Saturday, February 02, 2013

Steven Chu quits, misunderstands the end of Stone Age

Physics Nobel Prize laureate Steven Chu is leaving the chair of the U.S. energy secretary.
Energy Secretary Chu steps down, blasts climate-change skeptics (Yahoo News)
His final words are all about the climate skeptics. He boasts that "only" 1% of the nonsensical green projects he has funded have gone bankrupt. Well, these are low standards, indeed. A project should only make one happy when it repays all the initial investments, expenses, and subsidies, not while it manages to avoid bankruptcy by exploiting the "nest" that's been given to the project at the beginning. Of course, he prefers not to say how much money his pet green projects have actually earned or wasted in total.

It seems sort of weird that the Department of Energy has been morphed into an activist organization promoting negligible, ideologically justified, uneconomic sources of energy. In the past, the department actually had to care about the "bulk" of the energy in the U.S., right? For example, it had to supervise the construction of genuine, feasible, technologically new sources of energy such as nuclear power plants, right? When did the transition to "energy doesn't matter, just the renewable one does" occur?

But I want to spend some time with Chu's comments about the Stone Age.

He said the following:
The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; we transitioned to better solutions.
First, insiders will notice that this sentence isn't a sign of Chu's genius. He simply stole it from Bjorn Lomborg's book, The Skeptical Environmentalist.
The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones, and the petroleum age won't end because we run out of petroleum.
One lesson from this plagiarism is that when we transition to better solutions, they will probably not be solutions invented by the alarmists. More likely, they will be solutions invented by people who think at least slightly rationally which Steven Chu unfortunately isn't, at least when it comes to energy and the economy.

Second, Lomborg's and Chu's statements about the Stone Age look extremely similar and Lomborg also implicitly meant that the "new technologies" were the reason why the Stone Age ended but there's still a subtle difference in what they write in explicit words as well as "in between the lines". Because of this subtle difference, the messages of the two statements are pretty much exactly the opposite to one another.

Lomborg used his catchy slogan to express the – correct – idea that it makes no sense to try to conserve (or abandon) fossil fuels because there's no genuine shortage of fossil fuels in the real world and when such a shortage will appear in the future and fossil fuels will cease to be the natural best answer to the bulk of mankind's energy needs, the transition will occur automatically.

The actual logic is that we are using fossil fuels simply because they're the best solution right now and when they cease to be the best solution, e.g. because they will get too scarce and therefore expensive, people will automatically restrict their consumption (or completely abandon them) and they will switch to alternatives that will become better or cheaper (and they will spend more time and money with research if energy will be too expensive and no alternative solution will look good enough). One doesn't need secretaries to regulate such things, it's common sense.

Chu's message is a very different one. He says that we should abandon fossil fuels and look for better solutions now and throughout our behavior, we should assume that we will find a better solution rather soon. But this is just a pure speculation. What Chu seems to misunderstand is that the Stone Age didn't end because secretaries issued political declarations with lots of wishful thinking that the Stone Age should end and people should transition to better technologies. The actual causal relationship goes in the opposite direction than Chu seems to think.

Instead, the Stone Age ended when someone figured out how to use copper and its alloy with something else, typically tin, which is called bronze. When this occurred, the Stone Age ended and the Bronze Age began. (Just to remind you, it was followed by the Iron Age.) At different places of Eurasia, the know-how began to be exploited at very different moments.

How would it have looked like if a Stone Age bureaucrat issued a fatwa demanding that all the Stone Age working-class families switch to something better than stones in 5 or 10 years? What could they have invented before the deadline? What the results could be like? Could the Flintstones still drive their Chrysler XL Stone or would they be forced to switch to something like lianas and behave as monkeys, thus eliminating the advantage of our species relatively to our biological ancestors?

But you shouldn't overlook the fact that the Stone Age lasted for 2,500 years, between 4500 BC and 2000 BC or so. It couldn't have been reliably superseded in a 4-year tenure of an activist Stone Age bureaucrat. The Stone Age became obsolete not because of some political plan, ideology, or wishful thinking but because of an unexpected invention that arrives at some moment but that can't really be planned. In the same way, people may invent a superior replacement for fossil fuels in 10 years or 60 years or 300 years from now and it may become actually cheaper than fossil fuels – because the changes of prices will aid this new ranking – in 20, 80, or 350 years. We don't know and we can't plan it. It would be utterly foolish to speculate on these unknown future developments and risk our current and foreseeable future prosperity by making assumptions about the future that may very well be totally wrong. When we're planning how to spend our trillions we possess now or next year, we should build on assumptions that are very likely to hold.

