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Friday, January 15, 2016

Bill Nye the Science Guy Social Primate and Nuclear Energy

BillandSunnivaBill Nye photo via Simon Fraser University Flickr Creative Commons, Sunniva Rose Via Screenshot from TEDx Talk
An article last week in Business Insider discussed Bill Nye's conversion from anti-GMO to pro-GMO (genetically modified organisms). According to Nye, while attending a political rally in NYC:
" speaker insisted that the US president Barack Obama was part of a conspiracy sponsored by large agriculture companies to control minds — and received a great many cheers — somehow that passionate man at the microphone crossed a line for me."
Was it a desire to distance himself from conspiracy theorist nut-balls or was it the result of his exposure to facts by real scientists at Monsanto that finally convinced him to change his mind? If it was the latter then his stance was largely based on a lack of knowledge. Some are hoping that because Nye was convinced to distance himself from anti-GMO ideologues that he may also one day distance himself from the anti-nuclear energy counterparts, but I'm skeptical. Nye was not nearly as invested in his GMO stance as he is in his anti-nuclear energy belief.

After reading the above article I typed in the search terms Obama Nuclear Conspiracy and found an article on a conspiracy theorist website titled Nuclear Power Plants--Can We Trust Government Agencies To Tell The Truth? From that article:
"Exelon, the largest nuclear power generator in the USA, was a generous financial supporter to get Barack Hussein Obama elected president. No wonder President Obama supports and promotes building more nuclear power plants."
At the bottom was the following crass political cartoon (I've censored it for the weak of heart) which encapsulates the big three; anti-GMO, anti-vaccination, and anti-nuclear energy, oh, and fluoride.
Bill Nye the comedian celebrity version of everyone's favorite high-school science teacher, but funnier, and goofier, much goofier, still thinks nuclear energy is too dangerous while Sunniva Rose, a practicing nuclear physicist and real world embodiment of the lawyer character played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie Legally Blonde demonstrates in her TEDx talk that nuclear energy is actually (ironically?) the safest energy source we have. Click here to see a video of Nye's view on nuclear energy. A screenshot of the graphic used by Sunniva is shown below. It's a more colorful version of the one found here, and similar to one published by Greenpeace and one in Wikipedia here.


Bill Nye: "It may be that nuclear power, at our current level of understanding, is just inherently not safe enough."

Sunniva Rose: "How: is it possible to worry about global warming, and not be pro-nuclear?"

As an aside, Sunniva is also trained in classical ballet. Not to be outdone, here's a YouTube video of Bill Nye doing a series of back flips on the reality show Dancing with the Stars ...classic Nye humor. While the shock wears off, the laughing starts as you deduce that the guy doing back flips has to be a stunt double (which you then confirm with a quick Google search), but that fact was lost on the person publishing the video. In this case, all his lack of critical thinking cost him was a good laugh.

All anti-nuclear energy arguments have been losing ground since the advent of the internet, where the truth can usually be found by anyone interested in finding it. The "nuclear power is unsafe" argument was one of the first to fall. For some reason, Bill never got that memo. Now, of course, you can lead a horse to water ...but what about Fukushima?

Contrary to popular depictions (and the conspiracy website mentioned above), Fukushima was actually a test case that bolstered the nuclear safety issue. Not a single fatality resulted from the power plant when, not one, but three reactor cores melted down as a result of a magnitude nine quake and 60 foot high tsunami that killed tens of thousands, devastating the surrounding countryside and infrastructure, severely limiting the ability to respond to the loss of water pumps keeping the reactors that had automatically gone off line from cooling down. The above graphs cover the entire half century of nuclear power use in all countries around the entire planet. A nuclear power plant built in the sixties is about as technologically distant from a new one as your smart phone is from a transistor radio, a 707 from a 787.

