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Preview: Ronald Bailey: Reason Magazine articles.

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Updated: 2018-04-20T00:00:00-04:00

 



How We Screwed Up Nuclear Power

2018-04-12T06:00:00-04:00

Half a century ago, nuclear power was on track to out-compete fossil fuels around the globe, which would have reduced the price of electricity, the amount of harmful air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change. Then came a dramatic slowing of new construction and research into safer and more efficient nuclear reactors.

According to Australian National University researcher Peter Lang, the '60s and '70s saw a transition "from rapidly falling costs and accelerating deployment to rapidly rising costs and stalled deployment." Had the initial trajectory continued, he writes in the journal Energies, nuclear-generated electricity would now be around 10 percent of its current cost.

In a counterfactual scenario featuring increasing uptake of nuclear power from 1976, Lang calculates that by 2015 it would have replaced all coal-burning and three-quarters of gas-fired electric power generation. Thus, over the past 30 years we could have substituted 186,000 terawatt-hours of electricity production, avoiding up to 174 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions and 9.5 million air pollution deaths. Cumulative global carbon dioxide emissions would be about 18 percent lower, and annual global carbon dioxide emissions would be one-third less.

The Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey opened in 1969. It cost $594 million (in 2017 dollars) and took four years to build. America's newest nuclear plant, at Watts Bar in Tennessee, opened in 2016. It cost $7 billion and took more than 10 years to complete.

What happened? Anti-nuclear activism and regulation.

The 1971 D.C. Circuit Court case Calvert Cliffs required the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to comply with a mandate to prepare environmental impact statements for proposed actions. The AEC reacted by suspending all licensing for nuclear power plants for 18 months while it devised new rules. In a 2017 essay, Carnegie Mellon historian Andrew Ramey notes that this was "the opinion which had the most far-reaching and detrimental effect on the development of nuclear power"; it is now regarded as "nuclear opponents' biggest court victory." But it wasn't the only hurdle.

The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 abolished the AEC, handing its regulatory powers to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That entity's sole focus on safety resulted in lengthening construction times for plants from four to 14 years. Tightening regulations meant orders for new nuclear reactors had slowed to a trickle even before the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979. Subsequently, plans for nearly 60 more reactors in the U.S. were scrapped.

"The benefits forgone cannot be recovered," Lang concludes, "but future benefits can be increased by amending the policies that caused the cost increases and slowed the deployment of nuclear power."




We Broke the Climate and We Can Fix It

2018-03-17T06:00:00-04:00

It's way past time for humans to start devising an emergency back-up planetary cooling system.

Should man-made global warming turn out to be faster and more intense than currently projected, we need a plan for how to respond. Geoengineering offers one possible answer.

Broadly speaking, climate geoengineering proposals fall into two categories: carbon dioxide removal and solar reflection. The first involves diverting carbon dioxide from power plant emissions or soaking it up directly from the atmosphere and then burying it underground. The second category—the chief focus of some surprisingly informative congressional hearings in November—entails marine cloud brightening or stratospheric aerosol dispersal.

Marine cloud brightening would involve spraying saltwater into the air as a way to make low-level clouds over the ocean, thus reflecting back more incoming sunlight. As Kelly Wanser, the principal director of the Marine Cloud Brightening Project at the University of Washington, testified during those November hearings, experiments using natural materials, and with localized effects lasting only a couple of days, could "be highly controlled and performed under existing regulatory and jurisdictional frameworks."

The other method involves injecting tiny bright particles 7 to 31 miles up into the stratosphere. The 1991 eruption of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines, which hurled 22 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the air, created a natural solar reflection experiment. The resulting global haze reflected enough sunlight to lower the average temperature of the planet by nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit for two years.

To offset man-made warming, a group organized by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold has proposed constructing a set of five 18-mile hoses held up with helium balloons to pump liquefied sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. The group estimated 10 years ago that the project would cost a mere $150 million to build and $100 million a year to operate, highlighting the fact that climate interventions don't necessarily have to come from the U.S. government.

Sunlight reflection methods could provide humanity with more time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But deploying them is a long-term commitment, since a halt would lead to an immediate steep increase in global temperatures. Given these considerations, the time to explore the risks and benefits is now.




