Bad Physics

In yet another example of why scientists (and even worseor science writers) should not be allowed to make (or even talk about IMHO) public policy, Jennifer Ouellette said on today's second hour of Forum that electricity deregulation is "bad physics" because electricity doesn't travel long distances well. Apparently she thinks "deregulation" means "sending power from across the country" and "central planning" means "power is generated locally." She goes on to suggest that perhaps politicians should be better versed in physics.

May I make a humble suggestion: perhaps scientists who want to talk about public policy should pick up a dictionary and maybe learn some economic history. Yes, sending power over long distances because nobody will let the power companies build power plants where they're actually needed is bad. It seems to me that calling something "deregulation" when you're actually regulating the crap out of the supposedly "deregulated" industry is the real problem.

Science Friday on Talk of the Nation was supposed to be about why Iraq still has no electricity, but I arrived at work before it came on... strangely, Iraq has plenty of electricity, it's just not being provided by the government :)

Update: Of course anyone should be able to talk about anything they want, and my parenthetical comment about science writers was inappropriate. I changed it to "or science writers." What I really mean is "should not be relied upon solely," but that doesn't sound nearly as good.

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(excuse the typos, please,

(excuse the typos, please, I'm on the go, but had to shout out)
One of the confusions that all of this causes is often from terms.

As someone who has worked with "electricity", I can tell you that you must always regulate energy. What's that you say, you are for regulation?

Well, not rules in the way you mean. Unregulated electricity would cause most of the electronics in your house to malfunction. (power surge), so, to a physics major, when you say deregulation, they think you are talking about lightning strikes.

secondly, most folks of an inteligent nature realize that when most folks are speaking of "derugulation" what they really mean is regulation that is more favorable to their own personal interests, not a lack of regulation.

Now, "real" derugulation is nothing of the sort. It's getting out of the way of the self-regulation free market. Not an absence of regulations, but letting the market set them.

Looking back at Cali dereg, it was nothing of the sort. To this day, I don't know what that was.

But, I have this (following) example to show me what deregulations actually means to many in this country(but it relates to content transmission rather than pure energy).

Years ago I lived in one of the first towns to have cable TV in IL. Because the market was unregulated, becuase the cable company required right of way on our land (we were a "self-rule" corporation, yes a village, but a self-rule incorporated village), we were able to get an excellnt deal with the company. I had a chance to meet one of the VPs from that company at the time, and I knew from him, they were very happy with the deal. They made profits, we allowed them the rights of way and other assistances that in cases where no deal had been agreed to, possibly been costly from a management perspective.

That is all gone now. Why? Well, you see we were deregulated. Now, we had to except national enforced mandates, rather than negotiate with the company directly. Should there be problems with the service, tough luck charlie. Previously, the free market was still open, and since we had helped build the infrastructure, we could make deal with a different company that would better service our market preferences.

I would much rather go back to that "regulated" state, that had no regulations other than the fact that two incorporated groups of people had agreed on.

So, in that case: Regulated meant contracts between individuals, negotiated without fed interference, while Unregualted meant that the feds would preempt our negotiations.


Now, I will only truly "agree" with energy deregulation that both frees up market mechanisms, and complies with the realities of the difficulty of actual physical transmissions (laws of physics).

So far, all the "deregulation" schemes I've seen do not. They are shifting regulatory definitions. Sometimes in favor of the transmitors, sometimes in favor of producers, sometimes in favor of consumers. But, I have yet to see a sigle one that is in favor of the market.

So, yes she is a fool. But so are most scientists when it comes to crossing disciplines, whether it physics majors to econ, of economics majors dealing with physics.

Hadn't heard of Jennifer

Hadn't heard of Jennifer Ouellette before, but Googling turned up a book at Amazon, and the review describe her as "an English major turned science writer" and "a self-described physics-phobe." I'm not going to rule out someone solely based on a lack of credentials, but the argument cited is goofy. "Electricity doesn’t travel long distances well" just means that it is costly to send electricity long distances, but says nothing about the relative value of doing so.

