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‘Unscientific America’: A Review

Filed under: — mike @ 8 July 2009

Author Chris Mooney (of “Storm World” fame) and fellow “Intersection” blogger, scientist, and writer Sheril Kirshenbaum have written an extraordinary, if rather sobering book entitled ‘Unscientific America’. What I found most refreshing about the book is that it not only isolates the history behind, and source of, the problem in question—the pervasiveness and dangerousness of scientific illiteracy in modern society–but it offers viable solutions. This book is a must read for anybody who cares about science, and the growing disconnect between the scientific and popular cultures (the problem of the so-called “Two Cultures” first discussed by C.P. Snow).

‘Unscientific America’ explores how we’ve come to the point we’re now at, examining the historical factors behind the diminishing prominence of science and scientists in the popular culture of the U.S. since its heyday in the years following WW II. The authors uncover more than enough blame to go around. They find fault with the media, both in how it portrays science and scientists (e.g. the icon of the ‘mad scientist’), and in the decreasing news coverage devoted to issues involving science and technology. They find fault in the way policy makers often abuse science (cherry-picking those particular scientific findings which suit their agenda), and in the behavior of corporate special interests who, in areas such as our own area of ‘climate change’, have often deliberately manufactured false controversy and confusion to dissuade the public from demanding action be taken. At this point, the scientists among you might begin to feel absolved of any responsibility for the problem. Don’t–Mooney and Kirshenbaum won’t allow us to escape blame, and with good reason. As they point out, we ‘eat our own’, when it comes to colleagues engaged in public outreach and science popularization. Case in point: Carl Sagan–a hero to many of us who value science outreach. One of the darker episodes in modern U.S. science history was the blocking by Sagan’s fellow scientists of his entry into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Evidently, a majority of his colleagues resented his having become a household name–something they presumably considered unbecoming for a scientist. What sort of message does it send when the most effective science communicator in modern history was shunned by his colleagues for his efforts? Certainly not a good one. This is just one example, and there are many others–it is not surprising that so few scientists to choose to pursue the path of outreach and public education. The reward systems in academia and the scientific world typically do not favor scientists who choose to expend considerable time and effort engaging in public discourse. And here of course, it is as much that system, as the scientists themselves, which is to blame.

Given that we (scientists) are part of the problem, it must stand to reason that we are also part of the solution. And indeed, this is a primary thesis advanced by Mooney and Kirshenbaum. The authors argue that we must fundamentally reinvent the way that scientists are trained, so as to encourage and reward those who choose to serve as much-needed science liasons and science communicators. Indeed, the reward system must be reworked in such a way as to facilitate the establishment of a whole new class of scientists, so-called ‘science ambassadors’ who are rigorously trained in science, but have the proclivity and ability to engage in the broader discourse and to help bridge the growing rift between the ‘two cultures’. We can no longer rely on pure serendipity that figures such as Sagan will just come along. We must be proactive in establishing a pipeline of scientists who can fill this key niche. In the absence of such intervention, the authors argue, the current rift between the “two cultures” will continue to grow, and the chasm between science on the one side, and popular culture and public policy-making on the other, will grow ever more dangerously wide. Such was Carl Sagan’s great fear, as revealed in his classic “The Demon-Haunted world”, published shortly before his untimely departure in 1996.

To some, the authors could potentially come across as a bit overly prescriptive here. One might interpret them as arguing that science needs to be taught in a fundamentally different way, with the new generation of science students fully immersed in the social sciences as part of an entirely rethought curriculum. Were the authors arguing this, one might indeed expect quite a bit of push-back from the scientific community. After all, the course work required to prepare today’s science students for careers of advanced research in cosmology or genetics (or climate modeling for that matter) is extensive, and slapping a whole bunch of additional course requirements in, say, communication and sociology, on top of their current requirements would be onerous to say the least. But this is not what the authors are saying (I can say this with confidence, having confirmed this in my discussions with them). To allow science to continue to flourish, it will of course be necessary to allow those scientists with neither the interest nor inherent aptitude for communication to continue to do science in the old fashioned way. It would be an unwise use of our resources and theirs to push these reluctant individuals towards outreach.

What does make sense–and what the authors are indeed arguing for–is that we adapt the current system to facilitate the development of those individuals who are well suited to careers as ‘science ambassadors’. An appropriate step might be requiring science majors to take a course in college (perhaps a so-called ‘capstone’ course taken in the senior year) that focuses on the broader societal context within which the scientific topics they’ve studied resides. Some, perhaps even most, of these prospective future scientists will decide that they want no more of this–and that’s fine. Once again, we should not force those who are reluctant to follow this new path. But hopefully the experience will identify, in a self-selecting manner, those scientists who do have broader interests and abilities in this area. And for those who do, there needs to an entire academic infrastructure, ready to absorb them and to help prepare them to join the ranks of those much needed science ambassadors. We need to be realistic in this venture of course. These innovations may not yield another Carl Sagan. But they will certainly move us in the right direction. For those who believe that such dramatic changes in our way of doing things are not necessary–that the burgeoning litany of science blogs, such as RealClimate (which does get several mentions in the book!) will help to insure the penetration of science back into popular culture, the authors have a disquieting message: an entire chapter entitled “The Bloggers Cannot Save Us”. And to those who hope that the more forwarding-thinking attitude towards science within the current U.S. government signals the long-awaited stemming of the anti-science tide, the authors caution that the current crisis–such as the disappearance of science and technology journalism from our media–is far more fundamental and structural in nature.