Victor Frankenstein Is the Real Monster

2018-03-04T06:00:00-05:00

Conceived and written 200 years ago by the 19-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley during a dreary summer sojourn to Lake Geneva, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus is the story of a scientist who, seduced by the lure of forbidden knowledge, creates new life that in the end destroys him. When the novel debuted, it created a stir for its lurid gothic style and unusual conceit. Early reviewers scolded the then-unknown author, complaining that the slim volume had "neither principle, object, nor moral" and fretting that "it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated." Yet almost from the moment of its publication, Shelley's narrative has been pressed into service as a modern morality play—a warning against freewheeling scientific experimentation. That reading is pervasive to this day in policy conversations and popular culture alike, cropping up everywhere from bioengineering conferences to an endless string of modern cinematic reboots. There's just one problem with the common reading of Frankenstein as a cautionary tale: It flows from a profound misunderstanding of the original text. 'I Saw and Heard of None Like Me' In the anonymously published 1818 edition of the book, an adolescent Victor Frankenstein dreams of discovering the elixir of life, imagining "what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!" Later, enraptured by the study of natural philosophy at the university in Ingolstadt, he devotes himself to the question of whence the principle of life proceeded. "Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world," he exults. Frankenstein's arduous study of physiology and anatomy are eventually rewarded by a "brilliant and wondrous" insight: He has "succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life" and is "capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter." Working alone and in secret, Frankenstein sets about creating a human being using materials gathered from dissecting rooms and slaughterhouses. Because it is easier to work at a larger scale, he decides to make his creature 8 feet tall. (The average height of Englishmen was then about 5 and a half feet.) After two years of work, Frankenstein on a late night in November ignites "a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet." Although he "had selected his features as beautiful," in that moment he is overcome with revulsion and runs out into the city to escape the "monster" he has brought to life. When Frankenstein slinks back to his lodgings the creature is gone, having taken his coat. Frankenstein promptly succumbs to a "nervous fever" that confines him for several months. Later we learn that the creature, whose mind was as unformed as a newborn baby's, fled to the woods where he learned to survive on nuts and berries and enjoy the warmth of the sun and birdsong. When the peaceful vegetarian encountered for the first time people living in a village, they drove him away with stones and other missiles. He found refuge in a hovel attached to a cottage. There he learned to speak and read while observing from his hiding place the gentle, noble manners of the De Lacey family. The lonely creature comes to realize that he is "not even of the same nature as man." He notes: "I was more agile than they, and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded their's. When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me." The fact that the creature learned to speak and read in a period of just over a year indicates that he is far more intelligent than human beings, too. In any case, he eventually unravels the mystery of his origins by reading notes he finds in the coat he took from Frankenstein. After even the De Laceys reject him as monstrous, the creature despairs of ever finding lov[...]



Humanity Isn't Destroying the Natural World. We're Changing It.

2018-02-25T06:00:00-05:00

Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction, by Chris D. Thomas, PublicAffairs, 320 pages, $28 Humanity isn't destroying the natural world. We're changing it. And in many ways, our changes are creating richer and more vibrant ecosystems. That's the persuasive and liberating argument advanced by the York University conservation biologist Chris D. Thomas in his riveting new book, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. "It is time for the ecological, conservation and environmental movement—of which I am a life-long member—to throw off the shackles of a pessimism-laden, loss-only view of the world," he writes. Instead, he thinks a thriving world of exotic ecosystems and biological renewal is at hand. By the time readers have finished this carefully researched treatise, they should agree. Thomas' thesis isn't exactly the conventional wisdom. In her Pulitzer-winning 2015 book The Sixth Extinction (Henry Holt and Co.), journalist Elizabeth Kolbert argues that current species losses are comparable to the five prior mass extinctions that have occurred in the past 540 million years. In each case, around 75 percent of then-living species were killed off. Kolbert and the biologists she cites suggest not just that a sixth such event is underway but that human activities are the chief cause of the disaster. Last year, the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich made a similar argument in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluding that all trends are "painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life." Inheritors of the Earth brilliantly demonstrates that there are good scientific reasons to doubt these dire prophecies. Thomas forthrightly acknowledges that the "'extinction crisis' is real" and "we are in the process of losing many species that existed before humans arrived on the scene." Researchers estimate that 178 of the world's largest mammal species disappeared before 1500. Since then, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that 2 percent of mammals, 1.6 percent of birds, and 2 percent of amphibians have gone extinct. "This loss is devastating," Thomas writes, "but, luckily, it isn't the whole story." He observes that by 2000, human beings accounted for about 30 percent of the biomass of all land mammals, with our domestic livestock making up 67 percent of the rest. Due to human activities, the total amount of mammal flesh is "over seven times greater than it was before humans came along." And this does not take into account the billions of domestic poultry we raise. The upshot is that "the natural state of the world—to be full of large herbivorous animals and carnivores that eat them—continues to the present day." Meanwhile, as people grow wealthier and agriculture more productive, fewer folks have to hunt for food or cut down forests for farms, so more space opens up for the return of wild nature. As a result, European bison have grown from a single wild population to 33; beaver populations have increased by 14,000 percent since mid-century; deer and wild boar in Europe have quadrupled since 1960. Predators are increasing, too. For example, European gray wolf and lynx populations have risen by more than 300 percent since the '60s. Similarly, the white-tailed deer population in the United States went from 300,000 in the 1930s to over 30 million today; bison have gone from just over 1,000 in 1890 to more than half a million today. Black bears were locally extinct in many parts of the contiguous United States in 1900; more than 300,000 are now estimated to roam the lower 48 states. Killed off in the eastern U.S. by the 1930s, mountain lions now number more than 30,000 and are spreading eastward. "Once we stop killing them, large animals come back, rejoining the 90-plus percent of smaller ones that never disappeared in the first place," observes Thomas. Humanity is also creating a new Pangaea by moving thousands o[...]



