Category Archives: Science and Public Policy

Nobel Laureates Debate the Future of Nuclear Power

At a Nobel Forum in December 2013, several past laureates discussed the future of nuclear power. Their conclusions were far from unanimous. All agreed that nuclear power is the only current technology capable of replacing fossil-fuel plants on a large enough scale to mitigate the risk of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

But as I note in my 2012 book for young readers, FrontCoverMed Nobel Laureates Debate the Future of Nuclear Power
Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future
, the shadow of the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns hangs heavily over the future development of the industry. The political and technological questions are intertwined. These include:

Should we continue to use uranium reactor technology or replace it with thorium breeder reactors?

Are we capable of properly assessing the risks of nuclear power?

Should we consider nuclear technology a permanent piece of our energy future, or should we consider it a bridge to a late 21st-century electric power industry dominated by wind turbines and solar energy–or perhaps even nuclear fusion reactors?

For people seeking clear answers, the forum might be considered a disappointment. To them, I respond that the most important issues of technology and society rarely have clear-cut approaches. The best we can do is to continue to raise open questions and compare them to the physical, political, and economic environment not only of the present but of the future in which those technological approaches will be applied.

The forum raised those open questions. It will be up to future leaders, who make up the target audience for my books, to grapple with them.

Tornado Chasers and TV Networks

Over the past two weeks, the Oklahoma City area has been hit by two tragic tornados, and although the first one was more deadly, the second one provides us with the more important lessons.

In the first one, which struck the city of Moore, was classified as in the most powerful range (EF-5). The largest cluster of deaths were, unfortunately, eight people in a school that took a direct hit. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They staff of the school did its best to keep everyone safe, but there was no tornado shelter.

What bothered me most about the news coverage was the focus on people who picked their kids up at school and went driving away. These people were not smart, but lucky, since they actually put their kids at greater risk.

I had to wonder if that coverage was responsible for the large number of people out on the road in the most recent outbreak. As noted meteorologist Matt Daniel notes in his blog at EarthSky, eight of the nine people who died during that outbreak were in cars.


That outbreak splashed this picture of the Weather Channel Tornado Hunt 2013 car that was caught in a tornado all over the Internet. Fortunately, the reporters survived, not because of skill but pure luck. Tim Samaras of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, his son, and storm chaser Carl Young, were not so lucky. They lost their lives when a storm cell blossomed into a tornado that they were unable to escape.

The fact that major networks see fit to have tornado chase cars is an important issue. Professional tornado chasing should have only one purpose: research. If Tim was doing research, then he lost his life taking a risk he understood for benefits he also understood. But if he was doing it for a TV network, then you have to question the value of his activity. Those deaths will be in vain if we don’t learn from them, and that requires asking the hard question about his motivation. That is not disrespectful, but it is painful, especially in the moment. We need to acknowledge both the pain and the importance.

Did Samaras need network money to fund his research and thus take unnecessary risks? If so, that says a lot about the state of meteorology research funding. I will be looking for information that sheds light on why he took a risk that ultimately cost him his life.

But I have little doubt that about the journalistic value of having storm chasers. It is zero. Having a storm-chasing vehicle allows the networks to get sensational images that add nothing to the news story but attract “eyeballs”. First responders don’t permit journalists to enter burning buildings because of the pointless risk to themselves and the possibility that they will get in the way of the firefighters. The same should be true in the case of storm chasing by networks.

Pro-Nuclear Environmentalism

On the 46th of 64 pages of my 2012 book for middle grade readers, FrontCoverSm Pro Nuclear Environmentalism Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, I finally ask the question that the earlier chapters are designed to lead up to: “Is nuclear power worth the risk?”

The remainder of the book provides a definite response, but not the definite answer that the readers might be expecting. “The decision is yours. In 2036, when Fukushima is as far in the past as Chernobyl was in 2011, the world’s use of electricity will be very different. And so will the laws and regulations about nuclear power.” I then note that my readers will be the voters who choose the policies and policy-makers, and warn them, “The decisions you will face as a voter will be complex, difficult, and very important for your country and your government. But if governments and citizens act wisely, then the world will have the energy it needs, [and] people will not have to worry about serious changes in climate.”

Besides providing a vivid history of the earthquake, tsunami, and triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility, the book also includes a look at nuclear technology and other alternatives to fossil fuels for generating electricity. I was careful not to stake out a pro- or anti-nuclear position, but rather I provided enough information for my readers to understand the alternatives. That approach left the door open to a solution that might be called “pro-nuclear environmentalism.”