‘Unscientific America’ is extremely well written, which is no surprise to those of us who follow Chris and Sheril’s insightful blog postings. Its also remarkably error free (something I wish I could say about our own book “Dire predictions”–we still caught a few typos going into the 3rd printing). Every review must find some fault, and so here’s mine: There is a very minor mistake. The authors at one point refer to an exciting new venture known as “Climate Central” as being a Princeton University-affiliated effort. Its not. Other than being physically located in Princeton, and having some Princeton folks on board, there is no formal relationship with the university. I doubt Princeton is going to sue however.

If it were up to me, this book would be required reading for all undergraduate science majors, along with Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”. Only when we begin training scientists to understand the relationship between science and society, and their crucial role in that relationship, will be begin to solve the dilemma so eloquently described in ‘Unscientific America’.


371 Responses to “‘Unscientific America’: A Review”

  1. 301
    Rod B says:

    Mark, I answered Secular’s questions in (285), though I’m not sure which (or all??) of his questions were plaintive.

    You said, “…definitely more than 1.5C per doubling.”

    Then you said, “[could be]…1.43 +/- 0.1 degrees [per doubling]”.

    I was just asking. Sorry, my mistake. I’ll just take it as maybe this or maybe that. (Sounds a little unsettled…)

  2. 302
    Hank Roberts says:

    Okay, I admit I haven’t read the book yet.

    I know people are asking what specific advice is given there.

    Let me narrow that. Do they say anything about improving the work of university press offices, or give any examples from these?

    Seems to me the university press offices are a real choke point for scientific information as it moves from scientists to the public.

    The one a few days ago from Rice University is, I hope, the worst possible case. Check how many hits Google finds for the pullquote it used.

  3. 303
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #299, I think most would agree that killing people willy nilly is unethical (except perhaps for drug cartels and the Church of Satan), and that’s just what we are doing re global warming…..only most of the bullets we’re shooting now won’t kill the people for decades, even hundreds & thousands of years.

    However since in my experience a good chunk of humanity is pretty much unethical, they might agree it’s wrong, but would say, “so what.” Except for the well educated unethical, who would make convoluted twists in the science and logic to make it seem they weren’t doing anything wrong. For them more and better science is useful for making more sophisticated denialist claims. Same goes for the unethical religious, using religion in some convoluted way to justify whatever they’re doing.

  4. 304
    Mark says:

    RodB whines: “Mark, I answered Secular’s questions in (285), though I’m not sure which (or all??) of his questions were plaintive.”

    This one:

    “Exactly what part of the science do you claim is “unsettled”?”.

    You never said.

  5. 305
    James says:

    Mark says (16 Jul 2009 at 1:16 pm):

    “…but if your belief in your worldview is stronger than your belief that the reality is real, you’ll drop the science.

    You and nuclear power, for example.”

    Sorry, but it’s just the other way around. Science is why I think nuclear power is a reasonable option. Show me science – real science, not thinly-disguised political tracts such as some introduce – that says otherwise, and I’ll change my opinion.

  6. 306
    James says:

    Lynn Vincentnathan says (16 Jul 2009 at 2:17 pm):

    “..only most of the bullets we’re shooting now won’t kill the people for decades, even hundreds & thousands of years.”

    Sure. And I don’t see how anyone can take an unbiased look at the situation, and not conclude that human population levels are a major contributor to the problem; one which, if unchecked, will become even greater in the future. [edit]

  7. 307
    Mark says:

    > Comment by James

    > Science is why I think nuclear power is a reasonable option.

    But you fail to heed any science that says that nuclear is not the better option.

    Your desire for a nuclear future outweighs the evidence against that being workable here.

  8. 308
    Mark says:

    > I was just asking. Sorry, my mistake. I’ll just take it as maybe this or maybe that. (Sounds a little unsettled…)

    > Comment by Rod B

    Can you prove it is less than 1.5?

    And you NEVER answer the counter either: it is just as likely to be over 4.5C per doubling. Never do you accept that.

    So you must think that outside the range 1.5-4.5 is not going to happen too.

    less than 1.5 is as likely as over 4.5, you never consider over 4.5 therefore you consider it can never be over 4.5. Therefore you consider it just as likely (never) to be under 1.5.

