Posts Tagged engineering
If the world is to be saved, it will be innovative engineers who save it.
There is a reasonable chance that the planet needs saving from greenhouse gas and too much carbon dioxide. It’s not certain, and the climate models have far more flaws than many admit (Trenberth’s missing heat, the missing carbon sink, etc.). But the case for global warming is plausible and credible. It’s foolish to try to quantify the likelihood of climate catastrophe; but the model’s credibility and its level of peer review is sufficient to warrant grave concern and immediate work.
Environmental activists, scientists and politicians have made real progress on the climate problem. Calamatists and deniers might not see it that way, because that progress has been by fits and starts. It has involved bitter ideological disputes, ugly politics, and money spent on absurd tangents and scams. But such is the path of progress in a democratic system; and no one has yet to find a better means of agreeing on how to live together.
Environmentalists are opinionated, irrational, pessimistic, Luddite ideologues, unwilling to change their minds or their methods despite evidence. At least that’s how their opponents see them. But national parks, low-emissions cars, lead-free paint, and elimination of chlorofluorocarbons have served us all rather well with acceptable costs; and noisy environmentalists can take much of the credit. It is hard to argue (though some have) that we aren’t better off as a result of the 1970 Clean Air Act. Environmental activism has been innovative and entrepreneurial. Bold individuals and grass-roots movements did their work by being disruptive. They sought and received investment, more in publicity than in money, from high profile Hollywood entertainers. They attached brands, like Jane Fonda, to their polemical products with great success. Richard Posner calls non-academic moralists like Rosa Parks and Susan B Anthony “moral entrepreneurs.” That term seems equally applicable to much of the environmental movement.
Environmentalism, packed with emotion and persuasive passion, is a fine tool for raising awareness. It has been wildly successful; and the word is out. Environmentalism is, however, an extremely poor tool for problem solving. Unfortunately, much of the environmental movement seems unaware of this limitation. It’s time for the engineers.
Scientists have done – and will continue to do – great work in climate modeling, energy research, and geoengineering theory. They’ve shown that global warming could disrupt ocean currents causing a new ice age, that synthetic algae biofuel warrants serious study, and that direct manipulation of climate – if you look far enough into the future – is not only possible but inevitable. Man-made or not, the earth’s climate will do something very unpleasant in the next 50,000 years and humans will likely choose climate engineering over extinction. Scientists will define the mechanism for doing this; engineers will translate concepts into technology. It will be scientists who demonstrate inertial confinement fusion but it will be engineers and innovators who make it utility scale.
Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions, correctly observes that America has an alternative energy fetish. While walkable neighborhoods, conservation and home insulation get little press, solar power is everyone’s darling. The lens of technology is focused almost exclusively on a single cure for our energy problems: produce more energy. But the energy crisis can also be seen as cultural rather than technological. History gives evidence that increases in production and consumption efficiency lead to more consumption (Jevons Paradox). Ozzie proposes that better designed communities, reproductive rights, efficiency codes, insulation, and dwellings designed for sensible passive solar energy have great leverage since they address demand rather than supply.
In Green Illusions Ozzie is neither anti-capitalism nor anti-technology. Some of his proposals involve behavior change and others call for innovative design and engineering aimed at reducing energy demand. On the former, I’m not convinced that enough behavior change can happen in the time needed to seriously impact CO2 output. But I’m very optimistic about the potential for technology and capitalism to save us, Jevons Paradox and all, and despite claims that technology and capitalism are the roots of evil.
The present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world against which Saint Francis was rebelling in so original a way. – Lynn White, Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”
Let’s change the system and then we’ll begin to change the climate and save the world. The destructive model of capitalism is eradicating life. – Hugo Chavez at the Dec. 2009 UN Climate Change Conf.
The environmental movement now seems far more interested in mutual confirmation of their moral superiority than on fixing things. Far too many environmental moral-entrepreneurs have let their fight take them to an ideological – perhaps religious – place where they dwell on ecological sin and atonement, and revel in the prospect that things are going to hell fast. Since it was technology, capitalism and Christian ethics that got us in this environmental mess, we need to reject the whole lot; and they certainly can’t be part of the cure… Not so fast.
The big variables in the CO2 game are population, per-capita energy use, device efficiency and production efficiency. Despite their local success, our moral entrepreneurs have had little effect on awareness and behavior change outside Europe and America, the so-called global north. The parts of the world just now creeping out of poverty have other priorities; per-capita usage and device efficiency will likely be driven more by economics than by morality. China, for example, now adds roughly one gigawatt of coal-based electricity generation every week. It has made it clear that no climate-related restrictions will impede its growth. And China exports about 99% of the solar panels they produce. If we cut US CO2 output to zero, it would amount to only a minor delay in the timing of any impending global warming catastrophe.
The global south is where the action is; but the successes of our environmental moral-entrepreneurs have not escaped the boundaries of the global north. Fortunately – and due solely to market forces – the fruits of our technological entrepreneurs travel around the globe at the speed of light. The Jevons Paradox is a dressed-up claim of elasticity of demand with regard to price. The efficiencies of Jevons’ concern were dollars per watt, not CO2 per watt. US electricity prices have climbed steadily (roughly constant when adjusted for inflation) for the past several decades. So Jevons is largely irrelevant in the US and is no reason to throw in the towel on production or consumption efficiency. To the extent that Jevons applies to scenarios where consumption is affected by regulation and peer pressure, it still begs for innovation to bring about higher efficiency devices and power generation means.
As the global south move out of poverty, they will buy refrigerators, air conditioners and cars. If all goes well, they’ll buy more efficient versions of those appliances than we did as we crawled out of poverty. If we’re luckier still, they’ll use electricity that comes from something other than the conventional coal plants they’re building at breakneck pace. That might be coal or gas with sequestration, small nuclear, or maybe fusion if we get our act together. It won’t be wind and it won’t be solar – for land-area reasons alone (do the math).
