Sunday, November 23, 2008

Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Nukes

November 21, 2008


The Nature Conservancy

4245 North Fairfax Drive
Suite 100

Arlington, VA 22203-1606

Dear Nature Conservancy,

I’m not mad. Really I’m not. I’m not canceling my subscription and I’m not swearing to never give another dime to the
Nature Conservancy. You guys truly do rock and I love you forever. But it’s a great pity that Jimmie Powell, head of the Conservancy’s energy team, has fallen like a ton of waste drums for industry propaganda on the nuclear question.

In the Fall 2008
Oak Log, the magazine of the Vermont chapter of the Conservancy, Mr. Powell says that “we’re going to need to build about 250 new power plants in the next 30 years to replace coal-fired capacity that must be shut down. Surprisingly, nuclear is the most cost effective way to get there.”

It is indeed surprising, given that it shows no signs of being true. The November 20, 2008 issue of
Nature reports that the global credit crunch makes the “role of fission in fighting climate change . . . likely to wane,” and quotes Matthew Bunn of Harvard as stating that “nuclear can no longer support climate-change needs and targets” because it is too expensive (“Nuclear renaissance plans hit by financial crisis,” Nature, Nov. 20 2008, 286-187).

Huh? What happened to “cost-effective”? The credit crunch is simply proving that you
can kill what is already dead: or at least bury it deeper. Nuclear power, due to its long lead times and extraordinary liabilities, has never been able to exist without big government subsidies and easy debt. Tight money, as Nature details, means no nukes even with the billions in subsidies the federal government is proferring on its golden shovels. Quick-deploying alternatives (wind and other renewables, efficiency, and cogeneration), though not all equally affordable and not all equally suited to all tasks, are, on the other hand, relatively immune to financial volatilities and have a consistent history of declining cost per kilowatt-hour delivered, contrary to nuclear’s dismal history of broken promises and wrecked budget forecasts. Far from being the most “cost-effective” way of buying new power, erecting nukes is one of the most expensive of all options -- and was so before the credit crunch -- and this according not merely to Greenpeace, but to the nuclear-industry literature. No wonder that The Economist’s May 19, 2001 cover story proclaimed that “Nuclear power, once claimed to be too cheap to meter, is now too costly to matter.”

Buying nuclear power incurs a high opportunity cost because the same money could deliver far more energy services if spent on cheaper low-carbon rivals such as wind or end-use efficiency. Buying nukes will lead to more CO2 emissions, not less, than we would have had under more effective investment, just as buying caviar on food stamps actually reduces the amount of food on a family’s table.

The details are given with relentless completeness by Amory Lovins in his recent piece
“The Nuclear Illusion”. I commend it very seriously to Mr. Powell’s attention.


Larry Gilman, PhD (Engineering Sciences, Dartmouth, 1995)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Puncturing the Puff

The Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, where I got my Piled Higher and Deeper degree in Engineering Sciences in 1995, has published a pro-nuclear puff-piece titled "What About Nuclear?". The piece hits all the talking points of the new media discourse on nuclear power, where never is heard a discouraging word. The new nukes are going to be clean’n’green! Super-duper cheap! And safer than sex! (Not that any serious problems with the old nukes are admitted.) My response:

To the Editors:

It is disappointing that
The Dartmouth Engineer chose to run a one-sided puff-piece on nuclear power, a subject on which reasonable people may disagree. There are too many counter-points to fit in a comment window, but here are a few:

(1) With regard to new reactor designs, allegedly safer than the old ones, Prof. Wallis mentions only sunshiny positives. Readers interested in a more realistic view, including a discussion of safety issues unique to the new designs (e.g., graphite fires), might want to check out the American Physical Society’s article
“The Pebble-Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR): Safety Issues.”

(1) Prof. Wallis’s description of waste reprocessing makes it sound like Europe is recycling nuclear waste as easily as we recycle cans. But there is a significant case against reprocessing: for example, quoting the Union of Concerned Scientists, “reprocessing does not reduce the need for storage and disposal of radioactive waste, and a geologic repository would still be required. . . . After reprocessing, the remaining material will be in several different waste forms, and the total volume of nuclear waste will have been increased by a factor of twenty or more, including low-level waste and plutonium-contaminated waste” (
here). [A detailed 2007 technical report on the illogic of waste reprocessing by physicist Frank von Hippel can be had here.]