    And I was just following your “logic”.

  9. 309
    Mark says:

    And RodB travells on a detour again, ignoring the difficult questions and his lack of answers:

    “RodB whines: “Mark, I answered Secular’s questions in (285), though I’m not sure which (or all??) of his questions were plaintive.”

    This one:

    “Exactly what part of the science do you claim is “unsettled”?”.

    You never said.

    Comment by Mark “

  10. 310
    SecularAnimist says:

    James wrote: “Show me science – real science, not thinly-disguised political tracts such as some introduce – that says otherwise, and I’ll change my opinion.”

    With all due respect, I doubt that you will ever change your opinion. Nor are you willing to look impartially at “the science” regarding the need for, the cost of, or the dangers of nuclear power.

    In many, many years of engaging in online discussions — from USENET newsgroups to blogs — I have rarely encountered anyone so determined as yourself to ignore and dismiss information that contradicts his opinion, and to support his opinion with one unsupported assertion after another, and to accuse anyone who questions his unsupported opinions of ignoring the “facts” (which he never really gets around to presenting) and being motivated by some “political” or “ideological” or “religious” agenda. And rarely have I encountered anyone who seems so honestly, blithely, un-self-aware of doing this.

    I mean, really, are you listening to yourself? Here are some “arguments” you have offered in this forum:

    Large-scale nuclear war would be preferable to building concentrating solar thermal power plants on one percent of the USA’s deserts.

    Building solar thermal power plants on a small percentage of the USA’s deserts is equal to paving the entire continent with solar panels.

    The Chernobyl disaster was a “net improvement”.

    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear regulatory structure in the USA is designed to prevent the building of nuclear power plants.

    Anyone who expresses concern about the very real problems and risks of nuclear power is anti-science and motivated by religious mania.

  11. 311
    James says:

    Mark says (17 Jul 2009 at 3:09 am):

    “But you fail to heed any science that says that nuclear is not the better option.”

    How could I heed such science, when I haven’t been shown any yet? I do pay attention to some of what’s posted here (and elsewhere, of course), but so far it’s all had… well, it’s hard to say mistakes, since they appear to be deliberate, so let’s say initial assumptions that cause the studies to come up with the desired answers.

    “Your desire for a nuclear future outweighs the evidence against that being workable here.”

    But again, I don’t have a desire for a nuclear future. I just think that all the other options are either unworkable or produce worse results.

  12. 312
    Rod B says:

    Mark, going from the ridiculous to the sublime, I’ll go one more even though you clearly “read” whatever you want in what others write, and even though we’re taking up otherwise valuable space on this thread.

    I can’t prove it’s less than 1.5 degrees, but what does this have to do with the price of Chinese tea? I thought you could so prove it within the “settled complete” science when you send “…definitely more than 1.5C per doubling.” But then you come back to say not definitely 1.5 or more. So it sounds you’re talking just to hear your head roar.

    I answered SecularAnimist’s question (singular) by answering his eight questions on his eight areas of climate science that I claim is unsettled, and even went into the degree of “unsettledness”. Though you kinda have to read and absorb what I actually wrote to pick this up.

  13. 313
    James says:

    SecularAnimist says (17 Jul 2009 at 10:34 am):

    “In many, many years of engaging in online discussions — from USENET newsgroups to blogs — I have rarely encountered anyone so determined as yourself to ignore and dismiss information that contradicts his opinion…”

    You know, I could say EXACTLY the same of you :-)

    “Large-scale nuclear war would be preferable to building concentrating solar thermal power plants on one percent of the USA’s deserts.”

    First, can we get our facts straight? Go back to the Scientific American article from which you apparently derived that 1% number. Look at their figures for square miles used & percent of power generated. Then look up the land area of the US. Do the math, and tell me, is it 1% of the deserts, or 1% of the entire country?

    Now can you perhaps begin to understand why I sometimes don’t regard your posts as perfectly reliable?

    On the nuclear war question, again, do the math. Here http://www.stardestroyer.net/Empire/Science/Nuke.html you will find an app to compute the effects of a nuclear explosion. I’ll let you use the larger ionizing radiation radius, and assume that everything within it is rendered permanently sterile (as the land covered by solar plants would be), even though it would eventually recover. I’ll also overlook the fact that most targets would be cities, where most of the natural environment is already destroyed. Now figure out how many nuclear weapons* it would take to destroy the environment over 30,000 square miles.

    So tell me, do you get a number that equates to a medium-sized or larger nuclear war?

    *If you search, you’ll find that most warheads are in the fractional megaton range, but I’ll let you assume all are a full megaton.

    “Building solar thermal power plants on a small percentage of the USA’s deserts is equal to paving the entire continent with solar panels.”

    Land area required to provide 35% of US energy, per Scientific America article: 30,000 square miles.
    Land area of the state of Maine: 30,861 sqare miles.
    Small percentage? Again, do some math: to get 100% of US energy would require covering and area equal to New England plus half of New York state.

