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Solar

Filed under: — stefan @ 4 May 2010

The new novel Solar by Ian McEwan, Britain’s “national author” (as many call him) tackles the issue of climate change. I should perhaps start my review with a disclosure: I’m a long-standing fan of McEwan and have read all of his novels, and I am also mentioned in the acknowledgements of Solar. I met McEwan in Potsdam and we had some correspondence while he wrote his novel. Our recent book The Climate Crisis quotes a page of McEwan as its Epilogue. And of course I’m not a literature critic but a scientist. So don’t expect a detached professional review.

In interviews McEwan describes his difficulties in approaching the topic of climate change: “I couldn’t quite see how a novel would work without falling flat with moral intent.”

One solution is that he makes his protagonist who tries to “save the world”, the Nobel laureate physicist Michael Beard, thoroughly pathetic and unlikeable. (Actually quite unlike any scientist I know, but certainly less boring than us at Realclimate.) The only redeeming feature of Beard is his sarcastic humor. When his business partner is worried that claims of global warming having stopped will ruin their grand solar energy scheme, Beard (after expertly refuting the “no warming since 1998″ myth) retorts:

Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Even as we speak, the inhabitants of the island of Carteret in the South Pacific are being evacuated because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. Malarial mosquitoes are advancing northwards across Europe… Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!

This is McEwan’s funniest book. The humour in it is another way around the moral gravity of the subject. In an interview he said:

The thing that would have killed the book for me, I’m sure, is if I’d taken up any sort of moral position, I needed a get-out clause. And the get-out clause is, this is an investigation of human nature, with some of the latitude thrown in by comedy.

Half-way through the novel Beard gives a riveting speech on climate change to an auditorium full of pension-fund managers (representing 400 billion dollars of investments) – a speech that I’d be almost tempted to steal and use verbatim myself at some occasion. But what could have been tedious – a whole lecture embedded in a novel – is turned into a hilarious scene where Beard is engaged in a losing battle with his bowels, trying to continue speaking while swallowing down “a fishy reflux rising from his gorge, like salted anchovies, with a dash of bile”.

McEwan showing off that he can write such a speech better than a scientist is reminiscent of his novel Enduring Love, to which he appended an entire scientific paper about a psychological disorder (De Clerambault’s Syndrome) that allegedly inspired the book. Later he admitted this “paper” was part of the fiction. He’d even submitted it to a journal, but one of the reviewers smelled a rat.

McEwan’s deep (and often playful) affinity to science is one of the hallmarks of his writing and of course one reason why I like his novels. The other is his stunning power of observation; he seems to be reading people’s minds, cutting right through their delusions to get to the deeper truths. In that, his analytic work as a writer resembles that of a scientist.

McEwan is a forceful rationalist and well-versed in science culture, and his witty observations on that are a big part of the fun of his books. In Solar, for example, he pokes some hilarious fun at the social constructivists. Beard chairs a government committee to bring more women into physics, and a social scientist on his committee introduces herself with a speech on how a particular gene is not discovered by scientists, but is rather a social construct.

Beard had heard rumours that strange ideas were commonplace among liberal arts departments. It was said that humanities students were routinely taught that science was just one more belief system, no more or less truthful than religion or astrology. He had always thought that this must be a slur against his colleagues on the arts side. The results surely spoke for themselves. Who was going to submit to a vaccine designed by a priest?

This develops into my favourite subplot. At a press conference of his committee, the journalists are “slumped over their recorders and notebooks” and “depressed by the seriousness of their assignment, its scandalous lack of controversy”, as “the whole project was lamentably worthy”. Beard makes some fairly harmless remarks about the efforts of bringing more women into physics perhaps reaching a ceiling one day, because they may have a preference for other branches of science. The social constructivist explodes (“Before I go outside to be sick, and I mean violently sick because of what I’ve just heard, I wish to announce my resignation from Professor Beard’s committee.”) Predictably, that makes the predatory journalists spring to life, and in the following McEwan spins a completely credible story how Beard’s remarks turn into a media storm where Beard’s love life is dragged into the tabloids and his “genetic determinist” views are linked to Third Reich race theories. One journalist, “more in the spirit of playful diary-page spite”, calls him a neo-Nazi.

No one took the charge seriously for a moment, but it became possible for other papers to take up the term even as they dismissed it, carefully bracketing and legalising the insult with quotation marks. Beard became the ‘neo-Nazi’ professor.

McEwan knows what he is writing about: he became subject to a media storm about his Islam-critical views a few years ago. I read Solar in February (thanks to an advance copy that the author had sent me), in parallel with the unfolding surreal, but real-world media campaign against IPCC, and found that McEwan dissects the mechanisms beautifully.

McEwan says that the idea to make a Nobel laureate the main character of his new book came to him in Potsdam, when attending the Nobel Cause Symposium organised by our institute in October 2007 (and on page 179 his hero Beard returns from a conference in Potsdam). At the time I discussed with him whether this wouldn’t be a good topic for a novel: humanity facing an existential threat that is well-understood by its scientists, but largely ignored by a population who prefers to delude itself in creative ways about the gradually unfolding disaster. McEwan responded: everything there is to say about this situation has already been said by Thomas Mann in his novel Death in Venice.

I’m glad he tackled the topic of climate change nevertheless. It’s McEwan at his best. Intelligent, funny, and full of insights. Read for yourself!

Link: Here is McEwan speaking about Solar (and about his views on climate change) in a TV interview.