My main point here is a call for more innovation of the engineering type and less of the moral/environmental entrepreneur type. US environmentalism is becoming increasingly short-sighted, fighting a battle that, even if won decisively in the global north, is a miniscule fraction of the whole war. And that style of environmentalism has no tools to take its battle to the global south. What we can take to the global south is engineering innovation. We can’t keep that within our borders even when we try.
Engineering and innovation, with reasonable policy intervention (i.e., Jevons-neutralizing tax) can solve the problem of sustainable clean-energy generation. Behavior change is tricky and it takes time and finesse. Adoption of superior technology is much faster. I’m putting my money on the engineers.
I am all for wind power where it makes sense. It seems to make sense in certain high mountain passes in California where the wind is both strong and consistent – class 6 or 7 wind resources where class 3 or 4 is thought practical for power generation. For the most part, the US has thus far chosen its wind farm locations wisely in terms of energy generation. Some may say not so wisely from an aesthetic or habitat perspective, but that is not my concern here. Even without considering the base-load issues of wind (see previous post), projecting wind energy’s capability to supply a major portion of US energy demand by extrapolating from such high quality wind resources is ludicrous.
America’s wind farms on average have an output of about 1.4 watts per square meter of land they occupy. The Roscoe facility in Texas does somewhat better at about 1.9 w/sqm and California’s top locations do about 2.8 w/sqm. Data from the US Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory and AWS TruePower, a group that does wind analysis for DOE (which does seem a bit prone toward telling us what we want to hear) shows most of the US to fall far below these sites in capability.
Bold claims have been made by enthusiasts like Al Gore and advocacies like the Energy Justice Network about wind’s potential to power all our energy needs. Let’s take a quick look.
American energy demand in 2010 was 28,700 terawatts. Though peak demand is much higher than average demand, for the sake of easy (conservatively erring in wind’s favor) we can distribute that total energy consumption over 24 hours for the year and get an average power demand of 3.3 million megawatts for the US. The land area of the 48 contiguous states is 8.1 million square kilometers. With a 1.4 watts per square meter (equals 1.4 megawatts per square kilometer), we’d need 2.3 million square kilometers of wind farms to supply our 2010 consumption with wind. That amounts to 29% of the land area of the contiguous 48.
The portion of the US that would be needed to supply this power, without consideration of distribution, urban and reserved land, and wind resource quality then looks like this:
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has published a lot of the AWS TruePower work on potential wind sites in America, usually focusing on areas with a capacity factor of 0.3 or greater, broken down by wind speed. Their charts show most of the US as having some potential for wind generation, but many wind advocates are clearly unaware that the energy contained in wind is not proportional to its velocity. It may seem that the forces of nature conspire against us, but the energy content of two mile per hour wind is only 4% of the energy content of ten mph wind. Worse yet, wind turbines are designed for peak efficiency at one specific speed; thus a wind turbine designed for 10 mph (4.5 m/s) wind will get much less than 4% of its design power with a 2 mph wind (more on that here).
The below map is based on a similar one at the DOE Wind Program site. Using Photoshop’s Hue-Saturation-Brightness tool I whitened the useless wind resources from their color coded map, removing the color for wind regions below wind power class 3 at a height of 80 meters (260 ft). Here’s what’s left, from which it is very apparent that wind can play only a limited role in American energy even if we cover every square foot of land where quality wind blows – without regard for environmental, aesthetic and practical considerations.
When President Obama recently said “all of the above” about energy policy, he certainly meant all of the above where sensible. Large subsidies to wind (which have thus far gone primarily to direct expeditures, not R&D) do not meet this requirement. Unbridled wind advocacy, whether stemming from uninformed enthusiasm, dirty politics, or corporate greed, contributes to the wickedness of our energy problem by taming a small increment of it whilst creating the illusion that the solution approach is scalable. Engineering fundamentals show that the energy problem is indeed solvable, so there’s plenty of room for optimism. But let’s not set ourselves up for disappointment by ignoring the hard facts about wind.
My previous post on wind energy was long. Here’s the executive summary, followed by two corrections resulting from reader comments.
Based on current or foreseeable grid and energy storage technology, wind energy cannot supply base-load power. It therefore cannot play a major role in energy-independence or reduction of greenhouse gases. If utility-scale storage existed, wind energy might be economically viable. Even if storage and transmission capability existed, the low energy density of wind farms combined with rarity of high-quality wind resources in the US mean that wind cannot contribute significantly toward our energy goals. Without utility-scale storage, building more wind farms also requires building more conventional electricity sources, which do not meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals.
John Droz, called “anti-wind crusader” by the Sierra Club, challenged my claim that wind receives less money than other forms of electric power, noting that this hasn’t been true in recent years. Based on US Energy Information Administration data John is indeed right and I stand corrected on that point. John observes, in his presentation materials (slide 85), that the 2010 wind subsidies exceed those to all conventional sources combined. John doesn’t include all tax breaks in his calculations, but I have done so in the chart below. Even with tax breaks added, his point on subsidies is still nearly as strong. In absolute dollars, wind subsidies plus tax breaks greatly exceed those of coal, gas or nuclear, while wind’s contribution to net power is tiny. Also note that only a small fraction of wind subsidies is R&D; most goes to direct expenditures.
Architect and Design-Thinker Richard Heimann observed that my chart of levelized costs of different energy sources made wind look too good because wind without a base-load provision isn’t realistic. In other words, there is no such thing as wind energy by itself (a point also stressed by John Droz). The second chart below (click to enlarge) shows what wind would look like if base-load capacity were added using the lowest-priced gas option (ACC gas). This raises the cost of wind considerably, putting it on the same scale as solar photovoltaic.
None of this makes wind look any better of course.
In two previous posts I looked at the established definition of wicked problem and tested whether a rough statement of the clean energy problem met the 10 (adjusted to 11 by me) points of that definition. I found that clean energy met about half the requirements to qualify as wicked. Next I want to look at whether characterizing the problem of clean energy as wicked is productive.
