Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The mother of all promises and how science failed to maintain it

"Energy too cheap to meter" was the mother of all promises (above, Disney's atomic genius from 1956).  Unfortunately, science failed utterly to deliver this and many other promises made during the "nuclear age," and even later. Eventually, people will realize how much hot air there is in the press releases about pretended scientific breakthroughs and, already today, we shouldn't be surprised if so many people don't trust what the scientists are telling them about climate change.

In the 1950s, during the high times of the "atomic age", someone had the unfortunate idea of claiming that nuclear technologies would give us, one day, "energy too cheap to meter." We might call it "the mother of all promises" and, of course, it was not maintained. But, as propaganda often does, it stuck in people's minds and it seems that many people still believe in the concept that energy too cheap to meter is just around the corner. Many seem to expect it to come with one of the many scams about "free energy" or "cold fusion" that litter the Internet today.

But breakthroughs bordering on miracles are claimed also in other fields of science and some scientists seem to have made a point in saving the world every two weeks or so. The latest scientific claim that went viral on the web is about a catalyst able to turn CO2 directly into ethanol. It is likely that many people understood as a miracle that would remove the dreaded CO2 from the air and transform it into something useful at little or no cost.

Yet, if you look at the original article, you will find nothing that suggests that this catalyst is ready for practical, real-world applications. There are no data about how long it can last in operating conditions, nor there are calculations that would tell us how efficient would be the whole process, considering that one has to saturate the electrolyte with CO2. The authors themselves state that "The overpotential (which might be lowered with the proper electrolyte, and by separating the hydrogen production to another catalyst) probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst." So, we have something that works in the lab, which is fine, of course, but we should never forget that the graveyard of failed inventions is littered with tombstones with the inscription "in the lab, it worked."

In the discussion that took place on Facebook about this story, some people asked me why I was criticizing this paper so much; after all, they said, it is a legitimate research report. It is true, but the problem is another one. What is the public supposed to think about this?

Most people will see only the press release and they lack the intellectual tools needed to understand and evaluate the original. And from the press release hey will understand that scientists are making a new claim of a further scientific miracle that will solve some important problem at some unspecified moment in the future. And then the whole story will be forgotten and the problems of climate, pollution, depletion, etc., will still be there; worse than before.

It is true that the myth of the scientific miracle is stubborn, mainly because it is a comfortable myth: nobody has to do anything except giving some money to our priests in white coats. But that can't last forever. Science, as all human enterprises, doesn't live in a vacuum, it lives on its reputation. People believe that science can do something good for them because science has done that in the past. But this reputation is being tarnished a little every time some hyped scientific claim falls into oblivion, as it is destined to do. The reserve of trust that science has accumulated in the past is not infinite.

Already today, you can see the decline of the reputation of science with the many people who believe that no man ever never walked on the moon. Even worse, you can see it with those (nearly 50% of the American public) who believe that human-caused climate change is an elaborate hoax created by a cabal of evil scientists who are only interested in their fat research grants.

So, what happens when the reserve of trust in science runs out for good? I don't know, but wouldn't it be a good thing for scientists to be a little more humble and stop promising things they know they can't maintain?

See also this recent post by Andrea Saltelli on the same subject


  1. We have been bombarded by so much misleading, exaggerated "news" we will believe nothing and everything. We excel at manipulation. I was raised believing in the objectivity of science. Now science is just in the service of who paid for it.

  2. Well I have to disagree. While I see that there is a profound crisis in science I would not attribute it to failed promises. This crisis in science was manufactured. It was people like Marc Morano who were drafted by politics and special interests to sow mistrust in science and it worked.

    As "Die Zeit", a very influential German newspaper, reported in 2012, the bush administration had adopted this strategy from very early on. An internal Memo shows, that it was the intent to "attack science" to discredit the findings of Michael Mann.


    As other Memos from the Bush era show, the white house was very astute in its analysis of the dangers of climate change. It was deemed a topic harmful for the bush campaign and the republican party. With full intent and full knowledge about the effects of climate change, they did all they can to make it come true.


