaluable little book published in 1968 and edited by Ashley Montagu entitled, Man and Aggression.

In the fullness of time, blank slate orthodoxy collapsed under its own weight and the pressure of advances in the relevant sciences.  It is one of the more remarkable oddities of this field of study that has always had such an abundance of oddities that its demise was accompanied by the emergence of a whole new orthodoxy in the form of a fantastically imaginary account of its downfall.  The whole, fanciful tale can be found in The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, purportedly a “history” of the blank slate in which he manages to get through 528 pages in paperback with hardly a mention of its two most effective opponents.  Lorenz is dismissed because of his “hydraulic theory,” an hypothesis that made only a minor appearance in his work and was utterly insignificant as far as his fundamental thought on human behavior is concerned.  Ardrey, a brilliant man and the greatest debunker of them all, is waved out of existence with a single mention because, according to Richard Dawkins, no less, he was “completely and utterly wrong.”  This concoction was apparently produced to cover the shame of the academic and professional experts in human behavior who had been so wrong for so long, in part by trotting out E.O. Wilson as the “real” father of opposition to the blank slate.  His book, On Human Nature, was merely a repetition of the fundamental conclusions that had appeared in the work of Lorenz and Ardrey more than a decade earlier.  No matter.  He could plausibly be claimed by the experts as one of their own.  Now, instead of being shamed by a mere playwright, they had actually cleaned their own house.  To add oddity to oddity, it turns out that the reason that Dawkins claimed that Ardrey was “totally and utterly wrong,” was his support for the theory of group selection in his book, The Social Contract.  The theory, still highly controversial, was subsequently embraced by none other than E.O. Wilson!  And what of Lorenz?  He may have been right about innate behavior, but, regrettably, he had linked it with some of the less savory human traits in On Aggression.  For example, from that book,

To the humble seeker of biological truth there cannot be the slightest doubt that human militant enthusiasm evolved out of a communal defense response of our prehuman ancestors.  The unthinking single-mindedness of the response must have been of high survival value even in a tribe of fully evolved human beings.  It was necessary for the individual male to forget all his otgher allegiances in order to be able to dedicate himself, body and soul, to the cause of the communal battle.

and,

Humanity is not enthusiastically combative because it is split into political parties, but it is divided into opposing camps because this is the adequate stimulus situation to arouse militant enthusiasm in a satisfying manner.  “If ever a doctrine of universal salvation should gain ascendancy over the whole earth to the exclusion of all others,” writes Erich von Holst, “it would at once divide into two strongly opposing factions (one’s own true one and the other heretical one) and hostility and war would thrive as before, mankind being – unfortunately – what it is!”

This was a bit much for the orthodox “experts.”  After all, they had been assuring each other for years that the pervasiveness of warfare in virtually all human societies since the beginning of recorded time was merely a regrettable coincidence.  Take away war toys, adjust the “culture” here and there, and fine tune the educational system a bit and, viola!, it would be banished to mankind’s dark past, never to return again.  If something in our genes actually did contribute to this remarkable “coincidence” of warfare, such dreams vanished like the morning fog, and with them all the Brave New Worlds of “human flourishing” that were being planned for a recalcitrant humanity.  Having strained on the gnat of innate behavior, they found this added lump of “aggression” just too much to swallow.  Lorenz had to go.

No matter, in the end, Pinker’s fairy tale doesn’t wash in any case.  The truth will out.  We have Ashley Montagu and his fellow blank slaters to thank for that.  Pinker may have relegated Ardrey and Lorenz to the ranks of unpersons, but they were not quite so delusional.  They knew who their most effective opponents were, and they set it all down in black and white in no uncertain terms in Man and Aggression.  For anyone who cares to fact check Pinker’s “official history,” that invaluable little book is still available in paperback at Amazon for the bargain basement price of one cent.

In a word then, Lorenz deserves a lot more respect than he gets in Pinker’s yarn, or in the sanitized “histories” that are fed to unwitting undergraduates in the current crop of Evolutionary Psychology textbooks, and he deserved the Nobel Prize he was awarded for his work in 1973, two years before Wilson published On Human Nature.  Why, then, do I find his philosophy “forgettable.”  It seems to me that, just as Einstein should have stayed out of politics, a field in which he was easily manipulated by the unscrupulous ideologues of his day, Lorenz should have left the philosophizing to Kant and Hegel.  Alas, he had drunk too deeply in those waters.  Like Don Quixote, who, Cervantes tells us, read stirring tales of knight-errantry until he became a bold knight himself in his imagination, Lorenz thought to save the world with his philosophy.  He could sling epistomologies, ontologies, and teleologies with as much panache as the best of them, and so he did in a number of his lesser known works.