Outside the usual hyperbole of climate journalism, there are a number of serious, credible authors who use the term. The Hartwell Paper (London School of Economics, 2010), referenced in yesterday’s post, features it rather centrally. Its authors sought a means of putting climate policy on track after failure of the Copenhagen climate conference. They made some excellent points and recommendations, noting that climate policy and energy policy are not the same thing. They suggested that reframing the climate issue around matters of human dignity will likely be more effective than framing it around human sin and atonement. They also asserted that the UNFCCC/Kyoto model was doomed to failure from the start because it approached climate change as a tame problem when in fact it is a wicked one. I believe The Hartwell Paper errs considerably in concluding that mischaracterization of a wicked problem as a tame one was the main reason for failure of Kyoto. Doing so implies much too sharp a distinction between tame and wicked and overstates the value of that distinction in determining how to attack a problem. Kyoto’s failure can be understood by simple economics; some parties saw insufficient benefit for the cost.
The Hartwell Paper says that presence of open, complex and/or nonlinear systems make a problem wicked. Hartwell does not address nonlinearity by name, though one of its authors, Gwyn Prins, does in related discussions. Though I agree with most of the conclusions reached by Hartwell and separately by Prins, I think Prins’ work might benefit from a better understanding of systems engineering and design and less reliance on the notion of wickedness. To clarify, my only quibble with Prins is terminology, not intent or conclusion. The terminology wouldn’t matter except that it becomes fuel for trumpery and creates an air of unsolvability.
For example, Prins contrasts the wicked problems of climate and energy with the tame problem of aircraft carrier design (The Wicked Problem of Climate Change on YouTube). He offers that in the case of an aircraft carrier, after a certain amount of study into metallurgy and propulsion systems, you can know that it’s time to quit studying and start building, but the lack of definitive formulation of the climate problem prevents us from identifying a similar point in the problem solving sequence for climate.
But this comparison – fix climate change versus build aircraft carrier – is inaccurate. The goal in the case of an aircraft carrier is not an armored boat with 40 fighter jets on it. The carrier is a system, itself a component within a larger weapons system having the objective of national defense. National defense might further be elaborated something like the capacity to defend the US and allies against various military threats, to operate efficiently with minimum risk to its occupants while being reliable, maintainable and fuel-efficient.
In other words, a better comparison would be national defense versus climate change. These problems probably have similar wickedness. If national defense were a tame problem, we could, with a finite amount of analysis and calculation, derive the horsepower requirements of an aircraft carrier’s nuclear-driven turbines and the BTU requirements for its cooling system, through some complex but finite analytical process, from the requirement for national security. But translating peace-keeping and defense-readiness into horsepower first requires making a bunch of subjective and qualitative decisions using an arbitrarily large number of very human judgments. These judgments have no stopping rule; the design has an infinite number of potential solutions, and is close to a one-shot solution that is prone to unintended consequences (case in point, the French carrier Charles de Gaulle). Once implemented, products like the aircraft carrier have no ultimate test of efficacy. Weapons system design – and almost all engineering design problems – are wicked problems using Rittel’s criteria. So how useful is the characterization of wickedness?
One potential value of calling a problem wicked is to convince management and government that study is needed before quantitative requirements can be set, but I think that point is now firmly established. Many engineers would see this as the usual need for requirements analysis, which has always been a subjective and social process involving operations analysis, identification of stakeholders, ethnography, focus groups, scenario and persona modeling, interviews with subject matter experts, consensus tools, fall-back methods, and possibly a dictator or tie breaker.
Steve Rayner of Oxford is another fan of wicked problems. He’s done great work in bringing rationality and pragmatism to climate policy, but his application of wickedness (e.g., Wicked Problems: Clumsy Solutions) can easily be read (erroneously) as an admission of insolvability. If the category wicked once had value, it now seems a liability – an immobilizing one at that. We have work to do; roll up your sleeves.
Rittel and Webber concluded their paper with no advice on how to deal with wickedness; but they imply early on a need for the social professions to advance beyond the view that “instruments of perfectability can be perfected.” I take that to mean they see limits to the utility of science and flaws in viewing organizations, governments and societies as mechanisms. I agree; the mid 20th century was rife with such flawed thinking. However, governments, managers and product design teams have always had to deal with deciding what to tell the engineers to build. If this is the reason climate and energy writers find their topic to be wicked, the term is useless.
A related problem revealed by press covering climate and energy wickedness is that many journalists confuse the difficulty of reaching consensus with the difficulty of making calculations. An open system in physics is merely a means of modeling a physical process; we model problems as open or closed as a convenience for analysis. Social scientists use open system to discuss adaptive agents, co-evolution and social or political interactions. They’re both good definitions in the their contexts, but confusing them leads to the bad conclusion that physical open systems are unanalyzable by the tools of science. The same applies for the term, nonlinearity. In engineering, it means a second- or higher-order system – standard engineering stuff. In new age literature, it sometimes (at its worst) implies a style of thinking that refutes logic and rationality. We can’t blame equivocation of the terms open system and nonlinearity on the use of the term wicked problem, but we can recognize that choice of language has a dramatic effect on popular uptake of science (see post Toward a New Misunderstanding of Science).
Assigning wickedness to the problems of climate/energy or national defense adds little value toward dealing with them. Nor does calling them super-wicked as do Levin et al in “Playing it Forward: Path Dependency, Progressive Incrementalism, and the ‘Super Wicked’ Problem of Global Climate Change,” which does, thankfully, take pains to avoid a lost-cause position. But wicked and super-wicked do have the power to bewilder and demoralize because of our inability to divorce wicked from its more traditional context. Characterizing the problem as wicked is a self-fulfilling prophecy; it convinces that if some of the questions are unanswerable then no action can be taken. We don’t have to know how the global climate works in order to know how to avoid interfering with it any more than we currently do. We know that China is booming and will accept no external constraints that hamper its economic growth. But we also know that China’s air pollution kills half a million people a year, that the US is good at inventing things, and that China is good at manufacturing them. We also know how to calculate the extent to which solar and wind can contribute to US and global clean energy. We know that governments can stimulate demand as well as supply. That’s something to work with, despite the lack of consensus or transcendent authority.