    There were of course also the close ties to the petrochemical industry in the bush administration that resulted in the described policy of demolishing science and this utter disregard for the well being of the planet and the people living on it.

    With the blessing of the white house this industry used conservative "think tanks" to spin the tale of the climate hoax and against science itself.

    It was easy to accomplish, because science itself had been compromised for quite a while. Special interest groups and the PR-companies they employed, had used the great faith in science that people had for decades, to bolster arguments in the public discourse by buying scientists. So for a long tome the influence of business interests in science had grown to a point where probably any science could be bought.

    By giving in to capitalism, by having the "free market ideology" pervade into their institutions, science was corrupted. It was this corruption that was then used by capitalists to further discredit it.

    When the findings of science, as Michael Mann's hockey stick, conflicted with the indefinite growth ideology and thus with capitalism itself, it was a immediately recognized as a declaration of war by those who profited from this system in money and power and the took that very seriously.

    Science was an easy target. It had to uphold the pretense of "impartiality". While almost no scientist saw the evidence of global warming as the powerful political and anti-capitalist statement it was, the promoters of capitalism did.

    If only one side in a war admits there is a war, then the outcome is clear. Science lost the trust of the people because the social engineers, the people that use science to control the masses made it happen.

  3. yeah, I see this again and again in the agriculture sector too. How people almost desperately want to believe that there are ways to farm where we don't need nature, no land no water, miraculous crops or cells growing on thin air. Vertical downtown greenhouses feeding megacities, while they mostly grow leafy vegetable which acounts for less than a percent of human nutritious needs and for costs three times higher than ordinary flat greenhouses in the outskirts, and with massive input of that energy...

  4. to not give a false impression I have to add a clarification on the last comment. The workings of power are a very complicated topic and not easy to talk about. Contrary to the impression one might get from my last comment, I do not believe that social engineering is an all powerful tool that controls our society. Propaganda has to be embedded into a framework of power techniques that already exist. As Michel Foucault pointed out, science is itself an important instrument of power.

    Establishing the range of what is considered to be common sense, the ideas that can be thought and formulated, the ideas that are so basically ingrained into our believe systems that they do no longer have to be discussed is where the great power of science resides.

    Propaganda and social engineering only plays on the stereotypes and the limits in which we allow ourselfs to think. It is an effective tool of power, only if it can build on those fundamental assumptions that we all have.

    Butr the elites choose to demolish that power. A step that may very well have catastrophical repercussions for all of us. Scientists were partially cast out of those positions of power that are allowed to formulate what the fundamental believes are trhat we hold.

    This attack on science itself had been easy, as it was already recognized by many as being a tool in the hands of the powerful. It has diminished its own power by being corrupted by capitalism. The already existing mistrust against science only had to be given direction.

    The believe system, that science itself has trapped itself in, has also helped this endeavor to demolish it.

    Contrary on science being the instrument of power that it is, many scientists either see them selfs as impartial or consider them selfs as part of the elites. Science had no effective answer whatsoever on the attacks made by Moreno and his ilk because it was attacked on the poitical battlefield while being in denial about even being on it.

    Generally, natural science is very unprepared to question its own role in our society. Science by inflection is an important part of the humanities, but the humanities were seen as attackers on natural science when they offered this insight into the role of science. The true attackers were not the humanities, but the moneyed individuals and corporations it had courted so long.

    To overcome its crisis, the natural science must learn to question itself and reflect its role in society. It must reflect on its part in promoting the ideas that power uses to perpetuate the system and if it wants to continue this unhealthy marriage with private capital.

    To overcome the outside influence of propaganda, natural science must therefore look into itself to remedy the failings that propaganda preys on.

  5. you neglected to mention the non-science conspiracy theory of "chemtrails".

    very few people are willing to look at our planet's finite realities and the inherent limits to growth. most keep looking for "magic green" supply side "solutions" and other ways to mitigate reality. it is popular to blame "them" for this mess, but the person in my mirror, even with a meager 3 ton/ year c02 budget is doing plenty to sink our collective ship.

    mostly i just try to enjoy how good things still are because this story does not have a happy ending. think: a global game of musical chairs, which when the music stops we discover we are short about 6 billion chairs.