Defending the Enlightenment

2018-02-21T09:58:00-05:00

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker, Viking, 556 pages, $35 For Immanuel Kant, the central theme of the Enlightenment—that great 18th century movement that emphasized the power of reason—was Sapere aude. This is usually translated as "Dare to know" or, more loosely, "Have the courage to use your own understanding." Enlightenment thinking engendered liberal democracies, civil liberties, free markets, religious toleration, and free speech; it helped us move out of the abject poverty, pervasive violence, and appalling ignorance that marked most of human history. In Enlightenment Now, the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker defends those ideals, arguing that "we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing." He also worries that many of us take for granted the Enlightenment ideals and institutions that have made our relatively peaceful and prosperous world possible. Political leaders and their intellectual fellow travelers, he warns, seek power and position by appealing to some of the less admirable "strands of human nature: our loyalty to tribe, deference to authority, magical thinking, the blaming of evildoers." In an earlier book, The Better Angels of Our Natures, Pinker showed that violence has been declining for centuries. That is clearly evidence of considerable moral progress. Pinker broadens his focus in Enlightenment Now to document the many other aspects of human flourishing that progress has made possible. For example, no country had an average life expectancy above 40 years in 1800; now the global average is above 71. In 1947, 50 percent of the world's population was undernourished; now the number is 13 percent. "The gross world product today has grown almost a hundredfold since the Industrial Revolution was in place in 1820, and almost two hundredfold from the start of the Enlightenment in the 18th century," Pinker points out. In 200 years, the rate of extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90 per day) has declined by 90 percent, with half of that decline occurring in the past 35 years. As the economist Angus Deaton once wrote, "Ever since people rebelled against authority in the Enlightenment, and set about using the force of reason to make their lives better, they have found a way to do so, and there is little doubt that they will continue to win victories against the forces of death." Pinker notes that rising incomes correlate with the growing respect for "emancipative values" such as women's equality, free speech, gay rights, and participatory democracy. In the past 25 years, the percentage of Americans who support equal rights for women and for racial and sexual minorities has grown to a majority. Similar trends are occurring throughout the world. In 1950, almost half of the world's countries had laws that discriminated against ethnic and racial minorities. By 2003, less than a fifth did. By 2016, consensual homosexuality had been decriminalized in 121 United Nations member states. It was still illegal in 73 countries, but that was down from 92 countries just a decade earlier. Pinker also demolishes intellectually fashionable eco-pessimism. Environmental problems, like other problems, are being solved by the human ingenuity unleashed by such Enlightenment institutions as science and markets. "As the world gets richer and more tech-savvy, it dematerializes, decarbonizes, and densifies, sparing land and species," Pinker writes. "As societies have become healthier, wealthier, freer, happier, and better educated, they have emitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, saved the ozone layer, and peaked their consumption of oil, farmland, timber, paper, cars, coal, and perhaps even carbon." As poor countries get richer, expanding forests and falling levels of pollution will ensue in those nations too. And in the last two centuries, literacy [...]



Donald Trump: Energy Crony

2018-01-09T10:00:00-05:00

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump vowed repeatedly to "drain the swamp" in Washington, D.C. Nearly a year into his term, it's clear the president instead intends to flood the bog with energy mandates and subsidies.

In October, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to pour funds into conventional coal-fired and nuclear electricity generation plants. Perry argued the government needs to prop up these money losers in order to stabilize the power grid. As R Street Institute energy analyst William Murray points out, this amounts to a "creative" ploy "to fulfill promises made directly by President Donald Trump to coal mine owners during the election campaign, even at the cost of free markets—a supposed core belief among Republicans and conservatives of all stripes."

