It’s Complicated, and We’re Scientifically Illiterate

The Washington Post recently reported on correspondence raising an issue that members of the U.S. Senate should respect, but probably won’t.

A letter was sent by ecologists and climate scientists and was endorsed by 65 other researchers, including a number of leaders of forest science, and by several scientific societies, and pointed out that pending bipartisan (!) energy legislation includes claims that burning trees for energy is carbon neutral–a claim that is scientifically incorrect.

“Legislating scientific facts is never a good idea, but is especially bad when the ‘facts’ are incorrect,” say the researchers, led by Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center. “We urge you and other members of the Senate to reconsider this well-intentioned legislation and eliminate the misrepresentation that forest bioenergy is carbon-neutral.”

The amendment in question was introduced by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine; it has seven cosponsors and urges leaders of the federal government to act in ways that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source.”

Shortly after its passage, a press release by Collins hailed the amendment, which, she said, would “help ensure that federal policies for the use of renewable biomass are clear, simple, and reflect the importance of biomass for our energy future.” The release noted the support of groups including the American Forest and Paper Association and the American Wood Council.

The argument for carbon neutrality–which sounds reasonable–is that, although burning trees emit carbon, trees grow back and when they do, they sequester carbon, making the process neutral.

A key problem, say the scientists, is that it takes a long time for trees to grow back after they’re cut down — and a lot can happen in that span of time.

Here’s the real issue: We elect lawmakers to make policy determinations—determinations that inevitably involve tradeoffs. Those tradeoffs may prove to have been unwise, or based upon faulty information, but that’s the nature of the job.

We don’t, however, elect people to legislate scientific fact. (Indiana’s legislature is still the butt of jokes from a century-old effort to change the value of pi.) It may seem like a picky quibble when Congress is doing so much other damage (Yuuge damage), but when lawmakers triumphantly “demonstrate” the falsity of climate change by throwing  snowballs in the Senate chambers, it’s important.

There is a difference between language claiming that a policy choice is being made based upon scientific consensus, or upon careful consideration of contending scientific opinions, and language that characterizes a conclusion as scientific “fact” And it’s an important difference.

In an era where presidential candidates routinely make colossally untrue statements, when Indiana’s governor can tamper with an “independent” report in order to reflect more desirable “factual” findings, when Michigan’s governor can tell Flint’s citizens that he can assess water quality, you might argue that the mere existence of a bipartisan bill recognizing the importance of cutting carbon emissions should be considered a huge win. I get that.

But I think the real lesson is that respecting the distinction between fact and opinion is for that very reason more important than ever.


  1. The best minds in America are working toward a better, cleaner, safer energy future. And one of our political parties is working for COAL. Which one will win? Politics matters. Elections matter.

  2. Happy International Pi Day!

    With that greeting aside, I admit my thought formulation process doesn’t operate at maximum capacity when abruptly jumping from yesterday’s economic despair to today’s scientific literacy as topics for discussion; however, I do see a segue here in that the coal industry is not unaware of scientific proof re: the need for cleaner energy nor are those with undergrad and graduate level Mining Engineering degrees lacking in scientific literacy.

    For those of us living in Central Indiana, our proximity to the New Madrid Fault Line and to the Illinois Basin running from West KY north through the Terre Haute area provides us with an amazing amount of scientific information about our underground resources (coal, oil, natural gas, coal methane gas) at our fingertips if only we bother to access it.

    Politicians are not scientists. Policy does not always make for the best science. Changing from coal-fired electricity is not a one-time event. Consider this old adage, “Never quit your current job until you have guaranteed new job waiting for you.”

  3. In a political world where ignorance is considered a positive trait, what else can we expect. I spent big parts of 4 years trying to get Congressional offices to let scientists just do the best science. Not only do they want to legislate fact, they want to order expenditures on their pet projects, most of which should never see the light of day. Only one of the offices that called backed off of whatever they were thinking about. That’s why I respect Sherrod Brown. That’s also why so much research money is wasted.

    Since this is one of my pet peeves, I’d also like to take a minute to defend science. If you disprove your hypothesis, you have not failed. You have proven that the thing you propose is not feasible. That’s how science moves forward. It is slow and arduous and there are very few eureka moments.

  4. In a political world where ignorance is considered a positive trait, what else can we expect. I spent big parts of 4 years trying to get Congressional offices to let scientists just do the best science. Not only do they want to legislate fact, they want to order expenditures on their pet projects, most of which should never see the light of day. Only one of the offices that called backed off of whatever they were thinking about. That’s why I respect Sherrod Brown. That’s also why so much research money is wasted.