It happens I have just waded through one of them, entitled The Waning of Humaneness, a somewhat rough approximation of the German title, Der Abbau des Menschlichen, which conveys more of the flavor of Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), a work which Lorenz often cites.  Written in 1983 when Lorenz was 79 years old, the book is a mish-mash of stuff taken, sometimes word for word, from his earlier books, dubious claims about the origin of values, even more dubious prescriptions for restoring them so that humaneness stops waning, all in a melange of simplistic pontification about preserving the environment inspired, we are informed, by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

To enlist the help of others in restoring “humaneness,” it is first necessary to explain to them what it is.  It turns out that humaneness is as similar to all the other noble causes that have disturbed the tranquility of mankind since time immemorial as one pea to all the others in a pod.  In short, Humaneness is what Lorenz thinks is Good.  It’s not very original as Goods go.  In the Foreword we are informed that it consists of restoring the environment and reversing the cultural “decadence” with which its degradation goes hand in hand.  This is to be done by restoring “true” morality and values.  Of course, the rub, as with all such systems, lies in establishing the legitimacy of the Good.  Why is the Good really good?

In the case of Lorenz, the task of establishing this legitimacy would seem particularly daunting.  After all, he was a pioneer in establishing the innate, genetically programmed component of human morality.  By no means does he renounce his earlier work.  In fact, he actually cites it.  For example, reiterating his earlier claims about the ancient wellsprings of the emotions that influence human behavior he writes,

Based on genetic programming are not only the apparatuses for sensory perception and for logical thinking that outline and fill in with color the picture we have of our world; also based on these programs are the complicated feelings that determine our interhuman behavior.  Our social behavior especially is dominated by an immensely old heritage of species-specific action and reaction patterns; these are undoubtedly much, much older than the specific capacities of intelligence associated with our neocortex, that is, with the evolutionarily youngest part of our brain.

and,

It is beyond doubt that a great number of qualitative emotions, recognizable and unmistakable, are common to all mankind, that is, are anchored in the genes of humans.

So far so good.  However, these innate traits, as well as the various culturally transmitted modes of behavior to which they give rise haven’t kept up with the pace of technological and cultural change.

…many of the innate as well as traditional norms of humans that were still well-adapted programs of social and economic behavior just a short while ago today contribute to the waning of what is humane.

Again, if we can drop the “waning of humaneness” jargon and simply say that these behavioral traits have become maladaptive, Lorenz is merely reiterating truths that have, in the meantime, become obvious to all but the most diehard and ancient of blank slaters.  But it is just here that Lorenz, along with so many others who have more or less accepted the facts as set forth above, run off the tracks.

It seems clear to me that, if the ultimate cause of human behavior (and moral behavior, however defined, is merely a subset thereof), lies in the evolved features of our brains, then there can be no possible legitimate basis for one human being to claim that what his subjective emotions portray to him as the Good must also be the Good for everyone else.  This pervasive illusion, cause of so much human misery, should finally be recognized as such and jettisoned once and for all.  But in spite of the demise of the Blank Slate, in spite of a tidal wave of papers in scholarly journals on innate behavior, and in spite of a continuing flood of books on themes such as hard-wired morality and the moral behavior of animals, that isn’t about to happen.  The emotional high of feeling morally superior to lesser mortals is just too sweet and savory to dispense with.  Orgasms of self-righteousness and virtuous indignation are almost as satisfying as the sexual kind, and they last a lot longer.  But to experience them in all their glory, the Good must be justified.

Lorenz goes about the task without much virtuosity, but with a few idiosyncratic twists.  In short, he admits that values are subjective, but claims that they are, nevertheless, real.  As he puts it:

What must be made clear, and convincingly, is that our subjective experiential processes possess the same degree of reality as everything that can be expressed in the terminologies of the exact natural sciences. …Since all of the moral responsibilities of humans are determined by their perceptions of values, the epidemic delusion that only numerical and measurable reality has validity must be confronted and contradicted.