Why are coal-fired plants being shuttered? A June 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research study estimates that the "declining price of natural gas relative to coal, on an energy-adjusted basis, explains 92 percent" of reduced production. Furthermore, Steve Huntoon, a former president of the Energy Bar Association, notes in the trade publication RTO Insider that natural gas power plants are more reliable than coal-fired generators with respect to ensuring grid resilience.

Coal isn't the only energy source favored by the president. During the campaign, he frequently assured Midwestern voters of his support for ethanol mandates. And in November, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt bowed to corn-state senators' demands and approved a final rule that continues the Renewable Fuel Standard, by requiring refiners to blend 19.24 billion gallons of biofuels into the nation's fuel supply in 2018. That mandate is part of the path to blending 36 billion gallons of biofuels into transport fuels by 2022, a target set out in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

The stated purpose of that law is "to increase the production of clean renewable fuels" as a way "to move the United States toward greater energy independence and security." But in the past decade, U.S. domestic oil production has soared from 5 million to 9.4 million barrels per day while the price dropped from $130 to below $60 per barrel.

Meanwhile, the ethanol mandate burns up 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop and spurs farmers to plow an area the size of the entire state of Iowa. In 2016, analysts at Turner, Mason and Co. estimated that this pushed up refinery costs by as much $15 billion. Of course, drivers must pay more at the pump to cover these expenses—even as the prices of gas and oil remain low.




Authoritarians to the Left and Right

2017-12-16T06:00:00-05:00

The divide between people on either side of the political aisle is now larger than at any point since 1994.

The share of Democrats expressing very unfavorable attitudes toward Republicans grew from 16 percent to 44 percent over that period, according to Pew Research Center. The percentage of Republicans holding very unfavorable views of Democrats rose from 17 percent to 45 percent.

New research in Public Opinion Quarterly identifies what could be a significant factor fueling this rise: Americans' authoritarian tendencies.

Authoritarians are predisposed toward a group-centrism that is grounded in a need for order and certainty. Partisanship, like religion, is a social identity that offers the psychological benefits of tribal membership.

The Colgate University political scientist Matthew Luttig analyzed four sets of survey data that probe respondents on these qualities. His combined results cast doubt on the conventional political science wisdom that Republicans are significantly more prone to authoritarianism than Democrats. To the contrary, he finds that authoritarians "gravitate to both parties' extremes."

In the surveys, authoritarianism is measured via a series of questions about child-rearing beliefs. In essence, they ask which one of a pair of values people see as more important for children: obedience or self-reliance; independence or respect for elders; curiosity or good manners; and being considerate or being well-behaved. Setting aside the issue of whether the questions measure learned cultural dispositions or innate temperament, they do enable researchers to assess the authoritarian values held by respondents. Intensity of partisanship, meanwhile, is measured by asking respondents whether they consider themselves to be "strong" Democrats or Republicans.

Luttig reports that in the 2012 American National Election Studies survey, 13 percent of white Democrats chose the "authoritarian" response to each of the four standard questions, while 19 percent of white Republicans did the same. On both sides, the more authoritarian picks a person made, the higher the probability that he or she would also identify as strongly partisan. (Among Democrats, strong partisanship rose from 34 to 48 percent. Among Republicans, it went from 30 to 49 percent.)

Interestingly, Luttig observes that "some of the strongest members of the Democratic Party are highly authoritarian Whites, individuals typically believed to be members of the White working class." Because many of them are also socially conservative, he speculates that this group may over time decide the GOP "provides a better 'match'" for their values.

Either way, Luttig concludes, "partisan hostility in America today is not entirely rooted in different views of the world, ideological principles, or cultural disagreements." At least part of the problem is people's "powerful but substantively vacuous authoritarian needs to belong."




The Mere Distinction of Colour

2017-12-01T12:00:00-05:00

A nation that began by declaring that all men were created equal kept, at the same time, more than half a million black people in bondage. "The Mere Distinction of Colour"a moving new exhibit at Montpelier, the home of President James Madisonexplores this unhappy historical paradox as it shows how people who were treated as property lived and worked as families and as a community.

The reconstructed cabins in the South Yard, just a couple of hundred feet from the main house, feature videos where the descendants of the plantation's enslaved community speak vividly about the struggles and triumphs of their ancestors. Owing in part to the numerous gambling debts incurred by his wastrel stepson John Payne Todd, Madison died owing money and did not free any of Montpelier's enslaved people.

