Pinker polymathic

The New York Times has a piece pushing the idea that nuclear power is the solution to our environmental problems. It’s familiar stuff, citing the French success in the 1970s, the promise of Gen IV and small modular reactors, and so on. Indeed, two of the authors had an almost identical piece in the Wall Street Journal in January. What’s most interesting is that the set of authors[1] this time includes Steven Pinker, who seems to be spreading his claims to expertise yet more broadly[2].

None of the authors has any training or expertise in economics, AFAICT. So, they make extreme claims such as that South Korea and China can build nuclear plants at one sixth the cost of the US. With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the 2GW Vogtle project in Georgia. That looks like coming in at about $20 billion or $10 billion/GW. Most estimates of Chinese costs are around $3.5 billion or one third of that – the most optimistic I’ve seen is $2 billion.

Moreover, it might have been worth mentioning that South Korea has stopped new nuclear power and China hasn’t started a new project in three years. In both cases, renewables have undercut even the lowest estimates of the costs of nuclear.

Also striking is a sudden shift in the argument about halfway through. The article begins reasonably enough, pointing out that the success of the French model in the 1970s depended critically on the large-scale deployment of a small number of standardised designs. (That wasn’t the only crucial feature, as I’ve pointed out before.) That contrasts sharply with the current situation where nearly every new plant is First Of A Kind, or close to. They point to US efforts to promote new nuclear power, including the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, recently passed through Congress by big margins (361 to 10 in the House, and a voice vote in the Senate).

Then suddenly, the article shifts gears, claiming that the crucial problem is irrational public fear of radiation, nuclear accidents and so forth. The obvious question to raise is: how does this supposed climate of fear manifest itself? Obviously not in a Congress, generally notable for bitter partisan division, where pro-nuclear legislation sails through with negligible opposition. Nor is there any evidence of significant resistance at the regulatory level, where numerous plants have had their licenses extended.

With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the two-reactor Vogtle project in Georgia. Googling for Vogtle protests, I found numerous links to protests from shareholders, customers and others concerned about the massive cost overruns of the project. But the only anti-nuclear protest I could find was back in 2011, and appeared to have no effect at all on the project.

The myth that nuclear power would roar ahead if only public fear could be overcome is comforting to nuclear fans. But the truth is that the technology is doomed by economics.

fn1. The only author with any relevant expertise is Staffan Qvist who works on Gen IV reactors and has previously written policy pieces with our own Barry Brook.

fn2. I also write on lots of different things. On the blog, I’m happy to state my views on all kinds of topics, as I would in ordinary conversation. But when I write for the general public, citing my professional affiliation, I try to stick to areas where I have some claim to expertise.

27 thoughts on “Pinker polymathic

  1. I would change your last sentence to read:
    But the truth is that, for the foreseeable future, the technology is doomed by economics.

  2. Given nuclear power is so doomed by relative costs, one can safely ignore all nuclear power boosting and all nuclear power articles. It’s not worth acknowledging or writing about them anymore. The caravan has moved on.

  3. “With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the 2GW Vogtle project in Georgia.”

    You say this twice, in the second and second last paragraphs.

    Why are nuclear power plants so expensive?

  4. I have just posted the following on my Facebook page about Jordan Peterson. It seems that it could also apply mutatis mutandi to Pinker.

    ‘Jordan Peterson is an example of what Laurence J Peter, discoverer of the Peter Principle, called “compulsive incompetence”, which is the phenomenon whereby people who are so competent within their chosen field that they rise to the top of it without ever reaching their level of incompetence (which is a fair statement about Peterson’s achievements within his academic discipline) feel compelled to venture into other fields in which their limitations soon become obvious.’

  5. I’m cynical – I think this is more about the use of nuclear as a rhetorical blunt instrument for attacking those pushing hardest to fix the climate problem than about use of nuclear to fix the climate problem.

    There is a big sunk investment by opponents of climate action in manufactured perceptions of green-left extremism leading unthinking followers of faddery by the dreadlocks – they desperately need those perceptions to remain widespread. The very worst outcome for them is the climate problem being widely accepted as a mainstream issue with solutions that are compatible with free enterprise and opportunities to accumulate wealth. Those misusing free market ideology to cloak putting what they want – no responsibility or accountability – above the common good and rule of law will fight it.

    Whether it is used to blame green socialism for not supporting nuclear to fix it (despite the conservative right not having a policy of using nuclear to fix it) or to having a climate issue on the agenda at all (and sometimes I get the sense that some obstructionist pollies saying they see a real climate problem that needs addressing are disingenuously referring to people thinking there is a climate problem as the climate problem), the different strands meet and converge into core unity of political obstruction of climate action. Each strand can run different arguments that would be mutually exclusive if run together.

    To take the top level expert advice at face value has somehow morphed into agreeing with green-left extremists – but by any rational measure agreeing with the top level experts on an issue of this significance by those on the left is a good thing and disagreement by those on the right is a dangerously irresponsible thing.