    “The Chernobyl disaster was a “net improvement”.”

    Didn’t we argue that one enough? I say the facts speak for themselves.

    “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear regulatory structure in the USA is designed to prevent the building of nuclear power plants.”

    OK, so how many nuclear plants have been built in the US under the laws & regulations currently in place?

    “Anyone who expresses concern about the very real problems and risks of nuclear power is anti-science and motivated by religious mania.”

    How about some honesty? When have I ever said “anyone”? I’ve frequently said “many”, even “most”. I stand by that, and I don’t see you, or anyone, even trying to refute it.

  14. 314
    Hank Roberts says:

    Wrong place. Off topic. Repetitive. Boring. Argumentative. All about you. Hobbyhorse.

    Otherwise, no complaints.

  15. 315
    SecularAnimist says:

    James wrote: “How could I heed such science, when I haven’t been shown any yet?”

    You have been shown plenty of such science, and you respond by preposterously and baselessly accusing researchers like Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University who published a peer-reviewed, quantitative scientific study of the environmental impacts of alternative energy technologies which found that nuclear power was tied with coal-CCS as the worst, of engaging in deliberate fraud and publishing “garbage” — because his conclusions don’t agree with your ill-informed opinions.

    James wrote: “Go back to the Scientific American article from which you apparently derived that 1% number.”

    You don’t pay much attention to what I actually post here. I have repeatedly posted links to my source for that number, which is a peer-reviewed study from solar thermal manufacturer Ausra, which projects that concentrating solar thermal power plants with a total land footprint of 9600 square miles could power 90 percent of the US grid with power left over to charge a national fleet of hybrid cars. The earlier Scientific American article proposed using photovoltaics rather than concentrating solar thermal power plants, which are more efficient and can also use less costly thermal storage to provide 24×7 baseload power.

    James wrote: “I’ve frequently said ‘many’, even ‘most’. I stand by that, and I don’t see you, or anyone, even trying to refute it.”

    I stand corrected. You have repeatedly said that many and even most critics of nuclear power are anti-science and motivated by religious mania. With all due respect, that’s nothing but a baseless insult which doesn’t merit being “refuted”.

    James wrote: “OK, so how many nuclear plants have been built in the US under the laws & regulations currently in place?”

    No nuclear power plants have been built in the USA for decades because nuclear power is a proven economic failure and investors don’t like to throw money away. Investors especially don’t like to throw billions of dollars into nuclear power when they can see that the much-touted “next generation” nuclear power plants, like the French AREVA-designed plants being built in Finland and France, are years behind schedule, billions of dollars over budget and plagued with the same serious safety problems that have afflicted nuclear power forever. That’s why leaders of the nuclear industry are now saying that they are unwilling to put a shovel in the ground to build even one new nuclear power plant, unless the taxpayers and ratepayers absorb all the costs and all the risks up front — including the risk that the power plants will be obsolete and unprofitable by the time they go online.

  16. 316
    Hank Roberts says:

    So, science education. Here’s an abstract from the last AGU.
    You all know what ANDRILL is and why it’s important. From this page
    http://www.agu.org/cgi-bin/SFgate/SFgate?&listenv=table&multiple=1&range=1&directget=1&application=fm08&database=%2Fdata%2Fepubs%2Fwais%2Findexes%2Ffm08%2Ffm08&maxhits=200&=%22C21B%22
    (abstracts), one stands out as science education:

    AN: C21B-0520
    ANDRILL educational activities in Italy: progettosmilla.it, a case-study of an interactive project
    AU: * cattadori, m
    EM: matteo@trentocitta.com
    AB: In January 2006, the Italian ANDRILL (Antartic Geological Drilling) team selected the project progettosmilla.it and its instructor Matteo Cattadori, a high school teacher and collaborator of Museo Tridentino di Scienze Naturali (TN – Italy) to represent Italy in the ANDRILL-ARISE team. The ARISE (Andrill Research Immersion for Science Educators) comprised a group of teachers from 4 nations (US, New Zealand, Germany and Italy) and is part of the initiative Public and Educational Outreach component of the ANDRILL project. The selected teachers are sent to Antarctica and are actively involved in all stages of the scientific investigation, with the main aim of establishing a bridge between research and the schools in the participating countries. Progettosmilla.it was selected to take part in the first edition of ANDRILL-ARISE held at the American Antarctic base of Mc Murdo during the 2006-2007 austral summer.The project makes use of different tools, techniques and forms of communication-education to stimulate the interest and motivation of students, teachers and organizers/trainers in ANDRILL research and polar sciences in general. Activities are organized and scheduled according to a fixed timetable that cover 2/3 of an academic year and are centered on the site http://www.progettosmilla.it. This site feature daily reports, as well as online activities and various services for users in Italian schools. Among the online materials, more conventional ones are: – summaries of the ANDRILL research and the Antarctic environment; including multimedia (1200 photos, 10 video and audio); resource folders for teachers on 10 different subjects of study; course work for the participating school students. – ITC-oriented materials such as: videoconferencing and chat sessions with Antarctica or between classes, blogs, web-quest, animations and interactive teaching. -Many services are implemented in collaboration with other teachers and allow the ARISE team to perform distant collaborative work between classes of different nations. The project also envisages at least one follow meeting at each participating school with Mr Cattadori and available ANDRILL researchers, in addition to daily support via e-mail to students and teachers to facilitate knowledge transfer or organise teaching activities, such as visits to research centers/museums, contact with other ANDRILL participants/researchers etc. Progettosmilla.it involved 66 registered schools across 18 Italian provinces with a total of 2100 students, 70 meetings at schools and 6000 visits per month to the website.
    UR: http://www.progettosmilla.it/
    DE: 0820 Curriculum and laboratory design
    DE: 0825 Teaching methods
    DE: 0850 Geoscience education research
    SC: Cryosphere [C]
    MN: 2008 Fall Meeting