If locally produced power costs X, and far-away power costs Y to produce and Z to deliver, until you have some idea about X, Y, and Z you can't really conclude that local power is better than far-away power. (Not to mention that the most-local-possible power, cogeneration and other forms of distributed generation, has long been discouraged by regulated utilities with the help of their state regulatory commissions. Deregulation has promoted this most-local-possible power.)

On the point of scientists and public policy, the usual error is failure to realize that laws and regulations are implemented in a social world, in which human values, information flows and incentives are important.

I agree that it would be nice if politicians were better versed in physics. And economics and history and law and biology, and while I am at it, better versed in ancient literature, too. Why not? It is sort of like a wish that other people spend less time having fun and more time doing good things that will benefit me. So stay in school and do your homework. I'm all in favor.

My experience is that

My experience is that engineers often talk rubbish on Economics, scientists always.

Of course, if government

Of course, if government isn't providing a service, it must not be available!

Unrelated but you will get a

Unrelated but you will get a kick out of this: Britain bans lines for dentists

Also scientists sometimes

Also scientists sometimes abet state aggression, like with Richard Feynman and the atomic bomb. Down with scientists!

So you believe that Feynman

So you believe that Feynman was working for the Nazis? Think about it he was also working against state agression ...

... or are you making a general claim that he improved the ablility to kill people.

Well then, if so, the guy who invented canned peaches can also be indicted. Perhaps more so. After all nuking another state really brings little value besides a twisted vicarious emotional satisfaction at seeing your enemy burn. Whereas, technologies that enable a conventional invasion are a big incentive to do so. You don't even have to hate your neighboring country. You just have to believe that invading gives you some benefit above the costs. Canned goods bring down the cost of an invasion. As does soap, and even medical advances. Are you against the technologists/scientists who invented those?

So you believe that Feynman

So you believe that Feynman was working for the Nazis?

That response is a little glib, even for you.

… or are you making a general claim that he improved the ablility to kill people.

As anyone with more than a sixth-grade knowledge of history would know, Feynman worked extensively on the Manhattan Project, whose goal was rather more directed at killing enemies of the US (like Japanese civilians) than in killing people "in general".

You just have to believe that invading gives you some benefit above the costs. Canned goods bring down the cost of an invasion. As does soap, and even medical advances. Are you against the technologists/scientists who invented those?

And you wonder why I have trouble taking you seriously...

Stefan, Glib response to a


Glib response to a glib comment.

Didn't read my book list did you. I've read four books by Feynman and am well aware of who he is and what he's done. Knew it before I read the books also.

As anyone with more than a sixth-grade knowledge of history would know, Feynman worked extensively on the Manhattan Project, whose goal was rather more directed at killing enemies of the US (like Japanese civilians) than in killing people “in general".

You had me wondering. Glad to see that you agree that it was not developed to abet but to prevent state agression.

I still disagree with your position. Everyone abets state agression in some way or another. Should I say, "Down with everyone".

So far Feynmans decision seems to have been the correct one. Seems to me that there has been less state aggression with the atomic bomb than there would have otherwise. How many have been lost due to conventional technology and how many due to nuclear? My quip about canned goods wasn't some ignorant choice. It is well recognized as invention that is important militarily. Napoleon Bonaparte's army lost more soldiers due to spoiled foods than from battle. So this is a technology that improves the ability to project military power.

Of course you could consider the soldiers victims if they were conscripts an then say well, canned goods prevented deaths. But then you'd have to do the same with Hiroshima. Not something I would think you are willing to do.

There are plenty of other cases of scientists and inventors abetting state aggression, like the Winchester, dynamite, high explosives, lasers, acoustics, and the internet. Or do you only object when the technology is being developed specifically to PREVENT state aggression.

You do realize that Libertarians in general are not taken seriously, don't you? Why should it bother me if you don't take me seriously. I have lived my entire life as a atheist in a Christian dominated society, I think I understand not being taken seriously by now. You do realize that I don't have my opinions for your benefit, don't you?