726 Responses to “Solar”

  1. 101
    Jonas A says:

    A conversation with Ian McEvan at the Los Angeles Public Library can be found here: http://fora.tv/2010/04/12/In_Conversation_with_Ian_McEwan

  2. 102
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Mircea,
    Horsepuckey. QED

    The proof of scientific method is in the results it produces. Likewise the fruits of that method–one of which you are using to spout your bullshit proof.

  3. 103

    SA 76,

    The Buddha also taught that we will continue to be reincarnated until we work out our karma. Sounds like a religious teaching to me.

  4. 104
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “First, science is not a belief system as it is a methodology for validating beliefs (e.g. hypotheses).”

    I admire the concise clarity of your description of the basic elements of the scientific method.

    With regard to whether “science” is a “belief system”, the problem with this discussion is that it is conflating two different meanings of the word “science”:

    1. The scientific method, which Ray Ladbury elegantly describes as “not a belief system as it is a methodology for validating beliefs (e.g. hypotheses).”

    2. A body of knowledge regarding some aspect of nature. For example, climate science, or neuroscience.

    In the context of the second meaning of “science” that I think it is fair to characterize science as a “belief system”. Some of the “beliefs” that comprise a particular body of scientific knowledge will be strongly validated and others not so much. Some may be properly accepted as “facts” because they are in accord with observation, but may subsequently be proved “wrong” by new observations. There are innumerable examples of strongly held, well-established scientific “beliefs” being overturned as a result of new knowledge.

    Ray Ladbury mentions several “implicit assumptions” that characterize science. Of these, I think the one that distinguishes science from other approaches to “reasoning about” or trying to understand and coordinate experience, is #2: empiricism. The other assumptions that he mentions are found in various “philosophies” which have been far less successful than science. And empiricism is not really an “assumption” — it is an approach to knowing the world.

    True science is radical empiricism. Data trumps everything. Science has been enormously, powerfully effective at uncovering “truth” because science has a clear, simple, well-defined definition of “truth”: what is observed is true.

  5. 105
    Nick Gotts says:

    mircea,
    The consensus is that indeed science is a faith based construct.
    No, it isn’t. This is a claim routinely made by people trying to immunise their own particular faith-based system from criticism; it is in no sense whatsoever a consensus view.

    The argumentation is as follows:
    Science is based on rationality and rational discourse. But believing in rationality vs irrationality is a faith based choice.

    No, it isn’t. It’s a pragmatic choice: rationality and rational discourse demonstrably work. This could, logically, have been otherwise: if the world were the plaything of a capricious deity, the latter could interfere with our reasoning at every point.

    Moreover, the supposed argument is clearly self-defeating: you cannot make or assess an argument without assuming 9provisionally) that rationality and rational discourse work.

  6. 106
    Antechinus says:

    Here’s another take on the novel:

    http://science-professor.blogspot.com/2010/04/solar-flare.html

    Haven’t read it yet myself, but I am a big fan of his other work.

  7. 107
    J Bowers says:

    Completely Fed Up says: “in the case of an electron, we don’t know what one IS, but we know the effect it has”

    I thought that was what I said in the rest of my post :/

  8. 108
    J Bowers says:

    SecularAnimist says: “There are innumerable examples of strongly held, well-established scientific “beliefs” being overturned as a result of new knowledge.”

    Exactly what separates it entirely from religious belief: “Belief revision”.

  9. 109
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “In the context of the second meaning of “science” that I think it is fair to characterize science as a “belief system”.”

    Only in the same way as a dictionary or thesaurus is a belief system.

    The body of knowledge that is “science” (the entity, rather than the practice) is no more a belief than the way to spell colour is c o l o u r.

    Or, indeed, that “A tale of two cities” was a book written by Charles Dickens.

    Do we “believe” Chuck wrote it?

    Do we believe in tables, or do we just get on with knowing they exist and, as it were, eat off our laps?

  10. 110
    Frank Giger says:

    Gotta love how CFU cut out the relevant part of what I wrote – that Columbus refused to believe he had bumped into a new continent, heedless of all evidence to the contrary.

    Some folks learn one thing and hold onto it in a very static manner, taking a fact and turning it into truth – at which point it is very hard for them to ammend or even change their viewpoint on it.

  11. 111
    Stephen Baines says:

    SA #104. No one doubts that scientists believe certain things about nature, but they believe those things because a consensus model has developed about the nature of reality through the effort of thousands of scientist slogging critically through each other’s empirical data. We don’t rehash those efforts because we trust that reality does not change, and we want to develop new knowledge rather than waste time. We trust that those previous scientists have done their job properly, and that if they didn’t inconsistencies in between observation and our models would show up that would ultimately reveal their mistakes. When that happens, Nobel prizes are won by those that reveal them.

    I put to you that “belief-system” has two meanings as well that differ subtley but which can be accidently or deliberately confounded. The term can simply refer to a set of beliefs (arrived at in whatever way), or it can imply a set of beliefs that are simply taken on faith implicitly with no contradiction brooked). It seems many people in claiming scientists have beliefs automatically infer that those beliefs are somehow faith-based. That is not correct.

    And that’s the last I’ll say on the matter.

  12. 112
    Roly says:

    A McDonald@24
    “Older people know that in the 1970’s some scientists believed that another ice age was imminent.”

    Have a read of Spencer Weart’s superb ‘The Discovery of Global Warming’. At the time, a slide towards the next glacial was not a ridiculous proposal given that the newly confirmed Milankovitch cycles predicted it, it was not known if pollution would cause cooling or warming and global temperatures, as far as they could be determined, had been falling for a couple of decades (due to sulphate aerosol pollution).