  6. Nuclear power is the cleaner greener coal fired power station; they both boil water and are central to the grid. Renewables challenge the grid as their generation is decentralised and disruptive to the status quo.

  7. I don’t think that Pinker is claiming expertise in nuclear power or energy policy. He is a psychologist, and I assume he is mainly responsible for the bit about the importance of psychological biases.

    Presumably he agrees with the rest of the article. But it seems unfair to dismiss him as a know-all because he has contributed his particular expertise along with other authors who know about different stuff.

  8. I thought Pinker’s book on the declining rate of violence, The Better Angels of our Nature, was an excellent read. I do however note it offended the regressive left as well as the religious right because of its take on traditional societies and religion respectively.

    I haven’t bothered with the Blank Slate because its thesis is ridiculous and I think easily disproved.

  9. I realised the Australian Greens were whackjobs when I found out they want to close Lucas Heights even though it provides medical services. The nutbag Left remains irrational on all matters nuclear. Nonetheless, it would be daft for Australia to pursue nuclear power at this point in time.

  10. Smith9: “Why is nuclear power so expensive?”
    Good question. The guy who demonstrated the negative learning curve for reactors, Anton Grubler of IIASA in Austria, had some thoughts. The engineers – not the protesters – keep dicovering points of failure, and add another layer of safety measures. In turn these have new points of failure, and so on. Submarine propulsion reactors escape this cycle: they aren’t terribly safe, but then going to sea in a a sub of any kind is not a career for the timorous, and if anything does go badly wrong, the pieces go straight to the sea floor. Add to this that economies of mass production have gone into reverse. The explanation seems robust across cultures, witness the delays in China.

  11. Professor Quiggin

    I wasn’t equating you with the nutbag left. I hope you didn’t read that into my comment. I was referring to the left flank of the Greens, which contains the remnants of the old Nuclear Disarmament Party. I agree with 95% of what you write btw.

  12. Hugo, I didn’t think you were referring to me. I don’t want to deal with general incivility, including terms like “nutbag”. Please be ultra-civil from now on.

  13. Chris Johnson: your srgument is not helpful to Pinker’s reputation. For if what he contributed to the piece was on psychology, that’s where – as JQ says – the claims are particularly unsupported by evidence.

    Speculation: there may be an ev psych explanation for the observed over-weighting of small risks of major disasters, for those are the ones that can wipe out not just you but all your close relatives. Your genes won’t like this.

  14. I don’t know much about linguistics, but I understand this was Pinker’s original area of expertise. He has since found a niche as the court philosopher to the Davos crowd. The message of his two most popular books-Better Angels and Englightenment Now-is that every day is getting better. This is music to the ears of the likes of Bill Gates, a person who needs a good philosophical rationalisation for the status quo. Despite all of his fancy statistics, I don’t buy his thesis. Sure, cave men may have clobbered each other over the head for a better place around the fire, but there is no archaeological record of them building mass extermination camps or weapons that can annihilate civilisation in 60 minutes. The point is that I wouldn’t take his latest ruminations on nuclear power very seriously.

  15. My main field of theoretical research is risk perception . I wrote a bit along the lines of JW’s ev pscyh speculation back in 1982. Pinker hasn’t published on this, AFAIK. His main area of expertise is linguistics.

  16. James Wimberley,

    I wasn’t aware of the “negative learning curve for reactors”. I’d assumed the learning curve was very tough but not negative. I’d even assumed (I think in my basic, unquestioning and improperly analyzed “unconscious” assumptions) that a negative learning curve could not exist. Even now, I have some trouble conceptualizing it. However, I think one could say that if one had an a priori position on something, or even an hypothesis as a working assumption, and then that position was comprehensively destroyed by empirical data (and one was objective enough to admit it, like a scientist) then one would assess that one knew less than one thought one had known before. Is this the sense of a “negative learning curve”? Or is there more or something else to it?

    I ask because it is a very interesting concept and one I have not come across before.

  17. James Wimberley,

    Oops, I’ve realized a second possible construction on the negative learning curve issue. Is it a relative negative curve even though an absolute positive curve? I mean that engineering a solution to a difficult design problem could simply reveal from tests two more equally difficult new design problems for the next stage of the project. Is this what is meant? Initial state, one unsolved problem and no solutions. Final state, one solution and two (new) unsolved problems.

    Sounds like life itself to me. 😉

  18. According to Wikipedia:

    Pinker graduated from Dawson College in 1973. He received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from McGill University in 1976, and earned his Doctorate of Philosophy in experimental psychology at Harvard University in 1979 under Stephen Kosslyn. He did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a year, after which he became an assistant professor at Harvard and then Stanford University.

    From 1982 until 2003, Pinker taught at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, was the co-director of the Center for Cognitive science (1985–1994), and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive neuroscience (1994–1999), taking a one-year sabbatical at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1995–96.

    He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.