Which reminds me of another point I wanted to make. For someone who doesn't believe in evangelizing you spend a lot of time making Libertarian arguments on the internet. At least I recognize that what I am doing is ultimately just that. Worse than that it's an altruistic exercise at some level. Especially my criticisms of Islam. Read some Dawkins, and in particular the part about the bird in the flock who makes a warning call bringing attention to itself.

I especially wonder why the guys a no-treason bother with their attitude. I have a blog but I put minimal effort into it, but I actually do believe in helping others, and that my philosophical and political efforts might have some minor effect. Yet, I spend a hell of a lot less effort than they do. Hell, I don't even proofread my posts for spelling errors. :)

If you have abandoned the "libertarian project" then why the hell do you care who calls themselves a libertarian or not? You now seem to have switched positions and are saying it is ok for me to call myself a libertarian, but why were you worried in the first place?

I have thought about it and the time I spend in political discussions certain is not personally beneficial, other than to test my beliefs I really don't get any benefit. That doesn't stop me though. I think it is my curiousity that drives me. I really enjoy figuring out things.

I read that Kant article, not fully but enough to get his drift. I don't agree with him so I don't see were you saw a similarity. His own conclusion that goes something like *Our goal should be perfect morality and our reward for that goal perfect happiness* doesn't pass the very tests he used to arrive at that "maxim". Perfect morality violates his second rule because being imperfect beings we can't possibly attain it. Any attempt at perfect morality would result in unhappiness due to failure, which makes this maxim violate the second rule in a different way. It is irrational to expect perfect happiness to be the result of any attempt at perfect morality.

I don't really mind his idea of maxims and his definition of rationality but he must be doing something wrong to get to his final conclusion. I have also read summaries of Rawls and I don't agree with his methodolgies. I am not assuming that everyone doesn't know their place in society before deciding on fair rules. I can know that I am a male and still realize that Islamic law regarding rape is unfair to women. There rules are not intended to reduce error, and are obviously set up to give an unfair advantage to men.

I might get to the starving african question and a couple others when I get time. The distinquishing feature on the interference question is deception. Interference becomes agressive when it involves deception. I do not think all deception is criminal or even immoral. Little girls do not need to tell every stranger that asks where they live the truth. However, if you are selling tires and the guy across the street is selling tires and you have a customer sitting in front of you and he asks you what the other guy is selling the same tire for across the street then you damn well better tell the truth, or say I'm not sure, or should he find that you were lying he has got a case against you, were he recording the conversation. Of course, what you can prove in court is one thing, and what crime was committed is another. Not only do I think he would have a case but I think you are committing a crime against the guy across the street. Minor in this case, but still a crime. He is gaining profiting not only off the customer but also off the fellow across the street via a deception. His interference by buying the property across the street from the other tire store, and putting in another tire store doesn't fail this test.

Wendy's recently suffered large damages when a woman claimed that a finger was found in her chili. She was attempting to gain directly by suing Wendy's. Claiming a harm and asking restitution is fraud, but what if she didn't do that in full.

What if she had just pretended to find the finger but never had sued? She owned the finger, she bought the chili, there is no theift, yet she is still responsible for slander and the damages to Wendy's. Didn't agress, just slandered. Now you may claim this is a civil vs. a criminal issue. Well I fail to see much of a distinction. She has agressed against another and needs to pay. You still have a court making the decision and you still have the woman paying restitution and possible punative damages. If she can't pay for the damages then why shouldn't she go to jail? She took the gamble she wouldn't get caught and lost.

When you purposely cause damages to others beyond your means to pay for those damages why shouldn't it be considered criminal. I can understand if she were mad at someone and kicked their car, she would lose civilly, pay restitution, and pay court costs and be on her way. I don't think that applies when millions in provable damages occur. Otherwise, those with assets would be at the mercy of anyone who had none.

Which I think is the case to a certain extent in this country. I think it is worse in Britain. Apparently, burgalars can sue you if you try to protect your own property.

Hi, this is Jennifer

Hi, this is Jennifer Ouellette, and I just wanted to briefly address one thing: the interviewer actually said that electricity doesn't travel over long distances well; I tried to correct him on it.