(2) Prof. Wallis reassures us that security procedures at nuclear plants are improved and that containment domes “may” even keep out crashing aircraft. It is hard to say what this statement means: my home’s shingled roof “may” keep out a 747, but then again, it probably won’t. Containments are not and have never been designed, certified, or tested for their ability to keep out large aircraft; in 2005, despite 9/11 and explicit Al Qaeda threats to target nuclear facilities, a majority of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s members voted against requiring reactors to be proof against aircraft. But the point is perhaps moot, since most of any US nuclear plant’s radioactive inventory is not inside the containment but in nearby spent-fuel pools. And in 2001, an NRC study of storage-pool accidents stated that half of all (large) aircraft could penetrate a 5-foot-thick containment dome and that half of all aircraft crashes would likely breach a typical spent-fuel pool (p. 3-23,
NUREG 1738). As for plant security, even the NRC’s pre-announced force-on-force security exercises have historically found almost half of all plants failing to repel armed attack. In 2003, 30 Greenpeace protestors effortlessly entered the control building at a British power reactor to show how weak its security measures were (Associated Press). The frighteningly bad state of US plant security is reviewed in detail here. But the nuclear industry has always lobbied against more serious security measures, knowing that these would significantly increase the already painful cost of nuclear power.

(3) Prof. Wallis does mention nuclear power’s high cost, though without drawing any unpleasant conclusions. Prof. Garmire, when asked about nuclear power’s drawbacks, does not mention cost at all. In fact, high cost is one of nuclear power’s most intractable problems, with academic and industry cost projections for new plants escalating rapidly in recent years. Buying nuclear power incurs a high opportunity cost because the same money could deliver far more energy services if spent on cheaper low-carbon rivals such as wind or end-use efficiency. Buying nukes will lead to more CO2 emissions, not less, than we would have had under more effective investment, just as buying caviar on food stamps actually reduces the amount of food on a family’s table — even though advocates of caviar can point accurately to its high protein content and exclaim that we do need protein and you can’t feed a family on efficiency! As long as market forces are allowed to work even approximately, nuclear power will stagnate in the US and everywhere else: it always has. The economic case against nuclear power is made in detail by Amory Lovins

(4) Prof. Garmire states that “In the 1970s, fear of nuclear proliferation resulted in a turn against nuclear power.” This is historically incorrect, at least as regards the US. Capital fled nuclear power simply because it cost too much, straining or bankrupting utilities and leading to what
Forbes characterized in 1985 as “the largest managerial disaster in U.S. business history, involving $100 billion in wasted investments and cost overruns . . .” In 2001, The Economist said that “Nuclear power, once claimed to be too cheap to meter, is now too costly to matter.” Moreover, were “fears” of a power/proliferation link silly? Today’s headlines buzz with the fact that despite extensive IAEA inspections it is impossible it is to prove that Iran’s civilian nuclear power program is not being used to build bombs. The unavoidable reason is that the technological basis of reactors and bombs is largely shared. India, Pakistan, and North Korea all began their bomb programs under the guise of peaceful nuclear activity. If this does not show that nuclear power supports proliferation, what would? And if the US declares that it must have scores of new reactors and nuclear weapons for its own energy and national security, how can other nations not seek to copy its example (and why shouldn’t they)? That nuclear power encourages proliferation is not a “fear” but a fearful fact.

France’s nuclear program, mentioned in your article as a proof that reliance on nuclear power can work, has been insulated from market forces by socialized ownership: its bottom line has been safely sheltered in the deep pockets of the French government. Nor has European nuclear power been without its political and technical problems — though there is no room to detail them here.

Nuclear power is a dangerous, slow-to-deploy way of funneling money away from more effective energy and climate-mitigation investments to the construction of high-value targets for terrorists.


Larry Gilman, PhD (Thayer 95)

Bonus Track! For my peace of mind, which is — alas! — easily disturbed, I must also respond to Prof. Garmire’s statement, in reply to a request to name the advantages of nuclear energy, that “Nuclear power is the most efficient energy source currently available. Uranium-235, the isotope used in nuclear reactors, can produce 3.7 million times as much energy as the same amount of coal.”

