Yves here. Reader Henry Moon Pie yesterday posted a comment that some readers asked to be featured as a post proper, and we are honoring these requests. Henry Moon Pie discussed how what we call science too often has come to be anything but. We see that most clearly in medicine, where both the profit motive and “publish or perish” has allowed methods of at best limited utility, like randomized control trials and relative risk reduction, to be treated as stand-alone gold standards, as opposed to approaches to be used in combination with other analyses.
Henry Moon Pie uses an example from the world of climate change remediation to show how soi-disant scientists are touting direct air carbon capture, an approach they ought to recognize is a fraud.
By Henry Moon Pie
A tale of two Sciences:
Today’s links give us pictures of two different Sciences. One version strives to advance humans’ understanding of the world around them by taking into account both human history and human limitations. The other cares about neither of those things but seeks only to be a dutiful servant of corporate and political power.
Direct air carbon capture is example of the latter. Rather than adjust our social, economic and political systems once we learned of the damage we were doing to our Earthly home with our wasteful consumption, the scientists engaged in developing direct air carbon capture, generously funded by corporate and political power, claim to offer a high-tech solution that will allow all the affluent to continue to “live their best life,” flying all over the world on annual or semi-annual pilgrimages and driving four-seater, giant pickup trucks from their exurban ranchettes into their cushy office jobs in the city center.
The problem is that the solution is idiocy. This article highlights five reasons carbon capture can never succeed, but this one is the clincher:
Running a carbon capture system is incredibly energy-intensive. It essentially requires building a new power plant to run the system, creating another source of air and carbon pollution. That undermines the whole goal of capturing carbon in the first place.
Our country emits roughly 5 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. Removing 1 billion tons of that through direct air capture would require nearly the entire electricity output of the United States.
It’s also important to consider the scale of what would be needed. The Energy Department recently announced $12 million to fund “direct air capture” projects. It also touted the possible removal of 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
To put this in perspective, the largest corporate polluter in 2018 was responsible for releasing 119 million tons of CO2 equivalent — and that’s only one of them.
Apparently, the scientists who are claiming the direct air carbon capture is a viable solution are much better at the mathematics of their bank accounts than they are at calculating what it would take to solve the carbon problem with their technology.
A very different scientific approach is detailed in the article about the “taming” of food crops. It begins with Natalie Mueller, a professor at Washington University not of physics or chemistry but of archaeology. She is seeking to better understand how humans first began to develop agriculture.
Mueller’s study, published April 7 in PLOS ONE, focuses on work with a plant called erect knotweed, a member of the buckwheat family that was domesticated by indigenous farmers in eastern North America. The domesticated sub-species is now extinct; humans don’t eat it anymore. But Mueller and others have previously uncovered caches of seeds stored in caves, charred plant remnants in ancient hearths, and even the seeds of erect knotweed in human feces, clear evidence that this species was once consumed as a staple food.
These knotweed seeds are hard to germinate. As gardeners who try to grow some herbs know, there are many seeds in nature that don’t germinate all that easily. Some require stratification (exposure to cold) or scarification (scratching through the seed coat), processes mimicking what seeds left in the wild undergo. How, Mueller wondered, did early gardeners get these difficult seeds to germinate.
So Mueller got her hands dirty and put seed to soil:
With erect knotweed, Mueller experienced a breakthrough of sorts. Based on four seasons of observations, Mueller determined that growing wild plants in the low-density conditions typical of a cultivated garden (i.e. spaced out and weeded) triggers plants to produce seeds that germinate more easily. This makes the harvests easier to plant successfully the next time around, eliminating a key barrier to further selection.
“Our results show that erect knotweed grown in low-density agroecosystems spontaneously ‘act domesticated’ in a single growing season, before any selection has occurred,” Mueller said.
Mueller says earlier domestication studies failed to uncover this because they regarded the plants’ response as statistical noise. They saw plants as “dumb” and incapable of responding to their environment and human tending.
“Because we lack the practical experience with crop progenitors that ancient people had, these effects of the environment on plant development have gone mostly unnoticed and understudied,” Mueller said.
Wow. You mean modern humans might have something to learn from ancient people? Even scientists? What a revelation.
The type of science that is being done on direct air carbon capture is the kind of science that has filled the air with too much carbon in the first place along with developing nuclear weapons and phones that hypnotize people. It is humans destroying themselves and all around them with hubris.
The science done by Dr. Mueller is the kind of science we must be doing if we have any hope of reducing the damage we are doing to our home. It is the kind of science advocated by Wendell Berry, a man who refuses to use a computer but who still recognizes the value that science can provide.
We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world – to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity – our own capacity for life – that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.
We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.
From “A Native Hill”