The heartrending film Fate in the Balance, screened in the cellar, centers around Ellen Stewart, the 15-year-old daughter of one of Dolley Madison's maids. An actress playing the role of Stewart describes how Dolley sold off members of her family, one by one, to pay Todd's debts.

Madison's former body servantPaul Jennings, who purchased his own freedomhelped Stewart escape on a boat sailing to New Jersey. But the vessel was caught, and Dolley sent Stewart to Baltimore to be sold. Fortunately, an abolitionist campaign raised enough money to buy her freedom.

Visitors should certainly see the main house, but it's the life stories of the enslaved people that will stick with you when you leave.




The Noble, Misguided Plan to Turn Coal Miners Into Coders

2017-11-25T06:00:00-05:00

Even in coal's heyday, Appalachia was still relatively poor and backward. At the time, policy makers blamed its lack of economic development on mountainous inaccessibility. Their solution: End the region's isolation with massive infrastructure projects, most notably a network of four-lane highways that would connect the region to the rest of the country. So in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Appalachian Regional Development Act, creating the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Over the subsequent five decades, ARC has spent $27 billion (in 2015 dollars) to build nearly 3,000 miles of the Appalachian Development Highway System that is threaded throughout the mountains. The highways, constructed along officially designated "Corridors," are splendidly engineered—and largely empty. They utterly failed to spark an economic renaissance. Despite tens of billions in federal money, the "region's performance relative to the national average is similar to its position in the 1960s," reported economists Carl Kitchens and Taylor Jaworski in a 2016 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. They calculate that the gigantic transportation investment boosted incomes in the region by just $586 per capita. Far from being discouraged by this result, policy makers are at it again. This time, they want to drag Appalachia into the 21st century over newly installed information superhighways, known—God help us—as "eCorridors." Here's the plan: First lace the mountains with high-speed broadband fiber-optic networks to connect the region to opportunities in the outside world. Then train unemployed miners in the art of computer coding. The first step aims to generate new jobs by luring companies to the area; the second is supposed to let people stay put and work. I grew up as a hillbilly in central Appalachia, on a dairy farm in Washington County, Virginia. Like many folks, I left to seek an education and better opportunities beyond the confines of the Mountain Empire. I returned for a week in June to cruise the mountainous Corridors and meet with some of the people in Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia who are trying to jumpstart a hillbilly tech revolution. But instead of a burgeoning tech sector fed by glorious new fiber-optic cables, I found pure deja vu: Underutilized, debt-saddled infrastructure projects and an ever-growing number of Appalachians being expensively trained for jobs that are unlikely to show up. Hope or Hype? "Silicon Holler: How workforce retraining is bringing tech jobs to Appalachia," blares the headline in TechRepublic. "Can an Appalachian 'Silicon Holler' rise in coal's shadow?" asks Reuters. The Guardian informs us that the fiber-optic cables being built across Kentucky could transform coal country into "a new place on the map the hopeful call 'Silicon Holler.'" The hype began as far back as 1999, with a project launched by Bristol Virginia Utilities (BVU), the city agency in charge of providing water, sewer, and electricity services to the 17,000 residents of Bristol, Virginia. That year, the utility proposed and the City Council approved a fiber-optic network to connect its eight electric substations and all city offices, including City Hall, public schools, libraries, and the police and fire departments. That might have been seen as a logical extension for a utility company. But mission creep was inevitable, and in 2002, BVU began deploying a fiber-to-the-home network for residential customers. At the same time, it started to expand its OptiNet broadband network into Southwestern Virginia using revenue bonds, plus grants from the federal and state governments and tobacco settlement money—for a total of $132 million spent. In the end, OptiNet managed to pick up 13,000 customers and get spun off into an independent authority with its own board of[...]