Further, we can know that solar-powered cell phone chargers, biodegradable phones, eco-beer, and gloves heated with USB-power are truly wicked, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. They’re wicked because of the point made by Rittel, Webber and Churchman in their original papers on wicked problems. Taming a small part of a wicked problem is morally wrong, as is outright faking it – surely the case with much of the greenwash. But even where there’s no fraud, minor taming with major fanfare is still reprehensible. It creates an illusion of progress and distracts us from the task at hand.
Next I want to look at whether our major clean energy efforts – wind and solar power, biomass, hybrid cars and the like – are wicked and morally wrong for these same reasons.
The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance – Arturo Rosenblueth and Norbert Wiener
William Storage 19 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Science, Technology & Society Center
In the last post I looked at Rittel and Webber’s definition of wicked problem toward determining whether clean energy met that definition. Answering that involves figuring out what we mean by clean energy.
The clean energy problem is closely linked to the issue of climate change, though they are not equal. The climate change problem is usually taken to mean that, given that anthropogenic warming has occurred and will continue unless greenhouse gas emissions are substantially reduced (note this is a premise I don’t care to argue about here), either geoengineering or dramatic changes to energy production techniques are urgently needed. Clean energy assumes that dramatic changes to energy production techniques are urgently needed to correct man-made climate change along with other constraints and provisions.
The energy problem also includes the need for a continuous supply of energy for the lifetime of the human race, along with getting that energy to developing nations. I.e., even if coal could be made clean, through carbon sequestration or similar, the energy problem would not be solved by burning coal, since it is in finite supply. We may disagree about size of that supply, but not about its finitude. Security of supply must be included too. If oil were clean and in near-infinite supply, but only sourced by hostile governments, design of an energy production system should accommodate that constraint. Terms like green, sustainable, renewable, and alternative are off the table for this discussion. They are too nebulous, ideological, or overloaded. Clean does not necessarily imply renewable. If coal were infinite and clean, it would suffice, as would fusion if it existed. Further, many energy sources today called renewable, my not be sufficiently clean for indefinite use since their energy production densities are too low to supply a significant portion of global demand without major modifications to the earth. More on that in a later post.
Others have put far more thought into defining long term energy requirements than I, so I’ll draw from some experts in the field. Combining David MacKay’s three motivations (Sustainable Energy – without the hot air with, p. 5) and The Hartwell Paper’s three overarching objectives yields something along these lines:
- The energy supply cannot be finite (in practical terms).
- It must be secure.
- It cannot change the climate.
- It must ensure energy access for all.
I’m specifically not including adaptation and I’m aware that we can quibble over whether universal energy access is a principle, a constraint or a goal. Still, I think this is decent working set. The beginning of an attempt to convert these goals into a requirement might look something like this:
A means of providing sufficient energy for the human race to flourish for 10,000 years without significantly altering the surface and atmosphere of the planet in the acquisition of energy (population growth may require extensive modification of the planet, but that’s out of scope here).
You might then attempt to quantify “flourish” and “significantly alter” by coming up with an energy quantity per person, a percentage of earth’s surface devoted to energy production, and an allowable carbon production per unit of energy.
I’m not saying getting agreement on the numbers will be easy or even possible; I’m merely outlining the process toward the goal of deciding how wicked the energy problem is.
With this in mind let’s have a look at Rittel’s properties of wicked problems against the energy problem as summarized above to see which of them apply (Yes or No, below). Refer to yesterday’s post for more detail on each of the 10 properties.
1. No definitive formulation – solving the problem is identical to understanding its nature: No
Understanding the nature of clean energy and even anthropogenic climate change is mostly independent from solving it. The social components of climate change, energy demand and energy production are not mysterious or unpredictable. Economists and scientists have had great success in that area. The vagaries of climate prediction and extent to which climate change is manmade are rather independent of the solutions that might be put in place based on any such predictions and analyses. This one clearly does not apply; clean energy is not wicked based on this criterion of wickedness.
2. No stopping rule: No
Since atmospheric carbon, temperature, population, sea level, disease, starvation, and energy production and consumption are reasonably measurable, there clearly is a stopping rule in place for clean energy.
3. No formal decision rules – better/worse, not true/false: Yes
One might argue that if a set of metrics could be agreed-upon, clean energy actual does become true/false, but I don’t think that is fair to Rittel’s intent for this rule.
4a. No ultimate test of solution: No
For the same reasons stated in rule 1, clean energy solutions are reasonably testable.
4b. Unintended consequences: Yes
Leaving geoengineering out of the picture, we’d still need to watch for surprises, especially from low density production schemes that would involve large transformations, e.g., massive solar or wind farms, tide and ocean wave modification, geothermal plants, and carbon sequestration schemes.
5. One-shot operation – no second chance: No
Some concern over the ramifications of expending all a government leader’s political capital on short-term measures with trivial contribution toward a solution is warranted; but overall, energy initiatives are very tolerant of experimentation and learning by trial. This is especially on a global scale, even with disasters like Chernobyl and red herrings like fuel cells in the 1990s.
6. No enumerable or exhaustively describable set of potential solutions: No
Nature, physics and economics combine to yield a finite set of policy and technology components to a solution. Yes, there are infinite permutations of the components, but this is always true. In any case, the potential solutions and their elements are enumerable.
7. Unique problem: Yes
Aren’t they all?
8. The problem is a symptom of another problem: Yes
Human breeding habits, materialism, inequitable distribution of wealth, sexy car ads, inefficiency, indifference toward nature, bad science education, the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty are all problems of which the need for clean energy is symptomatic.
9. Numerous explanations: Yes
Yes, for the same reasons listed in number 9 above. The numerous explanations are in fact relevant, because they could materially affect the solution. For example, realizing that waste and inefficiency is significant can lead to product requirements that result in a lower figure for per-capita energy requirements. Japan has had remarkable success at this.