    However, as Gavin pointed out it was always an open debate without the sort of consensus we now have for AGW.

  13. 113
    SecularAnimist says:

    BPL wrote: “The Buddha also taught that we will continue to be reincarnated until we work out our karma. Sounds like a religious teaching to me.”

    Karma and reincarnation are Vedic teachings that predate Buddha by thousands of years. They were part of the world-view of the society in which Buddha lived, and Buddha spoke in those terms to communicate with the people of the time. The teachings of Buddha don’t depend on them. Indeed, in the Kalama Sutra, Buddha specifically addresses those who don’t believe in an afterlife or in karma, and argues that his teachings still have value to those people, because when practiced they produce well-being in the present life.

    Some expressions of Buddhism are greatly concerned with reincarnation and karma, others are not. Zen Buddhism, which evolved from the interaction of Buddhism and Taoism, has little or nothing to say about such things. In the west today, Buddhist teachings are beneficially applied within the entirely secular contexts of psychology and neuroscience.

    The thing is: they work. They get results. The only way to know that, is to practice them, and see if you get the results predicted. It’s more like the Charles Atlas course than a religion. Do the exercises, and if you see your muscles growing, well then, keep doing them. Practice Buddhist teachings, and if you see your suffering transforming into well-being, then keep practicing them.

  14. 114
    SecularAnimist says:

    Speaking of science fiction and Buddhism … when is somebody going to make a movie of Roger Zelazny’s Lord Of Light ???

  15. 115

    Thomas @ 93:

    In order to have cooling on the backs of the panels, you have to have airflow, and that typically requires convection up the roof surface, and convection up the roof surface requires … heat.

    The last roof I measured was (from fuzzy memory) at 24C at the bottom of the array behind the panels (air temp) and 27C at the top. I believe the open air temperature was about 19C. Front of glass? About 47 to 49C. The temperature difference between the front-of-glass and the air is 28 to 30C, and between back-of-panel and the air is less. QED, better to heat the air in front of the panels (and cool the panels …) than heat the air behind the panels (and cool the panels).

    I’ll have to go through my notes from the Site Report to find the back-of-panel temperatures, but they were well below the front-of-glass temperatures.

  16. 116

    83, greyfox,
    85, Ray,

    Here’s the link to the start of the comment thread: Finnish Paper Comment

    The gist of it was that the guy hasn’t actually finished the paper yet, let alone submitted it to a journal, so the claim that it will be published this summer in Nature is totally bogus. Beyond that, he’s supposedly proving that greenhouse gases don’t do much, using some unique logic and spectrum analysis that no one else has thought of. He’s also quick to take a political stance and put down the IPCC, rather than just stick to the facts and let other people make further inferences based on his work (a sure sign in my book that the guy is on a crusade, instead of doing science). It did get his picture in the paper, though. Well done!

  17. 117
    SecularAnimist says:

    Nick Gotts wrote: “… rationality and rational discourse demonstrably work …”

    With all due respect, I think that “rationality” is highly overrated.

    First, “rationality” is not rigorously defined.

    Second, plenty of pre-scientific approaches to understanding experience were “rational”. They tried to figure out how things are by applying “reason”. Where they failed, and where science has succeeded, is that they did not subject the results of their “reasoning” to empirical observation.

    It is entirely “rational” to believe that the Sun moves around the Earth, which sits still. That belief is entirely in accord with ordinary day-to-day experience.

    That belief was not overturned by “reason” and “rationality”. It was overturned by empirical observation, which showed that the geocentric model could not account for what was actually observed, but the heliocentric model — which requires one to accept the extremely unreasonable and irrational idea that while you think you are standing still you are actually moving through space at high speed — could.

    Subordination of beliefs — including those that result from “rational” thought, as well as those that arise from “intuition” — to objective empirical observation is what defines science, not the ill-defined and subjective notion of “rationality”.

  18. 118
    Jaime Frontero says:

    Taking suggestions?

    I’d like a post on “Earth System Sensitivity Inferred from Pliocene Modelling and Data,” Nature Geoscience, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2010): Lunt, Haywood, Schmidt et al.

    [Response: We discussed some of the concepts previously in Target CO2 -gavin]

  19. 119
    Radge Havers says:

    OK, so I’ve ordered the book, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. But let me get this straight, the main character is a despicable physicist (read climate scientist) who gets his just deserts in the end. Sounds tailor made for the sort of people who deny AGW because Al Gore is “fat”.

    I’d like to see some sci-fi that clearly and soundly skewers deniers in a manner both heroic and humorous.

  20. 120
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “117
    SecularAnimist says:
    6 May 2010 at 10:23 AM

    Nick Gotts wrote: “… rationality and rational discourse demonstrably work …”

    With all due respect, I think that “rationality” is highly overrated.”

    Would you prefer “irrationality and irrational discourse demonstrably DON’T work” and go from there?

  21. 121
    Stephen Baines says:

    With regard to the book…Sound different from other McEwan books. I’m tempted to get it just for the climate lecture. How many good examples are there of such things in the main stream literature? We should do a top ten list – or top three?

    But the description of the whole women /science /deconstructionist subplot has me worried that my wife will go bonkers if she reads it…and she reads everything in the house. Plus, she doesn’t get satire…at all…and she would have no idea what contextualization or deconstruction means…And she has reason to feel a sinned against as a woman scientist.