This is an amazing thing for an engineer to say. The mere energy density of nuclear fuel — the number of joules that it can release per gram — has nothing to do with “efficiency” in any sense of the word found in physics, engineering, economics, or anywhere else. Efficiency, generally speaking, is what you get out of a process compared to what you put into it. By a logic very similar to Gramire’s, one could nominate solar power as
infinitely efficient, because it requires no fuel at all (at our end). But that logic would be bogus too, because even solar and wind power, which require no fuel inputs, have to be harvested, which requires energy and materials . . . translation, money. Ditto for nuclear energy. The high energy density of nuclear fuel does not make nuclear energy cheap — so it is irrelevant. It is at most a thought-fuzzing factoid.

In fact, the ultra-high energy density of nuclear fuel helps make nuclear power
expensive. It is because nuclear reactor cores — compact, but pouring out rivers of heat — produce enough energy to melt themselves that nuclear reactors must be protected by elaborate emergency-cooling systems. And nuclear weapons are possible precisely because vast amounts of energy can be released quickly from small volumes of uranium and plutonium, albeit at higher enrichments than those found in standard reactors (though not in breeder reactors). Which is another fundamental problem: nuclear power and nuclear weapons depend on much the same materials, facilities, and know-how, so spreading nuclear power inevitably tends to spread nuclear weapons too.

That Professor Gramire can even think the energy density of uranium-235 worth mentioning as evidence of nuclear power's wonderfulness exemplifies, to my mind, how sheerly emotional the attachment to nuclear power can be. Fear can undermine reason, as advocates of nuclear power are fond of pointing out, but so can romantic devotion to the Machine. Back to the Future dreams are at least as potent as Back to Nature dreams, and even less realistic. For it is objectively possible to live as a hunter-gatherer sans iPod or dental care — it's how we evolved — but the idea that larger, more potent machines will ever be able to solve problems faster than they create them is contradicted by all our experience so far.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Oh, Thank You Google, Thank You

I was amazed, delighted! Google wanted to hear from me, little nothing-nobody me! Normally, that omniscient entity can be addressed only through physical mail sent to its headquarters in Mountain View, California, but today, Google’s Project 10100 was inviting me to submit “a great idea for helping a lot of people.” Here’s what they asked and what I said:

Your idea’s name (maximum 50 characters):

One World, One Internet

What one sentence best describes your idea? (maximum 150 characters)

So far as it is in our power, give China’s 1 billion people access to uncensored information via the Internet.

Describe your idea in more depth. (maximum 300 words)

Google must foreswear its policy of voluntarily censoring the Internet in China on behalf of the Chinese government. If there is no other alternative, it should cease to do business in China altogether. The impact on world perceptions of corporate responsibility, freedom of speech, and human dignity might be profound.

What problem or issue does your idea address? (maximum 150 words)

Corporate hypocrisy in support of totalitarian government.

If your idea were to become a reality, who would benefit the most and how? (maximum 150 words)

The people of China would benefit at once through a weakening of the Chinese government’s position that censorship is normal and acceptable; ultimately, perhaps, through achieving uncensored access to the Internet.

What are the initial steps required to get this idea off the ground? (maximum 150 words)

Google’s corporate managers can announce the new policy effective immediately.

Describe the optimal outcome should your idea be selected and successfully implemented. How would you measure it? (maximum 150 words)

Optimally, the Chinese government will eventually cease to censor the Internet. The number of Web interactions presently censored by Google and the Chinese government would provide a direct numerical measurement of this ultimate benefit. However, there is no metric that can capture the value of liberty itself.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Perfect Shitstorm

It’s perfect. It’s all there in one cute little graphic, the Google logo for August 8, 2008:

Here Google, which has
censored the Internet on behalf of the Chinese government since 2006, visually merges itself with the Olympics, which as I write are giving China’s totalitarian government its best chance ever to strut its ultramodern chops for the world. Rather than fertilizing democratization, as Olympic advocates had long fantasized, the spectacle has only inflamed Chinese nationalism and defiance of international norms (“the short-term byproduct of the Olympics has been a surge in Chinese patriotism that bolstered the [Communist] party against international criticism”—New York Times, Aug. 7).

It’s funny enough to make a skull grin. The Chinese government has at least 30,000 full-time thought police
spying on Internet usage, but Google threatens their jobs by blocking whatever the Chinese government wants blocked. Google argues that it must obey the laws of the countries where it does business (but I wonder what law says Google has to do business there at all). Yahoo has been even worse, repeatedly handing over data that has helped the Chinese government put people in jail for advocating democracy on-line. Those people rot in cells today with 10-year sentences and are at grave risk for torture.