10. Planner has no right to be wrong: Yes
In the case of clean energy, answering Yes for item 10 seems to be in conflict with answering No for 4a. and 5. Repeated readings of Rittel and Webber have not allowed me to see a real difference between this and number 5 above. The difference between them may be more apparent in problems whose scope is urban planning, the original context of Rittel and Webber. Nevertheless, for sake of charity in argument, I’ll answer Yes here to represent the voice that, in the long haul, we have to get this right or civilization may fail.
So for Rittel’s ten properties, here presented as eleven, we have five No and six Yes responses. On that basis, clean energy can be said to be a half wicked problem. Systems engineers, product managers and designers might say that all engineering and design problems are partly – perhaps equally – wicked. This and other considerations make me wonder whether characterizing a problem as wicked has any practical use.
That will be the topic of my next post. I vow to make it more controversial.
William Storage 13 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Science, Technology & Society Center
Richard Rorty (1931-2007) was arguably the most controversial philosopher in recent history. Unarguably, he was the most entertaining. Profoundly influenced by Thomas Kuhn, Rorty is fascinating and inspirational, even for engineers and scientists.
Rorty’s thought defied classification – literally; encyclopedias struggle to pin philosophical categories to him. He felt that confining yourself to a single category leads to personal stagnation on all levels. An interview excerpt at the end of this post ends with a casual yet weighty statement of his confidence in engineers’ ability to save the world.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rorty looked at familiar things in different light – and could explain his position in plain English. I never found much of Heidegger to be coherent, let alone important. No such problem with Dick Rorty.
Rorty could simplify arcane philosophical concepts. He saw similarities where others saw differences, being mostly rejected by schools of thought he drew from. This was especially true for pragmatism. Often accused of hijacking this term, Rorty offered that pragmatism is a vague, ambiguous, and overworked word, but nonetheless, “it names the chief glory of our country’s intellectual tradition.” He was enamored with moral and scientific progress, and often glowed with optimism and hope while his contemporaries brooded in murky, nihilistic dungeons.
Richard Rorty photo by Mary Rorty. Used by permission.
Rorty called himself a “Kuhnian” apart from those Kuhnians for whom The Structure of Scientific Revolution justified moral relativism and epistemic nihilism. Rorty’s critics in the hard sciences – at least those who embrace Kuhn – have gone to great lengths to distance Kuhn from Rorty. Philosophers have done the same, perhaps a bit sore from Rorty’s denigration of analytic philosophy and his insistence that philosophers have no special claim to wisdom. Kyle Cavagnini in the Spring 2012 issue of Stance (“Descriptions of Scientific Revolutions: Rorty’s Failure at Redescribing Scientific Progress”) finds that Rorty tries too hard to make Kuhn a relativist:
“Kuhn’s work provided a new framework in philosophy of science that garnered much attention, leading some of his theories to be adopted outside of the natural sciences. Unfortunately, some of these adoptions have not been faithful to Kuhn’s original theories, and at times just plain erroneous conclusions are drawn that use Kuhn as their justification. These misreadings not only detract from the power of Kuhn’s argument, but also serve to add false support for theories that Kuhn was very much against; Rorty was one such individual.”
Cavagnini may have some valid technical points. But it’s as easy to misread Rorty as to misread Kuhn. As I read Rorty, he derives from Kuhn that the authority of science has no basis beyond scientific consensus. It then follows for Rorty that instituational science and scientists have no basis for a privileged status in acquiring truth. Scientist who know their stuff shouldn’t disagree on this point. Rorty’s position is not cultural constructivism applied to science. He doesn’t remotely imply that one claim of truth – scientific or otherwise – is as good as another. In fact, Rorty explicitly argues against that position as applied to both science and ethics. Rorty then takes ideas he got from Kuhn to places that Kuhn would not have gone, without projecting his philosophical ideas onto Kuhn:
“To say that the study of the history of science, like the study of the rest of history, must be hermeneutical, and to deny (as I, but not Kuhn, would) that there is something extra called ‘rational reconstruction’ which can legitimize current scientific practice, is still not to say that the atoms, wave packages, etc., discovered by the physical scientists are creations of the human spirit.” – Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
“I hope to convince the reader that the dialectic within analytical philosophy, which has carried … philosophy of science from Carnap to Kuhn, needs to be carried a few steps further.” – Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
What Rorty calls “leveling down science” is aimed at the scientism of logical positivists in philosophy – those who try to “science-up” analytic philosophy:
“I tend to view natural science as in the business of controlling and predicting things, and as largely useless for philosophical purposes” – Rorty and Pragmatism: The Philosopher Responds to his Critics
For Rorty, both modern science and modern western ethics can claim superiority over their precursors and competitors. In other words, we are perfectly capable of judging that we’ve made moral and scientific progress without a need for a privileged position of any discipline, and without any basis beyond consensus. This line of thought enabled the political right to accuse Rorty of moral relativism and at the same time the left to accuse him of bigotry and ethnocentrism. Both did vigorously. [note]
You can get a taste of Rorty from the sound and video snippets available on the web, e.g. this clip where he dresses down the standard philosophical theory of truth with an argument that would thrill mathematician Kurt Gödel:
In his 2006 Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy at the University of Chicago, he explains his position, neither moral absolutist nor moral relativist (though accused of being both by different factions), in praise of western progress in science and ethics.
Another example of Rorty’s nuanced position is captured on tape in Stanford’s archives of the Entitled Opinions radio program. Host Robert Harrison is an eloquent scholar and announcer, but in a 2005 Entitled Opinions interview, Rorty frustrates Harrison to the point of being tongue-tied. At some point in the discussion Rorty offers that the rest of the world should become more like America. This strikes Harrison as perverse. Harrison asks for clarification, getting a response he finds even more perverse:
Harrison: What do you mean that the rest of the world should become a lot more like America? Would it be desirable to have all the various cultures across the globe Americanize? Would that not entail some sort of loss at least at the level of diversity or certain wisdoms that go back through their own particular traditions. What would be lost in the Americanization or Norwegianization of the world?
Rorty: A great deal would be lost. A great deal was lost when the Roman Empire suppressed a lot of native cultures. A great deal was lost when the Han Empire in China suppressed a lot of native cultures […]. Whenever there’s a rise in a great power a lot of great cultures get suppressed. That’s the price we pay for history.