    1. At least, scientists are compact in denouncing obvious scams such as chemtrails, cold fusion, and many others. But there is no similar reaction with overhyped claims; which I think can make even more damage to science because they come from inside it

  6. "Already today, you can see the decline of the reputation of science with the many people who believe that no man ever never walked on the moon. Even worse, you can see it with those (nearly 50% of the American public) who believe that human-caused climate change is an elaborate hoax created by a cabal of evil scientists who are only interested in their fat research grants."

    Ugo, the only scientist to have walked on the moon is a very vocal AGW skeptic. He has the audacity to doubt the some of the more alarmist claims being made concerning CO2s role as a planetary thermostat and the honesty of some of the claimants. He seems to think "the science" has been contaminated by politics and money. From what I've read of his opinions, he doesn't regard physical science as a matter of belief but of gathering hard data and analyzing it with ice cold logic. Belief necessitates acceptance without understanding, and putting one's faith or trust in authorities, who may or may not be correct or honest but are in any case fallible. Most of no longer trust the clergyman, the schoolteacher, the doctor or the politician as much as we used to. Why should the scientist, and in particular the climate scientist, on a government payroll who is liable to loose their career and reputation if they don't regurgitate the official line be worthy of any more trust than these other respected authority figures?

    1. Sadly, you are right in many things. Apart from the old astronaut, who is a sad case of cerebral decline, climate scientists in general have made a colossal mistake (one of the many) in saying "believe the facts, not us". But most people don't have the intellectual tools needed to understand climate science. They will believe the message if they think that the messenger is worth of their respect. And, alas, scientists all over the world are doing their best to appear as vocal primadonnas, interested only in showing how smart they are. That's not a good idea. And the results are clear for everyone to see.

    2. The failure of science to communicate with the public is very closely related to its failure of recognizing its own role in the public discourse.

      How can you communicate successfully without the ability to reflect on your own role? Communication without reflection is a very one sided affaire and can smell strongly of arrogance and condescension.

    3. The interesting thing to me is that the climate system simply doesn't care whether it is understood or believed in. It just is and does.

    4. True, Bill, but the climate system is affected by human actions and those actions depend in people's belief

    5. Bill & Ugo

      People in general are rather sold these days on the idea of 'choice'. If I understand it correctly, I take something from Bill's position: we actually seem to have little choice.

      The critics of climate science seem to avoid any explanation as to why, in their reasoning, the ongoing severe disturbance to the global carbon cycle seen in the ongoing rise of atmospheric CO2 is not going to change the climate. They seem to hide behind the truism that the future is not easily predicted.

      Meanwhile the whole business of cheer leading for 'science' - more than the scams - disfigures our understanding of many serious issues. We know too little, and it does not help that as Ugo has pointed out, the techno/industrial/science/economic 'project', for want of a better word, faces serious and arguably existential contradictions. Some stuff we know however is 'hard' knowledge, which has been brought to bear on climate. This latter knowledge in combination is increasingly coherent.

  7. I know that lectures in sociology are never for the easily distracted, but it can be worthwile in many ways to put in the effort of following a learned scholar.

    The topic of where we stand in relation to climate change is discussed ib this lecture by Bruna Latour.

    Bruno Latour is the most prominent scholar of "Science studies". So he would be the first to in a quest for understanding where science finds itself when our phyiscal world is in crisis.

  8. The increase in skepticism of Science may well follow "Science's" increasing inability to "solve" our most pressing problems, an unfortunate number of which originated with Science in the first place (the most heinous of these betrayals being the entire nuclear fiasco).

    Some diminishing returns of our efforts are catalogued here:

    As people's material well-being continues to decline they'll grow increasingly frustrated with technologies which take more than they give (as they must, axiomatically).

    Lastly, knowing what one must do is not the same thing as doing it. So what good is knowledge if we also understand that it is not going to acted upon? It merely serves to make us feel a false sense of control, at the same time that all "Science" activity objectively increases the damage and materially hastens our demise.