Certainly our subjective impressions are real and do actually exist in the sense that they result from observable and measurable physical phenomena in our brains. The non sequitur here is that, simply by virtue of the fact that they do actually exist in that fashion, they thereby acquire some sort of objective legitimacy.  Some more or less similar leap of faith is always necessary to establish a moral system.  Somehow, a subjective impression must be promoted to the Good, an objective thing in itself.  Only in that form can it acquire the power of serving as an imperative for all mankind.  It seems to have occurred to Lorenz that his claim of objective validity by virtue of subjective reality is a rather threadbare variant of this essential sleight of hand.  To prop it up, he drags in Beauty.

For all the value perceptions of humans that have been discussed up to now, the assumption is justified that these sensibilities assist the individual in advantageous achievements and, therewith, the assumption is also justified that their programs as well, through selection of these achievements, have evolved in typical ways.  But there is the beautiful, the genesis of which in a similar manner must be doubted, for which, in fact, an explication of origin by means of selection seems conspicuously contrived.

If Lorenz’ argument for the special status of Beauty gives you a faint sense of a televangelist arguing for the special status of divine creation, you’re not alone.  Cutting to the chase, in the final chapter the author reveals himself as a theist.  We finally detect the supernatural stiffening behind all this flimsy stuff about Beauty and Values.  Nature is “really beautiful” and “true values” are really legitimate because God wants it that way.

Lorenz’ suggestions for turning the humaneness curve back in the right direction are paltry enough.  Even in 1983 he was still feeling the afterglow of the 60’s youth fetish.  (As a baby boomer myself, I cannot but feel a distinct relief that my generation, the object of all that obsession with “youth,” has finally reached retirement age).   As usual, we were to redeem mankind from its horrible fate:

The predicament of young people today is especially critical.  Forestalling the threatening apocalypse will devolve on their perceptions of value; their sensibilities of the beautiful and worthwhile must be aroused and renewed.

And how was this arousal and renewal to be brought about?

It must still, in some way, be possible to provide even those children born and reared in large cities with some kind of opportunity for developing their capacities to perceive the harmony and disharmony of living systems – if only by means of an aquarium.  Those children who are given a chance to tend to aquarium and to care for its inhabitants come to learn, through necessity, to comprehend a functioning entirety in its harmony and disharmony, an entirety bringing together and combining very many systems consisting of animals, plants, bacteria and an entire range of inorganic givens, systems that complement one another and systems that are antagonistic to one another.  Children would learn how delicate the equilibrium of such an artificial ecological system is.

It may seem uncharitable to dismiss the aquarium idea.  After all, we’ve tried pretty much everything else.  However, I can assure the reader that, as a child, my teachers had me tend to both an aquarium and a beehive for good measure, and look how I turned out.

The Waning of Humaneness contains a good deal more of puerile stuff about corporate war profiteers, the evils of nuclear energy, canned homilies about saving the environment, the stupidity of Americans who live in suburban subdivisions, tiresomely repetitious warnings about the impending suicide of mankind, etc., but that can rest.  Konrad Lorenz was, after all, a great man.  Working in his own specialty, he struck a telling blow at the Blank Slate, one of the most pernicious pseudo-religions that ever claimed the name of science.  Let us remember and honor him for that.

Of Ingroups, Outgroups, and Global Climate Change

As I pointed out in my last post, “The outgroup have ye always with you.” Of all the very good reasons for mankind to give up the cobbling together of new moral systems once and for all, it’s probably the best. It’s more likely you’ll find a unicorn browsing in your back yard than one of the pathologically pious among us suffused with the milk of human kindness. One typically finds them in their “ground state,” frothing at the the mouth with virtuous indignation over the latest sins of their preferred outgroup.

So it is with Eugene Robinson, one of their number who happens to pen an occasional column in the Washington Post. He recently delivered himself of some observations concerning the phenomenon of global warming. As anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last decade will be aware, no branch of the sciences has been more afflicted of late by the attentions of the professionally righteous than climatology. Robinson gives us a good example of how the neat separation of climate scientists into good guys and bad guys works in practice.