It's OK to Edit Your Kids' Genes

2017-10-15T06:00:00-04:00

This summer, American scientists reported successfully editing out a harmful gene from the genomes of human embryos. Researchers led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov—a reproductive biology specialist at the Oregon Health and Science University—used CRISPR gene editing to achieve this result. The process enables biologists to precisely cut out and replace bits of the DNA that make up the genes of microbes, plants, and animals. In this case, the researchers mended a deleterious gene variant that causes enlarged hearts and often results in sudden death early in life. Unlike earlier research in China, the Oregon team reported getting the repaired genes into every cell in 42 out of the 58 embryos they edited. In most of the cases, the process did not create new off-target mutations. Since Congress has banned the National Institutes of Health from funding research using gene-editing technologies in human embryos, this proof-of-concept research was underwritten by private foundations and universities. The embryos developed for three days and were never intended to be used to create pregnancies. Other researchers a month later challenged the results, suggesting that they need further validation. But for now Mitalipov stands by his findings. "We've always said in the past gene editing shouldn't be done, mostly because it couldn't be done safely," Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Richard Hynes told The New York Times. "Now it looks like it's going to be done safely soon." If the technique does prove harmless, such gene-edited embryos could be allowed to develop into people who would no longer pass down their familial genetic afflictions to subsequent generations. Naturally, this advance displeases the anti–"designer baby" claque of bioethicists. "I think it's extraordinarily disturbing," Marcy Darnovsky, who directs the Berkeley-based Center for Genetics and Society, told NPR. "It's a flagrant disregard of calls for a broad societal consensus in decisions about a really momentous technology that could be used [for] good, but in this case is being used in preparation for an extraordinarily risky application." "If irresponsible scientists are not stopped, the world may soon be presented with a fait accompli of the first [genetically modified, or G.M.] baby," David King said in the same NPR report. King, who heads the U.K.-based group Human Genetics Alert, wants "governments and international organizations to wake up and pass an immediate global ban on creating cloned or G.M. babies, before it is too late." But in February, a panel of 22 scientists and other experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences issued Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance, which refused to call for a ban on gene-editing embryos. The panel concluded that "heritable germline genome editing trials must be approached with caution, but caution does not mean that they must be prohibited." Germline refers to genetic material being passed from generation to generation through the sperm and egg. In August, the American Society of Human Genetics and 10 other reproductive medicine organizations concurred with a statement saying that there's no reason to prohibit the sort of embryo-editing research undertaken by the Oregon team. That said, given safety and ethical issues, the statement also argued that at this time it is still "inappropriate to perform germline gene editing that culminates in human pregnancy." Ultimately, the gene-editing skeptics are calling for something akin to state-imposed eugenics. Early 20th century Progressive Era eugenicists used government power to forcibly prevent parents, via nonconsensual sterilizations, from passing on traits deemed deleterious. Now, 21st century eugenicists want the government to require people to risk passing along genes that the parent[...]



The Rise of Atomic Humanism

2017-09-10T06:00:00-04:00

"Only nuclear can lift all humans out of poverty while saving the natural environment," Michael Shellenberger said in his keynote address at the June meeting of the American Nuclear Society. "Nothing else—not coal, not solar, not geo-engineering—can do that." This, he declared, is one of the first principles of "atomic humanism."

Shellenberger is the founder of the green group Environmental Progress, which argues that the best tool for fighting climate change is the no-carbon power generated by nuclear reactors. His speech offered a tour through the sorry history of the environmentalist movement's falsehoods and exaggerations about the technology.

It begins with Ralph Nader, who started training activists on how to stop new nuclear plants in the 1960s. ("A nuclear plant could wipe out Cleveland," Nader once declared, "and the survivors would envy the dead.")

The Sierra Club soon jumped in. In his speech, Shellenberger quoted a secret 1974 memo from then–Executive Director Michael McCloskey: "Our campaign stressing the hazards of nuclear power will supply a rationale for increasing regulation…and add to the cost of the industry." The strategy worked to perfection.

And what was their alternative to nuclear? Nader argued that we didn't need it because we "have a far greater amount of fossil fuels in this country than we're owning up to…the tar sands…oil out of shale...methane in coal beds." In 1976, Gov. Jerry Brown (D–Calif.) advocated for the construction of a coal-fired plant in place of the proposed Sundesert nuclear power station.

We've paid the price. According to Shellenberger, California's carbon dioxide emissions are now 2.5 times higher than they would have been had the planned nuclear plants been allowed to go forward. Meanwhile, nearly 2 million people die annually as a result of pollution from fossil fuel power generation, making it almost 2,000 times more dangerous than nuclear power.

Worst of all, many prominent environmentalists actually worried that nuclear power would lead to overpopulation. "It'd be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of cheap, clean, and abundant energy because of what we would do with it," Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins said in 1977. When Martin Litton, the Sierra Club member who launched a campaign in the mid-1960s to kill the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California, was asked if he worried about nuclear accidents, he reportedly replied, "No, in fact, I really didn't care because there are too many people in the world anyway."

Atomic humanism sounds a lot better than that.




Go Ahead, Put Salt on Your Food

2017-07-01T20:41:00-04:00

"Salt," an unknown wit once said, "is what makes things taste bad when it isn't in them." In that sense, government nutrition nannies have spent decades urging Americans to make their food taste bad.