That said, it wasn't my best attempt at correcting bad physics. :) This was my very first radio interview and I was a bit nervous, and, well, we all have moments where we don't express ourselves clearly. It's a learning process.

There's a broader issue here I picked up from the dismissive tone of your comment: Yes, I'm a former English major, but I've been a respected science writer for 12+ years and when I write about a topic, I do my homework and check with experts when I'm confused or unclear about something. That doesn't mean errors don't creep in occasionally, but they do with everyone -- even in the context of advanced physics research. Again, a learning process.

As for the question of whether non-scientists have "a right" to be interviewed on radio and to comment on scientific topics -- of course we have a right. This attitude that only PhD scientists have the right to talk about science means the discussions get relegated to the scientific community, and when it DOES seep into the mainstream, misunderstandings then occur, and suddenly all the scientists are up in arms about the ignorance of the general public -- having excluded them in the first place from the discussion.

I realize it's fun to point fingers, feel superior, and loftily assume that because someone majored in English they can't possibly have anything useful to contribute to the communication of physics. But you'd be wrong. And ultimately that's a very damaging attitude in terms of the long-term health of the field.

I've played up my English lit background for the book, because I'm trying to reach people who are turned off completely by the exclusionary and "smarther-than-thou" attitudes typical of many scientists. As a result, they've shut out all physics and scientific thinking. I want them to realize it can be accessible, so they'll at least TRY to understand physics, and persevere even if they don't get it right the first, third, or tenth time -- that's what the scientific method is all about, after all. For some reason, this means I sometimes run afoul of what I term "scientific elitism" -- despite spending the better part of a decade racking up strong career credentials.

Sure, I don't always express myself well when put on the spot; neither do most physicists, frankly. Sometimes I screw up and get details wrong. Don't you? But any time science is out in the open and debated, it brings its ideas and concepts into the mainstream and increases awareness of common misunderstandings in the general populace. Excluding or dismissing people based on their college major -- that's just silly, and the whole reason I wrote the book in the first place.

You're REALLY going to hate my second book... :)


Jennifer- Not to speak to


Not to speak to tones dismissive or not, but Sean's essential point, and in my view the correct one, is that the question of physics has little to do with whether or not something should be undertaken in this regard (though obviously is at the root of the engineering) but instead it depends on the confluence of factors both natural and human that determine if benefit outweighs the cost. The idea that there is an "engineering"/physics solution to an ultimately economic problem is behind so many bad infrastructure decisions and regulations in the US today.

The common rule of mainstream economics is, and the empirical conclusions of the past century are, that to the extent that costs reflect underlying reality the best way to allocate infrastructure decisions and investments is via financial/profit-loss considerations. Engineering is a side issue to the actual choice/allocation point. Knowing physics isn't going to help you make a more informed decision on where to locate power generation or how to get it from A to B in the most cost effective manner, but knowing economics might.

Though I suppose a physicist could help shoot down political fantasies of, say, having one megareactor in the desert to power the US, but the danger there is only that unlike in the market, the politician doesn't have to be grounded in some sort of reality to try and go forward with his projects...

Jennifer, Thank you so much


Thank you so much for your reply. It certainly didn't show that that was your first radio interview! You handled yourself quite well.

I in no way think that a person's qualifications have anything to do with what degree they hold or what they majored in at university! In fact, I was not questioning your scientific credentials at all but your knowledge of economics and what deregulation is (supposed to be) about as part of a general rant about people in the scientific community commenting on public policy when they have little to no knowledge of politics and economics. If, instead, it was Dave Iverson pushing you to say something against deregulation, then I apologize. I'll just have to pick up your book I guess.

By the way, I completely agree with you that sending power over long distances and creating these huge interdependencies among different parts of the power grid is a bad thing; I just don't think central planning of power grids (or provision of any service for that matter) is any better. In a free market for electricity, providers will compete on price, reliability, quality (i.e. stability of voltage and frequency), and service, and each consumer will be able to choose which balance of these factors is most important.