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.