In June 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued proposed guidelines to the food industry to reduce the amount of sodium in many prepared foods. The agency, noting that the average American eats about 3,400 mg of sodium daily, wants to cut that back to only 2,300 mg. That is basically the amount of sodium in one teaspoon of salt. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) similarly advises that "most Americans should consume less sodium" because "excess sodium can increase your blood pressure and your risk for a heart disease and stroke."

There's one problem: Evidence has been gathering for years that government salt consumption guidelines might well kill more people than they save.

The research does suggest that some subset of Americans may be especially sensitive to salt and would benefit from consuming less. Among those are folks with ancestors from Sub-Saharan Africa. But for most people, the risk lies elsewhere.

A 2014 meta-analysis of more than two dozen relevant studies, published in the American Journal of Hypertension, concluded that risk of death appeared to be lowest among individuals consuming between 2,565 mg and 4,796 mg of sodium per day, with higher rates of death above and below that consumption range. As noted above, the FDA itself reports that average daily consumption is 3,400 mg—right in the middle of the ideal range.

In April, a new study by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine, who followed more than 2,600 people for 16 years, once again debunked the dire claims about salt. "We saw no evidence that a diet lower in sodium had any long-term beneficial effects on blood pressure," said lead researcher Lynn Moore. "Our findings add to growing evidence that current recommendations for sodium intake may be misguided."

In fact, the authors found that study participants who consumed less than 2,500 mg a day had higher blood pressure than those who consumed more. They also pointed out that other research has also found that people who consume very high or very low amounts are both at greater cardiovascular risk. "Those with the lowest risk," they noted, "had sodium intakes in the middle, which is the range consumed by most Americans."




Are Robots Going to Steal Our Jobs?

2017-06-06T06:00:00-04:00

"The reality is that we are facing a jobless future: one in which most of the work done by humans will be done by machines. Robots will drive our cars, manufacture our goods, and do our chores, but there won't be much work for human beings." That's the dire warning of software entrepreneur and Carnegie Mellon engineer Vivek Wadhwa. Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates agrees: Technology "will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set," he has predicted. Gates has also proposed taxing robots to support the victims of technological unemployment. "In the past," software entrepreneur Martin Ford declared last year, "machines have always been tools that have been used by people." But now, he fears, they're "becoming a replacement or a substitute for more and more workers." A much-cited 2013 study from the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment struck an even more dire note, estimating that 47 percent of today's American jobs are at risk of being automated within the next two decades. The conventional wisdom among technologists is well-established: Robots are going to eat our jobs. But economists tend to have a different perspective. Over the past two centuries, they point out, automation has brought us lots more jobs—and higher living standards too. "Is this time different?" the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist David Autor said in a lecture last year. "Of course this time is different; every time is different. On numerous occasions in the last 200 years scholars and activists have raised the alarm that we are running out of work and making ourselves obsolete.…These predictions strike me as arrogant." "We are neither headed toward a rise of the machine world nor a utopia where no one works anymore," said Michael Jones, an economist at the University of Cincinnati, last year. "Humans will still be necessary in the economy of the future, even if we can't predict what we will be doing." When the Boston University economist James Bessen analyzed computerization and employment trends in the U.S. since 1980, his study concluded that "computer use is associated with a small increase in employment on average, not major job losses." Who is right, the terrified technologists or the totally chill economists? This Time Is Always Different In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I refused to grant a patent to William Lee for his invention of the stocking frame knitting machine, which sped up the production of wool hosiery. "Thou aimest high, Master Lee," she declared. "Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars." In the early 19th century, English textile workers calling themselves Luddites famously sought to protect their livelihoods by smashing industrial weaving machines. The economist John Maynard Keynes warned in 1930 that the "means of economising the use of labour [is] outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour," resulting in the "new disease" of "technological unemployment." In 1961, Time warned: "Today's new industries have comparatively few jobs for the unskilled or semiskilled, just the class of workers whose jobs are being eliminated by automation." A 1989 study by the International Metalworkers Federation forecasted that within 30 years, as little as 2 percent of the world's current labor force "will be needed to produce all the goods necessary for total demand." That prediction has just two years left to come true. This year the business consultancy McKinsey Global Institute issued a report that analyzed the potential impact of automation on individual work activities rather than entire occupations. The McKinsey researcher[...]



Will Florida Ban Fracking?

2017-05-23T06:00:00-04:00

Florida produces very little oil and natural gas. According to the state's Department of Environmental Protection, it has just 64 wells in operation, which gave the world a total of 2 million barrels of oil and 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas in all of 2016. None of those were drilled using fracking techniques.

