In the 1950s, during the high times of the “atomic age”, someone had the unfortunate idea of claiming that nuclear technologies would give us, one day, “energy too cheap to meter.” We might call it “the mother of all promises” and, of course, it was not maintained. But, as propaganda often does, it stuck in people’s minds and it seems that many people still believe in the concept that energy too cheap to meter is just around the corner and they expect it to come with one of the many scams about “free energy” or “cold fusion” that litter the Internet today.
But breakthroughs bordering on miracles are claimed also in other fields of science and some scientists seem to have made a point in saving the world every two weeks or so. The latest scientific claim that went viral on the web is about a catalyst able to turn CO2 directly into ethanol. It is likely that many people understood as a miracle that would remove the dreaded CO2 from the air and transform it into something useful at little or no cost.
Yet, if you look at the original article, you will find nothing that suggests that this catalyst is ready for practical, real-world applications. There are no data about how long it can last in operating conditions, nor there are calculations that would tell us how efficient would be the whole process, considering that one has to saturate the electrolyte with CO2. The authors themselves state that “The overpotential (which might be lowered with the proper electrolyte, and by separating the hydrogen production to another catalyst) probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst.” So, we have something that works in the lab, which is fine, of course, but we should never forget that the graveyard of failed inventions is littered with tombstones with the inscription “in the lab, it worked.”
In the discussion that took place on Facebook about this story, some people asked me why I was criticizing this paper so much; after all, they said, it is a legitimate research report. It is true, but the problem is another one. What is the public supposed to think about this?
Most people will see only the press release and they lack the intellectual tools needed to understand and evaluate the original. And from the press release hey will understand that scientists are making a new claim of a further scientific miracle that will solve some important problem at some unspecified moment in the future. And then, they will see that the whole story will be forgotten and the problems of climate, pollution, depletion, etc., will still be there; worse than before.
It is true that the myth of the scientific miracle is stubborn, mainly because it is a comfortable myth: nobody has to do anything except giving some money to our priests in white coats. But that can’t last forever. Science, as all human enterprises, doesn’t live in a vacuum, it lives on its reputation. People believe that science can do something good for them because science has done that in the past. But this reputation is being tarnished a little bit every time some hyped scientific claim falls into oblivion, as it is destined to do. The reserve of trust that science has accumulated in the past is not infinite.
Already today, you can see the decline of the reputation of science with the many people who believe that no man ever never walked on the moon. Even worse, you can see it with those (nearly 50% of the American public) who believe that human-caused climate change is an elaborate hoax created by a cabal of evil scientists who are only interested in their fat research grants.
So, what happens when the reserve of trust in science runs out for good? I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be a good thing for scientists to be a little more humble and stop promising things they know they can’t maintain?
Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)unifi.it