The parallel between 2008 and 1936, when the Nazis tarted up Berlin for their own Olympics and put on a magnificently designed show for the world media, has been noted often. It should be noted even more often, and taken to heart. Enough sawdust piffle about sports transcending politics: they don’t. And enough pious mewing about not hassling the poor innocent amateur athletes with their dreams of gold: the Olympics are a money-making proposition, for the pseudo-amateur athletes as well as their prestige-hungry host countries, media love-slaves, and corporate sponsors. (Remember when Michael Jordan became an amateur just long enough to play on the US Olympic basketball team, 1992? Vomitorium, anyone?) The Olympics are, and have always been—in every country, not only China—a billion-watt pumper-upper of nationalism and a deification of that savage, winning-is-all ideology which already courses like molten plutonium through the bulging veins of all professional “sport”—a word that once upon a time, it is sad to recall, meant simply “play.” The Olympics are bad for us from top to bottom, beginning to end, whether in China or Sweden.

Of course, Bush’s lecture to the Chinese on human rights makes the bile rise nicely. The hypocrisy of Mr. Waterboarding, Mr. War of Aggression, Mr. No-Warrant Spying, Mr. No-Trials-for-Anybody-If-I-Say-So lecturing China is perfect. But that’s unimportant: even a stopped fascist can be right twice a day. The Olympics are soul-sick and perverse, and the billions of dollars and hours lavished on them are worse than wasted. We should turn our backs on them, “boycott” them if you like, wherever and whenever they occur. The spectacle of so much skill at work is tempting, of course. Exactly. A spoonful of sugar makes the poison go down.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


The science section of the New York Times—paper of record, printer of all that is fit—is, as I’ve claimed before, essentially a P.R. wing of the aerospace industry. Proofs come so thick and fast that I can’t keep up with them; here is a particularly choice one. The arrangement of graphics and text in today’s online Science Times (June 11, 2008) is exquisite:

Let’s take it from the top:

(1) Today’s subject is “Science.”

(2) This thing called “Science” is brought to you, in part (note banner ad), by a greenwashing campaign by ExxonMobil, the company responsible for about 5% of all carbon emissions from 1882 to 2002—that’s
total global emissions—according to a new study by Friends of the Earth.

(3) The top “Science” news item of the day, heralded in extra-big print, is “Google Co-Founder Books a Space Flight.” Yes! Ultra-rich co-founder of the company that voluntarily
helps China censor the Internet is to pay somewhere between $20 million and $40 million for a trip to the International Space Station (I.S.S.) on a Russian rocket. New Orleans is rotting, Africa starving, China reeling, the Arctic melting, species vanishing—but Sergey Brin and one other ultra-wealthy space tourist, as yet unnamed, are scheduled to Ooh and Aah their way around and around the suffering Earth for several days in 2011. I am reminded of Gil Scott Heron’s bitter post-Apollo rap, “Whitey on the Moon” (1970):

. . . Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck, 

The price of food is goin’ up, 

An’ as if all that shit wuzn’t enough: 

A rat done bit my sister Nell. 

(with Whitey on the moon) 

Her face an’ arm began to swell. 

(but Whitey’s on the moon) 

Was all that money I made las’ year 

(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here? 

(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon) 

Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill 

(of Whitey on the moon) 

I think I'll sen’ these doctor bills, 

Airmail special to Whitey on the Moon.

And carbon copy, please, to Sergey in orbit.

The president of the Russian spacecraft company Energia grumps about the deal: “We have built the I.S.S. not for space tourists but for serving the needs of the people of Earth.” I sympathize, but he’s wrong.
All the astronauts who jaunt aboard the I.S.S. are space tourists, only most are more dignified than Sergey. The space station, which will have cost a respectable fraction of the Iraq War by 2017—on the order of $158 billion—has produced approximately nothing to serve the “needs of the people of Earth.” One can find some muttering on the Web about glorious benefits to result from I.S.S. studies of fluid microphysics and zero-G combustion—studies yet to be conducted, apparently, 10 years after the commencement of I.S.S. construction—but nobody that I know of even bothers to argue that such experiments could not have been conducted aboard robotic satellites or vomit-comet parabolic jet flights at a microscopic fraction of the I.S.S.’s cosmic cost. The space station’s main scientific product has been, and will remain, “space medicine”—studies of how people thrive or fail to thrive when living in space for long periods, conducted so that a few more people can, well, live in space some more, later on, in orbit or elsewhere. But don’t expect any benefits for “the people of Earth” from space medicine. Even its advocates don’t have the chutzpah to pretend that Africa needs insight into bone wasting of calcium in microgravity more than it needs corn, rain, peace, and debt relief. They don’t argue that Africa needs space medicine at all; they simply avoid the subject of Africa. They make fizzing noises about the “people of Earth” (already, I note, adopting the diction of Martian ambassadors addressing the terrestrial press corps) but wisely remain silent about the details. Spinoffs, my boy, spinoffs.