    Pinker’s academic specializations are visual cognition and psycholinguistics. His experimental subjects include mental imagery, shape recognition, visual attention, children’s language development, regular and irregular phenomena in language, the neural bases of words and grammar, and the psychology of cooperation and communication, including euphemism, innuendo, emotional expression, and common knowledge. He has written two technical books that proposed a general theory of language acquisition and applied it to children’s learning of verbs.

  19. Equine Research says:
    “Quiggin has many horses standing at stud. His stud book boasts two fine stallions;
    Risk Perception and
    Pscyh Speculation.
    Both have aged well and they have had an overall effect of improving the quality of other animals.”

    This sounds like we may be gambling on ( an ) expected utility! 

    NYT article says:

    …”as M.I.T.’s Richard Lester, a nuclear engineer, has written, a company proposing a new reactor design faces “the prospect of having to spend a billion dollars or more on an open-​ended, all‑or‑nothing licensing process without any certainty of outcomes.”…

    John Quiggin 1991…

    “Conversely, EU  [ Expected Utility ] methods may give an excessively favorable evaluation of private investments or public policy choices involving low probability events with very severe losses attached. Decisions associated with the siting of nuclear power plants provide an obvious example….

    …”Observed behavior in the face of risk is dominated by risk aversion, but contains elements which seem to imply risk preference. Under EU theory, this seems contradictory or irrational. The RDEU [ Rank-Dependent EU ] approach permits the development of a portfolio analysis which will include elements of risk-seeking along with risk aversion.”

    University of Sydney Quiggin, J. (1991), ‘On the optimal design of lotteries’, Economica 58(1), 1–16.

    JQ. One of the papers referencing above, developed a simulated horse race game. Would you outline such a simulation of “The Energy Race Rating Assay” TERRA. The winning post is constantly half a length away. 

    Obviously a steeple chase with various technology / policy / dogma / preferences as barriers or boosters, “Nuclear came in with a bang, Solar slow to start but catching up quick” so we can bet on “TERRA”. I’m visual kinesthetic. James Packer will be free to promote it soon.

    RACECALLER: ” Oh no! Nuclear has fallen at the last. It may have to be put down!!! A sad day for the owners and fans. 

    TRACK OWNER: What! Closed for 25,000 years! 

    VET: It had a strong heart and endless power, but it’s immune system never evolved to clear it’s own wastes.

    Make up your own techno horse names to enter into TERRA… 
    Gone Fishun’. 
    Enlightenment Now
    Demonstrable Safety
    Three Mile Island
    Berreed Long Time
    Mesla Tesla
    Perpetual Motion
    Roof Top
    Cheepa Now
    Terra Watt. 
    Steam Punk. 
    Coaly Moley.
    Fine Fusion. 
    Wave Rider
    Blow Hard
    Meo Geo
    Aqua Down
    Squashed Gas
    Happy Hydro
    Free Friston 
    Infernal Combustion 
    Liquified (out of)…
    Natural Gas
    Battery Ram (sheep!)

    Place your bets…

  20. Ikonoclast, I take it more as “the more you know the more you know you don’t know”. Viz, reactor design is still in the phase of discovering new things that they’re ignorant about. There’s a bunch of technical problems ranging from the cost (money, land and lives) of experiments to the difficulty of gathering data (military/dual-use restrictions, the danger of taking them apart/going in to look round, modern IP laws and so on), but fundamentally it’s just that we don’t have thousands of the things being built every year for people to experiment with.

  21. From my reading, Pinker is stuck, psycho-linguistically, with the central Chomskyan idea of a “language module”, and the associated search for neuronal linguistic universals. There are few linguists who remain attached to this, as it’s proved a research dead end, and is steadily undermined by discoveries on neuronal plasticity (not that this latter endorses the “blank slate” Pinker bangs on about). Negative learning curve steepening…

  22. Negative learning curve: google Grubler, IIASA, nuclear, negative learning curve, and you will find the paper.

  23. My thinking on nuclear power has evolved recently. It seems that conservatives in Australia and the USA are dead set against renewable energy and organisationally incapable of responding to the climate crisis. At the same time, they are generally in favour of nuclear power (much more than the left generally is anyway).

    Given this, the needed urgency of action to reduce CO2 emissions and the fact that conservative parties are actually seriously considering building more coal-fired power, I’m willing to support their pursuit of nuclear power to the extent that it diverts attention and dollars from fossil fuels.

  24. Grubler defines negative learning with scare quotes or rather “special definition” quotes.

    “”negative learning” in which specific costs increase rather than decrease with accumulated experience.”

    Yep, I get the specific picture and it’s important re nuclear power. Outside that special definition, other speculations about negative learning hold interest I think. We could identify the following as examples of negative learning;

    (a) senile dementia;
    (b) being inculcated in a false dogma;
    (c) relative negative learning (Moz and myself identified variants of that).

    Item b is interesting. It covers religions and ideologies. Most of us have fallen under the spell of something under at least one of those headings at one time or another. Economics itself, as practiced now, is a false dogma, indeed it is a secular religion.

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