Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Keith Kloor highlights his own strawman; can't see it

I haven't decided yet what I think of Keith Kloor - maybe one of those people who resists acknowledging where reality is headed, but occasionally nods his head in its direction.  His latest stuff isn't very good though, with a Discover article labeling environmentalists as anti-technology and anti-city, while contrasting them with a few "green modernist" exceptions.

The anti-city claim is just vastly outdated and requires no further discussion.  Anti-technology is a little more interesting.  Kloor later clarified what he meant:

Environmentalism is anti-technology. By this I mean anti-nuclear power and anti-genetically engineered crops.
He says this in the context of explaining that he was being attacked as creating strawman arguments and responds with the above statement, and later adds, "Where’s the strawman here?" How about right where you highlighted it in those two sentences. His statement is not a strawman if you think that nuclear power and GMOs roughly encompass the majority of all human technologies. Actually, even that's not totally correct. By Kloor's reckoning, you can't, like me, be even mildly skeptical of nuclear power, or note that not all opposition to GMOs is unscientific, without being anti-technology. I do think some environmental opposition to nukes and GMOs is overblown, but that doesn't make them anti-technology.

This "above the fray" type of journalism gets old, and the strawmen are rickety.

One last note: writing this involves figuring out who I'm writing for, and the thought crossed my mind that Kloor might read it. I considered trying to persuade him rather than criticize him, and ended up with a mushy compromise style that doesn't try and cajole him but certainly pulls a few punches back. Oh well.

UPDATE:  Tim Burden has more, and there's a good discussion thread at Stoat.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

since we're talking about acknowledging where reality is heading, the good doctor would like to be quoted predicting that Michael Mann's emails will be given over to ATI because they have a strong case against Mann and failure to hand the emails over would amount to a double standard, due to the treatment of Michaels, Singer and Wegman. That said, I know everybody here will disagree but I would like to be quoted and held to my prediction, in the spirit of acknowledging reality.

Anonymous said...

Jayzez Jay you can't even get your comments into the right threads any more.

dhogaza said...

Please, people, don't let not-Dr. Jay Cadbury, not-PhD hijact this thread ...

Hank Roberts said...

> disclosure, ... also ...
> under threat.

Always has been.

Admire the contortion of arguing against disclosure of public speech.

-- money is speech;
-- free speech is a right;
-- corporations are people;
-- free speech can be bought (advertising);
-- free speech includes private speech with a representative of the public;
-- so they argue privacy.

Hm. I must have missed something.

David B. Benson said...

IMO KK is a pompous fool.

Anonymous said...

And what a tedious trope that is!

Yeah, for sure, after Fukushima anybody who is skeptical of the claims of the Nuclear industry is just an irrational technology-hating Luddite.

And I suggest Kloor read David Michaels' 'Doubt is their Product' before blithely assuming 'they wouldn't OK it if it wasn't safe', too.

But the point is that there are Enviros on both sides of these debates - Kloor is just complacently prejudiced and off-handedly reinforcing the widespread prejudices of others. Poor work.

David B. Benson said...

Anonymous --- I calls em as I sees em. My view of KK is not just based on this one piecen

As for Fukushima, the concensus of the world's seismologists (all but one) was that the Tohoku fault was not capable of genrating more than a moment magnitude 8.0 (or just maybe 8.3) earthquake. The Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors were designed to withstand a moment magnitude 8.0 earthquake and a resulting small tsunami.

It was the 14 meter tsunami which led to the problems at Fukushima Dai-ichi. Although the moment magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake was beyond design basis (and so the reactors would never run again), the shutdown was proceeding normally until the water rolled in; then the problems began.

I fail to see how the engineers can be blaimed. Please read Henry Petroski's famous "To EnginEER is Human".

Martin Vermeer said...


they should have over-designed. It would have cost next-to-nothing extra.

Jim Eager said...

"I fail to see how the engineers can be blaimed."

Seriously? It was engineers who placed the backup diesel generators and their fuel tanks between the containment structures and the sea basin behind the tsunami barrier. Video footage of the tsunami taken from several km away clearly shows the peak of the tsunami spray as it crashed into the shore rose *above* the containment structures as it inundated the generators.

Anonymous said...

