Expertise and Ego

I sincerely hope that ‘experts’ of all stripes — and not merely economists — take note of your admonition toward humility.

The kind of humility you advocate, however, is something one rarely sees among the ‘experts’ — within government and think-tanks and academia — who routinely proclaim to us all that they know “the truth” and that the proper role and responsibility for the rest of us is simply to shut up and do as they say.

That may not be completely fair: it may be that the apparent hubris of expertise is exaggerated by reporters and a news media that is besotted with the idea of ‘expertise’ and, therefore, amplifies the voices of the most self-certain while muting the voices of the humble.  It may be that many or most experts are, indeed, well  aware of their self-limitations but that their voices are not the ones that the media chooses to tell us about; or, it may be that the various caveats and disclaimers with which they accompany their assertions never make it through the filter of the reporters’ perceptions into the news stories and analyses written about them.

And, it may also be that those, in particular, who choose to go into government are self-selected from among the most hubristic precisely because their very self-confidence leads them to the belief that they should also have the power to impose their chosen “solutions” upon others.

Regardless of the reason, however, what is presented as ‘expertise’ for public consumption is, all too often, the farthest thing from your humble ideal:  it is, rather, most often arrogant; and it is, far too frequently, also condescending.

And that arrogance and condescension is exacerbated by the fact that such experts frequently extend their claims to ‘expertise’ beyond what is justified by their training and experience.  A medical researcher will discover some (perhaps tentative) connection between a chemical or a food and some health state, like heart disease.  They will then proclaim not only that the evidence of such connection is irrefutable (Eat this and you will die!) but that a particular policy prescription — Ban that chemical! — is, by extension, mandatory; and they will claim that their policy prescription is simply a matter of “following the science” and, therefore, also wholly within their ‘expertise’, as if such policies have no other economic or practical or emotional or moral dimensions beyond the narrow realm of “science” that might require consideration.

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Solar Power, Revisited

Ten years ago, I wrote a post about the cost-ineffectiveness of solar power. Things have changed.

Today, we have a solar power array on our house that has, over the two years of its operation, supplied about 86% of our overall power needs and saved us about 6% on our electricity bill after accounting for the cost of the array, itself.

That glowing summary, however, reflects not actual day-to-day array performance but only an annualized average, made possible by a “net metering” policy that allows us to use the local electric grid as a “battery” and that provides some fairly generous — if hidden – subsidies to help defray the cost of the system.

That glowing summary also hides some fairly strict logistical limits that put an upper bound on how much solar power the grid can support without the net metering policy falling apart.

This is my report on my two years of experience with solar power, along with some musings on its benefits and constraints.

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Some Numbers on Solar Power

I have a home construction project looming in my future, and I decided that would be a good opportunity to upgrade my environmental footprint (and reduce my energy bills) by adding a solar electrical generation system to the mix. So I did some research on what it would cost me and what I could expect to gain from it. My summary: we aren’t there yet.

How many years would it take, saving $41/year, to pay for the $1088 purchase price of the solar panel?

Answer: ~26 years

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No, It’s NOT Obvious

Back in August the editorial board of The Boston Globe published a diatribe about the stupidity of anyone who couldn’t see how wonderful the world would be if only we would reduce the speed limit back to 55 miles per hour.

OK, that wasn’t really what the editorial said. It was only implied. But their sanctimony annoyed me enough to prompt this response.

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National Scolds

In October of 2004 Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus published a critique of the environmental movement, which they claimed was too focused on technical and policy arguments over regulations and not focused enough on presenting a positive vision that inspired people to their cause. They had become the dour uncle focused on limits and sacrifice, presenting a grim future with a message of “just say no” to progress.

…The critique of the modern environmental movement — that it fails to project a positive vision for America’s future (and the world’s) for people to embrace — is only half right. More to the point is that environmentalists have become not just national doomsayers but national scolds.

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Perpetual Motion Redux

Ref: Mr. Baylis’ critique of the extraction of energy from moving vehicles using magnets and a street wire grid.

Mr. Baylis’ critique, while valid in every respect, was primarily economic and will therefore leave some readers (particularly those whose belief in the laws of supply and demand and pricing are ephemeral, and those who believe that moral righteousness is reason enough to ignore any and all economic considerations) thinking that overcoming those merely economic obstacles should be a high priority if the result is “free” energy.

However, there is a more fundamental matter of physics with which any such scheme must contend: the energy is not free.

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Clean Air Through the Looking Glass

Oh the delicious irony of modern politics. In 2001, after deciding that it’s previous attempt to comply with an EPA dictate for cleaning the air by oxygenating gasoline had resulted mainly in dirtier water, the state of California banned the oxygenating compound MBTE and requested a waiver from the EPA regulation to avoid a mandated switch to ethanol. The state’s argument, that there were other ways to achieve the objective, may or may not have merit — it’s not clear how much of the dispute over that is science and how much is politics. But when, in the past, has that argument even mattered to Democrats — and the California government is pretty much entirely composed of Democrats — when an environmental regulation was at stake?

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Arsenic and Old Rhetoric

In a world of boundless resources, where no worthwhile project went undone for lack of funding or attention, we could eliminate arsenic and a host of other environmental poisons to arbitrarily small tolerances with impunity. In the world outside of utopian fiction, however, limited resources must be allocated, and what is used for one thing is unavailable for another….It may be that as a society we conclude that reducing arsenic levels is the best use for those resources, but that conclusion is neither obvious nor unanimous and has nothing to do with science.

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