  9. Today's AP1000's could decarbonise the world's grid if we built 115GW of them per year, as per Dr James Hansen recommends. This would also power the developing world and population growth. 115GW a year, on a reactor per GDP measure, is actually SLOWER than the French achieved in the 1970's, so it is entirely doable. And that's with today's technology. It's not too cheap to metre, although I understand the sentiment that caused that unfortunate phrase. They were discovering so many things about atomic bombs and power, and discovering them so fast, that if they extrapolated out that rate of discovery it appeared too good to be true. And it was. Too cheap to metre? Got to be joking! Although the atomic bonds in uranium or thorium atoms are 2 MILLION times more powerful than the chemical bonds in oil, the capital infrastructure will always keep the cost at a certain reasonable price. Some estimates for future breeders are at around $1bn / GW, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Not only does James Hansen recommend 115GW of regular reactors a year, but he also promotes GenIV breeder reactors.

    Breeder reactors burn the longer lived actinides in nuclear waste, eventually burning the nuclear waste down to the fission products which only stay hot for 300 years.

    But in reality, new designs could make breeders cheaper than traditional once-through reactors like Light Water Reactors! There are 2 types:

    1. Fast Neutron reactors.

    Russia had the old BN-350, and then built the Bn-600. Note: the Japanese paid Russia a billion for the technical specs on their old BN-600, and “The operation of the reactor is an international study in progress; Russia, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom currently participate.”

    They just opened the BN-800 (and sold the plans to China).

    They are building 11 new normal reactors over the next few years, including 2 whopping great BN-1200's!

    G.E. have the PRISM ready for commercial prototype testing (as the original proof-of-concept testing was done decades ago in the EBR2). They are basically ready to deploy in the first country that will let them.

    China will mass produce breeder nukes cheaper than coal in just 6 years!

    2. Thermal (slow neutron) reactors run hotter
    My favourite thermal reactor is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor which CANNOT 'melt down', as it is already a liquid! See China's plans!

    China will mass produce breeder nukes cheaper than coal in just 8 years!

    America has enough nuclear waste to run her for 1,000 years and this has been estimated to be worth $30 TRILLION dollars!

    The United Kingdom has enough waste to run her for 500 years.

    When we finally run out of today’s nuclear waste to burn in 500 years my guess is we might not even need fission reactors any more. But if we do still need to use IFR’s and LFTR’s, what then? Uranium from seawater is 'renewable' in the sense that erosion constantly tops up the uranium particles floating in the ocean, 3 times faster than we could use it. It will last us a billion years.

    WASTE? Once the actinides are burned out, the fission products only stay 'hot' for 300 years. Just vitrify it into waterproof ceramic blocks, and store in carpark depth bunkers. Done. Trivial. Not an issue!

  10. There is still the question of safety. Despite all the promises of nuclear energy being safe, fukushima and cernobyl happend. Today the Ukraine has to allocate up to 8% of its GDP for containing the dangers of the cernobyl reactor.

    At any major project in this state of global capitalism we have today, the interest in profits tend undermine all other issues, like safety of operation. The largest nuclear reactor that is build today, is build in Finnland (Olkiluoto).


    Quality assurance found thousands of issues due to sloppy construction. The pressure on suppliers and contractors, as usual in our modern economy, had resulted in fraudulent and dangerous practices, like illegaly changing the concrete composition of the pressure reactor chamber to a less costly and safe mixture.

    We could not handle the dangers of nuclear energy in the past, and we definetly wont in the future. It is my experience that today we produce shit, much more so as when we build most reators in the past(80s). Quality or safety are no issues I would trust our current economic system with. It has been proven many times over that "free markets" do not fix these problems but are their source.

    The external costs of a nuclear catastrophy are not part of the wonderful story of a nuclear utopia you tell. With any reactor the chance of a catastrophic failure will always be non zero. Who would carry those costs? These costs are definetly part of the eroi calculations in japan today. Nobody can deny the fact, that parts of japan will be uninhabitable for an unforseeable future.