    Since this is one of my pet peeves, I’d also like to take a minute to defend science. If you disprove your hypothesis, you have not failed. You have proven that the thing you propose is not feasible. That’s how science moves forward. It is slow and arduous and there are very few eureka moments.

  5. Perhaps if elected officials relied more heavily on science they could create, e.g. roads in Indiana that are engineered to last longer than two years; acknowledge that while burning coal is cheaper in the short-term, longer term the damage to the environment and the costs of remediation actually make it more expensive; evolution is not contrary to Genesis, it stands apart from religion and is in fact in a whole different plane.

    But it’s Indiana and we get the government that we deserve which medical devices coal, electric utilities ., insurance and telecom pay for – science be damned. I await the legislation that prohibits teaching science in public schools.

  6. When I teach climate science I typically start a class with a couple of simple questions.

    Why did life choose earth?

    Probably the most factual and shortest answer to that question is that energy availability here is just about perfect for fantastic chemistry.

    So then, what is energy? Everybody assumes that they know the answer to that but typically putting that into simple words eludes them.

    So the average person doesn’t even know what energy is but feels qualified to opine about public policies concerning it.

    Is that the problem?

    For the vast majority of people I can fill in that knowledge hole in about 90 minutes. I assume that many policy makers are of average intelligence so any of them interested in basing energy policy on fact could.

    They choose not to.


  7. If it can be made from oil , or trees , it can be made from hemp. An acre of hemp yields 4 x as much oxygen as an acre of forest . that makes a carbon neutrality issue – moot.
    Please beware of the U.N.’s AGENDA 21 . It is a thinly disguised plan to eliminate personal property rights. Stopping tree burning is conditioning the masses to not be allowed to utilize their fire places ( or leave the grid ), and out door bbq’s. All in the name of a natural solar system-wide phenomena called global warming.
    What the gentleman from Indiana says is true . I am from Beech Grove , and I was taught about southern Indiana’s natural resources in our 4th grade Indiana History book.

  8. O.K., it’s time for the usual primordial comments which contend that any scientific finding that the writer disagrees with, or finds annoying or is inconsistent with some crank ideology to claim that it’s all a “debate”. When we were building the Panama Canal, these folks would have called it a “debate” when the findings showed yellow fever was caused by mosquitoes rather than bad air. Or that mercury caused brain damage or bacteria caused TB. Or, more recently, that cigarettes actually cause lung cancer. It’s all a debate so we can continue to poison the air because we are “friends of coal” and let the fossil fuels choke the environment to allow the Koch brothers and Exxon to make another 20 billion.

    Then there are the folks too lazy to try to understand the purpose of Genesis, that it might actually be the beginning of offering a purpose for life. Instead, they call contemporary biology and evolutionary perspective or the idea that the earth is 4.5 billion years old a matter for “debate”.

    I’m afraid that there are many causes for the current ideology among Mr. Trump and his ilk, but as to the exact mix of what has caused what for the civilization to be on the brink of going into the toilet, maybe we have some time left for that debate. But first let us stipulate that the civilization is, for a fact, going into the toilet.

  9. Speaking of crank ideology, lets put the Agenda 21 folks out there, front and center, to make it all a grand conspiracy and blame it on the U.N. Let the delusions begin.

  10. Keeping a positive discussion on track, we’ve not mentioned hydroelectric power, a favorite of mine simply because I grew up in an area of the US where hydroelectric power as generated by the Tennessee Valley Authority offered and still offers clean and affordable electricity.

    Established in 1933 by FDR, the Tennessee Valley Authority is a corporate agency of the United States that provides electricity for business customers and local power distributors serving 9 million people in parts of seven southeastern states. TVA receives no taxpayer funding, deriving virtually all of its revenues from sales of electricity.

    In fact, my late husband was employed by TVA as a regional planner during the mid-1970’s. I realize that hydroelectric power depends on harnessing the energy of ‘moving/falling water’ and that locating suitable areas is paramount for using water to produce electricity, but the result is a win-win situation for all.

  11. “Pros & Cons of Hydroelectric Power
    Once built, hydroelectric plants have very low operation and maintenance costs. A hydropower plant can stay in service for 50-100 years (6). Unlike other forms of renewable energy, hydroelectric has the ability to rapidly scale up to maximum output levels when extra power is needed. It’s a very clean form of energy, producing no air or water pollution, and produces small amounts of greenhouse gases (methane released from rotting vegetation submerged under the reservoir).