Hero of his piece is one Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley who, we learn, once dismissed “climate alarmism” as “shoddy science.” Not to worry. Though once lost, he is now found, and though once blind, he now sees. It turns out the scales fell from his eyes after he “launched his own comprehensive study (referred to as the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature, or BEST, study, ed.) to set the record straight,” and discovered that, lo and behold, “Global warming is real.” Well, perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t. I happen to believe that the arguments as to why it should be real are plausible enough, but that’s beside the point as far as this post is concerned.

What is to the point is Robinson’s reaction to all this. For him, Muller’s study isn’t just another batch of data points relating to a very complex scientific issue. For him, global warming is an absolute and incontrovertable certainty, because it represents the “good.” Muller’s study is, therefore, not just a scientific study, but a victory in the eternal battle of good versus evil. In Robinson’s own words,

For the clueless or cynical diehards who deny global warming, it’s getting awfully cold out there.

Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and the rest of the neo-Luddites who are turning the GOP into the anti-science party should pay attention.

But Muller’s plain-spoken admonition that “you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer,” has reduced many deniers to incoherent grumbling or stunned silence.

and so on. As it happens, not all of the “skeptics” have been reduced to incoherent grumbling or stunned silence. Take, for example, Judith Curry, a distinguished climate researcher and Chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. She was actually a member of Muller’s team, and so is presumably familiar with the copious data Robinson was so enthused about. However, in an interview for the Daily Mail, Curry accuses Muller of “trying to mislead the public by hiding the fact that BEST’s research shows global warming has stopped.” She also says that, “Prof. Muller’s claim that he has proven global warming sceptics wrong was also a ‘huge mistake’, with no scientific basis,” and goes so far as to compare the affair to “Climategate.” This is strong stuff, but Prof. Curry has the goods. She notes that, in carefully sifting through, as Robinson informs us, “1.6 billion records,” Muller somehow failed to mention that, according to BEST’s own data, “there has been no significant increase in world temperatures since the end of the 90’s.” The following two graphs from the website of the Global Warming Policy Foundation summarize that data:

Source: Global Warming Policy Foundation

It would seem that the good Prof. Muller, who had much to say about the first graph, complete with “hockey stick,” somehow forgot to mention the data in the second. In fact, as Prof. Curry put it, “…in the wake of the unexpected global warming standstill, many climate scientists who had previously rejected sceptics’ arguments were now taking them much more seriously.”

The Daily Mail article contains much else in the way of less than pleased reactions by a number of other climatologists at what was apparently a premature release of the BEST data before the peer review process was complete. Of course, all this fits very ill with the lurid picture of good triumphing over evil painted for us by Mr. Robinson. Predictably, while he was apparently observant enough to turn up any number of “grumbling and stunned” warming deniers, when it came to Prof. Curry and her equally chagrined colleagues, he didn’t notice a thing.

It should come as no surprise. Mr. Curry is merely acting as one might expect of a member of a species endowed with certain innate behavioral characteristics. Some of those traits give rise to what is commonly referred to as moral behavior, and none of us are free of their emotional grip. That’s why Hollywood still makes movies about good guys and bad guys. It is our subjective nature to perceive sublime good, but the yin of sublime good cannot exist without the yang of despicable evil. Every ingroup implies an outgroup. There is little we can do to change our nature, and we would probably be unwise to try given our current intellectual endowments. We can, however, while accepting it for what it is, seek to find ways of channeling its expression in ways less destructive than we have experienced in the past. At the very least we need to understand it and develop an awareness of how it affects our behavior. The results of failing to do so in the past have been destructive enough, and have certainly made a hash of the science of climatology. The results of failing to do so in the future are unlikely to be any more encouraging.

What is “Real Science?”

In our ideology drenched times, it’s the same thing as “good science:”  anything that happens to agree with your ideological narrative. 

Powerline just served up a typical example relating to that über-politicized topic, global warming. According to the “good scientists” at Powerline, global warming theories are all wrong because they are currently experiencing snow and cold weather in Great Britain. Quoting from the article:

It’s fun to ridicule the warmists because they are so often wrong, but their errors are in fact significant: a scientific theory that implies predictions that turn out to be wrong, is false. A principal feature of climate hysteria is its proponents’ unwillingness to be judged by the standards that govern real science.

I know of not a single reputable climate scientist who would claim their theories “imply the prediction” that localized incidences of cold weather on the planet will no longer occur. In view of the solid evidence that, overall, the planet has, indeed, been warming over the past decade, I would like to know on what evidence Powerline is basing the claim that “warmists” are “so often wrong.” It’s rather cold in the DC area today, too. Does that also “disprove” global warming?