  17. 317
    Mark says:

    +++James wrote: “I’ve frequently said ‘many’, even ‘most’. I stand by that, and I don’t see you, or anyone, even trying to refute it.”+++

    I refute it James.

  18. 318
    Mark says:

    “I can’t prove it’s less than 1.5 degrees, but what does this have to do with the price of Chinese tea?”

    There you go then.

    It’s more than 1.5 unless you prove it is.

    It’s called “Theory testing”.

    It’s quite important in science.

    You may also have heard “those who have a hypothesis are the ones who must prove it”.

  19. 319
    Mark says:

    “answered SecularAnimist’s question (singular) by answering his eight questions on his eight areas of climate science that I claim is unsettled”

    No, you left the last one out.

    You never said what science was unsettled.

    What ***science*** is unsettled.

    1) CO2 as a GG?
    2) We produce it?
    3) A lot of that is stuck up there?
    4) It is enough to explain the temperature changes?
    5) Nothing else is big enough?

    Those are the sciences that lead to the IPCC report recommendations.

    Which of them is wrong and why?

  20. 320
    Mark says:

    “How could I heed such science, when I haven’t been shown any yet?”

    Uh, solar PV is more efficient than nuclear power since it doesn’t require mining, refining or transporting.

    Wind power doesn’t have residues that are being thought of putting Yucca mountain for 100,000 years so it won’t hurt anyone.

    The next breed nuclear is over budget and not working.

    And nobody wants to pay money to build them, yet there’s plenty of building of PV/wind.

    Even before any large scale roll-out and tax breaks (which ANY factory or power station gets when it opens up), plenty of caravans used PV cells to charge the 12V battery for the caravan trip.

    Heck, I’ve had a solar powered watch for about 15 years!

    Still don’t have a nuclear powered one…

    Mind you, we’ve never seen any science from you that nuclar is good either.

    Just rhetoric that nuclear is great and that it can’t be dangerous because animals that aren’t competing with human habitation are doing OK.

    Well duh. We kill a lot quicker than any non-glowing background radiation…

  21. 321
    Hank Roberts says:

    Science education.

    How?

  22. 322
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #306, and “And I don’t see how anyone can take an unbiased look at the situation, and not conclude that human population levels are a major contributor to the problem; one which, if unchecked, will become even greater in the future”

    Well, I guess one solution to that is if enough people would become celibate for the sake of the life of the world….

    And BTW, RE #186 & 187, “tard” is short for “religitard,” just the type of lingo and rhetoric Mooney and Kirshenbaum (and other commentors above) say will make unscientific America worse, not better.

  23. 323
    Mark says:

    “Science education.

    How?

    Comment by Hank Roberts”

    Actually there WAS a science program when I was a kid called “How!”. ITV or BBC.

    Can’t find any links.

  24. 324
    Hank Roberts says:

    I haven’t found much about the ideas in the book (no, I haven’t read it yet, I’m hoping someone will summarize).

    But I’ve found other lists, a growing number, inspired by talk about the book. Here are some:

    http://yrif.org/2009/07/18/accomodationism-is-false/
    (in the original page they’re hot links):

    “… Like everyone else, I have lots of good ideas about how to solve this problem:

    * bring back “El Mundo de Beakman”
    * new CBS drama “Dr. Quinn, Postdoctoral Researcher”
    * marijuana-growing contests
    * daily ballistic pendulum demonstrations in elementary school classrooms
    * Tacoma Narrows Bridge video put into constant rotation on MTV and MTV2
    * routine in-school showings of pro-biology movies like Underworld: Evolution and Dragonball Evolution
    * new national anthem: “She Blinded Me With Science”

    “Those are great ideas,” you’re thinking…”
    ——

    I didn’t know there was anywhere near that much footage of the Tacoma Narrows bridge, or that _any_ was in color.
    Yet there it is.