    On the other hand, hydroelectric plants cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and take many years to complete. Damming a river with a large hydroelectric plant can submerge tens or even hundreds of square miles of land under its reservoir (7), altering the local ecosystem both in the reservoir area and further downstream. Dams can result in loss of habitat and loss of migratory routes for species such as salmon. People can also be affected. Any homes in the reservoir’s flood zone will be submerged and the residents forced to relocate. As one example, over a million people were moved during construction of China’s Three Gorges Dam (8). And while water is a renewable resource, a hydroelectric plant’s output is affected by seasonal variations in water supply.” David Newland
    Scientific study can focus on one problem or recognize the complexity of understanding the real world and how it interacts.
    Impeding the flow of a river to generate power for one country will very likely negatively impact the country and people who live downriver from the dams. Share waterways are a real concern when studying the issue.
    Politicians who choose to cherry pick science to suit their own or even their constituents desires do us no favor. In the long run, we are all in this together.

  12. JD, I’m aware of the pro’s and con’s of hydroelectric power. In particular, one of the con’s that morphed into a pro was the development of a major joint conservation and recreational area in far West KY, the Land Between the Lakes. Yes, several small rural communities were flooded during the first stages of TVA, and at present that former pocket of poverty in the 1930’s is now a thriving national recreational area enjoyed by visitors from across the US.

    Yes, you’re correct in thinking that we do occasionally rob Peter to pay Paul, with Paul usually representing the common good. In the case of TVA, FDR acted in the best interests of the US. Perhaps our next steps in meeting an energy crisis will involve curtailing the global birth rate.

  13. Thanks, BSH, for trying to keep a positive discussion on track. Good luck with that. Another Tennessean.

  14. One of the reasons that denying science is typically the most expensive of alternatives is that in the end reality wins. It just doesn’t care what we prefer.

    So ignoring or denying climate science has no chance of winning but can only add to our woes long term.

    Sustainable energy, which is harnessing more directly the energy coming here 24/7/365, is high in up front capital cost but lower in operating costs than using an intermediary like fuel. So we need investment.

    Fuel companies know that when we start that investment at a suitable scale we’ll have to, because we’ll be able to, stop feeding their coffers.

    Most energy utilities are private companies thus managed by one dictum: make more money regardless of the impact on others (externalities).

    So they lie to the public in order to sell as much of what they can at the highest price they can get before it becomes worthless. All that they sell now will be at the greater expense to tax payers later.

    The perfect scam, stealing from other people in the future for rewards today.

    They will undoubtedly never be held accountable for that theft.

  15. I did not mean to demean hydroelectric dams as a means of getting off fossil fuels. IMO we need to be aware that there are issues about water use on a global scale that should be carefully studied before launching large scale projects. Dams in earthquake prone areas are only one of many concerns, including cutting off flow to downstream users. It really is a complicated issue and one that politicians need to look at on the long term not just the short term benefit to their benefactors or constituents. They would do well to listen to the very real concerns of the scientists who have spent years studying the problems and the least damaging solutions.

  16. We raise another interesting point: when a bunch of us congregated in a settling and agreed that we had a common interest, we needed drinking water and energy and could spread the cost and everyone would benefit. As we have learned, a few of those settlements evolved into towns and mega cities. Now the common interest of those in the cities and towns impacts water supply and the atmosphere, sometimes even to the point where they’re not safe. But it’s what we know and is part of the cultural history. It becomes a comparison between what we have done to get us to this point in time and what is possible to provide for our needs but with a more positive outcome for all. i’m a fan of alternative energy, but I never see a wind generator without realizing that they create a different type of impact; same for solar.

    But it’s short-sighted to continue to rely on the status quo.

  17. Cultures succeed the best when they have access to cheap energy. Rome did well because 1/3 of its population was slaves, and for the last 100 years, we have become rich because fossil energy is cheap and efficient. We are beginning to understand its negative aspects, including the fact that it’s going to run out if its secondary effects don’t kill us first. Unless something miraculous happens, energy will become much more expensive its sources more diverse while our standard for its cleanness rises. Meanwhile, Americans believe that they are entitled to cheap energy, and don’t believe that there are any consequences for that, but like Pete has implied, science (and reality) doesn’t care what you believe. This will probably lead to unrest and the inclination to look for fascist dictators who promise to “fix it” and bring back what people think they remember as the “old days”. That will probably lead to more unrest. I wonder if democracies work best when cultures are more stable to begin with.

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