THE HAZARDS OF SOLAR ENERGY
This document was concocted to exhibit various "symptoms of pseudoscience".
It has been used in classroom settings by asking students to identify
and comment about the fraudulent arguments and misleading arguments
Those accessing this document on the internet might have used the
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way the author describes the document.
The description is "Parody of the style of some anti-technology diatribes".
Keywords include "humor" and "satire".
Also there was this hidden comment:
NOTICE: This document is a parody. It does not represent the views of
the author on the subject of solar energy, nor, I hope, of any other
person living or dead. This should be obvious to any intelligent person
who reads it, but there's a lot of people surfing the net who are
literal-minded and not very perceptive. Most won't bother to look here to
see the HTML tags, nor will they go to my home page, where this document
is linked under "humor". It was written as an example of empty, irrelevant
and unfounded arguments woven together in a quasi-logical manner to sound
plausible and persuasive. It is a parody of the specious arguments of
politicians and of zealous activists who promote a cause passionately in
spite of their ignorance of the issues, ignorance of science, and disdain
for logic. As humorist Burton Hillis said,
"There's a mighty big difference between
good, sound arguments and arguments that sound good."
The original document text is shown below on the left. On the right are
my comments about its deceptive language and arguments.
Over the years I have heard and read much nonsense, to the point where
nothing surprises me any more. Recently an item caught my eye, a pamphlet
put out by the Citizens' Reactionary Alliance Concerned with Keeping the
Environment Decent. It's a nice example of the style and `logic' common to
propaganda pieces from many groups of alarmists and `aginers.'|
You'd think that this preamble would be sufficient clue that the person
named at the bottom of the paragraph isn't claiming to have written the
document that follows (but, of course, he lies).
The acronym of the mythical organization supposed
to have written it is "CRACKED", which could be a clue also.
Yet many readers not only assumed that I wrote the whole thing, but
that I that I actually believed it.
Many groups and individuals are proposing that our government spend tax
money on research and development of systems to utilize solar energy. They
urge construction of vast solar energy collectors to convert sunlight to
electricity to supply our energy needs. They would even put solar
collectors on roofs of homes, factories, schools, and other buildings.
Proponents of this technology claim that energy obtained from the sun will
be safer and cleaner than coal, oil, or nuclear energy sources.
This is also a shameless appeal to folks who think the government always
wastes tax money,
and to those who are automatically suspicious of large government programs.
The suggestion that
this would be a questionable invasion of technology into every aspect of
daily life, even our homes, appeals to those who fear government intrusion
into our privacy and personal lives.
We view these proposals with alarm. Unscrupulous scientists and greedy
promoters are hoodwinking a gullible public. We consider it rash and
dangerous to commit our country to the use of solar energy. This solar
technology has never been utilized on such a large scale, and we have no
assurance of its long-range safety. Not one single study has been done to
assess the safety of electricity from solar energy as compared to
electricity from other sources. |
Loaded language here: "alarm", "unscrupulous", "greedy", "hoodwinking",
"gullible", and all in one sentence! Followed by "rash", "dangerous",
and "commit", all with emotional appeal. Characterize the technology as
untested, and question its safety. Since electricity is the same whatever
its source, the suggestion that it ought to be comparison-tested
is simply silly.
The promoters of solar energy cleverly lead you to believe that it is
perfectly safe. Yet they conveniently neglect to mention that solar energy
is generated by nuclear fusion within the sun. This process
operates on the very same basic laws of nuclear physics used in
nuclear power plants and atomic bombs!
Suggest that the promoters are trying to decieve, and lying about safety.
Use a totally false "danger by association" suggestion, playing on well
established (but unfounded) public fears of anything "nuclear". Reinforce
this false connection by noting that the processes by which the sun produces
light operate on the same basic
laws of physics as those in nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs.
Doesn't everything going on in the universe operate
on the same laws of physics? This is an appeal to unfounded fears, and to
And what is the source of this energy? It is hydrogen, a highly explosive
gas (remember the Hindenberg?) Hydrogen is also the active material in
H-bombs, which are not only tremendously destructive, but produce
dangerous fallout. The glib advocates of solar energy don't even mention
these disturbing facts about the true sources of solar energy. What
else are they trying to hide from us? |
This just gets worse. Now we throw in an additional "danger by association"
by mentioning hydrogen as "explosive" (misusing that term), and hydrogen's
use in bombs. Never mind that hydrogen is a component of water (H20),
which we safely drink every day and which is necessary to life.
We might as well have mentioned
hydrogen peroxide, or hydrogenated fats in foods as being dangerous.
(Darn, I missed that one!) Claim that advocates
are hiding these facts (always a powerful emotional suggestion).
In addition to the known dangers cited above, what about the
unknown dangers, which very well might be worse? When pressed,
scientists will admit that they do not fully understand the workings of
the sun, or even of the atom. They will even grudgingly admit that our
knowledge of the basic laws of physics is not yet perfect or complete. Yet
these same reckless scientists would have us use this solar technology
even before we fully understand how it works. |
Appeal to "fear of the unknown and misunderstood".
Unknown dangers "might" be worse. (Couldn't they be negligible?)
Suggest that because something isn't fully understood that
"anything dire might happen" if we utilize it. (Most people use
computers and automobiles that they don't begin to understand.)
Equate incomplete understanding with misunderstanging.