  25. 325

    In re Jacob and anyone else who thinks DC is a good idea.

    I was talking to one of my resellers yesterday (I produce software that manages electrical systems and he resells it …) about a customer of his. This customer has a number of small buildings on a fairly large piece of land — something like 60 acres, as I recall. Each of these buildings has it’s own battery storage and it’s own DC to AC conversion. Connecting each building is a DC intertie.

    The electrician in me (license in purse, under ATM card) did a quick calculation and concluded that the intertie has to be rated at 625 amps DC @ 48VDC nominal. It wasn’t — off the top of my head, maybe 100 amps. Not to worry — at 100 amps all of the power would be lost as heat and the wire wouldn’t melt. Note — ALL of the power. Here’s a voltage drop calculator — enjoy: http://www.csgnetwork.com/voltagedropcalc.html

    Do any of you have any idea how fat a cable that is? My cables, which have a maximum load of 350A are as big as my index finger, and I’ve got big hands.

    The problem with DC, especially in a residence, is that the current requirements are just plain HUGE, and the voltages aren’t anywhere near standardized. You want 12VDC? My toaster oven uses 1440 watts — that’s 120 amps and a cable the size of a pinky finger. A/C compressor? 14.4KW inrush — 1,200 amps @ 12VDC. No clue how big in terms of body parts — never worked with wire that large before. If you pick a higher system voltage to get a lower current, the problems with step-up / step-down show up again — and that’s more power lost.

    And forget transmitting those voltages — at full capacity, in just ten feet of wire, I lose 1 1/2% of my power to heat. It’s over 100 feet from the transformer to my toaster oven. I don’t think losing 15% of my power to heating dirt is a good idea, not when I can lose only 0.1% by using 240V AC.

  26. 326
    Hank Roberts says:

    Apt reminder:
    http://scienceblogs.com/mikethemadbiologist/2009/07/corruption_is_endemic_to_the_c.php

    Read the whole thing. He ends for the moment with:

    “There’s been a lot of talk with the release of Unscientific America about how to communicate science to the public. But we have realize that this isn’t an educational problem, but a propaganda one. To combat that, we need organizations–and they will need money–that can competently knock this propaganda down. I’m not sure that’s a role for scientists as much as it is political operatives, since this would go well beyond policy pre scr ip tions. In other words, a scientist could decide to join this effort (and that would be worthwhile), but a scientist could also go to Wall Street (or could have, anyway): this is flat-out political warfare. I’ll have more to say about this later this week hopefully.”

    Links in the original

  27. 327
    Mark says:

    FCH, DC switching is far FAR more efficient nowadays.

    The only reason for 48VDC is because you need an electricians license for more than 60V.

    You will already know that, FCH, but you don’t think that maybe a look at high DC voltage switching may be a good idea now?

  28. 328
    Hank Roberts says:

    And so we ask, why, these days, does one need an electrician’s license to work upwards of 60VDC?

    It makes so much sense to use far higher DC voltages:

    “Transmission losses are proportional to the square of the delivered power and inversely proportional to the square of the power-line voltage” — higher DC voltage suffers far less line loss, so it makes far more sense to use much higher DC voltage; using low voltage DC across the back yard is a line-loss killer.

    So, why?

    Simple.

    DC will stop your heart, at very low voltage.
    The muscle goes one way, CLUNK, and locks in that position as long as the voltage is applied. It can do that well below 100 volts.

    AC even at 110V gives you a 60-cycle muscle jitter, scares the bejesus out of you and makes sparks.

    So we have long distance ultra-high-voltage DC transmission coming, for good reason.

    And switching, yeah, that’s gotten a lot better since the big old knife switches that if opened or closed lackadasically, would arc and weld themselves — so had to be snapped open and closed _very_ quickly.

  29. 329
    Rod B says:

    Hank, way OT but interesting. What you say makes sense — but how does it mesh with’s Edison’s fight for DC and against AC because, for one, the latter was more dangerous?

    Though maybe a little OnT. Might the push for (certain) alt. energy force a lot of normal folks to rise above their breaker box (which most have never even opened) and start playing with high power DC, invertors, convertors, phase controllers, utility-level interconnect, circuit breakers, and disconnects, and big heavy wire draped over the eaves — somewhat dangerously?

  30. 330
    Mark says:

    Wasn’t the death by electrocution staged as a scare to get AC power in or something? Yet that demonstration made the electric chair in the US possible.

  31. 331
    Mark says:

    “AC even at 110V gives you a 60-cycle muscle jitter, scares the bejesus out of you and makes sparks.”

    Don’t you use three-phase voltage supplies over there too?

    Here in the UK we do and, IIRC, it’s 50Hz and 400V.