Asked if this is not too high a price to pay, Rorty answers that if you could get American-style democracy around the globe, it would be a small price to have paid. Harrison is astounded, if not offended:
Harrison: Well here I’m going to speak in my own proper voice and to really disagree in this sense: that I think governments and forms of government are the result of a whole host of contingent geographical historical factors whereby western bourgeois liberalism or democracy arose through a whole set of circumstances that played themselves out over time, and I think that [there is in] America a certain set of presumptions that our form of democracy is infinitely exportable … [and] that we can just take this model of American democracy and make it work elsewhere. I think experience has shown us that it’s not that easy.
Rorty: We can’t make it work elsewhere but people coming to our country and finding out how things are done in the democratic west can go back and try to imitate that in their own countries. They’ve often done so with considerable success. I was very impressed on a visit to Guangzhou to see a replica of the statue of Liberty in one of the city parks. It was built by the first generation of Chinese students to visit America when they got back. They built a replica of the Statue of Liberty in order to help to try to explain to the other Chinese what was so great about the country they’d come back from. And remember that a replica of the Statue of Liberty was carried by the students in Tiananmen Square.
Harrison (agitated): Well OK but that’s one way. What if you… Why can’t we go to China and see a beautiful statue of the Buddha or something, and understand equally – have a moment of enlightenment and bring that statue back and say that we have something to learn from this other culture out there. And why is the statue of liberty the final transcend[ant] – you say yourself as a philosopher that you don’t – that there are no absolutes and that part of the misunderstanding in the history of philosophy is that there are no absolutes. It sounds like that for you the Statue of Liberty is an absolute.
Rorty: How about it’s the best thing anybody has come up with so far. It’s done more for humanity than the Buddha ever did. And it gives us something that … [interrupted]
Harrison: How can we know that!?
Rorty: From history.
Harrison: Well, for example, what do we know about the happiness of the Buddhist cultures from the inside? Can we really know from the outside that we’re happier than they are?
Rorty: I suspect so. We’ve all had experiences in moving around from culture to culture. They’re not closed off entities, opaque to outsiders. You can talk to people raised in lots of different places about how happy they are and what they’d like.
Then it spirals down a bit further. Harrison asks Rorty if he thinks capitalism is a neutral phenomenon. Rorty replies that capitalism is the worst system imaginable except for all the others that have been tried so far. He offers that communism, nationalization of production and state capitalism were utter disasters, adding that private property and private business are the only option left until some genius comes up with a new model.
Harrison then reveals his deep concern over the environment and the free market’s effect on it, suggesting that since the human story is now shown to be embedded in the world of nature, that philosophy might entertain the topic of “life” – specifically, progressing beyond 20th century humanist utopian values in light of climate change and resource usage. Rorty offers that unless we develop fusion energy or similar, we’ve had it just as much as if the terrorists get their hands on nuclear bombs. Rorty says human life and nature are valid concerns, but that he doesn’t see that they give any reason for philosophers to start talking about life, a topic he says philosophy has thus far failed to illuminate.
This irritates Harrison greatly. At one point he curtly addresses Rorty as “my dear Dick.” Rorty’s clarification, his apparent detachment, and his brevity seem to make things worse:
Rorty: “Well suppose that we find out that it’s all going to be wiped out by an asteroid. Would you want philosophers to suddenly start thinking about asteroids? We may well collapse due to the exhaustion of natural resources but what good is it going to do for philosophers to start thinking about natural resources?”
Harrison: “Yeah but Dick there’s a difference between thinking of asteroids, which is something that is outside of human control and which is not submitted to human decision and doesn’t enter into the political sphere, and talking about something which is completely under the governance of human action. I don’t say it’s under the governance of human will, but it is human action which is bringing about the asteroid, if you like. And therefore it’s not a question of waiting around for some kind of natural disaster to happen, because we are the disaster – or one could say that we are the disaster – and that the maximization of wealth for the maximum amount of people is exactly what is putting us on this track toward a disaster.
Rorty: Well, we’ve accommodated environmental change before. Maybe we can accommodate it again; maybe we can’t. But surely this is a matter for the engineers rather than the philosophers.
A matter for the engineers indeed.
1) Rorty and politics: The academic left cheered as Rorty shelled Ollie North’s run for the US Senate. As usual, not mincing words, Rorty called North a liar, a claim later repeated by Nancy Reagan. There was little cheering from the right when Rorty later had the academic left in his crosshairs; perhaps they failed to notice.. In 1997 Rorty wrote that the academic left must shed its anti-Americanism and its quest for even more abusive names for “The System.” “Outside the academy, Americans still want to feel patriotic,” observed Rorty. “They still want to feel part of a nation which can take control of its destiny and make itself a better place.”
On racism, Rorty observed that the left once promoted equality by saying we were all Americans, regardless of color. By contrast, he said, the contemporary left now “urges that America should not be a melting-pot, because we need to respect one another in our differences.” He chastised the academic left for destroying any hope for a sense of commonality by highlighting differences and preserving otherness. “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals,” wrote Rorty.
For Dinesh D’Souza, patriotism is no substitute for religion. D’Souza still today seems obsessed with Rorty’s having once stated his intent “to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.” This assault on Christianity lands Rorty on a D’Souza enemy list that includes Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, D’Souza apparently unaware that Rorty’s final understanding of pragmatism included an accomodation of liberal Christianity.
2) See Richard Rorty bibliographical material and photos maintained by the Rorty family on the Stanford web site.
Three years ago Inc magazine praised a recently-funded startup called WindTronics. Their energy claims for their $5500 rooftop wind turbine seemed so absurd that I suspected Inc had botched the technical details. Since then I’ve followed the Michigan firm. Their rooftop wind turbine was awarded “Best of What’s New” by Popular Science magazine last November. It was called “one of the 10 most brilliant products of 2009” by Popular Mechanics. In 2009 they moved their production to Ontario. They recently closed operations in Ontario and moved back to Michigan. Reports say Canadians aren’t happy about the $2.7 million Canada gave the company as an incentive to set up operations there. The Windsor Star reports that WindTronics left without making good on its debts.