    There is no insurence company in this world who would insure a nuclear reactor against a fukushima-like catastrophy. Why should we?

  11. First, think about solving global warming from a risk assessment point of view. Just imagine what would happen if we shoot through to 6 degrees because we absolutely COULD NOT solve the intermittency of wind and solar, and then the world's various climate feedbacks take us to 12 degrees of warming! That's bad with a capital B. That's game over. Which is worse: a runaway climate catastrophe that ends civilisation, ora Fukushima every 30 years? (Not going to happen, see Third point below).

    Second, what are you upset about? RIGHT NOW COAL IS ABOUT 650 CHERNOBYL'S A YEAR! You're worried about 1 Chernobyl from 1986, and one Fukushima (far less worrying) a generation later. I'm worried about nearly TWO CHERNOBYLS a day! Put simply, coal kills 2.6 million people annually which is just short of 1.75 Chernobyl's casualties every single day of the year! short URL
    As George Monbiot says: “Coal kills more people when it goes right than nuclear power does when it goes wrong. In fact coal kills more people every week than nuclear power has in the entire history of its deployment.”

    Third, banning safe modern reactors because of dangerous old reactors is like banning modern aviation because of the Hindenberg. Another Fukushima is *not* going to happen with these modern reactors. There are plenty of old reactors out there we still need to retire, and even if one of these blows in the next few days, I'll STILL be a fan of nuclear power because there are *totally* different reactors coming!

    Modern nukes would *easily* have survived the Fukushima power outages. Older reactors required power to cool, today’s reactors require power to work!!! Without power they shut themselves down, automatically. Indeed, some modern reactors like the LFTR cannot EVER ‘melt-down’ because they are already a liquid, and require power to keep the liquid in the core and not simply drain away and harden into passive safety mode.
    I have collected more details here:-

    Also, radiation is just not that bad. We could fence of the Chernobyl and Fukushima power plants, and some of the red forest outside Chernobyl, and move back in to most of those territories. They're just not as radioactive as some places are naturally!

  12. This does not change the main argument: if you consider the external costs the EROI of nuclear is in NO way better than that of solar and wind, which are risk free and I still stand by my point that we will not be building better and safer reactors, but shity ones.

    I really don't get the need for nuclear when there are so many alternatives.

  13. Did you read what James Hansen wrote about renewables, comparing believing in them to believing in the Easter bunny? And because the nuclear bonds have 2 MILLION times more energy than the chemical bonds in fossil fuels, the EROEI of nuclear, despite all the mining and refining of uranium and the massive nuclear power plant, is up around 60 to 75. And it works in the week long quiet of a German winter.

    But renewables are:-

    Too diffuse
    Too unreliable
    Too expensive to backup
    Too hard to integrate

  14. You still ignore my points and I dont think you make valid ones. Going nuclear would only be worthwile if we are clear and honest about issues as external costs of nuclear and alternative. I cant see that you or those articles are.

    Basically I think you are biased towards nuclear and those articles represent your bubble.

    Let me add also that I think that neither nuclear nor alternative will save this system from collapse. There are problems that can not be solved by technology and science, that is what this discussion was about in the first place.

    We can only save ourselfs and this planet if we let go of growth capitalism.

  15. Wind and solar are NOT risk free, because they don't work all the time. In Germany they drop to 5% capacity for weeks at a time, and there is just no way to store that kind of power that long. We can only save the various species on this planet if we give everyone everything they need for a modern comfortable life, with an attractive lifestyle, by decoupling our provision processes from nature. Read the EcoModernist Manifesto. Over 50 high level environmentalists have signed it. Abundant clean nuclear power can provide us all our electricity and transport, and provide the energy to increase agricultural efficiency so that we can eventually return more degraded lands back to forests. We can give everyone a modern life AND save the planet as well! I see no evidence to the contrary. We have all the resources we need, and are learning to use them more and more efficiently.

    1. Repeating the same thing over and over is not useful for the discussion. This is the last comment that I pass on this issue



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)