  32. 332
    Mark says:

    “and start playing with high power DC, invertors, convertors, phase controllers, utility-level interconnect, circuit breakers, and disconnects, and big heavy wire draped over the eaves — somewhat dangerously?

    Comment by Rod B ”

    And that would be new how?

    People already fry their house by fiddling the electric meter. Fry their family by bodge internal electrics of 110/240V AC.

  33. 333
    Hank Roberts says:

    C’mon, people, you can get someone killed by giving bad advice about electricity. There’s no simple safe voltage or type of current.

    Touching conductors with dry skin is relatively less dangerous than a shock from a sharp point that breaks the skin; dry skin is somewhat an insulator.
    Just as an example.

    Either is dangerous. Lack of understanding can be fatal. So can bad advice.

    I rewired our house completely, with guidance from a competent union electrician (it was her last job before she left to start medical school, in fact). The result passed the inspection fine. I learned a lot. Like, put the left hand behind the back before reaching for the electrical box holding the screwdriver in the right hand. Even when you’re absolutely sure you’ve disconnected the power. Why? Paths through the heart from the left hand to ground are more risky than paths from the right hand to ground. Just in case you’re wrong ….

    Every single time.

    Look it up and point to good information.

    Just an example with a brief quote. This is not THE answer. It’s an example from a site that helps people understand how complicated these questions are.

    Would you rather risk stopping your heart cold — clunk — with DC? Or put it into fibrillation — flutter — with AC? Depends. The first aid response to the former (bang on the chest) is different than the first aid response to the latter (get the shock paddles to try to stop the fibrillation).

    Are you prepared? If not then don’t give people advice.

    http://www.mpoweruk.com/shock.htm
    “…
    # A shock from DC is more likely to freeze or stop the victim’s heart.
    # The current range of 100 to 200 ma, is particularly dangerous because it is almost certain to result in lethal ventricular fibrillation….
    … The fibrillation threshold is a function of current over time. For example, fibrillation will occur with 500mA over 0.2 seconds or 75mA over 0.5 seconds.
    # AC is more dangerous than DC causing more severe muscular contractions. AC is also more likely to cause a victim’s heart to fibrillate , which is a more dangerous condition. Safe working thresholds are consequently much lower for AC voltages.
    # It is easier to restart a stopped heart once the source of the electric shock has been removed than it is to restore a normal beating rhythm to a fibrillating heart. A heart that is in fibrillation cannot be restored to normal by closed chest cardiac massage….”

  34. 334
    Hank Roberts says:

    And yes, this kind of thing is on topic — science education.
    Science is the main thing keeping people healthy and improving health.
    Personal health and public health. If you want to get someone thinking about why science matters, ask them about what matters to them personally.

    Much of what may afflict any single person is the kind of thing that only shows up with epidemiology and statistics. Tobacco. Lead. Asbestos. Small particle air pollution. Skin cancer. All these and many more can cause health problems that are horrible for the individual, but causation is only identifiable by scientific work on large populations.

    Do you wonder why teaching science isn’t a high priority?

    Good science interferes with sloppy business practices that are otherwise hard to detect.

    An educated population that understands science is going to be a lot harder to sell crap to. Or so we can hope. It would be worth trying.

  35. 335
    Mark says:

    Would the short version of 333 be “electricity is dangerous”???

  36. 336
    Hank Roberts says:

    PS — did y’all read that site I linked to, all the way to the bottom? Learn anything?

    I did. I’d forgotten this advice my dad gave me when I was about 8 years old, from very near the bottom of that page:

    “When starting work on a supposedly dead circuit make contact first with the back of one hand, so that if a shock should occur, the muscle reaction will not cause the hand to grip the conductor.”

    He’d learned it in the army, watching a guy die because he’d grabbed a DC battery cable and nobody could get his fingers pried loose from it, and they couldn’t get his heart restarted.

    Things we forget … and why it matters to look things up.

    Enough. Science education, that’s what this is about, eh?

  37. 337
    Hank Roberts says:

    No, the short version is:

    “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

  38. 338
    Mark says:

    What does that have to do with AC vs DC, then?

    Nothing.

  39. 339
    Mark says:

    What does that have to do with AC vs DC, then?

    Nothing.

    “When starting work on a supposedly dead circuit make contact first with the back of one hand, so that if a shock should occur, the muscle reaction will not cause the hand to grip the conductor.”

    And I learned that from someone who worked it out and didn’t NEED to see someone get zapped like that.

    Was it Lois Pasteur who zapped the frogs legs?

    He would have figured out that warning without having to see someone get fried by it too.

  40. 340
    Hank Roberts says:

    > The only reason for 48VDC is because you need an
    > electricians license for more than 60V….

    Electricians’ licenses are to protect people who aren’t able to figure out everything by logic; there are still deaths from electrocution.

    Have pity for those lesser beings not up to your standard of excellence, Mark. There are so very many of us in the world. That’s why electricians are, as you first noted, licensed for DC voltages.