It’s not hard to find the same phenomenon on the other side of the ideological spectrum. There we often hear the claim that theories that significant global warming will occur over, say, the next century have been “proved.” This is “good science” in the same sense as Powerline’s claims about the cold weather in Britain. In the first place, the computational models on which such claims are based are just that; models. Even the best computational models are approximations.  Computational models of climate are far from the best.  Ideally, they would need to account for billions of degrees of freedom just to model the atmosphere alone, not to mention the coupling of the atmosphere with the oceans, etc.  No computer on earth, either now or in the foreseeable future, is capable of solving such a problem without severe simplifying assumptions.  The mathematical error bars on those assumptions have never been rigorously proved.  Throw in the fact that the data is noisy and often corrupt or nonexistent, and the best models are themselves probabilistic and not deterministic, and the claim that they “prove” anything is absurd.

“Proved” is much too strong a term, but I would buy the claim that significant long term global warming is probable.  Given the fact that this is the only planet we have to live on at the moment, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that we should be rocking the boat.  I doubt that “science” will offer any solutions, though.  The hardening of ideological dogmas on both sides won’t allow it.  Whatever decisions are finally made, they are far more likely to be based on politics than science.

The Yellow Peril: The German Media has a New Hate Object

Looking for Amity/Enmity Complex data points?  Look no further than the German mass media, where inspiring hatred of out-groups has acquired the status of an art form, then as now.  It’s odd, given the country’s history, but there you have it.  The hate object du jour varies from time to time, but the hate fetish itself remains.  Predictably, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was increasingly concentrated on the “one remaining superpower,” the United States.  In the last years of the Clinton and the first years of the Bush administrations, anti-US hate mongering in the German media reached a climax that, in a favorite phrase of Dr. Goebbels in his Diaries, would have “made your hair stand on end.”  Eventually, people on the other side of the Atlantic began to notice, and the editors of Der Spiegel and some of the other major “news” venues began to realize that they could not keep it up and still expect to win any more of those prestigious international prizes for “objectivity.”  The “hate index” has declined considerably since then, but they still occasionally throw out a few chunks of red meat to the more atavistic of their fellow citizens to keep them interested. 

Lately, the trend has again been upwards, but with an interesting twist.  The US has acquired a co-bad guy:  China.  The citizens of the Middle Kingdom should be proud.  German hate is a testimony to China’s newly acquired power and status.  She recently co-starred with the US in a Spiegel rant about our “sins” at the Copenhagen climate conference.  It seems that, based on a careful parsing of the latest Wikileaks material, the US and China formed a “pact” to de-rail the conference, no doubt as part of their greater conspiracy to destroy the earth’s climate and eradicate mankind.  According to the byline of a Spiegel article charmingly titled, “USA and China were Brothers-in-Arms Against Europe,”

It was a political catastrophe – it’s now clear how last year’s Copenhagen climate summit became such a spectacular failure. The recently revealed US State Department documents betray the fact that the USA and China were working hand in hand. The two biggest climate sinners derailed all the plans of the Europeans.

The article is full of dark hints about the “revelations” in the Wikileaks documents.  For example,

It was a visit that China’s rulers could be pleased about. Towards the end of May 2009, John Kerry, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had met with Vice-Premier Li Keqiang in Peking. Kerry told him that Washington “could understand China’s reluctance to accept binding goals at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen. And then, according to a dispatch of the US embassy in Peking, the American sketched a new basis for a meaningful cooperation between the US and China against climate change.

and,

The US diplomatic papers now document how close the contacts between the two biggest climate sinners in the world, the USA and China, were in the months before (the conference). They give weight to those voices that have long speculated about an alleged coalition between the old and new superpower.

As anyone who takes an interest in climate negotiations will have noticed, all of this and, for that matter, the rest of the “revelations” in the article are old hat.  All of it was copiously reported at the time, for example, here, here, and here.  Read through these articles and you’ll notice that, at the time, Kerry was referring to his visit as another potential “Nixon to China visit,” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also visited China at the time, hailed the climate change negotiations as a potential “game changer” in US China relations.  Under the circumstances, it’s rather difficult to understand how Der Spiegel’s astute editors could have been “shocked, shocked,” to discover the “closeness” of the discussions between the US and China only after they had waded through the Wikileaks papers. 