Thus I was particularly pleased to discover a Mother Jones article by Keith Kloor, dated January 15, 2013, entitled “The Pro-Nukes Environmental Movement”. Its subtitle poses this question: “After Fukushima, is nuclear energy still the best way to fight climate change?”

The article focuses on the views of leading climate-change scientist James Hansen and renowned science author Bill McKibben, who answer that question with a definite yes. However, Kloor also notes that solar and wind remain important ingredients, concluding, “Maybe we shouldn’t fixate on only one possible path to a low-carbon future, but rather accelerate progress along all the avenues (from nuclear and clean coal to solar and efficiency) that will get us to the same place–a planet with an atmosphere that remains hospitable. There is no guarantee any of them will get us there fast enough to stave off catastrophic climate change, but we have no other reasonable choice.”

I encourage both the adolescent readers of Meltdown! and the readers of this blog to consider the following:

There are safety concerns with nuclear power, but they can be addressed technologically if we have the political will. But do we have that will? Or will we, like Germany, try to eliminate all nuclear power, thereby increasing coal-burning and losing much of the benefit of its national push toward more renewable sources? Also consider, as Kloor’s article does, the impact of the worldwide boom in inexpensive natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Is the economic benefit of that boom so great that it is also slowing the growth of wind, solar, and biomass?

Kloor’s thought-provoking article is a great starting point. But I hope you will not stop there. Please follow the questions it opens up, and discuss them with your fellow citizens and political leaders.

Author Q&A about Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future

Readers of this blog might be interested in the backstory of my book for young readers Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future.

A great advocate for nonfiction who writes under the online persona Book Kvetch published this very nice Q&A, which I hope you will enjoy.

Proofiness Revisited

As the 2012 political campaign heats up, statistical data is being massaged, distorted, and misapplied–unfortunately as has become the norm.

Thus it seems like the right time to reprise an earlier blog entry in which I reviewed Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife
(Viking, 2010, $25.95, 304 pages)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz
Discover the Science Shelf Book Review Archive
This review is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail.

Readers of 0670022160.01.MZZZZZZZ Proofiness RevisitedProofiness will also enjoy Seife’s earlier books,
including 0140296476.01.MZZZZZZZ Proofiness RevisitedZero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, also reviewed at the Science Shelf

and

0670031798.01.MZZZZZZZ Proofiness RevisitedAlpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, also reviewed at the Science Shelf.

How did O. J. Simpson earn an acquittal in his famous murder trial? One reason, according to Charles Seife in his new book, 0670022160.01.MZZZZZZZ Proofiness RevisitedProofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, was a “transparently fallacious” but nonetheless successful defense argument that it was “incredibly improbable that Simpson murdered his ex-wife.”

Seife describes the lawyer’s line of reasoning like this. “[O]nly one in a thousand wife-beaters winds up murdering his spouse. One in a thousand! Such a small probability means that O. J. Simpson almost certainly isn’t the murderer, right?”

The proper statistic to consider is the fraction of murdered abused women whose killer was also their abuser–some 50 to 80 percent. But the defense team had successfully used a technique that Seife calls “risk mismanagement,” putting valid data in the wrong context. It was “tantamount to turning Simpson’s wife-beating… into exculpatory evidence,” and it gave a sympathetic jury a way to dismiss Simpson’s past violence.

“Risk mismanagement” is one of many coined words and phrases Seife includes under the umbrella term “proofiness: the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true–even when it’s not.”

Seife’s coinages, humor, and curious tidbits keep readers engaged as the book gradually moves from a description of techniques to their practical application. He begins with a chapter on “Phony Facts, Phony Figures,” where he describes made-up “Potemkin numbers” and a set of techniques he calls collectively “fruit-packing” (apple polishing, cherry-picking, and comparing apples to oranges).

He then moves on to “Rorschach’s Demon,” where practitioners of proofiness rely on the human mind’s proclivity to see patterns, even when none exist. They transform casuistry, “the art of making a misleading argument through seemingly sound principles” into “causuistry” (with an extra u) in order to turn correlation into causation. They rely on the misunderstanding of random distributions (“randumbness”). They use “regression to the moon,” or the misapplication of mathematical curve fitting (regression to the mean) to produce nonsense, such as a formula for “Callipygianness,… derived by a team of academic psychologists after many hours of serious research into the female derriere.”

That research may not have as much meat to it as its advocates claim, but it prepares Seife’s readers for his serious bottom line. His chapters on the process of selecting our government officials have humorous titles. But the abuses of “Poll Cats” skew the political process, and the inherent problems of counting ballots lead to “Electile Dysfunction,” such as the 2000 presidential election dispute over Florida, which was marred by confusing ballot layouts, ballots marked in the wrong places, and incompletely punched cards (the infamous hanging and pregnant chads).