And now for Item Number Two in the
Times’s “Science” news for this week:

(4) “Strong Action Urged to Curb Global Warming.” The scientific academies of Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and the United States have banded together to urge governments to
do something:

To mitigate and adapt to climate change, nations must begin a transition to being “low-carbon societies,” a shift that will require energy-saving changes in all sectors—from housing to transportation to industry—and the development of a range of clean energy sources.

Translation: everything we do, all of how we live, must change radically and must change starting now, and the scientists of the world are scared about what will happen if it doesn’t. What a snore! Dock it just below a piece of
cool news, like “Google Co-Founder Books a Space Flight.”

The grotesquerie is not complete until one has noted that Sergey’s trip to space must set some sort of record for personal energy consumption in pursuit of selfish whimsicality—a sky-scraping monument to exactly the wrong thing, the precise opposite of what the massed scientific opinion of the globe (not to mention common sense) says we must be doing. Sergey, glorified by the
Times, merely takes the Hummer (or allegedly indispensable but equally low-mileage family van), the second home, and the globe-trotting jet vacation to a new level of extravagance.

In the fine print, we should all be changing how we live. In the big print, we romanticize conspicuous consumption. That’s today’s news. Literally.

Brought to you by ExxonMobil.

P.S. In the afternoon, the
Times expanded its already embarrassingly fannish coverage of Sergey’s impending trip by adding a file picture of a Soyuz craft approaching the awesome I.S.S. itself, further dwarfing its coverage of the need for total transformation of our lifestyle:

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Oh No!

My old friend Dave, a remarkable combination of short-haired engineering wonk and drug-crazed teenager hopped on 70s glam-rock, recently sent me a Blue Öyster Cult sampler that included the song “Godzilla.” The lyrics are not only a hoot but hard to argue with:

History shows again and again
That Nature points out the folly of men
Oh no Godzilla!

. . . Godzilla, of course, being a product of nuclear hubris gone awry. Surely, we have been warned. But here it comes anyway: geoengineering! And what is geoengineering? Well, the usual population of enterprising technology-worshippers is now proposing to solve global warming by diverting sunlight from the Earth using giant space mirrors, or adding tiny particles (aerosols) to the atmosphere to reflect sunlight, or dumping powdered iron in the oceans to encourage plankton to suck up carbon dioxide and then sink to the ocean floor with it, or any or all of these and a number of other schemes.

Now, the
New York Times has never seen a big-budget, high-tech extravaganza that it didn’t like, from the peaceful atom to Mars colonization -- its “science” section runs at least one brief for the aerospace industry every week, disguised as journalism -- and its climate coverage is no exception. It prints two regular columns, one, TierneyLab, written by a greenhouse denier named John Tierney (who boasts of having “always wanted to be a scientist,” my emphasis) and the other, Dot Earth, written by a painfully non-militant, center-worshipping greenie named Andrew Revkin. In the March 7, 2008 Times online , Revkin ponders the possibilities of geoengineering and throws out the following challenge:

A question for climate campaigners opposed to geo-engineering (by any name): Why not at least explore (and test on reasonable scales) such options. If you take the threats of global warming as seriously as you say, why not at least pursue some work on this kind of backstop even as work on mitigating emissions continues?

Let’s take the first sentence first. A policy of “keep all options on the table,” as the jargon goes, would require us to give meaningfully lush grants not only to space mirrors and deliberate aerosol pollution but also to iron fertilization, fusion reactors, deep-ocean carbon sinking, microwave power satellites, and more. Most of these technologies cannot be developed -- in the case of anything space-based, cannot even be “test[ed] on reasonable scales” -- without spending many billions of dollars. But Federal energy budgeting is, to a good first approximation, a zero-sum game. Money spent on what might work (geoengineering) would be sucked from what will work (mitigating emissions). We’re shopping with food stamps, not gold bullion: buying all options is not an option. Opportunity costs are real.