    Do any women blog here? and have they read SOLAR? How does it all play?

  22. 122
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “It is entirely “rational” to believe that the Sun moves around the Earth, which sits still. That belief is entirely in accord with ordinary day-to-day experience.”

    It is if you look at the consequences: the retrograde motions of the planets. You need something to spin those around and so you get epicycles and the Ankythera machine.

    Occam’s razor comes in and posits a simpler position: appearances can be decieving.

    After all, if you’re on a merry go round, you don’t say that you’re still and the world is whizzing around.

    Rationality requires you pursue the argument like a miser pursues a dropped penny.

  23. 123
    Ray Ladbury says:

    SA, I agree that empiricism is critical to science, but I think that it is important to specify that it is model-guided empiricism. After all, the model determines not just what is interesting to measure, but what CAN BE measured. The thing is that it is a bit odd to call a scientific theory a “belief,” since it is provisional, and, from the point of view of the science (even if not the scientists) is changed as easily as a suit of clothes.

    I tend to view “beliefs” as human constructs, and experience tells us that results of scientific investigation are a solid basis for construction of beliefs. However, it’s rather irrelevant what I believe about the value of the fine structure constant. What matters are the values measured and the errors on those values. If I then go on to “believe” that the value of fine structure constant must be “fine tuned” to lead to the stability of the hydrogen atom, I’ve gone well beyond what the science can tell me, even in terms of a model. I am no longer on solid scientific ground.

    I just think that there is a really big difference between a system where one “believes” something independently or even in spite of the evidence and “believing” something up to the level that the evidence allows. It seems an important epistemological distinction.

  24. 124
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “110
    Frank Giger says:
    6 May 2010 at 8:40 AM

    Gotta love how CFU cut out the relevant part of what I wrote ”

    Gotta love how Frank ignores that he was corrected on an error he made and makes out that it’s my fault.

    But hey, if you accept errors and fix them, you’ll eventually agree with the IPCC and the scientific consensus and you’ll also stop obsessing about Himalayagate and all the other overblown “killer arguments” of denialists.

    And then Frank wouldn’t be able to post.

  25. 125
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “107
    J Bowers says:
    6 May 2010 at 8:29 AM

    Completely Fed Up says: “in the case of an electron, we don’t know what one IS, but we know the effect it has”

    I thought that was what I said in the rest of my post :/”

    I was correcting your idea that we have to believe an electron exists. All we have to believe is that there’s something that has the effects we’ve named “electron”. But the name is no more the thing than any other case of ontic dumping (and often abused).

  26. 126
    Bill Hunter says:

    “Distrust is fed by people creating strawman caricatures of science and knocking them down with feathers all the while claiming that science is some monolithic single-minded dogma. No-one here has ever claimed that ‘scientists can’t be wrong’ or that no scientist ever thought an ice age was imminent in the 1970s. Indeed, George Kukla stills thinks it’s imminent (and he is as wrong now as he was then). The claim being objected to is that there was some huge consensus of scientists who believed that – this is false and has been demonstrated clearly.”

    Actually all scientists believe in wrong things (albeit not always the same wrong things) until one scientist proves them wrong. History show us the number of scientists believing in something means nothing its all in the degree of proof.

    Trust though is built upon consistent standards and discipline. It only takes one bad apple in a barrel to ruin the whole barrel. One can rail on and on about that and never change anything until real steps are taken to get the bad apples out of the barrel.

    [Response: I don’t agree. There are always people around (including scientists) that are wrong. Science progresses despite them because they mostly fail to convince anyone else of their position (‘N-rays’, cold fusion, perpetual motion etc.). There are even a few scientists that have made stuff up (Jan Schon, the Korean stem cell researchers for instance), and they are pretty much ostracised from the community once that is discovered. Those discoveries were found as part and parcel of the attempts to replicate their work by competing teams. That non-replication (in those cases) occurred as part of normal scientific endeavour and no ‘barrels’ were ruined because of it. Science is a competitive environment and not everyone will be correct about everything they publish – but the net effect is to gradually get better approximations to the ‘truth’. That aim is not served by demanding that people you don’t agree with be ‘thrown out’. Instead, it is served by demonstrating that their ideas are not robust or that their conclusions are not sound – and that happens in the literature for the most part. – gavin]

  27. 127
    SecularAnimist says:

    CFU wrote: “Would you prefer ‘irrationality and irrational discourse demonstrably DON’T work’ and go from there?”

    I would prefer that you rigorously define “rationality” and “irrationality”.

  28. 128
    Donna says:

    Kudos to the great discussion on science as a belief system. Very enjoyable and very thoughtful. Used to see that sort of discussion in some other venues but now most are so contaminated that any reasonable comment gets buried among total trash.

    Different subject – what I mainly remember about the question on whether there was going to be another ice age soon was that the real area of interest was that climate could change rapidly. It had been felt that it would take centuries befor you saw a major climate shift. But then evidence was found that climate could change dramatically over a much shorter time frame. I happened to read an old Newsweek article on the topic some time ago which clearly illustrated that there was no consensus that an ice age was imminent but a lot of realization that you couldn’t just assume that if there was a shift, you had lots of time to react.

  29. 129
    Nick Gotts says:

    With all due respect, I think that “rationality” is highly overrated. – SecularAnimist

    With all due respect, you’re completely wrong. Empiricism is completely worthless without rationality – or you could just say that whatever you observe supports what you thought before. Holding a specific belief (e.g., geocentrism) is neither rational nor irrational: it is the grounds on which you hold beliefs, and your readiness to revise them in the light of new evidence or arguments, that distinguishes rationality from irrationality.

