how not to write a skeptical pop sci article

January 5, 2013

national ignition facility

Generally, I don’t like making two posts linking to the same source back to back, but in the case of the egregious wall of sophomoric bile vomited by Charles Seife, I’m going to let myself make a rare exception. As written here many times before, making fusion energy a viable power source is hard. Really, really hard. It involves very complicated high energy physics that we’re only now starting to understand. When the first ideas for commercial fusion plants were just germinating, we didn’t have the technology or the knowledge base to accurately map out the challenges and as a result, as the machines, computers, and research advance, we’re only now starting to get a more accurate picture of what it would take to make industrial fusion work. But if you listen to the fact free rants of Seife, the only people supporting the idea of viable fusion are cranks, nutjobs, or naive futurists divorced from reality, and every research project from ITER to the NIF is ran by idiots who have no idea what they’re doing and exist only to waste taxpayer money.

While I’d love to tackle scientific arguments as to why this is the case, Seife presents exactly no factual reasoning behind his obnoxious and snide dismissals. The only science we get is in his critique of cold fusion — which, of course, lured LENR cranks to the comments — before which he presents Martin Fleischmann of Fleischmann and Pons fame as a leading fusion researcher whose zeal for fusion fueled the rest of the field apparently populated by idiots and cranks who convince gullible politicians to waste billions on their pipe dreams. This is like naming a random cancer quack who achieved notoriety with a failed experiment and then arguing that all oncology and basic cancer research is being done by ignoramuses just like him. Not only is this a childish and incredibly ignorant thing to do, but this should’ve alerted Slate’s editors to tell Seife that his column isn’t going to be published unless he can actually get his facts together rather than fume about money and politics and call every researcher in the field incompetent in what reads like an insult comic’s act on amateur night with the punchlines left out of the final product.

If Seife wants to call all of fusion research crap, it’s certainly his right to do so. But as he does, it becomes apparent that his entire argument boils down to "if you can’t make this work right now, you’re all a waste of space and this whole idea is impossible." I suppose this is an easier stance to take than figuring out that fusion research has been funded with a fraction of a fraction of the pittance that governments force themselves to give to basic science or actually studying how all of the proposed confinement and ignition methods work, as well as why milestones are delayed as energy levels go up and reaction times increase. Why bother with any of that when you could just act like a political talk show pundit? Nature doesn’t give a damn about your dreams, hopes, guidelines, or budgets. Basic research like fusion has a solid theory behind it and no amount of foaming at the mouth about time and money is going to make the theory any less solid. Likewise, no amount of unwarranted insults is going to make scientists discover things any harder. If a pop science writer doesn’t understand that, he doesn’t understand how science works.

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  • TheBrett

    The only science we get is in his critique of cold fusion — which, of course, lured LENR cranks to the comments — before which he presents Martin Fleischmann of Fleischmann and Pons fame as a leading fusion researcher whose zeal for fusion fueled the rest of the field apparently populated by idiots and cranks who convince gullible politicians to waste billions on their pipe dreams.

    No, he doesn’t call Fleischman a “leading fusion researcher”. He just says he is the most famous of all the cranks that the fusion research field has drawn – and he may be right (I’m divided on whether it’s him or Andrea Rossi). Here is the section in question:

    For one thing, the history of fusion energy is filled with crazies, hucksters, and starry-eyed naifs chasing after dreams of solving the world’s energy problems. One of the most famous of all, Martin Fleischmann, died last year.*

    Vicious critiques only work when you actually critique something that’s there.

    If Seife wants to call all of fusion research crap, it’s certainly his right to do so. But as he does, it becomes apparent that his entire argument boils down to “if you can’t make this work right now, you’re all a waste of space and this whole idea is impossible.”

    No, his argument is that after six decades of fusion research (from different angles), fusion is still “fifty years away”. And the current projects (Livermore and ITER) are just the same type of thing: lots of hype, billions of dollars spent, ballooning costs – and for what? As he points out, ITER isn’t even planning to get to “sustained ignition and burn” anymore, and that was the main goal of the project!