Chu is a smart guy when it comes to certain things. However, his understanding of the profitability of subsidized companies is completely wrong. His understanding of the process of invention and its drivers is completely wrong. His understanding of the human history is completely wrong, too. He misunderstands that certain deep changes in the society are sparked by technological breakthroughs – that emerge according to their own, largely unpredictable and politically unplannable, timing – and not the other way around. If I summarize these things, he doesn't understand how irrelevant for the progress of the human society bureaucrats such as himself are and have been. He doesn't understand how immensely modest a piece of nothing this small Chu of himself is relatively to the overall human ingenuity and everything it still has in store. He doesn't understand how humble he should be which is why he ended with this stunning, smug, arrogance of power.

He's a very good physicist but when it comes to politics, good riddance. Well, just to be sure, I don't expect his successor to be too much rational...


  1. Good points, but the Neolithic began ~10000BC. The 4500BC - 2500BC range is an estimation of when it ended, so the 2500yrs is the size of the error on its ending. Its duration was rather ~7000yrs.

  2. As much as I hate to disagree with the master, the length of the Stone Age as quoted above appears to be incorrect. According to Wikipedia, the Stone Age lasted for 3.4 million years and ended between 4500 and 2000 years ago.

  3. Oops, I am an idiot. ;-) It strengthens my point, of course, but doesn't change it qualitatively.

  4. Casper offered a much longer duration still... Sorry for the bug. I won't be fixing it so that I don't pretend to be infallible.

  5. Hm, I always thought that good physicists would be reasonable politicians too for some reason, that is obviously wrong.

    From reading this TRF article I get the impression that Steven Chu has really no clue about things he should know as a politician, so he'd better have stayed with physics ... :-/

  6. In order to change to better technologies, they have to be better. I know this sounds tautological and plain stupid, but that's the point that the Nobel Prize Chu is missing.

  7. I used to believe it, too, Dilaton! It was so logical - physics is ultimately the science of everything so they should get everything right, shouldn't they? ;-)

    It's decades ago, however, when I was believing it. ;-) Too much experience has shown that physicists are at least as diverse, to put it neutrally and mildly, in all physics-unrelated respects as all other people. Things that are too complex combinations of the laws of physics make the knowledge of the laws of physics pretty much unhelpful.

  8. Angela Merkel is a physicist. She produced papers on Quantum Mechanics.

  9. I doubt it comes from Lomborg, seem to recall it from before him.

  10. Yes, bureaucrats can't guarantee that we will create new technologies, but they can make them more likely to be developed by allocating money and resources to their development; so in a sense, bureaucrats could bring an end to the current age of fossil fuels by political decree. Certainly, you wouldn't say that governments, investing large amounts of money in currently unprofitable and inefficient technologies that private enterprise has no desire to invest in, have never developed a superior technology would you?

  11. Dear Donald, your opinion about the role of government is a communist delusion. It's exactly what has been said - and done - by the communist regimes all the time. They're the scientific ideology, back to Marx and Lenin, we would hear, and they would extract the money from the nations and invest them to get ahead of the evil capitalists.

    In reality, it didn't work. The West was, especially in some directions, up to 15 years ahead of the Soviet bloc. You can't systematically speed up technological progress by sucking money out of the private hands and "allocating them" to government-funded developers. This always *slows down* the progress.

    If the private sector isn't already investing into certain things, it's simply because the most egotist, rational, but rich enough - so that they may afford to waste - people have determined that it would be a waste of money to invest to these things. So if the government robs this money out of the people and invests it into this thing, it's predetermined that it would be a waste of money.

    Moreover, additional wasting of money occurs not just when the big decision on the investment is made but during the process, too.

    Certainly, you wouldn't say that governments, investing large amounts of money in currently unprofitable and inefficient technologies that private enterprise has no desire to invest in, have never developed a superior technology would you?

    I surely would and I've been saying the same thing before the fall of communism, too.

  12. Down with bureaucrats, agreed.

    Nevertheless here is a partial list of "useless activities"
    funded from the common purse:

    Research (including CERN and string theorists)

    Fire force

    maybe more I cannot think off hand.

    These would get limited funds if dependent on the industrialists, and these would be allocated towards applications evident ab initio .( The world wide web would never come out of this. nor putting our forest fires).

    So there is some necessary judicial use of government funds that have to be administered and apportioned. The trouble is in deciding on the size and the choice of the administrators. Chu was a bad choice, imo.