What is science? One stripped down definition might be the use of math to uncover reality. It's close cousin, engineering, might be defined as the application of math and science to create technology. Back when Darwin first published his treatise, debating creationists was even more challenging because at that time Darwin had no idea what the physical mechanism was that caused change. Today, thanks to the likes of Rosalind Franklin who managed to take X-ray diffraction images (worth a thousand words) of a DNA molecule that very likely gave the hint to Watson and Crick that helped them unravel the double helix structure of the molecule, we now know what that mechanism is. The evolutionary process, it turns out, is raw mathematics. Around the world, organism genomes are unraveled and stored in computers daily. 2 + 2 = 4. That's science. Nuclear energy's safety statistics are undeniable.

Bill recently wrote a book about evolution called Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation which made it to the New York Times best seller list ...which pales in comparison to the seven books co-written by Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series of books that tell ..."the story of the end times (set in the contemporary era), in which true believers in Christ have been "raptured", (taken instantly to heaven) leaving the world shattered and chaotic," that also reached the bestseller list (three of which made it to the number one spot). Although the science behind evolution is undeniable, Bill is unlikely to ever get a creationist to cede the argument in large part because they are socially invested in their belief. The numbers don't matter to them. They are members of the creationist monkey troop and ceding that argument will get them excommunicated. In short, there would be a terrible social and emotional cost extracted. And one more thing, if you have ever debated a creationist you soon realize that a big part of the problem is a lack of knowledge as was the case with Nye's change of opinion on GMOs.

As an aside, Nye's book on the subject also pales in comparison to the works of an actual scientist:
Over the years I've read all but the last two of Dawkins' books listed above. I'm presently in the middle of reading Appetite for Wonder. Not expecting to find any epiphanies like memes and selfish genes, I'm going to pass on Nye's 300 page Reader's Digest version.

So, why does Bill Nye, a guy who purportedly lives and breathes science, continue to "believe" that nuclear energy is unsafe? Certainly, the numbers don't justify his belief. I suppose it's possible, as was the case with GMOs, that its a simple matter of improving his knowledge on the subject, but I doubt it. As with his creationist counterpart, I suspect he was imprinted with a belief in his youth long before there was an internet one could search for data. The belief helps define him socially. His environmentalist monkey troop circle heavily overlaps that of the anti-nuclear energy monkey troop. Ceding that argument may well get him excommunicated (Ed Begley might not want to be seen in public with him). There would be a social cost extracted. For this reason, convincing him to cease and desist parroting old (and new) anti-nuclear energy arguments may be just as difficult as getting a creationist to cede their arguments. In short, Bill is, on this particular subject, as guilty of ignoring the science (numbers) as his creationist counterpart.

Today, what we call celebrity worship is probably a distortion of a basic behavior rooted in our genes that at one time somehow helped move copies of genes into the future. The behavior may have facilitated the status hierarchy inside hunter gatherer hominid troops ...or not. On the other hand, a modern day comedic celebrity publicly expressing his or her unqualified opinion on important topics can have a disproportional negative impact, like this comedian's opinion of vaccination policy, or energy policy which in turn, thanks to climate change and assuming humanity is capable of doing anything about it, can have a negative impact on our children's futures. Such is human nature. The numbers have little impact on the beliefs of creationists, aging anti-nukers or new-age anti-vaccers.

Max Planck once said “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Bill Nye once said "Don't believe everything grownups tell you," which includes what Bill tells you, although he may deny being a grownup.

Those anti-nuclear groups that have largely abandoned the difficult to defend safety argument have managed to do so in part because they're confident they have found a more defensible one in the new cost argument (although it is nearly as weak as the safety one and I will try to get a post up on that topic). This is a good thing overall in my opinion because jumping to the cost argument has made it easier to abandon other misconceptions (they still have an argument to cling to).

I'm a proponent of the use of wind and solar when properly sited, but it has been made very clear by many studies from reputable sources like the NREL, the EIA, and the Google R<C research team that they can't come close to displacing all fossil fuel use without the assistance of existing nuclear technology and future technologies not yet proven to be commercially viable or not yet envisioned. I've used a version of the following graphic before and I present it here again to demonstrate the lack of progress being made.

Google Engineers Conclude that Renewable Energy Will Not Result in Significant Emissions Reductions

New IEA Study: Least Cost Scenario has Nuclear as the World’s Largest Source of Electricity by 2050

The Exaggerated Promise of Renewable Energy

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