The article continues with some pious remarks about the virtue of the Europeans compared to the sinfulness of the Europeans in matters of climate.  Under the byline, “The USA and China can continue to blow smoke,” we read,

Because the US signed the (Kyoto Protocol), but never ratified it, China and America can continue to blow smoke. The Europeans, on the other hand, must reduce their use of energy. That’s why they fought for a new treaty in the days before Copenhagen: at the very least, the USA, China and the other “threshold countries,” India and Brazil, should agree to firm goals for reducing (energy use).

Good Christians will be reminded of Luke 18; 11-12,

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

As for my Chinese readers of a certain age, they will, no doubt, recognize a remarkable similarity between the Spiegel rants against their country and the slanders and innuendo in the dazibao (propaganda posters) that were so prominently visible during the heyday of the Great Cultural Revolution.  To them I can only say, if you really want to be a superpower, get used to it.

It turns out, by the way, that the German’s are even more hypocritical than the Pharisee.  At least he actually did give alms to the poor.  When it comes to concrete results in reducing greenhouse emissions, however, they are the ones blowing smoke.  In the years between 2000 and 2007, they reduced their emissions per capita by 5%.  The “sinful” USA reduced its emissions by 5.5%.  Throw in the effect of reforestation (and it certainly should be thrown in, because it results in a real reduction in greenhouse gases) and the US reduction increases to 11%, bettering the German performance by better than a factor of two.  It would seem that the editors of Spiegel consider the striking of pious poses and signing of “worthless scraps of paper” of more importance in determining who is a “climate sinner” than actual performance.

And what really did happen at Copenhagen?  What became of the “close relationship” between the US and China that “remained hidden” from the blinkered eyes of German journalists until they were happily enlightened by Wikileaks?  Evidently they count on both the short memory of their readers, and their inability to use Google.  In fact, the US and China began quarreling about climate change before Copenhagen, their disagreements became worse at the conference, became even more strident as the conference continued, and, according to other European observers who apparently don’t share the sharp eye of Spiegel’s editors for uncovering secret conspiracies, eventually wrecked chances of reaching an agreement.

No matter as far as German editors are concerned.  When it comes to bashing their latest hate objects, the truth is of no concern.  If articles like this about Chinese women torturing animals, this, according to which China admits to being “climate sinner number 1,” and this, according to which China is “attacking” the West economically while its “paralyzed, weakened” victims look on are any indication, their latest hate object would be China.  Move over, USA, the new Yellow Peril has arrived.

The Radioactive Danger of Natural Gas

All radioactive dangers aren’t created equal, or at least they aren’t in terms of the stories the media reports and those it ignores. For example, the recent tritium gas leak at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant was a major news story. There’s nothing wrong with that. Tritium is radioactive and carcinogenic, and the amount leaked through two cracked underground pipes represented a potentially serious public health hazard. Fortunately, the sources of the leaking gas were found before the radioactive gas could contaminate the local drinking water. However, there are other sources of radioactive danger. They are potentially a great deal more dangerous than the leaks at Vermont Yankee, but not as sensational, because they’re not associated with the nuclear boogeyman. As a result they don’t lend themselves to the striking of heroic poses by those who have appointed themselves our environmental saviors, and are therefore ignored.

A case in point is the potential radioactive hazard of drilling for natural gas. It’s been known for more than a year that wastewater from gas drilling in New York’s Marcellus shale (hattip Atomic Insights) has been coming up laced with something more dangerous than organic hydrocarbons; namely, radium. According to ProPublica,

The information comes from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which analyzed 13 samples of wastewater brought thousands of feet to the surface from drilling and found that they contain levels of radium-226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.

There happens to be a difference between radium and tritium in the type of radiation they emit. Both are dangerous, but tritium emits a relatively low energy (average 5.7 thousand electron volts, or keV) electron, or beta particle. When radium decays, however, it emits a much heavier helium nucleus (two protons and two neutrons), or alpha particle, carrying nearly a thousand times more energy (4.871 million electron volts, or MeV). The good news is that alpha particles have a much shorter range. They can’t penetrate your skin. The bad news is that, once they get in the body (for example, if you drink radium-laced water) that short range becomes a liability. All the alpha particle’s energy is again dumped in a very short distance, but not in dead skin tissue.  Instead, it causes massive damage to living cells. 