Snow Bunny says, at some length:

KK is a journalist who has to write an article but still I think this was exaggerated and one-sided. Being anti-nuke and anti-GMO does not necessarily mean you are anti-technology, it may mean you have reservations about these particular technologies.
I view nuclear power plants as oversold and over-subsidized. Oversold: they promised no nuclear accidents, now we are up to three.
Engineers at Fukushima did make thoughtless decisions, like keeping the backup generators in the basement. Nobody expected the land to drop 3 meters! but higher tsunamis had hit that section of Japan than the engineers designed for. I think the question of another radiation-leaking accident in a commercial plant is where, when and how much, not if.
Further, the problem of nuclear waste disposal has NOT been solved after 60 years. It's sitting in "your backyard" now. I've heard that if you consider disposal, nuclear plants don't return more energy than put in.
GMO I'm also skeptical of but don't know much about. Montosanto is not to be trusted, they pull c*** like suing organic farmers for "stealing" their genes when the farm has been contaminated by winds blowing pollen from GMO fields. I also don't know if there is enough research to demonstrate the new plants are as harmless to humans as they are harmful to bugs. JMO
I am a strong environmentalist and I am not anti-city. Cities can provide a basis for comfortable living while minimizing energy consumption. Ex: Europe, which uses 1/2 energy of U.S. per capita. I'm skeptical of suburban sprawl. I was raised in a small city: I could walk or bike about everywhere after I was 10. Are people happier living in small cities than in featureless suburbs? Have any studies been done? I remember Jane Jacobs work in the 60s.
I don't think KK's article should be taken seriously. There's nuts in every group but I've never met and don't remember reading about the kind of environmentalist KK is writing about.

Sou said...

I'm anti-nuclear but not anti-GM.

I also find KK's blog distasteful and no longer visit.

I spend time in the city but live up the bush, and roast my own coffee beans and enjoy latte.

So in what category do I fit?

dhogaza said...

"I am a strong environmentalist and I am not anti-city. Cities can provide a basis for comfortable living while minimizing energy consumption. Ex: Europe, which uses 1/2 energy of U.S. per capita. I'm skeptical of suburban sprawl. I was raised in a small city: I could walk or bike about everywhere after I was 10."

Indeed. Here in Oregon conservatives blame us liberal environmentalists for passing our landmark land use laws and for Portland's emphasis on infill and increased density for reducing urban sprawl and the automobile cultural. In other words for emphasizing urban growth and reducing suburban sprawl while, apparently, according to KK, being "anti-city".

KK: we're anti-city

Oregon libertarians (all 10 of them): we're anti-sprawl, anti-auto, pro-density, pro-urban buildup, pro-mass transit ... pro-city

"The anti-city claim is just vastly outdated and requires no further discussion."

Yeah, well, true enough. Oregon environmentalists began working to preserve farmland by channeling growth into existing cities 50 yaers ago ...

Kloor's an idiot.

Jeffrey Davis said...

Who can be anti-GM after Monsanto accidentally released into the wild a gene that makes weeds resistant to Roundup?

Anonymous said...

I am a professional ecologist who is also a strong environmentalist. I generally favor GMO and wish that we could make nuclear safer. After living in Europe, I really see the good side of keeping people in cities and towns and leaving open spaces. On the other hand, ignoring climate change is a disaster for most species on earth, including humans. BillD

John said...

Who indeed could possibly be anti-GMO when DOW Chemical, responding to Monsanto's "completely unexpected" Roundup-resistant gene escape, has petitioned the USDA for approval of it's own corn strain that has a gene conferring resistance to 2,4-D, half the cocktail of agent orange?

John Puma

bill said...

Is it just me or did some of the commenters here and elsewhere also forget that the debate is about whether Kloor is justified in making such a ridiculously sweeping claim?

I still see rather a lot of 'defending my own pet technology' going on!

However, the fact remains that claiming Greens are anti-technology is daft - wind farms, solar panels, high-tech local and regional distribution grids, high-tech public transport etc. etc.

The idea that my 2 pets constitute the sum total of 'technology' is daft.

The idea that there are no rational or scientifically valid criticisms of my 2 pets is daft.

Even the idea that all Greens are opposed to my 2 pets is daft - witness the discussions above and elsewhere.

So the idea that all Greenies are anti-'technology' because they do not all support my pet subset of whizz-bangery is daft to the power of daft.

And 'anti-city' is just gibberish, and hence cannot be discussed.

David B. Benson said...

Martin Vermeer --- The reactors and reactor buildings were over-designed. The fact they were still standing after receiving excess ground acceleration corresponding to 32 times as much energy release as the specs called for attributes to that. And despite that shock the tsunami did not breach the containment.

A couple of others --- Saying after the fact that they should have dome this or that contributes essentially nothing useful. Please first read Petroski's book.

dhogaza said...

"A couple of others --- Saying after the fact that they should have dome this or that contributes essentially nothing useful. Please first read Petroski's book."

Actually, good engineering does say they should've done "this or that". Survivablity in other fields point this out. The reactor designs were obsolete by US standards, and those in the US had been upgraded. The design weaknesses weren't unknown.

Well, the situation will repeat itself over time. That's the problem. Your defense of engineering not anticipating unexpected events is fine to some degree, but let's not lose the fact that the shortcoming would bankrupt TEPCO if the government weren't stepping in. And might still bankrupt TEPCO.