The second sentence quoted above is therefore question-begging, because it lays down as a given that “work on mitigating emissions” would proceed along with geoengineering projects. But whether mitigation
would continue on a scale that has any hope of being effective is precisely what is called into question by the logic of fund-all-options.

Two other points. (1) All our previous large-scale technical interferences with the environment have produced more secondary problems than they have solved primary problems. Our tippy global canoe is now freighted with the ever-growing burden of all the shifty, fecund secondary problems that our ingenious solutions to primary problems have bred -- and the waterfall ahead is getting louder. Jiggering the sky would almost certainly be dangerous in intractable ways that we do not foresee. The experts paid to do the jiggering would not be motivated to admit the possibility of intractable dangers, indeed of any dangers. “Climate control” is a marketer’s phrase, self-flattering and inherently phony; “climate experimentation” would be a more realistic tag.

(2) If we Fund All Options, every worker on every dubious mega-technical fix will inevitably make inflated claims for the benefits of their own technology. A chorus of reassurances will thus arise from laboratories across the land, publicly funded and desperate to renew their grants, and this chorus will inevitably create the impression that some easy way out -- some high-tech fix far nicer than the scutwork of reducing emissions -- must be perpetually right around ten different corners. This probably-false impression, purchased by funds diverted from mitigating emissions, would undermine our will to mitigate emissions. Indeed, it would be deliberately leveraged to do so by all those who want to preserve business-as-usual.

In sum, experimental megatechnic interferences with Earth’s energy budget would be cripplingly expensive to develop, would likely have unforeseen, intractable side effects, and would certainly be used to divert us from the ugly but sure-fire work of reducing emissions. Oh no, Godzilla!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Little House on the Red Planet

On January 14, 2004, the White House announced that Bush had “committed the United States to a long-term human and robotic program to explore the solar system, starting with a return to the Moon, that will ultimately enable future exploration of Mars and other destinations.” Space fans almost fainted en masse: the Moon, we’re going back to the Moon! Has the human spirit ever again soared so high as it did during Apollo? Remember when Alan Shephard hit that golf ball?

And then
Mars. Pioneer families in corduroy britches, poke bonnets, and space suits will be wending their way to the Red Planet in nuclear-powered Conestogas before you can say “Manifest Destiny in Space.” Bonus: no annoying Indians to kill now, mourn later! Super cool!

But things have not been going so well for the Bush administration’s Vision for Space Exploration lately, as cost overruns force NASA to eat itself alive like the marooned, starving surgeon in the Stephen King story who gradually sliced off and ate all his own appendages. I comment further on the state of the space-colonization dream in an essay just published by
Turnrow, the literary review of the University of Louisiana at Monroe. A sightlier, more-printable PDF of the piece—all Turnrow’s apostrophes and quotation marks appear in Firefox as question marks, ugh!—can be had here.


(Mars photo taken by Viking 2 lander, 1976.)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Look, Ma, No NOMA

Stephen Jay Gould was a fine writer. He could also be a pompous ass, a quality that especially came out in the coining of rich, ringing, overblown phrases. One of his richest and ringingest and most overblown was “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA)—the one true key, Gould proclaimed in Rocks of Ages (1999), to peace in the evolution wars. Science and religion, he said, have disjoint areas of authority, that is, non-overlapping magisteria: science pronounces on facts, religion on morals. Since science can’t produce or sift values, religion can say whatever it wants about them: and it should never enter religion’s sweet little head to make claims about genes, fossils, or the Big Bang, concerning which it knows absolutely nothing. NOMA is, Gould said, a “blessedly simple” solution to the science-religion feud.

NOMA has many pleasing qualities, including obviousness and familiarity: even Gould admitted in passing that it is “entirely conventional.” A version pops up in the latest edition of the widely-hailed pamphlet
Science, Evolution, and Creationism, from the US National Academies of Science (NAS). Much reporting has hailed the pamphlet’s soothing message that religion and science need not be mad at each other: “Evolution Book Sees No Science-Religion Gap,” says the New York Times (Jan. 4). But there are problems with NOMA. It is confused, unreal, and insincere.