There may be two sides to the financial issues; I didn’t dig very deep. The technical claims, however, are another matter. Some basic analysis reveals big problems with the claims.
Windtronics make a 6-foot diameter rooftop wind turbine. They claimed the device could supply 18% of an average household’s electricity, based on a 12.8 mph wind speed. Without knowing a thing about their technology, it’s very easy to debunk this. They also claim it generates power down to a wind speed of two miles per hour. This is true, but highly deceptive.
The wind in Chicago, the windy city, averages about 10 mph. Kinetic energy is equal to ½ the mass of the moving matter times its velocity squared. So wind energy extracted from moving air – if you could catch it all – would be proportional to the square of the wind speed. Cut the speed in half and you end up with one fourth of the energy. – You’d cut the ideal maximum by 75 percent, assuming the turbine were equally efficient at both wind speeds – which is impossible. At two mph wind speed, the maximum theoretical power would be 4% of the power at 10 mph. But a few more details will show it to be even far less than that.
Large modern wind turbines have an efficiency of about 40%, but they reach this maximum at the specific wind speed for which they were designed. The efficiency is constrained by frictional losses at low speeds and back pressure (the “lift” that makes an aircraft fly) on the blades above the design speed. Above or below the optimum wind speed, efficiency drops off steeply. For example, at twice their design wind speed, the efficiency of commercial wind turbines drops to about 10%.
Betz’ Law, a principle of hydraulics, shows that the maximum energy that a turbine of any design can extract from such a wind turbine is exactly 16/27 (~59%) of the kinetic energy of wind. The Windtronics machine is six feet in diameter. Assuming its blades go to the very outer diameter of their housing, its wind area is 28 square feet. Using average air pressure, temperature and humidity and a Rayleigh distribution of wind speed, one can then calculate the energy in a 6-foot diameter tube of air moving at 12.8 miles per hour. 59% of that will be the maximum possible energy that the Windtronics machine could produce if it were a perfect machine. That equates to 2000 kWh per year. But that value is for a machine that is frictionless.
At an optimistic efficiency of 50% and a wind velocity of 6.5 miles per hour, the calculated yearly output of the WindTronics turbine is 404 kWh, which is about 4.0% of the average household’s electrical usage, based on Department of Energy usage numbers.
Also per the DOE, the average cost of residential electricity in the United States was (and still is) 12 cents per kWh when WindTronics released their turbine. The average household uses 11,000 kWh per year, and therefore, pays about $1300 for all their electricity. If the rooftop turbine supplies 4% of that and costs $5500, you could amortize your purchase in a mere 100 years, assuming your installation costs are zero and the unit lasts a century without maintenance.
Consumer Reports evaluated the turbine in October 2011 and reported an installation cost of about $11,000. They said they got only a fraction of the power WindTronics told them to expect and noted that it would not pay for itself in its expected 20-year life. My quick analysis suggests they put it mildly.
Windtronics explains the magic of their gizmo:
Our wind turbine utilizes a system of magnets and stators surrounding its outer ring, capturing power at the blade tips where speed is greatest, practically eliminating mechanical resistance and drag. Rather than forcing the available wind to turn a generator, the perimeter power system becomes the generator by swiftly passing the blade tip magnets through the copper coil banks mounted onto the enclosed perimeter frame.
While there’s nothing actually false in those words, they seem to aim at baffling more than illuminating. Elegant words whose meaning is lost somewhere in a vast windswept expanse.
My goal for The Multidisciplinarian is to talk about multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary problem solving. This inevitably leads to systems, since problems requiring more than one perspective or approach tend to involve systems, whether biological, social, logical, mechanical or political.
I hope to touch upon a bunch of systems concepts at some point, including:
- systems theory
- systems thinking
- systems science
- visual thinking
- systems engineering
- morphological analysis
- systems philosophy
- logical positivism
- boundary object theory
I started following some of these terms on Twitter a few weeks ago, and ended up reading a lot of web topics on Systems Thinking. I found all the classics, along with, surprisingly, something of a battleground. I don’t mean attacks from the outside, like the view that organizations are not systems but processes. Instead I’m talking about the enemy within. It seems there are several issues of contention.
The matter of whether Systems Thinking is a deterministic or “hard” approach percolates through many of the discussions. “Hard” in this context means that it’s a mere extension of systems engineering, treating humans, society, and business organizations as predictable machinery. But on the street (as opposed to in academics), there’s also disagreement over whether that attribute is desirable or not. Some proponents defend Systems Thinking as being largely deterministic against criticism that it is soft. Other defenders of the approach argue against criticism that it is deterministic.
Is Systems Thinking an approach, a model, a methodology, or a theory? That’s debatable too; and therefore, it’s being debated. One can infer from the debates and discussions that much of the problem stems from semantics. The term means different things to different communities. Such overloaded terminology works fine as long as the communities don’t overlap. But they do overlap, since systems tend to involve multiple disciplines.
From a distance, you can grasp the gist of Systems Thinking. At its most rudimentary level, it is seeing the forest from the trees and using that vision to get things done. Barry Richmond, celebrated systems scientist, gave this high level definition:
At the conceptual end of the spectrum is adoption of a systems perspective or viewpoint. You are adopting a systems viewpoint when you are standing back far enough—in both space and time—to be able to see the underlying web of ongoing, reciprocal relationships which are cycling to produce the patterns of behavior that a system is exhibiting.
Peter Senge of MIT says that Systems Thinking is an approach for getting beyond cause and effect to the patterns of behavior that surface the cause and effect, and further, for identifying the underlying structure responsible for the patterns of behavior. If you, perhaps recalling your philosophy studies, detect a degree of rejection of reductionism in that definition, you’re right on track. More on that below. See the Systems Thinking World‘s definition page for a list of other definitions.