Engineering isn't as precise as you want us to believe.

And I live in that world.

And the engineering picture that's emerging at Fukishima is that your claims that they didn't fall down after the earthquake is just a small part of the story. Systems failed. The tsunami didn't breach the containment yet ... flooded a couple of reactors.

Get real.

I'll be nice because I'm not even anti-nuke ...

J Bowers said...

David, the fuel tanks for the generators were positioned at ground level yards from the sea front. It appears to be a classic Black Swan, but I wonder if the top level management, engineers and beancounters had all been living (as a condition of their employment) within a 5 mile radius of the plant, would they have been even more diligent and imaginative when assessing risks? There's evidence that TEPCo ignored warnings about the locations of the backup system as far back as 2003.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

Kloor is trying to grab eyeballs, and the easiest eyeballs to grab are those lodged in front of weak brains. Toss 'em some red meat and they're yours. It is a sign of a lazy journalist with little to say.

The surest way to lose people is to acknowledge the ambivalence that permeates our existence. Yes technology is great, because we simply would not survive as an advanced civilization--or possibly even as a species--without it. At the same time, technology is problematic, because we cannot make it fool proof and we are all sometimes fools.

Maybe Keith should try writing about less demanding subjects.

Brian said...

Bill - you're right about people focusing on pet technologies. OTOH, I think Kloor's argument is so ridiculous that there's not much to debate.

And as a blogger, I've learned that comment threads are for tangents. My attempts to keep threads on track in the past (to discuss the brilliance of my original post) have been miserable failures.

So, a tangent of my own - my water district is doing very expensive seismic retrofit of our local dams, based on increased estimates of horizontal acceleration from quakes. Those estimates increased twice before in the last 60 years. I asked our staff, "in 30 years, will they increase the estimate again and have to redo all the work we've done?" They just shrugged.

I think there's a difference between a Black Swan and an event you have no evidence for being possible. Should we rebuild beyond what we think is the worst possible earthquake? How much beyond?

Marion Delgado said...

I hate how he gets free publicity, so I rarely comment - he's not a journalist, he's rarely accurate. Why the hell care? It's a lot like the unwarranted attention Watt's Up With That gets.

I won't even mention his Anschluss Empire partner in crime, because, thankfully, he really did vanish into deserved obscurity. One down, one to go.

David B. Benson said...

dhogaza &J Bowers --- I was only referring to the original design (and no, no reactor containment was breached). In retrospect the regulatory structure in Japan has been shown to be deficient (and that has been now changed). Certainly all try to pay attention to lessons learned. But the major lesson was that the Tohoku fault was capable of such large earthquakes. [The Japanese are currently modeling largest credible tsunamis elsewhere in Japan; some places might potentially be subject to in excess of 34 meter tsunamis.]

Brian --- Seismological & geological modeling as improved most substantially over the past few decades. I doubt that further increases will be very large, but I'll suggest adding a safety factor of at least moment magnitude 0.5 to current estimates (and then the engineers add their standard safety factors for construction on top of that).

Anonymous said...

"Japan insists its nuclear crisis was caused by an unforeseeable combination of tsunami and earthquake. But new evidence suggests its reactors were doomed to fail"

The explosive truth behind Fukushima's meltdown -- The Independent (Aug 17, 2011)


David B. Benson said...

Brian --- I meant to write adding an additional safety factor of moment magnitude 0.3, not 0.5. That is about 16 times as much energy released at the epicenter.

Of course there are fine seismologists to ask at CalTech and UnivWashington. [Maybe also Standford and UCB as well.]

David B. Benson said...

~@:> --- That's called this story will sell papers!

Anonymous said...


That's an interesting way of dismissing what are at least plausible claims.


David B. Benson said...

~@:> --- All hypothetical what if; fearmongering IMO. Tepco now has more evidence and the worst won't come to pass.

J Bowers said...

David, the most vulnerable part of a nuclear plant is the people running it, not the contaimment vessels. I don't mind the idea of Gen4, provided the people running it, from the executive board to engineers to designers to bean counters, have to live within a five mile radius with no get-out-of-jail second homes, or they just don't get the job, period. A dose of self-preservation and sharing with the neighbours would go a long way to making them a safer bet, IMHO.

Anonymous said...


"Fear mongering"?


The proposition that a large earthquake might break cooling pipes and compromise (perhaps even completely undermine) the cooling systems on a nuclear plant would seem to be a quite legitimate concern (and well within the realm of plausibility).

And you obviously have much more faith in the word of TEPCO than I do on this matter.


David B. Benson said...