  30. 130
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “The thing is that it is a bit odd to call a scientific theory a ‘belief,’ since it is provisional … I just think that there is a really big difference between a system where one ‘believes’ something independently or even in spite of the evidence and ‘believing’ something up to the level that the evidence allows. It seems an important epistemological distinction.”

    I agree. And the point of my preceding comments was that it is precisely because scientific epistemology is founded in empiricism and subordinates “beliefs” (ideas about “how things are”) to observations (actually looking to see “how things are”) that scientific “beliefs” are of a different character than other sorts of “belief”.

  31. 131
    Nick Gotts says:

    I would prefer that you rigorously define “rationality” and “irrationality”. – Secular Animist

    As soon as that is done, you or someone else can demand that we “rigorously define” the terms used in the definition. Defining terms has a point, but only so that those in discussion agree far enough for discussion to proceed.

    That said, my definition of “rationality” would be: basing your beliefs on the best evidence and argument available, and being willing to change them if the balance of evidence and argument shifts.

  32. 132
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Nick and SA,
    Might I present my definition of science as theoretically guided empiricism as a synthesis between your two positions. Pure rationalism as advocated by Aristotle lacks empirical constraints, while pure empiricism can become unfocused. Science uses rationalism to guide empiricism, but subsumes rational speculation to empirical measurement. Win!

  33. 133
    Nick Gotts says:

    Ray,
    Rationalism (in the philosophical sense, contrasted to empiricism) is not the same as rationality, which is contrasted to irrationality. I’d agree completely with your view that science is theoretically-guided empiricism – as is (rational) history, economics, even politics.

    BTW, Aristotle was a sight more empiricist than Plato!

  34. 134
    Actually Thoughtful says:

    Regarding cost effective solar thermal heat:
    We apparently agree that tankless water heaters, from a straight cost benefit analysis, don’t make sense with solar in the room (even though it is a cool technology). We agree that a $5,000 solar water heater would be great. But I am a contractor who must pay my bills to the supply house, pay my employees AND make a living.

    Doug I really appreciate you extolling solar thermal. You are correct, and it is an important message. But you take the industry backwards by pushing for a non-existent price point. The toughest aspect of my work is managing my customers expectations. So when they start out expecting a $10k system for $5k we are so far behind the 8 ball that the opportunity is often lost before the game begins.

    So, to help you understand and so you can use your missionary zeal to push the industry forward, instead of holding us back, I will share my entire business model for a solar hot water heater:

    (These are my costs – no markup. A do it yourselfer is going to pay slight more).

    costs:
    120g storage tank w/heat exchanger $1262
    2 4X10 panels $2,000 (note you can buy panels for $750/each)
    Drainback tank $331
    Pump, fittings and insulation $1,470

    Total for parts: $5,063

    So the $2,500 solar water heater is a pipe dream. The $5k water heater is for the intrepid do it your selfer. You could do it for 4k and lose a panel, but you get double the performance for a 25% increase in cost. We are in no-brainer territory.

    So I am making $5k/install? Hardly.
    The only gilding I do on a system (which is actually NOT gilding) is installing a remote monitoring and adjustment controller. This adds $1,000 to the cost. 10%. But if you really want to know why PV is kicking the snot out of the more efficient technology – it is because you get feedback on what you did. Silent solar is ignored solar. People will pull you off the street to show your their reduced electric bills. So making their solar thermal system something they can brag about is actually the most important part of the job, in terms of growing the industry.

    Costs are now $6053
    Am I making $4k/job? Hardly.

    Labor for a 2 panel retrofit (tearing into drywall) goes like this:
    install panel: 8 hours/panel 16 hours total
    install new water heater: 8 hours
    install drainback tank 4 hours
    wire controller and sensors: 2 hours
    insulated drain back piping (most important detail): 10 hours

    labor is 40 hours at $50/hour $2,000

    OK am I making $2k? Nope.
    We’ve got a $250 drywall patch
    Overhead per labor hour: $18

    So am I making $1k/ install? Yes. IF nothing goes wrong – with my design, with my hardware, with the pump or the controller (which, really isn’t that likely – we expect these systems to have a >30 year lifespan with essentially no maintenance – so once we get them up they tend to stay up.

    My business also does straight plumbing and also radiant in-floor heat. Over the years I have noticed a strong relationship between parts costs and total costs. Take the parts and double it, that is your fair installed cost. I don’t know if that works outside of my trade (and note my internal method to determine what to charge is much more complicated, but I have noticed a strong relationship between the two).

    10% is on the low side of what a sub-contractor can afford. Remember we own that system, and every possible problem for at least 2 years (sometimes 5). We have to have enough money in the pot to troubleshoot and solve any problem that comes up. Say a tank fails. Under warranty. The manufacturer will replace it (after I complete 5 hours of paperwork). But they NEVER pay for the labor to remove it and re-install it. I do. Same for pumps, controllers – everything.

    And at THAT solar hot water heating is still a great deal – especially if you have electric, oil or propane as your current energy source for the water heater. We are still seeing paybacks under 10 years.

    So please keep beating the drum for solar hot water – but help us get the word out about what the actual costs are!

  35. 135

    Secular wrote:

    So what does science “require”?

    In the words of Niels Bohr, “it is sufficient that we can unambiguously communicate the results of our observations”.