Barry Richmond, like Jay W Forrester, his mentor and prolific writer on Systems Thinking, was also heavily involved in System Dynamics. While many people equate the two concepts, others distinguish System Dynamics from Systems Thinking by the former’s use of feedback-loop computer models. Forrester, a consummate engineer and true innovator, developed the Systems Dynamics approach at MIT in the 1960s.
For several decades Forrester applied Systems Thinking to business management, society and politics, maintaining throughout, that system dynamics is the necessary foundation underlying effective thinking about systems. In a 2010 paper, Forrester, then in the Sloan School of Management, wrote:
Without a foundation of systems principles, simulation, and an experimental approach, systems thinking runs the risk of being superficial, ineffective, and prone to arriving at counterproductive conclusions. Those seeking an easy way to design better social systems will be as disappointed as if they were to seek an effortless route to designing bridges or doing heart transplants.
These bold and beautiful words are lost on the those who only know systems thinking from its current usage as little more than a strategic-initiative group-hug word. The quote is from Forrester’s appeal that Systems Thinking, at least as popularly defined, is insufficient without system dynamics modeling. Forrester speaks to usage of Systems Thinking that is nearly as deflated as current usage of “six-sigma,” by which our ancestors meant standard deviations of manufacturing tolerance (statistical process control). Nevertheless, as sociolinguists point out, a word means what a large body of its users think it means.
In the spirit of multidisciplinarity, it’s tempting to view this war from the perspective of study of religious cults. Too tempting – so I’ll succumb.
As with the internecine battles of religious cults, this is a war of small differences; often the factions in greatest dispute are the ones with the most similar views. Their differences are real, but imperceptible to most outsiders. They argue over definitions and interpretations, engaging in doctrinal disputes with constant deference to the cults’ founders. I also detect a fair amount of anxiety of influence in Systems Thinking advocates with roots in hard sciences.
Many systems engineers, including some very good ones, after opening the door to systems thinking, strain to differentiate themselves from their less evolved brethren. John Boardman and Brain Sauser, thought leaders for whom I have the utmost respect, oddly display the anxiety of influence in statements like this from their Worlds of Systems site:
Our engineering friends believe the term ‘system’ is theirs of right and they alone understand systems. After all, who builds them? Who gets the job done? You would think, to hear some engineers talk, that they invented the term itself. In fact what propelled it into the high currency values it occupies today were the ideas of Ludwig von Bertalanffy.
Here we have two brilliant engineers (see in particular their work on Systems of Systems) who – though perhaps in jest – downplay the development of systems thinking a la Forrester, deferring to Bertalanffy, the biologist who first used the term Systems Theory. Semantic mapping tools available on the web clearly show that Bertalanffy, ground-breaking as he was, had next to nothing to do with the propulsion of the term “system” to its current status. The route was, as you’d expect, from Greek philosophy to Renaissance astronomy, to biology and engineering, and then on to computers.
Without delving into heady problems of Bertalanffy’s worldview, such as the paradox of emergence and the paradox of system environment, I’ll suggest that Bertalanffy was a great thinker, but should not occupy too high a pedestal. His view that the reductionist nature of biology of the mid 1900s stemmed solely from the influence of Descartes and Newton (who thought nature could be modeled as mechanism) ignored the obvious necessity of reduction in order to link stimulus with response. Testing ten foods separately, to see which causes your allergic reaction, does not conflict with holism. Bertalanffy, despite his great contributions, beat a reductionist straw man to death. Finally, can anyone not find Bertalanffy’s language of his later works indistinguishable from that of liberal theologians? Paul Tillich meets business management?
Boardman and Sauser similarly quote Philip Spor’s remark, “the engineer must often go beyond the limits of science, or question judgment based on alleged existing science,” as if such going-beyond isn’t inherent in engineering. Really guys, does anyone really think that the science of turbomachinery predated the engineering of turbomachines? Recall that special relativity was solid before the fourth-order partial differential equations governing a turbocharger were nailed down, at which time Alfred Büchi ‘s invention was common on trucks and trains. The opponent here is also mostly made of straw – a purely reductionist caricature of a systems engineer.
As a scholar of history of science and a fan of history of religion, here’s what I think is going on. Systems thinking is often at the intersection of systems science and social and management science; and the most orthodox of each of those root beliefs accuses the others of being too hard (as seen by social science) or too soft (as seen by engineers). The most liberal (or reformist, in the religious model) accuse their own party of being entrenched in orthodoxy.
Cult members mine the writings of these clergymen for ammunition against rival cults, thus we see quotes from Forrester, Bertalanffy, Ackoff and the like on websites, grossly misunderstood, and out of context. And we see ludicrous and undisciplined extensions of their material, as with Gary Zukav, Fritjof Capra, and Roger Penrose. The cult’s most vocal advocates insist on deifying the movement’s founders, and speak in terms of discovery and illumination rather than evidence and development.
Reasoning by analogy, yes; but I think you’ll admit this analogy holds rather well.
Another face of the Systems Thinking wars deals not with definitions and philosophy but with efficacy. In a 2009 Fast Company piece Fred Collopy, an experienced practitioner and teacher of Systems Thinking opined more or less that Systems Thinking is a failure – not because it has internal flaws but because it is hard. Systems Thinking, says Collopy, requires mastery of a large number of techniques, none of which is particularly useful by itself. This requirement is at odds with the way people learn, except in strict academic circles. Collopy offers that Design Thinking is an alternative, but only if we can keep it from being bogged down in detailed process definition and becoming an overly restrictive framework. He notes that if Systems Thinking had worked like its early advocates hoped it would, there would be no management-by-design movement or calls for integrated management practice.
Interesting stuff indeed. It will be fun to see how this plays out. If history is a guide, and as Collopy seems to suggest, it may fizzle out before it plays out. Business schools and corporate leadership have a record of moving on to new, more fashionable approaches, independent of the value of current ones. More on that tomorrow.
Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. – Richard Feynman
Thanks to Ventana Systems, Inc. for use of their VENSIM® tools.
Thanks to @DanMezick for recent tweet exchange on Systems Thinking.