Bamboozled About Energy


Two years ago, I interviewed Vaclav Smil, the prolific author and energy thinker. I asked Smil, a distinguished professor at the University of Manitoba, why Americans are so easily swayed by politicians and others when it comes to energy matters. His response: scientific illiteracy and innumeracy. “Without any physical, chemical, and biological fundamentals, and with equally poor understanding of basic economic forces, it is no wonder that people will believe anything,” he told me.

Finding evidence to support Smil’s claim is all too easy. A 2007 study by Michigan State University determined that just 28 per cent of American adults could be considered scientifically literate. In February, the California Academy of Sciences released the findings of a survey which found that most Americans couldn’t pass a basic scientific literacy test. The findings:

• Just 53 per cent of adults knew how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.

• Just 59 per cent knew that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

• Only 47 per cent of adults could provide a rough estimate of the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water. (The Academy decided that the correct answer range for this question was anything between 65 per cent and 75 per cent.)

• A mere 21 per cent were able to answer those three questions correctly.

In July, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released the results of a survey of 2,001 adult Americans regarding science issues. Among the findings: just 46 per cent knew that electrons are smaller than atoms.

Those findings shouldn’t be surprising. Ignorance of the sciences and the natural world has plagued the world for centuries. This centuries-long suspicion of science, which continues today with regular attacks on Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, was recognized by British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow in the 1950s when he delivered a famous lecture called “The Two Cultures.” Snow argued that there was a growing disconnect between the culture of the sciences and the culture of the humanities, and that bridging that gap in understanding was critical to understanding and addressing the world’s problems. Snow placed “Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists…Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” Snow then laid out a critical point about the general public’s lack of understanding of energy and thermodynamics. As Snow put it:

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

Indeed, while most moderately cultured people will be familiar with the Bard’s A Comedy of Errors or The Merchant of Venice, the laws of thermodynamics — the rules that ruthlessly police the world of energy — are considered by most people to be the domain of nerds and wonks. Thus, the first law of thermodynamics: energy is neither created nor destroyed; and the second law: energy tends to become more random and less available — are relegated to the realm of too much information. For most people, basic physics is seen as nerdy, beyond their ken, too troublesome to learn.

This apathy – or perhaps it’s antipathy — towards science makes it laughably easy for the public to be deceived. Alas, this apathy toward science in America is matched – or perhaps even exceeded – by the lack of interest in mathematics. Over the past few years, the US has been inundated with depressing data about the state of our collective math skills. A 2008 study published by the American Mathematical Society put it bluntly: “it is deemed uncool within the social context of USA middle and high schools to do mathematics.” It went on to explain that “Very few USA high schools teach the advanced mathematical skills, such as writing rigorous essay-style proofs, needed to excel.” Another report issued in 2008, this one from the Department of Education’s National Mathematics Advisory Panel, declared that math education in the U.S. “is broken and must be fixed.” The report found “that 27 per cent of eighth-graders could not correctly shade 1/3 of a rectangle and 45 per cent could not solve a word problem that required dividing fractions.” The report also found stunningly poor math skills among adults:

• 78 per cent of adults could not explain how to compute the interest paid on a loan.

• 71 per cent couldn’t calculate miles per gallon on a trip.

• 58 per cent were unable to calculate a 10 per cent tip for a lunch bill.

Given these disheartening numbers, there’s little reason to be surprised that so many Americans are ready to embrace fallacious claims by the myriad  energy posers in Washington and elsewhere who insist that the US could quit using hydrocarbons (and oil in particular) if only there were more political will to do so. Those claims ignore the vast scale of US energy consumption. On an average day, the US consumes about 41 million barrels of oil equivalent in the form of oil, natural gas, and coal. That’s nearly five times as much energy as is produced by Saudi Arabia in the form of oil on an average day. (Since 1973 the Saudis have pumped an average of about 8.3 million barrels per day).

It has taken the US more than a century to build a $14 trillion economy – an economy that is based almost entirely on abundant supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas. No matter which of the “green” energy technologies that are now being hyped – electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, etc. – will make a dramatic dent in US or global energy consumption for decades to come.