J Bowers --- Phantasize on. A more factor is operator training and the preparation of manuals of procedure in the face of every conceivable emergency.
(1) The first two major NPP accidents were due to operator error. Now NRC (and every other nuclear regulatory agency in the world) requires superior training and refreshing.
(2) Fukushima Dai-ichi, however, had superior operators (and in the actual event the plant manager was a heor IMO). However, early on the opertors had to close a certain value and there was no procedure in the manuals for how to do that without electricity. So they worked out a way to do it, knowing the details of all aspects of the NPPs quite thoroughly.

J Bowers said...

David, who writes the manuals, or do they write themselves?

Martin Vermeer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

David and J. Bowers,
The Stupid Factor is probably the greatest risk not only with nukes, but with any complex, powerful system--and we've never quite developed an adequate defense against it. Every major nuclear accident is traceable to some person or persons doing something astoundingly stupid. The operators at Chernobyl had to bypass--what was it--like 8 failsafes before they truly screwed the pooch.

And the decision by Tepco to put all the generators at ground level was, in retrospect pretty dumb.

It may be that reliability of human components, like mechanical and electrical components exhibits a bathtub curve. Early on, lack of experience or overly bold temperament cause us to make mistakes. Then we learn enough to function reliably over some useful life. Finally, we become stupid due to complacency--or due to the human tendency to underestimate risks we are familiar with--and we become dangerous again. If this is true, the remediation would be to "swap out" operators nearing the end of their "useful life," and start them doing some other task, but this would increase costs and require more active management.

In the end, though, it is not a matter of whether to go with nukes or renewables--we'll need both, and even then our future is far from secure.

Anonymous said...

A female denier who follows C-a-S says:
This conversation closely mimics the climate change skeptic defense to the charges they are anti-science. Ex: How dare they say that questioning nuclear power, is anti-tech. Why look at Fukushima! (Climategate) Plus they get subsidized (really? not in the US because we haven't built a new plant in about 30 years.)
Ex-I'm pro nuke, but GMO's are plagued with dangerous uncertainty and produced by evil corporations. Think of the poor farmers (who are subsidized)!
Keith is right. Who is behind the well-funded resistance to GMO's and nuclear power? Environmentalists! But where's that "peer-reviewed science" establishing that the risks of nuclear power or GMO are far more grave than converting pristine ecosystems (pretty bad for the environment) to farmland and the risk pumping more co2 emissions into the atmosphere? Is building miles of windmills and solar panels (destroys ecosystems, ugly, labor-intensive maintenance) better than building a few nukes?
We haven't even got around to talking about frakking. Natural gas produces significantly less co2 emissions. But who fiercely opposes this technology? The people who firmly believe all fossil fuels are bad, aka environmentalists who can't get a good night's sleep because arctic sea ice is melting away.
This is so mundane. Of course there are exceptions and concerns. But look how horrible the lukewarmers who don't dispute what the IPCC reports except the vagarious SPM are besmirched. They have been labeled deniers when they don't "deny" anything about the science (poor Michael Crighton RIP, Bjorn Lomborg, RPJr, Tom Fuller, Steve Mosher,James Randi, and a long list of others who have been unfairly defamed)
Should we stick with coal? Who claims clean coal is a myth? Enviros who hate fossil fuels and corporations more than bringing themselves to find out the facts.
So just because you disavow the anti-corporate ideology in general. Don't be so offended after years of comparing people who fail to find climate change panic-inducing, to Holocaust deniers. Saying warmers are anti-technology is not exactly condemning your sense of morality.

Martin Vermeer said...

David B. Benson, what Jim Eager said: the diesel generators should have been safe from flooding. Trivial expense.

David B. Benson said...

J Bowers --- In this case, GE. The engineers assumed, incorectly in the event, that power would always be available.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space & Martin Vermeer --- It is easy to be wise after the event. But before? Please read Petroski's excellent book.

Brian said...

Anonymous self-described female denier:

You seem to be making your points sincerely. We have a couple of resident deniers who I think are more interested in verbal knife-fighting than in sincerely engaging in discussion, so I appreciate it.

To summarize the point of my post, antiGMO and antinuke just doesn't equal anti-technology. No more than saying the many denialists who trivialize all the technological innovations in fuel economy, renewable energy, and general conservation are anti-technology.

I do concede there's some overdismissive attitude towards nukes and GMOs among enviros, so I and many others are trying to be fair.

For fracking, we just don't know yet. It could be useful but leakage rates could be so high as to make it no better than regular fossil fuels. Industry is not being very cooperative on monitoring for leakage. You saw and still see a lot of interest in natural gas among enviros as a bridging fuel, so it's not fair to say they're not open to technology.

I don't understand your last sentence, "Saying warmers are anti-technology is not exactly condemning your sense of morality." Can you expand?