The Supreme Court’s intervention ended the Florida recount, and George W. Bush was declared the winner by a few hundred votes. But even if the recount had continued and reversed the outcome, it would have been no more satisfying for those citizens whose sole concern was the fairness of the process. As closely as our flawed measurement of voter preference could determine, it was a tie. Seife suggests that we would save ourselves a lot of headaches, not to mention legal fees, if our election laws permitted settling such indeterminate results by a coin flip.

(Seife may be guilty of a little proofiness here himself. Election law would have to establish a numerical boundary for too-close-to-call elections. That would merely shift the legal argumentation to new terrain. Candidates would try to push the result across the boundary between vote-count and coin-toss decisions in whatever direction favored their cause. The result would be more, rather than less, legal wrangling.)

Seife’s humor gives way to distress in the closing chapters called “An Unfair Vote,” “Alternate Realities,” and “Propaganda by the Numbers.” He begins with an analysis of the 2008 Minnesota senatorial race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, describing the many factors that make it impossible to determine the voters’ will to an absolute numerical certainty.

That mathematical fact is something citizens of a democracy have to live with, but Seife goes farther, arguing that “Democracy is in danger, buckling under an assault from proofiness.”

“Armed with bogus mathematical arguments and underhanded tactics,” he writes, “politicians and their judicial allies are working to stack the electoral deck to get their party into power and keep it there. They are succeeding.”

Although he does not hide his own left-leaning views (with a particular animus toward Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), Seife details the use of proofiness across the political spectrum, including techniques such as preying on the public’s randumbness, gerrymandering, deliberate distortion of facts, and delivering propaganda laced with causuistry and fruit packing.

But left or right, few readers will dispute his closing sentences. “[O]ur degree of knowledge will determine whether we succumb to proofiness or fight against it. It’s more than mere rhetoric; our democracy may well rise or fall by the numbers.”

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of nearly 100 (20 at last count) science books for young readers.

Richard Muller shows what it means to be a climate change skeptic

We interrupt your weekend with MAJOR SCIENCE/POLITICAL NEWS. As the headline of this ThinkProgress blog entry notes, this is indeed a political bombshell. MacArthur “genius” grantee Richard Muller, a highly respected physicist and self-declared climate change skeptic has changed his mind in precisely the way a scientist should: He examined the evidence.

As far as the science goes, this is nothing new. Nor is Muller’s conversion from climate skeptic a total surprise. A few months ago, he announced that his research had convinced him that global warming is happening, but his work had not determined whether human activity was to blame. Now, based on further research by his Berkeley Earth project, he has gone further, stating that he supports the broad consensus view that human activity is to blame. He writes this in a New York Times Op-Ed article:

Call me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.

My total turnaround, in such a short time, is the result of careful and objective analysis…. Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.

Skepticism becomes denial when you ignore the evidence. Muller was a strong skeptic of anthropogenic (human caused) global warming, but he was never a denialist. Now that he has been able to examine the evidence thoroughly, he supports the consensus view. In fact, he notes that his group’s findings go beyond those of the consensus view as stated in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

What makes this even more remarkable is that his research was funded by the Koch Foundation, whose fossil-fuel billionaire benefactors, brothers Charles and David Koch, have been arguing against the consensus for years with little evidence and lots of bluster.

So on this issue, Dr. Muller has become a strong supporter of the consensus view. But if you take the time to read his New York Times article, you will see that he has not surrendered his scientific skepticism. Like a good scientist should, he challenges predictions that he calls “alarmist.” He doesn’t rule those out entirely, but he needs to see more evidence before accepting them.

He closes the article by removing his scientist hat and donning his citizen’s one: “I hope that the Berkeley Earth analysis will help settle the scientific debate regarding global warming and its human causes. Then comes the difficult part: agreeing across the political and diplomatic spectrum about what can and should be done.”

As anyone who has observed the US political scene in recent years knows, agreement will be hard to find. Perhaps politicians can learn something from scientists in framing their arguments: policies need to be developed by looking at the evidence with a skeptical but open mind.

More about Hidden Biases and Fukushima

About six weeks ago, I posted a blog entry called Subtle and not so subtle biases shape assessment of Fukushima. It led to some interesting and intelligent discussion about whether nuclear energy should be part of the future worldwide energy mix.

I wrote that entry as a reaction to critical reviews that described my new book for young readers, FrontCoverSm More about Hidden Biases and FukushimaMeltdown: The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, as “pro-nuclear” and “not exactly evenhanded.”