    I suppose this is an easier stance to take than figuring out that fusion research has been funded with a fraction of a fraction of the pittance that governments force themselves to give to basic science or actually studying how all of the proposed confinement and ignition methods work, as well as why milestones are delayed as energy levels go up and reaction times increase.

    Seife knows about that, because he wrote a book on it (which I’ve read, and which is good). And it was hardly a “pittance” – the National Ignition Facility at Livermore Laboratory cost $4 billion.

    But honestly, why are we throwing money down this six-decade sinkhole? We have no lack of good energy alternatives, including solar panels and better fission reactors. And some of the promises made by fusion power (such as being “clean”) are exaggerated – the reactions using deuterium eventually irradiate the vessel containing the reaction, requiring it to be replaced and disposed of like any other radioactive waste. The only truly clean fusion power involves fusing Helium3, which is far, far more difficult.

    Basic research like fusion has a solid theory behind it and no amount of foaming at the mouth about time and money is going to make the theory any less solid.

    I hear that antimatter rockets have a solid theoretical underpinning as well. That doesn’t mean that it’s actually possible to engineer one – and the example we have of fusion happening in the natural world (the Sun and other stars) doesn’t fill me with confidence. The Sun’s estimated reaction rate is incredibly low, with the only reason that it produces as much energy that it does being due to its incredible size.

  • gfish3000

    He just says he is the most famous of all the cranks that the fusion research field has drawn…

    Ok, I can give you that. Maybe I was too hasty with this, but then again, to equate fringe pseudoscientists or cranks with physicists who actually do serious research published in peer reviewed papers is ridiculous.

    No, his argument is that after six decades of fusion research (from different angles), fusion is still “fifty years away”.

    As explained, fusion is hard without the gravity of say, 1 × 1030 kg of mass at your disposal. You have to contain all sorts of superheated plasma currents in magnetic fields and as we’re going further along, we start touching new physics and realizing new problems. So what, do we now just give up and not try to find solutions to problems because people like Seife and yourself are tapping your foot and going “well, where’s my fusion reactor? I don’t have all day here!”

    ITER isn’t even planning to get to “sustained ignition and burn” anymore, and that was the main goal of the project!

    Right now ITER is trying to maneuver itself into actually being able to complete a reactor and light it up. Political issues in science funding do not make the science any less valid.

    And it was hardly a “pittance” – the National Ignition Facility at Livermore Laboratory cost $4 billion.

    The U.S. Army spends twice that on giving scientists grants to try out blue sky ideas one or two of which may be useful 10 to 15 years down the road if any at all. In the scope of the federal budget, this is a tenth of one percent. We spend five times that much on pizza delivery in the United States and several times that in subsidies for oil and coal. It’s a pittance if you think about the sum in terms other than a bank account for a big company.

    But honestly, why are we throwing money down this six-decade sinkhole? We have no lack of good energy alternatives…

    Fusion is at the level of basic research right now and basic research isn’t about giving up in favor of doing what’s easier, it’s about actually figuring out how things work. NIF and ITER are working on feasibility, always had, always made it crystal clear that this was their goal. The point is to figure out whether fusion is possible as a commercial power source and if Seife wants to tackle the hype, I agree, keep the promises down until you have sustained burn. But to declare that the entire field is full of idiots and frauds wasting our money because they’re still at the proof of concept phase is excessive and childish.

    … reactions using deuterium eventually irradiate the vessel containing the reaction, requiring it to be replaced and disposed of like any other radioactive waste.

    Correct, however, the vessel’s half-life is far shorter than spent fission fuel and the waste is far less dangerous. Instead of taking thousands of years to fall to safe levels, the radiation here would be practically undetectable in 300.