Loaded language: "reckless".
Admittedly we are already subject to a natural `background' radiation from
the sun. We can do little about that, except to stay out of direct
sunlight as much as possible. The evidence is already clear that too much
exposure to sunlight can cause skin cancer. But solar collectors would
concentrate that sunlight, which otherwise would have fallen
harmlessly on waste land, convert it to electricity and pipe it into our
homes to irradiate us from every light bulb! We would then not even be
safe from this cancer-producing energy even in our own homes!
Open with an air of being "reasonable" by admitting that we already
are bathed in power from the sun. But then point out that even this
everyday reality has known dangers. Suggest that these dangers would be
made worse if the sunlight were concentrated for conversion to electrical
power, and that those dangers would somehow be increased in strength
and imparted to any energy derived from sunlight. Never mind that all
the energy of coal and oil that we use was derived from sunlight
and that the energy we
get from the food we eat came originally from sunlight. Play on fears
of technology invading our homes against our will and causing awful results.
(If you want a comparison example, recall recent unwarranted public fears of radiation from power lines, and radiation from cell-phones.)
We all know that looking at the sun for even a few seconds can cause
blindness. What long term health hazards might result from reading by
light derived from solar energy? We now spend large amounts of time
looking at the light from television monitors or computer screens, and one
can only imagine the possible long-term consequences of this exposure when
the screens are powered with electricity from solar collectors. Will we
develop cataracts, or slowly go blind? Not one medical study has
yet addressed itself to this question, and none are planned. |
This builds even greater absurdities, and plays on people's fear of
unknown dangers of things they don't understand. Not one medical study
has ever addressed the dangers of eating potatoes either, for there's not
the slightest evidence or reason to do so. But maybe, just maybe, eating
potatoes causes cancer! Some more loaded words people emotionally fear:
In their blind zeal to plug us in to solar energy, scientists seem to
totally ignore possible fire hazards of solar energy. Sunlight reaching us
directly from the sun at naturally safe levels poses little fire threat.
But all one has to do is concentrate sunlight, with a simple
burning-glass, and it readily ignites combustible materials. Who would
feel safe with solar energy concentrators on their roof? Could we afford
the fire insurance rates?
Emotional language: "blind zeal". Use a wild suggestion that solar power
represents "concentrated sunlight", and compare its effects to a
burning-glass. Appeal to concerns for safety. Suggest the economic
burden of additional home insurance costs.
Solar energy is "sold" to us with the claim that it is a natural, clean and
inexhaustable source. They lie. The sun's energy isn't inexhaustible;
it is finite. If we converted our energy consuming activities to solar,
worldwide, it would represent a significant drain on the sun's energy
output, hastening the demise of our sun.
The sun's power (energy/time) output is the same whether we use any of it or not.
We can't change that. Some have suggested that by using solar energy that would
have been otherwise wasted heating the ground might be a good thing, lessining
global warming. However, any energy we divert to heat our homes or drive our
machinery is eventually converted to thermal energy, warming the earth.
These scientists, and the big corporations that employ them, stand to
profit greatly from construction of solar-power stations. No wonder they
try to hide the dangers of the technology and suppress any open discussion
Appeal to widespread distrust of giant corporations.
Suggest that scientists employed
by them have sold their souls to the company and cannot, or dare not,
Suggest that the whole lot is deliberately hiding dangers and suppressiong
open discussion of them. The obvious example that will be conjured up
in the reader's minds: tobacco companies. It's the "bad apple" principle.
Just because you have one rotten apple in the basket doesn't necessarily
mean that they are all rotten.
Proponents of solar energy present facts, figures and graphs to support
their claim that energy from the sun will be less expensive, as
conventional fuel supplies dwindle and technology of solar energy systems
improves. But even if this is so, what will stop the solar energy
equipment manufacturers and solar power companies from raising prices when
they achieve a monopoly and other fuel sources disappear?
Appeal to the general feeling that proponents of any large and expensive
proposal will inflate its value and conceal its dangers and side effects.
Suggest that costs will be deliberately underestimated,
and after a period of low costs
has killed all the competition, costs will rise dramatically out of
corporate greed. Now this appeal
does have historical examples to support it, and is a legitimate concern
in many cases. You have to be realistic occasionally in these matters.
Of course every technology has risks. We might be willing to tolerate some
small riskif solar energy really represented a permanent solution to
our energy problems. But that is not the case. At best, solar energy is
only a temporary band-aid. Recent calculations indicate that the "Sun Will
Go Out in a Billion Years As Its Fuel Runs Out" (Source: newspaper
headline.) As that calculation was made a year ago, we now have only
nine-hundred ninety-nine million, nine-hundred ninety-nine thousand,
nine-hundred and ninety-nine years left during which we could use solar
energy. Wouldn't it be better to put our human resources and scientific
brains to work to find a safer and more permanent solution to our energy
In case anyone hadn't gotten the joke by now, this closing paragraph should
give away this game to everyone but the most imperceptive. It is an extrme
example playing to the average
person's innumeracy and lack of understanding of relative amounts when
large numbers are involved. It's so extreme that no one could take it seriously.
Mark Twain used this joke in his book
Life on the Mississippi.
(c) 1978, 1994, 2002
by Donald E. Simanek, Lock Haven University, Lock Haven, PA 17745.
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