So why did the Florida Senate consider a ban in March? It turns out that familiarity breeds acceptance, according to a January 2017 working paper by the Oregon State University sociologist Hilary Boudet and her colleagues. In the Sunshine State, the inverse seems to be true.

The authors wanted to find out how Americans who live next door to fracked wells feel about them, compared to folks who don't. So they analyzed nationally representative survey data probing the attitudes of nearly 20,000 people in nine waves between 2012 and 2016. They combined the survey results with data about how close respondents actually lived to oil and gas wells.

Among respondents who said they were familiar with fracking, which involves injecting high-pressure fluids into wells to create minute cracks that release trapped oil and natural gas, the researchers found "generalizable empirical evidence that those who are located closer to new unconventional oil and gas wells are more familiar with and more supportive of hydraulic fracturing." In other words, folks who live closer to wells are more likely to come down on the side of yimby—Yes In My Backyard.

Conversely, people living farther away from oil and gas development are more likely to associate fracking with negative impacts. Respondents in Denver (12 miles away on average from a newly active well) are more supportive of fracking than respondents in Orlando (400 miles away on average). So Floridians say nimby—Not In My Backyard—even though fracking is nowhere near their backyards.

Combined with directional drilling, this form of unconventional well development has boosted daily U.S. oil production from 5 million barrels in 2008 to nearly 9 million barrels now, and it has increased annual U.S. natural gas production from a plateau in 1970–2005 at 18 trillion cubic feet to over 27 trillion cubic feet today. This helped to cut the prices of these fossil fuels to about half of what they were a decade ago.




The Left Is Rebranding Environmental Regulations As Environmental Protections

2017-05-12T13:30:00-04:00

"Trump signs order at the EPA to dismantle environmental protections," declares a March 28 headline in The Washington Post. An April 27 article in the Post described an "effort to remove environmental protections." Two days later, another Post article stated that Trump's term in office has "already seen multiple rollbacks of environmental protections." The Post isn't the only publication pushing such language. Here's The New York Times: "President Trump's unfortunate and misguided rollback of environmental protections has led to a depressing and widespread belief that the United States can no longer meet its commitment under the Paris climate change agreement." Here's The Huffington Post: "Environmental Protections Save Lives, Create Jobs And Strengthen The Economy." Here's The New Yorker: "It's clear that we're about to witness the steady demolition, or attempted demolition, of the environmental protections that have been put in place over the past five decades." In each of those instances, the words "environmental protections" could easily have been replaced by "environmental regulations." I'm speaking anecdotally here, but in recent months both mainstream and activist media have seemed to use "environmental protections" more often and "environmental regulations" less. Aristotle defined rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." And one of the chief paths of persuasion, he argued, comes "when the speech stirs their emotions." So which word has more emotional appeal, regulation or protection? Regulation denotes "a law, rule, or other order prescribed by authority, especially to regulate conduct." Protection is defined as "the act of protecting or the state of being protected; preservation from injury or harm." Regulation is coercive, perhaps punitive; protection is warm and fuzzy. As I puzzled over this apparent shift in terminology, my mind naturally turned to the retired Berkeley linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff. Lakoff has spent years thinking about how political progressives could become more persuasive with the public. To achieve that, he wants progressives to engage in what he calls "honest reframing." "Reframing is telling the truth as we see it—telling it forcefully, straightforwardly, articulately, with moral conviction and without hesitation," he writes. Lakoff believes that conservatives have been masterful at rhetoric, ah, framing. He cites the phrase "tax relief," which implies that taxes are an affliction and the politicians who favor it are heroes. People on the left, he argues, need to reframe progressive taxation as requiring "those who benefit most should pay their fair share." So I was not surprised to discover that in January Lakoff wrote a short essay titled "The Public's Viewpoint: Regulations Are Protections." He begins by citing Trump's assertion that he intends to "cut regulations by 75 percent, maybe more." Then Lakoff asks, "What is a 'regulation'?" He goes on to assert that from the viewpoint of corporations, "'regulations' are limitations on their freedom to do whatever they want no matter who it harms." (Never mind that killing customers is usually not a good business strategy.) On the other hand, Lakoff claims that the public views a regulation as being "a protection against harm done by unscrupulous corporations seeking to maximize profit at the cost of harm to the public." Lakoff's solution? "Imagine the NY Times, or even the USA Today headline: Trump to Eliminate 75% of Public Protections," writes Lakoff. "Imagine reporters finding out and reporting all over America exactly what protections would be removed." One of his three key take[...]