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How Bad Science Becomes Common Knowledge

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Trebor
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Alex Epstein mentioned this article at MasterResource ("A free-market energy blog") today:

How Bad Science Becomes Common Knowledge: Two Case Studies (solar and climate change) by Eric Dennis January 17, 2012

Accusations of conspiracies or conspiracy theories often miss the point that fundamental ideas, philosophy, account for dominant trends. Mr. Dennis demonstrates how the process works.

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The article is alright, but I have one major problem. There is little explanation about what Aidan Dwyer actually did, and therefore, little justification to say that is bad science. The explanation given is that the optimal angle is known and set in stone, implicitly assuming any change from that idea has to be sub-optimal. The best justification given is a bare assertion that mimicking a tree is far from optimal, which makes no sense to me. Why is mimicking a tree suboptimal, and how does the author know? He has a PhD in physics, not biology. At least the Michael Mann mention got into some actually why his scientific evidence was bad. But because of one bad example given, just like with bad scientific evidence, I can't say the article supports its claim well. If anything, the Aidan Dwyer bit I got into is itself an example of bad science - mentioning an uncited fact, which readers accept as a definite fact and repeat.

Edited by Eiuol
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I do not get your criticism. From Mr. Dennis' article:

His [Aidan Dwyer's] insight? A “super-efficient solar array” differing from standard arrays in one respect: the arrangement of individual solar cells at various random-looking angles according to a specific mathematical pattern (the Fibonacci sequence) that characterizes the leaves and branches of certain trees.

By all accounts, Aidan Dwyer is a bright, well-meaning boy. But this proposal makes no sense, and he has ultimately been ill-served by the adults lauding it. For good reason, the normal configuration of solar panels has each cell oriented at the angle yielding optimal total exposure to the sun’s day-long path in the sky. Each cell is either oriented at that one optimal angle or at a sub-optimal angle producing less output power—and mimicking a tree is far from optimal. [bold mine]

You say: "The explanation given is that the optimal angle is known and set in stone, implicitly assuming any change from that idea has to be sub-optimal."

I'm no expert on solar energy or solar panels, but it makes sense that they be maximally exposed to (oriented towards) the sun's rays.

In other words, a vast flat field of solar panels whose angles (faces) track the angle of the sun, always facing the sun, would maximize their efficiency, where as building a tree-like structure with an array of panels mounted on "branches" in the form of a tree, with some "leaves" blocking the sun's rays for other "leaves" would be "far from optimal."

And, if the panels do not track the sun, then having them angled (fixed) in such a way as to maximize their total exposure to the sun, as opposed to being blocked or shaded out by other panels, still makes more sense than a tree-like structure and array of panels like leaves.

Seems obvious to me, but you seem to think it "makes no sense." Why?

Edited by Trebor
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And here is Mr. Dennis' point with respect to Aidan Dwyer:

But notice that the narrative is optimal to two generations of media members steeped in “green” ideology: an innocent prodigy, influenced by the beauty and wisdom of nature, imposes natural order on brute technology to prove the viability of green energy. And so those media members, lacking any particular expertise on solar panels, ran with it.

Aidan Dwyer would never have received the same acclaim had he, say, conducted an experiment in his family’s garage leading him to claim the discovery of a new chemical agent for fracking. Can anyone imagine that the most prominent natural history museum in the country would then give him an award and the media would trumpet the arrival of a budding genius in the field of energy research? Of course not. [bold mine]

The point is that what is considered to be significant scientific advancement is in large part driven by politics (which is driven by fundamental philosophical ideas).

Edited by Trebor
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Seems obvious to me, but you seem to think it "makes no sense." Why?

I say makes no sense, because there is no kind of reasoning provided, other than perhaps it seems obvious that the most efficient fixed arrays would all face the same direction. But "seems obvious" is never good reasoning. Mimicking trees on an intuitive level seems like something that would work efficiently. If anything, the solar array idea is greatly exaggerated, because it sounds to me the applications are quite limited. But that doesn't make the science behind it bad.

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I think it depends somewhat on what your criterion of optimality was. If, instead of total energy output over the course of the day, you valued consistent power output for less than the cost of automated systems to rotate the cells, one could make an argument that it's better to have cells pointed in varying directions. Why would one value consistent output? It reduces the need for batteries in the system, and batteries basically suck. They are expensive and have to be replaced every few years because they cannot tolerate being discharged and recharged every day, and this will happen more often if you get often get crappy weather that forces you to draw them down deeply. Under the best of circumstances, you end up paying half as much for batteries as your electric bill would have been, and that's after plunking down multi-thousands for the initial system.

For the same reason, the folks falling all over themselves to buy an electric car that costs twice as much as an IC vehicle are in for a rude awakening when their batteries stop holding a charge. (There is one kind of battery that's basically indestructible but it costs ten times as much.)

Nonetheless there are limited circumstances where a solar system might make economic sense--for example, if you are building in a remote location and the power company wants $20,000 just to run power to you. So at that point you might briefly consider a system with panels that mechanically track the sun. It turns out, though, that it's cheaper to simply point the things south (or north for you folks in the southern hemisphere) and change their declination (tilt off vertical, along the meridian) manually twice or four times a year, and buy 30% more cells for the hit from not having them face on to the sun at all times of the day, than it is to mount them on a motorized tracking system. (And if you go this manual route, it turns out to be a waste of time to change the declination more than four times a year; you get less than 1% improvement.)

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Mimicking trees on an intuitive level seems like something that would work efficiently.

It is efficient only if you are stuck in one position, and only require enough energy to sustain your individual existence, like a tree. Neither is the case for us.

Edited by brian0918
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