    I hear that antimatter rockets have a solid theoretical underpinning as well. That doesn’t mean that it’s actually possible to engineer one…

    It absolutely is. It’s just not viable without major advances in antimatter production or harvesting. But again, this is basic science and the goal of basic science to to find out what’s possible and what it takes to make something happen if it’s theoretically sound, not to work on a 3 to 5 year to profitability and commercial licensing plan of a startup.

  • TheBrett

    The point is to figure out whether fusion is possible as a commercial power source and if Seife wants to tackle the hype, I agree, keep the promises down until you have sustained burn.

    In fairness to Seife, that’s mostly what he does in Sun in a Bottle: splash water on some of the hype, including pointing out that even once we figure out how to do “sustained ignition and burn” in a reactor, that’s still a ways from it being a commercially viable reactor.

    So what, do we now just give up and not try to find solutions to problems because people like Seife and yourself are tapping your foot and going “well, where’s my fusion reactor? I don’t have all day here!”

    I was too harsh.

    It absolutely is. It’s just not viable without major advances in antimatter production or harvesting. But again, this is basic science and the goal of basic science to to find out what’s possible and what it takes to make something happen if it’s theoretically sound, not to work on a 3 to 5 year to profitability and commercial licensing plan of a startup.

    Well, no. My point was that just having a theoretical understanding of how an antimatter rocket might work is not the same thing as it being possible to actually engineer one, and that is true – we don’t know whether it’s possible to build a viable antimatter rocket, or whether “sustained ignition and burn” is truly possible outside of gravitationally held “bottle”.

  • gfish3000

    So if Seife’s point is “cut down on the hype until you get it working” why does he so viciously go after labs that do legitimate research into figuring out the feasibility of fusion?

  • TheBrett

    His commentary just tends to be vicious in general. Plus, in some cases, he’s angry over the broken promises – like ITER’s ballooning costs despite reductions in goals, or how Livermore has been promising fusion for years (while on the side, they’ve been more discretely selling it as a way to simulate fusion bomb tests).

  • skeptickle

    “…the only people supporting the idea of viable fusion are cranks,
    nutjobs, or naive futurists divorced from reality, and every research
    project from ITER to the NIF is ran by idiots who have no idea what
    they’re doing and exist only to waste taxpayer money.” Ran??

    This is NOT true! Hot fusion is a well funded make-work program for white collar welfare recipients. This is obvious by the incredibly LONG (62 years) time they’ve been feeding at the trough… And given the public nothing of value.

  • skeptickle

    Nicely argued if somewhat long winded Brett. And yeah, these guys bristle whenever anyone suggests their big science welfare checks are… welfare checks.

  • skeptickle

    Fusion was first promised by the fission wizards – particularly those on the Matterhorn Project at Princeton in 1951… Who in a real world gets a 60 year pass on having to actually produce something useful while suckling at the public teat?

  • gfish3000

    It’s ignorance like this that hurts R&D budgets in advanced economies and keeps real leeches in their jobs. If it’s too much trouble for you to understand that computing advances, new materials, new manufacturing techniques, and new software comes from basic science research projects with very ambitious goals, forgive me if I don’t take your rambling about areas of science you don’t understand being “make-work” and “welfare checks” seriously.

  • skeptickle

    62 years of “ambitious goals” at $$billions of TAXPAYER dollars and we get nothing of social value. This is why these projects are headed for the scrap heap. New materials are discovered and FAR cheaper coming from university materials programs – not over-fatted golden calves like ITER and NIF.

  • gfish3000

    Neither ITER (which is an international project) or the NIF are being shut down so they’re not exactly heading for the scrap heap. And if you were to put their funding in perspective, you’d see that it’s a pittance since billions of dollars spread out over 62 years for such an ambitious project is pretty pitiful, especially to build something that’s never been build before.

    New materials are discovered and FAR cheaper coming from university materials programs…

    What is your data to support this conclusion? How many of these new materials have been commercialized?