    How can that occur without an objective reality?–as it’s hard (for me at least) to see how “subjective realities” can ever be “unambiguous.”

    It may well be that the sense of objective reality does arise out of experience (under which term I am going in this context to include genetic inheritance, just so we can dodge a whole other can of philosophic worms.)

    But it seems to me it still needs to be accepted as a postulate or axiom at least, in order for the whole scientific enterprise to work (in the logical sense.)

  36. 136
    Septic Matthew says:

    Secular Animist, Ray Ladbury, some books you might like to read:

    Deborah G. Mayo, “Error and the Growth of Experimental Knowledge”;

    John Ziman, “Public Knowledge”;

    John Ziman, “Reliable Knowledge”;

    John Ziman, “Real Science”;

    Ian Hacking, “The Social Construction of What?”;

    Elliot Sobel,”From a Biological Point of View”;

    Lawrence Sklar, “Physics and Chance”;

    Roberto Toretti, “The Philosophy of Physics”.

    It’s next to impossible to characterize the difference between scientific knowledge and non-scientific belief in less than a few hundred thousand words.

    Here is a list of some fields of science with propositions (in parentheses) in telegraphic (or twitter) code:

    1. atmospheric research (AGW, SGW, CO2 IR)
    2. bee society (waggle dance)
    3. social construction of knowledge (Darwin, Newton)
    4. evolution (random variation and natural selection)
    5. dinosaurs (60Myr – 200Myr b.p., asteroid)
    6. clinical research (inequity of risks and benefits)
    7. neurophysiology (Hodgkin-Huxley, Izhikevich)
    8. neurophysiology (hippocampal hypotrophy HAM-D)
    9. quantum mechanics (entanglement, wave/particle)
    10. heat transfer (second law of thermodynamics)
    12. sensory acuity (Weber-Fechner law, SDT, color blindness)
    13. epidemiology (eradication of smallpox, ?? polio)
    14. epidemiology (validation of HIV, RT inhibitors)
    15. chemistry (periodic table of the elements, A’s number)
    16. learning (PRE in OC, classical conditioning)
    17. verbal learning (recency, primacy, von Restorff effects)
    18. fuel (octane and cetane ratings, efficiency, pollution)
    19. mapmaking (size of a degree of latitude, longitude)
    20. economics (EMH, Black-Scholes)

    for economics, “EMH” stands for the “efficient market hypothesis”; for sensory acuity, “SDT” stands for “signal detection theory”; for learning “PRE” stands for “partial reinforcement effect”. It’s very difficult to write in short order what all these scientific research fields have in common that unequivocally distinguishes “science” from “non-science”.

    Citing Occam’s razor” is always peculiar since Occam was not a “scientist”: he contributed neither empirical research nor lasting theory. Occam’s razor always leads to extreme reductionism in the short run and is always inadequate in the long run. As Sobel pointed out, it is completely worthless in biology, because biological systems are formed by random variation and natural selection instead of by design.

  37. 137
    Walter Manny says:

    126R

    “[The ‘truth’] is not served by demanding that people you don’t agree with be ‘thrown out’. Instead, it is served by demonstrating that their ideas are not robust or that their conclusions are not sound – and that happens in the literature for the most part.”

    Countering that notion, at least in part, from the controversial EAU e-mails:

    “I got a paper to review (submitted to the Journal of Agricultural, Biological, and Environmental Sciences), written by a Korean guy and someone from Berkeley, that claims that the method of reconstruction that we use in dendroclimatology (reverse regression) is wrong… If published as is, this paper could really do some damage. It is also an ugly paper to
    review because it is rather mathematical, with a lot of Box-Jenkins stuff in it. It won’t be easy to dismiss out of hand as the math appears to be correct theoretically, but it suffers from the classic problem of pointing out theoretical deficiencies…”

    (See: http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=321 for complete context.)

    This particular e-mail raises concerns that there actually is some motivation to get competitors’ stuff thrown out (for fear of “damage”). It is claimed here, often, that the skeptics’ camp has nothing to say because of the paucity of its peer-reviewed literature. Is there any truth to the notion that part of the reason for that paucity is that the peer review process itself is not entirely open to challenges to orthodoxy? I would be interested to know more about how exactly the peer review process works in climate science, and I’m guessing there have been good debates on the issue. Recommendations for a balanced view of it?

  38. 138
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Nick, I’m aware of the difference (and agree on Plato v. Aristotle), and certainly science has a much easier time of empirical study than does history, politics or even economics, in that the subject matter is at some level repeatable.

    The thing is that there were schools of thought well into the middle ages and even persisting up through the Enlightenment that contended that sensory impressions–and so empiricism–were unreliable. They also claimed the mantle of Rationalist, although one might better term them “idealists” now.

  39. 139
    Frank Giger says:

    Hold up. CFU, that’s enough.

    When have I ever posted that I do not believe that the climate trend is one of warming, or that people are the forcing element?

    I’m no “denialist” of the science. I simply do not care for your politics or your absolutist solutions. I also reject the alarmism of “95% of everyone dead in a mass extinction event,” as do most scientists, as being just around the corner.

    My point, which you misquoted from your high horse of smugness is this:

    Some people will grab onto a solitary scientific fact and hold it so closely that it becomes dogma to them, and any new information that modifies it in any way is rejected.

    Columbus, like many people (and I never implied otherwise) knew the world was round. He also had the size wrong.

    When he discovered the Americas, it was clear to everyone he hadn’t crossed to Asia or to India.