  13. The Stone Age quote was originally from Former Saudi oil minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani

  14. Hi Lumo,

    Yeah, maybe Chu was just a Fachidiot ;-D
    But you would be a good polition too, since you know how everything works :-P and what you write here on TRF about politics seems at least to me reasonable.


  15. I guess our Angie's QM papers are much better than her New Year's speeches... :-D

    I have not listend to any of them in real time, but the summary presented in the news is always enough to rain on my parade for the whole January ...

    Every year she obviously has nothing else to tell the citizens of Germany than to be prepared for everything beeing much worse than during the past year etc ...

    I just wonder why she always does this, because talking like a sourball and discourage all people in the country about the future makes not a single thing better after all, on the contrary ...

    If she would present one of her physicis papers instead, to such a talk I would probably listen too :-D

  16. I'd say, go ahead, fix it. One more infallible guy in AGW debate will not make a measurable difference. Also, why shoudl the other side have them all? ;-)

  17. If we massively funded science research without imposing retarded marxist or fascist (or any other dumb religious ideological) ideas then we would surely get a faster technological and scientific progress than capitalism can manage.

    Capitalism means many potentially great scientific minds end up doing things like supervising investment strategies in banks and similar service industries. I mean the parents divert the kids to these ambitions at early ages, since a science career in capitalism is often a shitty underpaid and difficult job compared to simple well-paid jobs in the capitalist service sector.

    You will ask, "who's going to pay?" - well you educate people that it will almost certainly be worthwhile, just like devoting the entire economy to battling Nazis was.

  18. Dear Anna, of course there are legitimate uses for the public purse but technology development is not one of them. If you don’t know the outcome in advance it is called research; if you do know the outcome it is called development and private investment will always be available if it is a worthwhile result.

    It is often argued that development projects requiring a long gestation period can’t be privately funded because investors are too impatient and these must be publicly funded. This, too, is a specious argument; there are tons of long-gestation developments that were privately funded.

    I challenge any reader to provide a real example of useful development that has been made possible through public funding. Of course there are many wonderful things that have resulted from government-funded research but once the product or process is well-understood, the private sector will bring it to fruition while weeding out the uneconomic blind alleys. Incremental process improvement is not research; it is always possible and, in fact, inevitable.

  19. If private enterprise has no desire to invest in something it is because it is seen as unprofitable. If it turns out to be profitable, which is possible, it is due to unforeseen inventions/ideas; i.e. it is due to research.

  20. Nuclear power was already invented. Bureaucrats and activists have prevented it from being seriously rolled out anywhere but France.

  21. Chu was frustrated because his boss, Obama, did not support his alarmist views; Chu was just left twisting in the wind. It may well be that Obama shares those views but a President has to expend his political capital judiciously and wasting it on carbon credits etc. would deplete that limited capital with little, if any, result.

    I like to think that his meeting with Klaus bore fruit and engendered skepticism in Obama’s mind but maybe not. Maybe we’ll know more after he retires and no longer needs support from the left.

  22. But of course research should be separate from development and even innovation.

    I resent very much academic and research institutions being inundated with grants for "applied research". I often felt acting like Christ who chased the merchants from the temple saying "you made my house a house of commerce". It ends up by swallowing all the activities, which need to append politically correct "application results" to the proposals in order to get some money for high energy research. That is how academic integrity is undermined and one ends up with Mann and the hockey stick dominating a university.

    I have often mooted the proposal to go back to financing academic institutions directly and letting the internal peers distribute the money according to academic criteria, instead of bureaucrats in DOE or EU playing lords of creativity.

  23. How can it be older than the human species? 3.4 million years is clearly incorrect. The first to use tools and fire were supposedly from less than 2 million years ago.

    And homo sapiens are younger still; less than half a million years.

  24. With respect to Steven Chu, I like Feynman's take: "I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy. "

  25. Government only takes money from someone else because of agreement between it and its citizens, at least this is true in a democracy; though the particular amount of money it takes may not be supported by all of its citizens, it's agreed upon by a majority. Government is a contract. You say that government takes money from its citizens, which is true, but seem to be implying that it is stealing money, like some sort of common thief. A majority of people have come to the conclusion that by giving some of their money to a government, they will increase their overall happiness by pooling the resources of a large number of people to undertake projects that would be much too large to be undertaken by individuals alone or smaller groups such as corporations. We can argue about the specific optimal size of government, but it is an incontestable fact that as governments have gotten larger throughout history and become more democratic, quality of life has significantly improved. Without government or even with very small government in the past, life was "nasty, brutish, and short", thankfully, we, as citizens, have agreed that the benefits from giving a significant portion of money that we have earned ourselves to government, far outweigh the disadvantages.