Moving the US and world economies away from hydrocarbons will take most of the 21st century and trillions of dollars of new investment. That’s the reality – and it doesn’t take a degree in physics or even a hand-held calculator to confirm it.

ROBERT BRYCE’s latest book, Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence”recently came out in paperback.









Robert Bryce will publish his fifth book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
September 4-6, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Regime Change Refugees: On the Shores of Europe
Lawrence Ware
No Refuge: the Specter of White Supremacy Still Haunts Black America
Paul Street
Bi-Polar Disorder: Obama’s Bait-and-Switch Environmental Politics
Kali Akuno
Until We Win: Black Labor and Liberation in the Disposable Era
Arun Gupta
Field Notes to Life During the Apocalypse
Steve Hendricks
Come Again? Second Thoughts on My Ashley Madison Affair
Paul Craig Roberts
Whither the Economy?
Ron Jacobs
Bernie Sanders’ Vision: As Myopic as Every Other Candidate or Not?
Rob Urie
Capitalism and Crisis
Jeffrey St. Clair
Arkansas Bloodsuckers: the Clintons, Prisoners and the Blood Trade
Richard W. Behan
Republican Fail, Advantage Sanders: the Indefensible Budget for Defense
Ted Rall
Call It By Its Name: Censorship
Susan Babbitt
“Swarms” Entering the UK? What We Can Still Learn About the Migrant Crisis From Che Guevara
Andrew Levine
Compassionate Conservatism: a Reconsideration and an Appreciation
John Wight
Adrift Without Sanctuary: a Sick and Twisted Morality
Binoy Kampmark
Sieges in an Age of Austerity: Monitoring Julian Assange
Colin Todhunter
Europe’s Refugee Crisis and the Depraved Morality of David Cameron
JP Sottile
Chinese Military Parade Freak-Out
Kathleen Wallace
The Child Has a Name, They All Do
David Rosen
Why So Few Riots?
Norm Kent
The Rent Boy Raid: Homeland Security Should Monitor Our Borders Not Our Bedrooms
Michael Welton
Canada’s Arrogant Autocrat: the Rogue Politics of Stephen Harper
Ramzy Baroud
Palestine’s Crisis of Leadership: Did Abbas Destroy Palestinian Democracy?
Jim Connolly
Sniping at the Sandernistas: Left Perfectionism in the Belly of the Beast
Pepe Escobar
Say Hello to China’s New Toys
Sylvia C. Frain
Tiny Guam, Huge US Marine Base Expansions
Pete Dolack
Turning National Parks into Corporate Profit Centers
Ann Garrison
Africa’s Problem From Hell: Samantha Power
Dan Glazebrook
British Home Secretary Theresa May: Savior or Slaughterer of Black People?
Christopher Brauchli
Poor, Poor, Pitiful Citigroup
Norman Pollack
Paradigm of a Fascist Mindset: Nicholas Burns on Iran
Barry Lando
Standing at the Bar of History: Could the i-Phone Really Have Prevented the Holocaust?
Linn Washington Jr.
Critics of BlackLivesMatter# Practice Defiant Denial
Roger Annis
Canada’s Web of Lies Over Syrian Refugee Crisis
Chris Zinda
Constitutional Crisis in the Heart of Dixie
Rannie Amiri
Everything Stinks: Beirut Protests and Garbage Politics
Graham Peebles
Criminalizing Refugees
Missy Comley Beattie
In Order To Breathe
James McEnteer
Blast From the Past in Buenos Aires
Patrick Higgins
A Response to the “Cruise Missile Left”
Tom H. Hastings
Too Broke to Pay Attention
Edward Leer
Love, Betrayal, and Donuts
Louis Proyect
Migrating Through Hell: Quemada-Diez’s “La Jaula de Oro”
Charles R. Larson
Class and Colonialism in British Cairo
David Yearsley
Michael Sarin: Drumming Like Summer Fireworks Over a Choppy Lake