Since I agonized over how to make the book neutral with regard to the future of nuclear power, I was disappointed by that assessment; but I was not surprised by it. I realized that people who fear nuclear power, and are therefore against any hint that it might have a role in future energy, would see my approach of leaving the door open as favorable to nuclear power.

So I closed that blog entry with this:

I can’t fault reviewers for subtle biases like that. We all have them. And to the reviewers’ credit, they wrote in such a way that (1) their anti-nuclear views were apparent to me and I think to other readers and (2) they still recommended the book.

Could I have asked for more? Sure–a starred review would be nice. But they would have been less than honest to themselves if they had added that little sweet dollop of praise.

So I am pleased to report a new review in Science Books and Films written by a person who works in physics publishing. That reviewer not only gave Meltdown! two stars (highly recommended) but also described its approach as “bias free.”

Of course I am biased toward my own work (we all are), but I was gratified to see that this reviewer, who is probably particularly adept in recognizing biased writing, noted the care I took to produce an unbiased assessment of future energy technologies.

Subtle and not so subtle biases shape assessment of Fukushima

As readers of this blog may have figured out, I like to discuss political issues related to science and technology. Although I am personally a bit to the left of the American center, my ideology, if I have one, is that evidence trumps ideology every time. Perhaps the best description, given my willingness to state my views firmly on issues of social and political importance, is that I blog from the radical center.

From that perspective, I can see how biases on both sides of an issue shape people’s assessments of technologies like nuclear power in the wake of events like the triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011. Reviews and discussions of my latest book for young readers, FrontCoverSm Subtle and not so subtle biases shape assessment of FukushimaMeltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, have shown me the extent of those biases and how subtle they can be. I’ll get to them after telling you more about the book.

I begin Meltdown! by describing the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami and the subsequent reactor failures in considerable detail. I want my readers to understand the failures technologically. But I also want them to recognize that stronger regulations and government policies would probably have prevented the disaster.

Next I compare Fukushima to previous meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in terms of both engineering issues and of human lives lost or disrupted. That leads my readers to this key question: “Why would any government take the risk of using nuclear power?”

The answer is that the world is facing a potentially much greater risk from global warming. Finding a way to an energy future with less fossil fuel is difficult enough with nuclear power in the mix. Will it be possible in the future for renewable energy sources to replace coal, oil, AND nuclear, too?

That critical open question won’t be resolved in the short run. The answer will depend on future technological developments. So I close my book with a discussion of the benefits and limitations of current “green” technologies. My final paragraphs remind my readers that they will be the next generation of engineers, entrepreneurs and political leaders, and it will be up to them to determine the future role of well-regulated nuclear power plants.

“The decisions you will face as a voter will be complex, difficult, and very important for your country and government,” I write. “But if governments and citizens act wisely, then the world will have the energy it needs. And the nuclear industry will never again see another disaster like Fukushima, no matter how many reactors it builds.”

Is that a pro-nuclear statement? It depends how much weight a reader puts on that little word “if” and the bigger word “wisely.” It certainly leaves the door open for nuclear energy, but it also assumes strict regulations that will affect the economic viability of nuclear energy.

I knew that closing would leave the book open to criticism from both sides of the debate. And now that the book has appeared, I am discovering a lot about how people are responding to the Fukushima disaster one year later. Some of the responses I’m about to describe came from audiences at public appearances and others came from reviewers*.

[*As an occasional science book reviewer myself, I want to assure any reviewers who may be reading this that I appreciate the care you have taken in your reading and assessment. Even when I disagree with specific points–and I am about to do so–I value your opinion and especially appreciate that you have recommended the book in the context of other literature. As I write in the Meltdown author’s note, “Just as I did not rely on only one source in writing this book, readers should go beyond this book to understand the events of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami and the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi.” I want my readers to learn to think critically about all their sources of information, including my own work.]

My first public discussion of the book was at my hometown library, and my audience included people who had spent most of their working lives in the nuclear industry. (I spent three years in the industry in the mid-1970s–pre-Three Mile Island. Despite my management’s strong attempts to indoctrinate me as pro-nuclear, I left with a mind as open as when I was hired.) Some of them objected to my title’s characterization of the event as a “nuclear disaster” or my use of the term “engineering failure.”

Their major argument was that the engineering issues were known, but the failure was that government policy or corporate management did not address the issues. My response was that my book put the engineering failure in the proper context of political and management shortcomings. The central question is not whether the reactors could have been engineered to survive the earthquake and tsunami but rather whether human institutions could enforce sufficient standards so they would have survived.