    Columbus, however, was one of those guys that once he had a single fact in his head, nothing could modify it in the slightest, no matter how much proof otherwise.

    The “denialists” often fall into this category. “We’re headed towards the next Ice Age if the natural climate cycle is any indication.” True.

    “We’re screwing up the natural curve, causing a double peak that may be (probably will be) higher than the original.” True.

    Some folks grab the first fact and hold on for dear life, without even considering the second.

    That’s my point. How is it incorrect?

    You’re confusing political rejection with scientific rejection, and it is ill considered. Think we’re gonna solve things without cooperating across the political spectrum? Good luck. It isn’t going to happen so long as folks like you treat opposing political views with unvarnished contempt.

  40. 140
    Actually Thoughtful says:

    Apologies if this is a duplicate post
    Regarding cost effective solar thermal heat:
    We apparently agree that tankless water heaters, from a straight cost benefit analysis, don’t make sense with solar in the room (even though it is a cool technology). We agree that a $5,000 solar water heater would be great. But I am a contractor who must pay my bills to the supply house, pay my employees AND make a living.

    Doug I really appreciate you extolling solar thermal. You are correct, and it is an important message. But you take the industry backwards by pushing for a non-existent price point. The toughest aspect of my work is managing my customers expectations. So when they start out expecting a $10k system for $5k we are so far behind the 8 ball that the opportunity is often lost before the game begins.

    So, to help you understand and so you can use your missionary zeal to push the industry forward, instead of holding us back, I will share my entire business model for a solar hot water heater:

    (These are my costs – no markup. A do it yourselfer is going to pay slight more).

    costs:
    120g storage tank w/heat exchanger $1262
    2 4X10 panels $2,000 (note you can buy panels for $750/each)
    Drainback tank $331
    Pump, fittings and insulation $1,470

    Total for parts: $5,063

    So the $2,500 solar water heater is a pipe dream. The $5k water heater is for the intrepid do it your selfer. You could do it for 4k and lose a panel, but you get double the performance for a 25% increase in cost. We are in no-brainer territory.

    So I am making $5k/install? Hardly.
    The only gilding I do on a system (which is actually NOT gilding) is installing a remote monitoring and adjustment controller. This adds $1,000 to the cost. 10%. But if you really want to know why PV is kicking the snot out of the more efficient technology – it is because you get feedback on what you did. Silent solar is ignored solar. People will pull you off the street to show your their reduced electric bills. So making their solar thermal system something they can brag about is actually the most important part of the job, in terms of growing the industry.

    Costs are now $6053
    Am I making $4k/job? Hardly.

    Labor for a 2 panel retrofit (tearing into drywall) goes like this:
    install panel: 8 hours/panel 16 hours total
    install new water heater: 8 hours
    install drainback tank 4 hours
    wire controller and sensors: 2 hours
    insulated drain back piping (most important detail): 10 hours

    labor is 40 hours at $50/hour $2,000

    OK am I making $2k? Nope.
    We’ve got a $250 drywall patch
    Overhead per labor hour: $18

    So am I making $1k/ install? Yes. IF nothing goes wrong – with my design, with my hardware, with the pump or the controller (which, really isn’t that likely – we expect these systems to have a >30 year lifespan with essentially no maintenance – so once we get them up they tend to stay up.

    My business also does straight plumbing and also radiant in-floor heat. Over the years I have noticed a strong relationship between parts costs and total costs. Take the parts and double it, that is your fair installed cost. I don’t know if that works outside of my trade (and note my internal method to determine what to charge is much more complicated, but I have noticed a strong relationship between the two).

    10% is on the low side of what a sub-contractor can afford. Remember we own that system, and every possible problem for at least 2 years (sometimes 5). We have to have enough money in the pot to troubleshoot and solve any problem that comes up. Say a tank fails. Under warranty. The manufacturer will replace it (after I complete 5 hours of paperwork). But they NEVER pay for the labor to remove it and re-install it. I do. Same for pumps, controllers – everything.

    And at THAT solar hot water heating is still a great deal – especially if you have electric, oil or propane as your current energy source for the water heater. We are still seeing paybacks under 10 years.

    So please keep beating the drum for solar hot water – but help us get the word out about what the actual costs are!

  41. 141
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    Alastair,

    Your point is trivial and really doesn’t address what we mean by belief system. The Druids were able to predict something? Great. They did that by observation. Nothing about human sacrifice or tree worship led them to the capacity for prediction.

    You’ve simply turned Reductionism on its head.

  42. 142
    Stephen Baines says:

    BH at 126. “Actually all scientists believe in wrong things (albeit not always the same wrong things) until one scientist proves them wrong.”

    What Gavin said, plus this. A focus on the king pin individual scientist who proves everyone wrong is faulty on two counts. It still requires that all those other mistaken scientist be convinced, which means they are not so stupid, honest and willing to change when confronted with data that conflicts their point of view. Second, even the most influential single scientists who revolutionized their fields built on the work of others which must have been worth something. Finally, it requires that the lone brilliant scientist actually be right. It does sometime happen that a single scientist reveals something truly revolutionary, but they hold sway unless they convince others.

  43. 143
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Actually Thoughtful says: 6 May 2010 at 12:41 PM

    Sincere Thanks for that detailed budget. I was too harsh in my remarks about business plans and I hope I did not insult you.

