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

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“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 and they 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, they will see that 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 bit 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?

 Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi

13 Comments on "The mother of all promises and how science failed to maintain it"

  1. Shortend on Sat, 22nd Oct 2016 4:52 pm 

    Sorry, Scientists never claimed it would be too cheap to meter; it was Uncle Sam of God Bless America USA. I wrote a term paper on this topic and the Government was desperate to see the nuclear age, along with the WMD to the public. Politicians and government PR agencies intentionally put forth this fantasy to keep the graveyard train rolling.
    So, please leave the scientists out of the blame game

  2. eugene on Sat, 22nd Oct 2016 6:53 pm 

    And every four years we hang, breathlessly, on every politician’s word as thought, believing Bush, it comes directly from god. Mr Bardi, you need a much, much better understanding of the human animal. I’ll take a scientist’s word, coupled with my own common sense, over the “other side” every time. But if you’re one of those too “whatever” to do some thinking meaning you believe whatever some “expert” tells you, have at it. The people I see as needing more humility is the common mindless person who simply believe as they’re told.

  3. Anonymous on Sat, 22nd Oct 2016 6:54 pm 

    That is likely the case shortend, scientists, real ones, rarely, if ever, make grand such, sweeping, declarative statements like ‘too cheap to meter’. Those kind of things, come from PR depts, govt’s, mass popular ‘science’ writers and so on. We see a direct equivalent today in discussions about fusion. Every writer on the topic, except for a handful, declare fusion will be ‘safe, clean, unlimited’. Except for the small problem, it will be none of those things. But again, you wont find a single scientist, even those in fusion research promoting the ‘fusion narrative’ of limitless-clean-safe. Same idea right?

    Regardless of who-said-what-when, (too cheap to meter) it doesn’t take away from his larger point, it is valid all the same.

  4. Harquebus on Sun, 23rd Oct 2016 3:06 am 

    To turn CO2 into ethanol you must add energy.

  5. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 23rd Oct 2016 3:46 am 

    Unlimited cheap free energy? Just put all the fat people onto exercise bicycles. Attach generators. The USA has so many fat people, this is an unlimited energy source.

  6. peakyeast on Sun, 23rd Oct 2016 6:53 am 

    @GSR: Sorry to take away your illusions GSR. They are only fat enough to live for one year of their bodily storage.

    At least that is what apeman has taught me. 🙂

  7. onlooker on Sun, 23rd Oct 2016 9:26 am 

    Yep, they needed to be cheerleading the adoption and use of nuclear to bolster the nuclear weapons program. Of course the actual implementation of nuclear as a main energy source was never going to happen. Fossil fuels were and are King.

  8. paulo1 on Sun, 23rd Oct 2016 10:08 am 

    What the hell? You mean those Popular Mechanics adds on pills that turn ordinary tap water into gasoline aren’t true? If that’s the case, what about the $19.95 carb mod I can install in seconds and improve my mileage by 70%? That’s what I wanted for my Christmas present this year.

    The point being, Elmer Gantry promises have been around forever and in all endeavors. No reason to expect the energy field is any different.

  9. Apneaman on Sun, 23rd Oct 2016 10:41 am 

    I need to see a quote or hear/watch an interview from one or more of these unnamed scientists who said it was “too cheap to meter”. Science said? Fuck Ugo is losing it too. Science is a method not some single minded Borg like entity that travels the universe making proclamations. Science is not the problem. Humans are the problem.

  10. onlooker on Sun, 23rd Oct 2016 10:55 am 

    Besides scientists do not make PROCLAMATIONS, that is what spokespersons, politicians, attention seekers and loud mouths do. Most of the time in fact we care not to listen to scientists and their warnings.

  11. Kenz300 on Sun, 23rd Oct 2016 11:25 am 

    Nuclear energy is too costly and too dangerous..

    Fukishima and Chernobyl have shown us how costly and how dangerous.

    Wind and solar are the future. Fossil fuels are the past.

    Climate Change is real. We need to deal with the cause (fossil fuels)

    Solar is the future. No monthly fuel costs. Solar WINS long term.

    Batteries are a game changer…….solar with batteries winds over nat gas, coal and nuclear.

    Batteries allow for solar power 24/7. Game over.

    100% electric transportation and 100% solar by 2030

  12. peakyeast on Sun, 23rd Oct 2016 12:08 pm 

    As the regulars here at the site has said:

    The hard times are just arriving – how likely is it that maintenance will NOT be substandard when it gets difficult? Even in the best of times that is where the “clever” economists optimize profits.

    And this is the age of expiring lifetimes for nuclear power plants…

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