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Michael Lynch: How To Read Conflicting Energy Headlines

Michael Lynch: How To Read Conflicting Energy Headlines thumbnail

The Internet is to public discourse what pamphleteering was in the 18th century:  an outlet for opinions that require minimal input.  Using a search engine allows a pundit to find support for almost any opinion, which is very useful if you’re trying to win an argument as opposed to get to the truth.  In this post, I will simply show how easy it is to find diametrically opposed ‘articles’ from the internet and many from legitimate news sources (as opposed to blogs).

Let’s start with electric cars. notes “Electric cars are so popular we’re running out of plugs” while says “Electric car threat to oil is wildly overstated.”  A careful reader might argue that the two are not mutually exclusive:  we could be running out of chargers at the same time that the potential oil displacement is being exaggerated.  But if you are an advocate of electric vehicles you will cite the first, a skeptic, the second.

At the national level, popular website announces “To beat Tesla, China plans to boost electric vehicle sales 10-fold”.  For its part, the Financial Times notes that “Subsidies help China sell the most electric cars.”  Again, the two might be taken as contradictory, but aren’t really.  However, the second is more informative because it highlights the causality, namely that government support is necessary to achieve the goal of increasing electric vehicle sales.  The relevance becomes clear when looking at a Technology Review article, “The World’s Largest Electric Vehicle Maker Hits a Speed Bump” describing how reduced government subsidies was threatening domestic EV maker BYD.

Sometimes stories can contradict each other because of a different focus.  The Forbes headline notes “Japan’s Solar Boom is Accelerating,” while two months earlier, the Japan Times had said, “Sun setting on Japan’s solar boom.”  The first post examined solar power capacity in the previous year and projections for the current year, while the second argued that investment would slow dramatically in coming years due to reduced subsidies.

Similarly, a blogger complained “China Is Going All In On Clean Energy As The U.S. Waffles. How Is That Making America Great Again?” while three days later, a Bloomberg story noted that “China Says It’s Going to Use More Coal, With Capacity Set to Grow 19%.”  The former headline is not wrong but imprecise and refers only to planned Chinese investment in renewable power, while the latter has a focus on the additions to coal power capacity in juxtaposition to the country’s renewable power plans.  Both articles are true, but the first has an obvious omission in the body of the story.  Of course, the former is advocating a policy, while the latter is a news story, which is an important qualifier.  (Although some news stories are incomplete, merely acknowledging contradictory facts:  “but some think the world is flat.”)

And coal comes in for its share of often-contradicted opprobrium, my favorite being the Mother Jones headline “Germany’s War on Coal Is Over. Coal Lost.”  Almost simultaneously, the Washington Post noted “In shadow of Germany’s climate conference, a village disappears to make way for coal.”  Why the discrepancy?  The first story describes the closing of Germany’s last hard coal mine, while the second talks about the opening of a new lignite (or soft coal) mine.  It is certainly true, as the first article opines, that German coal production has been on a long-term decline, but as of 2016, it was still 175 million metric tonnes, a not insubstantial amount.  And consumption is almost the same as at the turn of the century, thanks to the post-Fukushima decision to shutter the nation’s nuclear power plants, apparently fearing a Pacific Rim Tsunami might cross the Eurasian peninsula.

Germany energy policy also features in many conflicting headlines.  Environmentalists frequently hail its renewable energy program with headlines like, “The Spectacular Success of the German Energiewende, and What Needs To Be Done Next,” while regular news outlets like the New York Times will report, “Germany’s Shift to Green Power Stalls, Despite Huge Investments.”  The same is true for other countries: says “Spain, Portugal Lead the Way on Renewable Energy Transformation” and later, “Spain Is a Case Study in How Not to Foster Renewables.”  Here, the difference is twofold:  the former is a guest post from 2011, the latter a 2017 article, after problems with the policy had become apparent.  The danger is the causal researcher finding the first article but not the second, which simply reconfirms Tom Nichols argument in The Death of Expertise, that too many people with only a passing familiarity with a subject will write authoritatively based on a quick internet search.    Experts should not make such a mistake.

Ultimately, the split is best illustrated by the disparate attitudes towards renewable power.  Typical of one view is “The Big Green Bang: how renewable energy became unstoppable,” according to the Financial Times, while a writer for Bloomberg says “Wind and Solar Are Crushing Fossil Fuels.”  Alternatively, Ireland’s Independent quotes Fatih Birol of the International Agency saying, “Governments must support renewables … if we leave it to economics, coal will win.”  The salient point is that renewables are very successful thanks to subsidies, meaning withdrawing subsidies would hurt the  business, as several earlier quoted stories described happening in Spain, Germany and elsewhere.

This highlights the difference between real reporting and advocacy:  the former might be biased and mistaken, but they try not to be.  Advocates making posts feel no such compunction and frequently reverse-engineer their analysis:  start with your conclusion, find some links that support them.  This is common in policy discussions and reflects human nature, but does not lead to beneficial outcomes.  Those who claim to be ‘scientific’ in their approach should be particularly aware of this tendency and try to overcome it.  Ultimately, though, it is the reader’s job to be skeptical and open-minded when perusing such articles.  Caveat emptor.


One Comment on "Michael Lynch: How To Read Conflicting Energy Headlines"

  1. coffeeguyzz on Mon, 11th Dec 2017 3:32 pm 

    I have been noticing – and commenting upon – exactly this phenomena, namely people seeking confirmation rather than information for some time now.

    Going to ideologically opposing sources (is there any other kind nowadays?), one can get the “warts and all” of a topic, but it can be both time consuming and somewhat tedious.

    FWIW, you folks on this blog who are anti fossil fuel, doomer, staunch renewable advocates, whatever … you may find vary contrarian views both surprising, repugnant and incredible.

    Pretty much what The Other thinks of your collective views.

    Shame, that.

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