    I’m also sorry I took the thread so far off topic. Suffice it to say, I’ve got some criticisms I think are supported by numbers in terms of the industry’s proclivity to perfect this technology, leading to the mushrooming costs you describe. A tired old saw, but the perfect can indeed be the enemy of the good; I believe striving for perfection has actually seriously hindered solar DHW deployment here.

    Thanks again for your reflections.

  44. 144
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “If published as is, this paper could really do some damage.”

    Well if someone posts a paper that is horrendously wrong then it will do some damage.

    [edit]

    Please don’t concern yourself with *genuine* concern.

    “Is there any truth to the notion that part of the reason for that paucity is that the peer review process itself is not entirely open to challenges to orthodoxy?”

    So many weasel words.

    How about we turn them about and ask you, Walter:

    “Is it desirable for the peer review process to receive and accept any paper that denounces for any reason the orthodox knowledge and NEVER refuse to print the dissent?”

    Because if the peer review process EVER refuses a paper of any quality (or none) that challenges the orthodoxy, there would then be some truth to your question.

    But if it is impossible to refuse a challenge to the orthodoxy, then there is no peer review.

    [edit – please confine your points to substantive ones]

  45. 145
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Occam’s razor always leads to extreme reductionism in the short run and is always inadequate in the long run”

    Please define “extreme”.

    Please prove that it always does so.

    Please prove reductionism is always inadequate in the long run.

  46. 146
    Completely Fed Up says:

    Frank, didn’t you read the stuff you wrote?

    Plenty of “don’t do anything! the IPCC are wrong! it’s all a scam! they aren’t doing science!”.

  47. 147
    SecularAnimist says:

    Nick Gotts wrote: “… it is the grounds on which you hold beliefs, and your readiness to revise them in the light of new evidence or arguments, that distinguishes rationality from irrationality.”

    It sounds like you are defining “rationality” as the willingness to relinquish or modify beliefs when they are not in accord with observed facts. Which is what I mean by a commitment to empiricism. If I understand you correctly, then I don’t think we have any real disagreement. It’s more a matter of defining terms.

    The problem I have with the use of the terms “rational” and “irrational” is that they are often used in a different way, and even the opposite way — i.e. that ideas or beliefs that are not in accord with currently accepted ideas and beliefs are “irrational”.

    If you had told a typical scientist in 1850 that the speed of light is the same for all observers regardless of their motion relative to the light, because when an observer is moving his clock will slow down and his yardstick will get shorter, that scientist would probably not have thought you were “rational”. He would have thought you were insane.

    And more than one “climate change skeptic” has posted comments on this site to the effect that it is “irrational” to believe that puny human activities could alter the Earth’s climate, and therefore the empirical findings of climate science must be rejected.

    When someone encountering an anomalous phenomenon says “there must be a rational explanation for this!” what they often mean is “there must be an explanation that is in accord with my existing beliefs” rather than “there may be an explanation that is in accord with what I am observing but which will require me to abandon my existing beliefs”.

  48. 148

    Stephen @ 121:

    But the description of the whole women /science /deconstructionist subplot has me worried that my wife will go bonkers if she reads it…and she reads everything in the house. Plus, she doesn’t get satire…at all…and she would have no idea what contextualization or deconstruction means…And she has reason to feel a sinned against as a woman scientist.

    A lot of people don’t get satire and the rest of what you described.

    And not to worry — I feel plenty sinned against.

    Do any women blog here? and have they read SOLAR? How does it all play?

    I think I’m one of the few. I’ve not read “Solar” yet, and since I’m in the solar biz now (passed my “Sell By” date at IBM …) I definitely plan to read it. I’ll be interesting to see how the renewable energy versus environmentalism aspects play out. One thing that’s really hard to capture is how bimodal the solar consumer tends to be — tree huggers on one side, coming apocalypse adherents on the other. The only people in the middle are geeks and hobbyists, for the most part. Them and folks who just want to live in the country and can’t afford the cost of power lines being strung out to their place.

    I hope the author captured all of the bizarrity that is the solar industry, because it’s one odd bunch of people!

    — Julie.

  49. 149
    SecularAnimist says:

    Frank Giger wrote: “I simply do not care for your politics or your absolutist solutions.”

    “Absolutist solutions”?

    What in the world are you talking about?

  50. 150
    Actually Thoughtful says:

    Doug,
    Thank you for moderating your tone. My goal is simply to help people understand that solar hot water is not magic. It is a technology that is time-tested and pays for itself, all the while reducing your carbon footprint, energy requirements and dollars spent. While you consider it “only plumbing” – most plumbers are not qualified to install these systems correctly, and compared to PV, these systems ARE complicated (they have to be to avoid freezing). Even with all that taken into account, they pay for themselves about twice as fast as a PV system. With PV the expense is the parts, with solar thermal, the expense is in the labor.

    This is an interesting discussion. And not really off topic as 1) the post is called Solar after all. And 2) the surrounding discussion is the philosophy of science and how we know what we know.

    Into that discussion I interject true facts (verifiable, non-controversial) regarding the real-world cost of installing solar hot water systems.

    These facts show that your ideal “Really cheap solar hot water” is not possible as you define it. The PARTS ALONE cost the $5k max you think is necessary to move the American market.

    I sense (I hope incorrectly) that my providing the step-by-step analysis of why a drain back system costs what it costs is lost on you, and you will go right back to making the false claims about how to “do solar” and continue to add confusion to the marketplace.

    Which, I think, underscores the challenge faced by climate scientists – when somebody gets an idea in their head, they are very, very resistant to changing that idea, even when the facts to the contrary and the logic are presented in painstaking detail.


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