NOMA Is Confused. The NAS announces that “Science can neither prove nor disprove religion” (p. 54). Why? Because “Religious faith, in contrast [to science], does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities” (p. 12). So far so good (although we might note that Gould, unlike the NAS, would rather have religion drop the “forces or entities” altogether and stick to flower-arranging). The NAS adds a further distinction: the supernatural forces or entities with which religion concerns itself, because “they are not a part of nature, . . . cannot be investigated by science.”

In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist. (p. 12)

But whoa: later on, we read that “Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question” (p. 54). What happened to separateness?

The confusion arises because of a hidden fallacy: when it claims that no controversy need exist, the NAS is assuming that because the “forces or entities” with which religion are concerned cannot be investigated by science,
none of religion’s claims can ever be investigated by science. This assumption is false because some religions are interested not only in supernatural entities per se but in what those entities might do. God might make rocks fall up, create a new planet during the halftime break, or pull Adam and Eve out of her hat. Claims that such things have happened are scientifically testable, in principle, and are exactly the sort of claims that some religions have made. Which is why there is all this fuss to begin with.

And Unreal. The discomfiting nub is that although one can imagine forms of religion that do not conflict with science, some forms of religion do conflict with science. When science kicks against Creationist claims, it is obviously, necessarily, and properly in conflict with at least some claims made by at least one form of religion. In a country where over 40% of the electorate polls Creationist, this is a politically ugly fact, but it is a fact that the NAS can’t help but acknowledge: hence “Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question.” But the NAS also wants to give the comforting impression that there is, as the Times put it, “No Science-Religion Gap.” (“Nice, Wide Science-Religion Gap” would have been a more accurate characterization of the NAS’s claim.) So it ends up dithering back and forth between defining the conflict out of existence and admitting that it exists.

All NOMA-type declarations purport to be descriptive but are in fact prescriptive. They do not simply describe what religion and science are, though they pretend to; they say what science is and what religion should be. In doing so, they plump for certain types of religion and against others. They are not neutral or above the fray.

It’s not necessarily wrong to make prescriptions, but to confuse them with descriptions is the definition of wishful thinking. Religion and science are not going to retire to neatly non-overlapping magisteria just because it would be nicer if they did so. Things are messy and are going to stay messy. NOMA boils down to the trivially true idea that things would be swell if Creationism would only go away—but it won’t.

And Let’s Not Forget Insincere. What most wrinkles my nose about the attempt to define the evolution-Creation feud out of existence is its condescending let’s-pretend quality. Let’s pretend that science-friendly types of religion define what religion essentially is, not just what we would like it to be. Then let’s conclude, logically, that conflicts arise only because certain fools make “attempts to pit science and religion against each other” (mere “attempts,” note). And then let’s admit in passing that, of course, some beliefs that are clearly religious by any scholarly or commonsense definition, such as the tenets of Creationism, do indeed conflict with science. And then let’s hasten to claim again, inconsistently, that religion and science can’t be in conflict, they simply can’t, and so they aren’t: the Creationists are merely confused. They only think that their beliefs have something to do with their religion. This is exactly how the NAS proceeds: a paragraph after stating that “scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question,” it states that explaining gaps in science by divine action, as Creationists do, “confuses the roles of science and religion by attributing explanations to one that belong in the domain of the other” (p. 54). The sillies!

A Creationist might reasonably reply that the NAS has no brief to say what religion is allowed to talk about and what it isn’t. When religions make claims about physical reality, scientists may refute those claims if they can—they’re very good at it, I’m happy to say—but if they declare that such claims aren’t really religious at all they are (a) denying the obvious and (b) implicitly declaring that some kinds of religion are more authentically or
properly religious than others. And that is an essentially theological declaration, a type of statement that, on the NOMAzoids’ own showing, they have no brief to make.

So let’s ditch the phony, politic peace-pipe. There is a real collision between some statements of science and some forms of religion. It’s too bad, it sucks, it makes many decent people feel bad and commits some to a lifetime of delusion, but it happens. The NAS should admit consistently that it happens. It should also admit that there is a difference between saying that religion
need not be in conflict with evolution, which is a factual observation, and saying that religion should not be in conflict with evolution, which is advocacy of one class of religious beliefs (the science-compatible ones, like my own liberal Episcopalianism) over another (the Creationisms). That’s theology, not science—even if some of us think it's good theology.