    Voltage. The word has a ring to it. Where do you suppose …. Ah!
    http://opal.msu.montana.edu/cftr/IonChannelPrimers/ion_channel_history.htm

  41. 341
    Mark says:

    How many volts do you get crossing the carpet Hank?

    http://www.static-sol.com/articles/static_build_up_on_people.htm

    4000V

    I think you meant to be having your “Eureka” moment about CURRENT.

    RCD’s for example.

    Residual Voltage ????

    No. Current.

    And you don’t need an electrician’s license under 60V.

    If you consider that too dangerous, then get onto your local safety board and get the law changed.

  42. 342
    Mark says:

    “Mark. There are so very many of us in the world. That’s why electricians are, as you first noted, licensed for DC voltages.”

    And there is no need for a license if you’re running at less than 60VDC, which is why rackmounts use 48VDC.

    If you don’t like that and think it unsafe, then get in touch with your congressman/MP/whatever.

  43. 343
    Hank Roberts says:

    Licensing arguments are cut and dried, by your jurisdiction’s rules. No problem. Can’t imagine what you’re suggesting.

    Science education should go beyond simple rules into what’s interesting, like Galvani’s work with frog’s legs.
    Above I wrote:
    > Just an example with a brief quote. This is not THE answer.
    > It’s an example from a site that helps people understand how
    > complicated these questions are…..
    > http://www.mpoweruk.com/shock.htm

    You lecture on current versus voltage; if you read the link I gave as a teaching example, you saw that’s what I pointed to:

    “… While the severity of the electric shock is mainly determined by the current, the current in turn is influenced by numerous variables …. Because of this wide variation in resistance and contact duration, people have been known to survive shocks of 40 KV while others have been killed by less than 50 Volts ….”

    “Punctured skin with cuts, abrasions or burns caused by the electric current itself: No resistance
    … * Working with minor wounds to the hands seriously increases the risk of shock.
    * Once a shock has been initiated, the resulting electrical burn can puncture the skin and increase the shocking current….”
    __________

    Please try to find some way in which we disagree about this, because I certainly can’t find any basis for further argument.

  44. 344
  45. 345
    Rod B says:

    Hank (333), good stuff, especially “C’mon, people, … There’s no simple safe voltage or type of current.”

    Reminds me of ole Al Chichester, an electrician I worked for as a lad. To see if a junction box was hot, he just stuck his finger in.

  46. 346
    Hank Roberts says:

    Science miseducation:www.climatescienceinternational.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=14:text&id=162:foundations-of-climate-scare-crumbling

    Hat tip to Deltoid who found the subject at RealityCheck
    http://wah-realitycheck.blogspot.com/2009/07/chilingar-is-back.html

    Google on the authors’ names to see where this has been picked up as factual.

    The first link above is one of the new faux-official-looking fake “climate” websites.

  47. 347

    Mark writes:

    Was it Lois Pasteur who zapped the frogs legs?

    I thought it was Galvani but maybe Pasteur did it too.

  48. 348
    Mark says:

    “I thought it was Galvani but maybe Pasteur did it too.

    Comment by Barton Paul Levenson ”

    I may have been picking him because he’s french and all french enjoy a lively pair of frogs’ legs in the morning..!

    I suspect you’re right, galvanic response and all that…

  49. 349
    Hank Roberts says:

    > suspect you’re right

    http://opal.msu.montana.edu/cftr/IonChannelPrimers/ion_channel_history.htm

    It’s all there, kids. That’s the kind of page you can find with almost no effort at all, in this modern world. When someone makes a science claim — Look it up!

    When people are talking science, don’t trust what the grownups say. They’re at best telling you what they think. They go by what they remember learning from some dinosaur. That likely was wrong when they learned it, and memory makes knowledge worse over time. Mine’s no better, don’t trust me either. The old dusty facts are in the past and aren’t well recalled, but at least you can find them accurately by looking in references. And you’ll probably find new information when you do, and even more new information when you look again a bit later.

    You can find this stuff out for yourself.

    Adanson, Volta, Galvani, Nobili, Berzelius, Matteucci, Helmholtz, and of course Kermit. All contributed to this work.

  50. 350
    Hank Roberts says:

    Science education concern notes from elsewhere (catching up on the stack of second-hand Science that I get from time to time)

    Q: What is the biggest challenge facing AIP? [American Institute of Physics]
    A: [Fred Dalla, Exec. Director and CEO of AIP] Our primary challenge is to fully embrace and push for the recommendation in _Rising_Above_the_Gathering_Storm_, the[National Academies] report that calls for increased funding for the sciences and science education.

    That report is still being discussed actively in 2009.
    The acronym for it is “RAGS”

    http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&scoring=r&q=National+Academies+%22Rising+Above+the+Gathering+Storm%22&as_ylo=2009


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