  26. In Czech, the Neolithic and Eneolithic to end Stone Age does last about 4500 to 2000 BC in uncalibrated radiocarbon terms (slightly higher with calibration) from Krumlov Phase of Linear Pottery Culture to end-phase (Buchvaldek III) of Corded Ware, so I think you are thinking here agout early farming cultures, also in SOuth Bohemia evidenced in Triticum by Lake Svarcenburk (as in candidate) published in 2010 in Pamatky Arch. by Pokorny et al.

  27. almost every single major scientific advance was made by people supported by public funding, the private sector has mostly contributed secondary "applications" of this scientific knowledge, as it bloody well should (as a basic minimum)

    Even the atomic bomb was created with public funding.

    The idea that science progress could be achieved by private market means is really incredibly stupid.

  28. I’m not sure how to define “applied” research, Anna. When Herb Kroemer (Physics Nobel, 2000) did his theoretical research on heterojunctions he was well aware of the extensive applications that might result but he was also motivated by pure curiosity. Decades after he started this work it has, in fact, enabled most of our optical technologies including efficient LEDs, solid-state lasers, optical recording, fiber-optic communications, thus the internet itself, LED displays and, now, the revolution in general lighting that is well underway. Several private companies including the one that Herb and I both worked for (he was my first boss after getting my PhD) refused to support this work and he had to use public money. The payoff has been immense; that’s why the Nobel Prize.
    Would you resent these grants for “applied" research?

  29. Of course not. i resent that basic research applications have to be camouflaged as applied, and the bureaucracy which judges . Experimental HEP can do it, but theoretical not.

  30. No, "progressives" have prevented nuclear energy from being used more widely. They mis-use analytical methods, cherry pick data, take quotes out of context, spin, and just plain lie, in order to advance their idea of the perfect society. They do it to technological advances they fear, to sociological and political ideas that they despise, and to people they really, truly hate with a passion.

    Chu was just a "useful idiot".

  31. Get a grip - Chu used it in exactly the right context, and it was not 'stolen' from Lomborg - the quote is from former Saudi oil minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani who said it in 1973 during the first oil shock: "The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones." The oil age will not end because we've run out of oil. It will end because we have developed alternatives. Wind power is now cheaper than diesel or natural gas for electricity generation, solar will be cheaper in just a few more years. That's what it means. It also means no more wars over energy. Do your research, look at the data, accept the facts, consider the consequences, enjoy the freedom it will bring. Like the internet is to freedom of speech, renewable energy will be to energy - freedom to generate your own not have to sell your soul to but it from someone else.

  32. Nope, you don't understand the difference between Chu's meaning on one side and Lomborg's or Yamani's meaning on the other side.

    The last two Gentlemen said that it's unnecessary to conserve oil because it's inevitable that it will cease to be hot before we run out of it. For the Sheik in particular, that was *bad* news because this will mean the end of Saudi and other oil profits. To some extent, this process is already underway as we may be transitioning to fracking which is not "oil" but "gas" and it is located at other places, too.

    Chu, on the contrary, says that we must be afraid of the opposite thing - that the oil age will end because we run out of oil. So we must try to prevent such a thing. It is really exactly the opposite claim although the wording is suggested to be the same. The Sheik and Lomborg says that the natural evolution - without a human intervention - implies that there's enough of a resource, and whether it's good news or bad news, one would have to work hard to create some special circumstances to change this default behavior. Chu, on the contrary, wants to say that the default state is that an age ends because people run out of a resource, so we must on the contrary work hard to *prevent* this scenario he considers default.

  33. Example of useful development made possible from public funding - just about every successful western product that was overrun from the market by Chinese products. And with virtually unlimited government support for the effort.

  34. Or longer term thinking than quarter by quarter analysis will allow.

  35. New wind power reached $.04 per kWh in August 2013 and new gas turbine plants are at $.07 per kWh. No nuclear plant has been completed with less than .7 billion dollars in US subsidies, and new nuclear power purchase agreements are more expensive than gas turbine plants - and Chu is the stupid one?

  36. “A wise person does at once, what a fool does at last. Both do the same thing; only at different times.”
    by: John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton

  37. The real reasoning is that we are using non-renewable power sources simply because they're the best remedy right now and when they stop to be the best remedy, e.g. because they will get too limited and therefore costly, people will instantly limit their intake (or absolutely give up them) and they will change to solutions that will become better or less expensive (and they will take more money with analysis if power will be too costly and no substitute remedy will look good enough). One does not need assistants to control such things, it's sound judgment.

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