The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, "hmm.... that's funny...." Isaac Asimov

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Science, God, and Truth: Does Every Scientist Believe in God Without Realizing It?

Every so often I read an essay by a scientist trying to explain why belief in God is incompatible with science, about how advances in knowledge gained by science have so whittled away at the notion of a higher being that nothing remains except foolish superstition.  Invariably, it seems to me, these essays make the same fundamental error.   The error is as old as argument; it’s the straw man fallacy.  To deny the existence of God, one must first define God.  If we define God as a large old man with a white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere above the clouds, who listens to every prayer, it’s easy enough to demonstrate that there’s no evidence that He exists.  God as depicted in ancient texts like the Bible is not much less simplistic.  Agreeing that such descriptions of God encompass the entirety of God is to buy into the straw man fallacy.  All the arguments by atheists I’ve ever seen set up a straw man God, and then proceed to demolish it.  But if the straw man isn’t an accurate depiction of God, then demolishing it proves nothing.
Virtually everyone trying to gain knowledge by using science, however, believes that such a thing as Truth exists.  Why else would one want to do science?  We do science because we believe it’s a method – not necessarily the only method, but a useful one – to get closer to the Truth. 
And what is Truth?  It’s hard, perhaps impossible to define.  But when something has the ring of truth, we tend to hear it.  Indeed, new knowledge tends to undermine old notions of what is true.  But new knowledge doesn’t undermine the notion that there is a true nature of things that can eventually be learned.  To believe that Truth exists is to believe there’s a basic, fundamental essence, a pattern that permeates reality.  Is that any different from believing that God exists?  I don’t think so. 

What about that pattern?  I think we catch ever clearer glimpses of it the deeper we look at the universe.  The methodical methods of science extend our senses, sharpen our observations, and permit those deeper looks.  But sometimes an abrupt, fresh look at something provides a deeper look too.  The other day, on a beach by the Gulf of Mexico, I found a sand dollar shell.  It stood out from the many living sand dollars lightly buried in the sand by the surf.  That shell is pictured above.  See the intricate design on the shell.  Evolution is a fact, and Darwin's theory explains well how it works.  But the presence of that pattern on the shell is a puzzle.  It’s hard to see how the evolution of that pattern would have helped sand dollars survive, since, as far as we can tell, they can’t see the pattern on their shells or those of other sand dollars.  The pattern probably has something to do with the flow of energy, the structure of molecules, the fractal patterns of the universe, the music of the spheres.  
It looks to me like there's more going on than just natural selection. There must be additional processes operating that leave traces in patterns we can sometimes see.  And who knows to what lengths, depths, and dimensions these patterns extend?  I’m not ready to throw out the idea that a fervent wish, a prayer if you like, might not reverberate with, influence, or be influenced by larger patterns.   Nor am I ready to dismiss the possibility that some aspect of the pattern that I call my life might be larger in temporal scope than the pattern I call my body.  Is there life after death?  It’s impossible to answer that question without defining life.  And here we have the straw man problem again. 

It would be refreshing if scientists stopped indulging in religion-bashing by setting up straw men and demolishing them, and if religious people stopped feeling threatened by science.  Instead of adversaries, religion, which seeks to bring us closer to God, and science, which seeks to bring us closer to Truth, may be long-lost, estranged, but fundamentally related twins.

Friday, December 19, 2014

GDP and the cost of fuel

Year-over-year percent change in real GDP and percent GDP spent on fuel

I’m happy to report that an article I had the honor to co-write with Charles Hall has recently been published.  It’s titled “Does a Change in Price of Fuel Affect GDP Growth? An Examination of the U.S. Data from 1950–2013.”  It’s an open source document, available at

We gathered U.S. data on fuel consumption and costs for 1950 through 2013.  We then compared the percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) spent each year on fuels, including fossil fuels and nuclear ore, and the year-over-year change in GDP.  As shown in the chart above, we found that these variables are inversely correlated. (In the chart, "per." represents "period."  The periods are years;
"5 per. Mov. Avg." is a 5-year moving average.)  Since 1970, the 5-year moving averages of the percent of GDP spent on fuel and the year-over-year change in GDP are close to mirror images of each other. 

This correlation argues that the availability and cost of energy is a significant determinant of economic performance. Further, we found that a threshold exists in the vicinity of 4%.  If the percent of GDP spent on fuels is greater than this, poorer economic performance appears likely; if the cost of fuels to the economy is less than 4% of GDP, the economy seems to do well.  

An implication of our study is that the cost of fuels has a major impact on the economy.  Others have made this point as well, but it is frequently argued by economists that because energy costs are small compared to other expenditures that make up GDP (e.g., consumer spending, which makes up about 70%), that energy costs are unlikely to be significant.  But energy appears to be different.  It exerts a multiplier effect.   If the price of energy goes up, almost everything costs more, and these costs propagate through the economy.  Nitrogen fertilizer may be a useful analogy.  Adding 50 kg of nitrogen per hectare can change the yield of corn by several tons per hectare, a multiplier effect of 50 or more. This is because nitrogen is typically a limiting nutrient.  It may be that energy is the limiting nutrient of the economy.

