May 9, 2010
The Problems with Al GoreBy David Deming
There are two problems with Al Gore. First, he's a demagogue who lacks an appreciation for the ethics and methods of science. Second, he's a not a scientist, but a celebrity and politician who does not understand the technical aspects of science. Put succinctly, the man simply doesn't know what he's talking about. But Gore is now advising the world on complex technical issues related to energy and climate. That's a problem for the human race.
As described in my book, Science and Technology in World History, Vol. 1, what we know as modern science began in ancient Greece in the 6th century B.C. The Greek philosophers embraced intellectual freedom, open discussion, and critical analysis. Pupils were not only allowed to question and criticize their teachers, but they were encouraged to do so. Debate was elevated by Plato and his students to the science of dialectic. In the Platonic Dialogue Timaeus, it is noted that anyone who can present a better plan "shall carry off the palm, not as an enemy, but as a friend."
But Al Gore refuses to debate his critics. He has repeatedly dodged a debate with Christopher Monckton. Instead of engaging skeptics in reasoned discussions, Gore has relentlessly demonized those who disagree with him. In a series of infamous character assassinations, he has stated that people who are skeptical of the hysterical global warming scenario he has been promoting (and profiting from) are comparable to the lunatic fringe who believe that the Apollo Moon landings were filmed on a movie stage. He has also compared global warming skeptics to people who believe that the Earth is flat.
Scientific issues like climate change are not morality plays. Scientists are objective and tentative. To be a scientist is to be skeptical. Science is never "settled" because there can be no finality in any empirical system of knowledge. Only God has all the data. Scientists employ multiple working hypotheses. They work together cooperatively, eager to have their mistakes pointed out to them, so as to advance a disinterested search for truth.
One of the finest examples of this ethic is found in a letter written by Robert Hooke to Isaac Newton on January 20, 1676. Hooke told Newton, "I have a mind very desirous of and very ready to embrace any truth that shall be discovered though it may much thwart and contradict any opinions or notions I have formerly embraced." Why was Hooke eager to have his errors pointed out? Because, he explained, "my aim is the discovery of truth," therefore "I can endure to hear objections."
But Al Gore can endure no objections. His aim is not to find truth, but to tendentiously assemble and present information so as to mislead. An example of Gore's dissembling is found in the film An Inconvenient Truth. One of the most memorable scenes in An Inconvenient Truth is the unveiling of a startling graph that shows a strong correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature over the last several hundred thousand years. Gore then states that "when there's more carbon dioxide, the temperature gets warmer." Because the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now relatively high, the audience is led to believe that a drastic rise in global temperature is imminent.
But carbon dioxide does not determine temperature in the way that Gore suggests. On the contrary, temperature controls carbon dioxide by modulating its release and absorption from the oceans. The temperature changes found in the ice core data cannot be caused by carbon dioxide changes, because the increases in atmospheric temperature precede increases in carbon dioxide by several hundred years.
The Earth's oceans contain more than fifty times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is more soluble in cold water. As the oceans warm, they release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. When the oceans cool, they absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The science is no more complex than noting that a warm coke has more fizz than a cold one. Temperature controls carbon dioxide, not the other way around.
A film like An Inconvenient Truth is carefully scripted and checked for errors. Al Gore can be made to appear as if he knows the science. But a recent television interview [video] was more revealing. Promoting geothermal energy, Gore said that the temperature in the interior of the Earth is "several million degrees." But it isn't. It's not even close.
Since people first started lowering thermometers into boreholes in the nineteenth century, we have known that the temperature of the Earth's core is no more than several thousand degrees Celsius. The temperature at the inner-outer core boundary is constrained by a phase transition to be in the neighborhood of 6,000°C. More to the point, the temperature of near-surface rocks in geothermal areas is typically hundreds of °C. At temperatures exceeding 1,000 °C in the Earth's crust, rock begins to melt. So Gore was wrong by at least a factor of a thousand, or by one hundred thousand percent.
Gore's blithe and erroneous characterization of the Earth's internal temperature was not an insignificant slip of the tongue. Widespread development of geothermal energy is not feasible precisely because Earth's internal temperatures are not as high as Gore believes. That is why the practical exploitation of geothermal energy is limited to areas like Iceland, a country that virtually sits on top of a volcano.
After declaring that temperatures inside the Earth are "several million degrees," Gore claimed that we have "new drill bits that don't melt in that heat." How can anyone be so remarkably ignorant as to think we have metallurgical techniques capable of producing drill bits that don't melt in temperatures of "several million degrees"?
Gore then made the stunning assertion that geothermal resources in the U.S. alone are so enormous that they could meet our entire energy needs for 35,000 years. Is it not remarkable that we ignore such a vast, unexploited source of energy? Is it not astonishing that generations of scientists and engineers have failed to recognize the potential for withdrawing virtually limitless amounts of free energy from the Earth?
If the promise of geothermal energy sounds too good to be true, the reason is that it's not true. The United States gets less than one percent of its energy from geothermal sources. Extracting geothermal energy is inherently an inefficient process because you have to work against the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It's easy to turn mechanical energy into heat, but difficult to efficiently reverse the process. Geothermal energy production is limited to exceptional areas like Iceland precisely because the high temperatures necessary are found only in a very few locations.
Al Gore may not know what he's talking about, but he's not alone. The world is full of ignorant people. As a college professor, I interact constantly with students, many of whom are very concerned with global warming. But in my interactions I have invariably found that the more science a student knows, the more skeptical he is of the standard global warming alarmist scenario. Students majoring in engineering or physics have some appreciation for the scientific method and the uncertainties involved in understanding and predicting climate change. Unlike Gore, they also understand that the ability to develop alternative energy sources is limited by the laws of physics and chemistry, not political willpower.
Students who buy into global warming alarmism are almost always from non-technical majors such as journalism. They can't think quantitatively, critically, or analytically. They have beliefs, but no interest in or appreciation for facts. Accordingly, they are almost completely ignorant of any relevant facts. Their minds are immature and their thought processes undisciplined. They don't understand the difference between fact and opinion. One student recently told me that we have to stop using oil because global warming is caused by the heat given off by the combustion of fossil fuels.
Human beings must acquire some education and knowledge before they can begin to develop an appreciation for the extent of their own ignorance. But these global warming alarmists know nothing, and therefore believe that they understand everything.
If I have been too hard on Mr. Gore, I ought to close by noting that ignorance is the normal human condition, intelligence the exception. Al Gore is not the only person who doesn't understand science. U.S. President Barack Obama takes advice from Gore. And a group of Norwegian politicians recently distinguished themselves by awarding Nobel Prizes to both Gore and Obama. As Nobel Prize recipients, Gore and Obama have joined an elite group that includes Portuguese physician Egas Moniz. In 1949, Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for devising an innovative procedure known as the frontal lobotomy. It seems fitting that Gore and Obama are grouped with Moniz, since their apparent goal is to lobotomize human civilization.
David Deming is a geophysicist and associate professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Science and Technology in World History, Volume 1.