They also pointed out, quite correctly, that the nuclear contamination from Fukushima has led to no human deaths and will in the final assessment cause serious health issues for only a small number of people. In contrast, many of the firefighters at Chernobyl died within weeks or months from radioactive exposure, and epidemiologists measure the number of subsequent cancer cases and fatalities in Northern Europe in the thousands or tens of thousands.

The real Fukushima disaster, they argued, was caused by the tsunami. I took issue with them on that point. True, the tsunami death toll was about 20,000, but the meltdown was also disastrous in terms of disrupted lives, contaminated agricultural land, and the long-term evacuation of many cities and towns. The disaster is ongoing in that respect.

From the other side, some reviewers indicated that they would have preferred a more urgent tone and a more detailed description of the damage that radiation can cause. To me, that reflects a much more subtle bias than the pro-nuclear attendees had. Immediately after the meltdowns, the news coverage was indeed filled with urgency. One well-known author and professor even described it as “Chernobyl on steroids” in his role as a television expert.

Such reporting no doubt left an impression on many viewers. If they weren’t antinuclear before the news coverage, they were afterwards. For Meltdown!, I choose an less urgent, more factual approach that, I’m pleased to say, was the same approach adopted by Miles O’Brien in a remarkable PBS Frontline documentary called “Nuclear Aftershocks” about the impact of Fukushima on the nuclear industry.

That subtle bias also could have caused a reviewer to overlook the fact that Meltdown! does indeed describe the harm caused by radiation at both Chernobyl and Fukushima. The difference is that the impact of Chernobyl was primarily on human health, while the impact at Fukushima was primarily disrupted lives.

I can’t fault reviewers for subtle biases like that. We all have them. And to the reviewers’ credit, they wrote in such a way that (1) their anti-nuclear views were apparent to me and I think to other readers and (2) they still recommended the book.

Could I have asked for more? Sure–a starred review would be nice. But they would have been less than honest to themselves if they had added that little sweet dollop of praise.

Should we call the Fukushima meltdowns a nuclear disaster?

A year ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima meltdowns, I prepared a proposal for a middle grade book called “Lessons from Fukushima: The Promise and Risks of Nuclear Power.”

My editor at Twenty-First Century Books accepted it, and put it on the fast track, but wanted a more marketable title. The result was Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, which was released in time for the first anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, the precipitating event for the meltdowns.

The book takes a middle ground about the future of nuclear power, recognizing the need for strong regulation and advanced safety systems, but likewise noting that nuclear power is currently the only alternative we have for replacing fossil-fuel plants on a large scale, and is likely to remain the best alternative for many years.

Now I’m beginning to give talks about the book, and I have had some interesting feedback, some of it challenging the use of the term “nuclear disaster.” The challenges take two forms. Some people rightly point out that the meltdowns were not exclusively technological failures. They could have been avoided with better regulation and licensing procedures. Others point out that the documented death toll from the meltdowns is zero–or arguably very small even considering cancer deaths in the long term.

I have to agree with the argument that this was not a failure of technology alone. No technology is perfect, which is why we put regulations in place to make sure the public is safe even if the technology fails.

Still, I argue that we need to consider Fukushima a disaster, given the massive evacuation and spread of radioactive contamination. And since that resulted from nuclear technology, we should call it a nuclear disaster.

On the political level, anyone trying to argue that the words “nuclear” and “disaster” do not apply will have little credibility. Even if poor regulation and licensing procedures were largely responsible for the meltdowns, and even if the loss of life due to radioactive exposure is indeed negligible, this was a massive technological failure that made the natural disaster of the earthquake and tsunami considerably more difficult to recover from.

No matter what we call it, though, in the end we do have to digest the Lessons from Fukushima. And we do need to grapple with the promise and risks of nuclear power. I hope my book delivers on what that original title suggested, even if buyers pick it up because it says “Meltdown!” and “Nuclear Disaster” on the cover.

Return of the Prodigal Science Blogger

It’s been several months since I contributed here, but I expect to be back with regular blogs in about a month and shorter posts before then. I have been busy writing my newly released middle-grade book, FrontCoverSm Return of the Prodigal Science BloggerMeltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, which I am pleased to say is a Junior Library Guild Selection. Clicking the cover or the link following it will also lead you to some of the early reviews of the book.

I’ve also been spending a good bit of time connecting with readers at my Facebook author page. Please check it out and give it a “like” (thumbs up). If you do that, you’ll be able get links to my upcoming blog tour for the book in the two week period surrounding the first anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns.

I’ll try to remember to post the individual blog tour events here, but I’ll certainly be back to blog about science-related news events and post book reviews as I publish those.

Special thanks to Ben Sullivan for prodding me to come back!