Radium is problematic for another reason.  It is chemically similar to calcium, and is therefore a “bone seeker,” where it accumulates over time.  What happens next was experienced by the “radium girls,” young women hired to paint a “glow-in-the-dark” radium compound on watch dials over a period of about ten years starting in 1917. Many of them later died of various forms of cancer.  As I’ve pointed out earlier on this blog, tons of uranium and thorium, also emitters of powerful alpha particles, are released directly into the atmosphere every year from the burning of coal.

I point these things out, not because I’m fundamentally opposed to the use of gas, coal, or any other energy source.  It is highly unlikely that any of the ones commonly in use today are anywhere near as hazardous as a lack of electric power would be. As noted by Carl from Chicago at Chicago Boyz, who knows whereof he speaks, we may find that out to our cost in the not-to-distant future if shortsighted policies of blocking the building of all new generating capacity continue unchanged.  Rather, I point them out because of the basic truth that there is no way to produce the energy we need that is environmentally benign.  That basic truth applies to solar, wind, and other “alternative”  energy sources just as it does to coal, nuclear and gas.  It would be well if the media provided us with the information we need to make rational choices, rather than limiting itself to providing environmentalist poseurs with a handy source of propaganda.

Liveblogging Germany’s Nuclear Ninnies

As I write this, Der Spiegel is liveblogging the progress of spent nuclear fuel containers from the French reprocessing plant at La Hague to the German waste storage facility at Gorleben.  Germany’s nuclear ninnies have turned the event into low farce.  Activists have planned events all along the way to satisfy the need of even the most narcissistic of the country’s environmental saviors to strike heroic and pious poses, and ostentatious public piety is what Germany’s “environmental” movement is all about.  No matter that the only things these zealots will really accomplish if they succeed is to keep dirty coal plants on line to take the place of the reactors they shut down.  Other than pumping millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year, the particulates and radioactive ash from those coal plants will certainly result in the needless deaths of hundreds of their countrymen.  That will be the reality of ending nuclear power in Germany, but reality means nothing to these people.  They are not in the street to save the environment.  They are in the street to pose as saviors of the environment.  It’s so, so satisfying to ride heroically forth against evil environmental dragons, taking care, of course, to make sure that as many of your fellow citizens as possible can see you in your shining armor, and nuclear energy makes such a perfect evil dragon.  No matter that the evil is imaginary.  They just can’t do without such a wonderful evil dragon.  To take it away would be like taking drugs away from an addict.  So the fake evil dragon must live on, even if it means feeding the real one.  Some examples from Spiegel’s blog of how Germany’s “saviors” are getting their rocks off:

9:15 The 1000 to 1500 activists from Camp Metzingen are attempting to reach the rail line. It’s unclear at the moment whether they’ve reached the lines. The first wave of demonstrators is lying on the ground with streaming eyes. Apparently the police used tear gas to keep them from the rails. Photographers were rudely turned away. (How noble! How heroic!)

9:35 Water cannons have been brought up along the rail line and are being used against those who are trying to damage the rail bed.

10:45 (Peaceful) Demonstrators have doused an armored police vehicle with tar and set it on fire.

1:02 PM “We don’t want violence (!!) but rather a debate (yeah, right) about ending nuclear power, and appeal to the police to renounce the use of force,” said Wolfgang Emke, a spokesman for a citizen’s group from Luchow-Dannenberg.

…and so the sorry charade goes on.  People like this will never listen to reason, because it would require them to give up the illusion that they are noble saviors of mankind.  Outside of that illusion, many of them have no life.  The evil dragon must remain evil, or the whole, rotten facade that supports their sense of self-worth will collapse.  That’s the reality of the “environmental” movement, not just in Germany, but in any other country one could name.  They’re just one more manifestation of what H. L. Mencken used to call the “Uplift.”   Those who are being asked to make real sacrifices to humor these people are getting increasingly tired of playing along.  They are starting to strike back with an ideological narrative of their own, and don’t mind being called names by their enemies.  They have heard the zealots on the other side yell “wolf” too many times.  The problem is that, with six billion plus of us on the planet already, as our population relentlessly increases, the real wolf (or more likely, wolves) will surely come.  When they do, all the heroic posing in the world won’t stop them.