Recently, with the dramatic drop in the price of crude oil, the overall percent of GDP spent on fuels has declined significantly.  It is very likely now below the 4% threshold we identified.   And not surprisingly, the economy seems to be rebounding from the recession that began when oil prices spiked in 2008.

Will better economic conditions continue?  Our study argues that it depends in no small degree on whether energy prices remain relatively low.  And this in turn depends on whether the recent, surprising, boom in unconventional oil (and gas) production continues, on whether renewable sources (PV and wind) truly have what it takes to grow to be major energy suppliers, and on whether next-generation nuclear power gains acceptance.  

The view that energy costs are key leads to a prediction that I don't think many economists would make:  This prediction is that, as long as the price of crude oil stays in its current range (i.e., around $50 per barrel), the economies of the EU and of Japan will improve, no matter what fiscal policy (e.g., stimulus or austerity) they pursue. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Revenue-neutral Carbon Tax Gaining Support

In late June, 2014, with over 600 other members of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL),  I was in DC to lobby Congress to support a steadily increasing revenue-neutral carbon tax.   We met with over 500 Congressional offices.  
A revenue-neutral carbon tax meshes with both liberal and conservative agendas.  For an example of recent Republican support, see 

CCL just released a report of a major study that explains why the concept is gaining traction; it can drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions without harming the economy.  For more, see 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Climate Change: Seeing Through the Nonsense; Getting Beyond the Hopelessness

I gave a talk the other night on climate change and what we can do to keep it from being worse.  The talk started with this picture, because on earth, it's mostly about the ocean. 

Here's a link to the youtube:

Sunday, April 27, 2014

VMT Trend Continues Flat in the Face of High Gasoline Prices; Update

This is an update of a chart from two earlier posts.  Although there was a slight uptick in 2013, the VMT (vehicle miles traveled) trend continues to be essentially flat.  From the 1930s until recently, with a few interruptions, VMT in the U.S. grew consistently.  The inflection point in the curve appears to be around 2004, when the price of gasoline rose above $2.00 per gallon. The current period of flat VMT is the longest since WW II, when gasoline was rationed.  VMT are strongly correlated with economic activity.  For more on the economic aspects of the recent VMT trend, and a discussion of the likelihood that constraints on the global supply of petroleum are involved, see a recent presentation at Columbia University by energy analyst Steven Kopits.   

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Fuel Cost as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product: 2013 Update

This is an update of a chart in earlier posts.  It is clear that the U.S. economy still faces the drag of significant energy cost, with about 5% of GDP spent on fossil fuels.  In earlier periods of prosperity, fuel cost was consistently well below four percent.  It is likely that this continued high cost has a lot to do with the current economic doldrums; money spent for energy cannot be spent on other things.  Petroleum is by far the largest contributor to the total cost of fuels.  Despite recent increases in U.S. production, the cost per barrel remains in the range of $100, far above historical levels, indicating that the global supply of petroleum is not meeting the full breadth of demand.   Coal and gas have significantly lower cost per energy unit.  The two together contributed, in 2012, about 43% of the U.S. energy use total, while their combined cost as a percent of GDP is less than one percent. Nuclear power is by far the cheapest on a fuel cost basis; it provides about 8% of U.S. energy use, but its fuel cost is only about 0.02% of GDP.  (Solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal, which have no fuel cost as such, contributed about 0.2%, 1.4%, 2.7%, and 0.2% respectively in 2012.  Biomass, which is primarily wood, contributed about 4.3%.  Fuel cost is not the only cost of an energy source; there are construction, maintenance, and infrastructure costs as well.) 


  (1) Petroleum cost data have been revised slightly for the years 1995 through 2013.  The cost now represents what EIA terms "Refiner Average Acquisition Cost."  This has been over $100 per barrel since 2011. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Hope for cutting carbon emissions

I am feeling more optimistic about the chances of slowing and eventually halting emissions of carbon dioxide than I have for a long time.  This is because of an idea and an organization.  The idea is a revenue-neutral carbon tax.  The organization is Citizens Climate Lobby. 

A carbon tax makes huge sense.  See my previous post, and for more.  Making a carbon tax revenue neutral means many in Congress who are opposed in principle to new taxes could still vote for it.

Citizens Climate Lobby is a rapidly-growing grass-roots organization whose goal is to promote legislation that puts a fee on carbon based fuels and returns the revenue to households.  The Lobby held its annual meeting June 23-25, 2013, in Washington DC.  (See picture above.)  I was privileged to attend.  On the 25th and later that week, Lobby members met with about 400 members of Congress or their staffs.  In these meetings, the Lobby pushed for legislation that would:

·         Tax carbon-based fuels upstream, at the first point of sale (well, mine, or port of entry).

·         Start the tax at $15 per ton of fossil CO2 emitted, and increase it by $10 per ton per year so that it reaches at least $100 per ton of CO2 within ten years, making renewable energy less expensive than fossil fuel.

·         Protect American households from increased energy costs associated with the carbon tax by returning the revenue to them.

·         Protect American businesses with border adjustment tariffs that also encourage other nations to adopt equivalent carbon pricing.

Under this plan, a majority of households would break even or get more money back than they paid in carbon tax, protecting the poor and middle class.  A predictably increasing carbon price would send a clear market signal, unleashing development of a clean-energy economy.