Thursday, June 20, 2024

Vaclav Smil On The Two Cultures And Our “Fully Post-Factual World” – Watts Up With That?

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From Robert Bryce’s Substack

Robert Bryce

My emails with Smil on C.P. Snow’s 1959 essay, scientific illiteracy and innumeracy. Plus: Kotkin, Gurri, and Teixeira on the elites vs. the “normies”

In 1959, British novelist and physical chemist C.P. Snow gave a now-famous lecture called “The Two Cultures.” Snow argued that there was a growing disconnect between the culture of the sciences and the culture of the humanities and that bridging that gap was critical to understanding and addressing the world’s problems. Snow declared,

I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups… Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.

Snow then underscored the general public’s lack of understanding of energy. As Snow put it:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

Indeed, while most moderately cultured people will be familiar with the Bard’s A Comedy of Errors or The Merchant of Venice, the three laws of thermodynamics are considered by most people to be the domain of nerds and wonks. Snow cheekily described them: “You can’t win. You can’t break even. And you can’t quit the game.”(This Khan Academy explanation is a good primer.) For most people, fundamental physics seems too troublesome to learn. This apathy towards physics is matched, or possibly exceeded, by the lack of interest in mathematics. Indeed, innumeracy is rampant.

Snow’s seminal lecture matters today because the divides in our culture are widening. Yes, there’s a divide in the sciences. But that divide doesn’t explain why so many policymakers are being bamboozled by the alt-energy mirage that’s being promoted by the NGO-corporate-industrial-climate complex and their myriad allies in media and academia.

I have written about scientific illiteracy and innumeracy several times, including in my 2010 book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy And the Real Fuels of The Future. In that book, I cited my 2007 interview with Vaclav Smil about energy issues. I asked the Canadian author and polymath why Americans are so easily bamboozled by the rhetoric about alternative energy. He responded:

There has never been such a depth of scientific illiteracy and basic innumeracy as we see today. Without any physical, chemical, and biological fundamentals, and with equally poor understanding of basic economic forces, it is no wonder that people will believe anything. (Emphasis added.)

That 17-year-old interview comes to mind because last week, I published “Vaclav Smil Calls Bullshit On Net Zero.” That piece, which details Smil’s debunking of the net-zero silliness that is being flogged by the Biden administration, nearly two dozen states, and about 100 cities, has been among the most popular ones I’ve written here on Substack.


After it was published, I emailed Smil a link to the piece. He immediately replied with a terse note: “Thanks, none of this really matters, this is a fully post-factual world.”

I emailed Smil back with these questions: To what do you attribute this post-factualism? Is it scientific illiteracy and innumeracy? Tribalism? Purposeful ignorance? I also asked about Snow’s 1959 lecture. He replied:

Yes, even your typical expert is near-utterly ignorant of basics (be they physics, chemistry, or biology) and very few people have actually internalized the difference between million and billion: hard to say which is worse, innumeracy probably.

He then cited Snow’s lecture:

All of this goes far, far beyond any two cultures, because now, on mass-scale, we have no particular culture: how else, when people check their mobile 244 [times] a day and spend 3 hours on YouTube and TikTok watching imbecilic videos. Goebbels would be stunned to see with what universal success his slogan of repeating a lie so often it becomes new truth has taken the global root, precisely because the soil is receptive: utterly brainless mass of mobile-bound individuals devoid of any historical perspective and of any kindergarten common-sense understanding.

I didn’t pose any more questions. (What’s left to ask?) While I agree with Smil about the general ignorance of basic science and the prevalence of innumeracy and imbecilic videos, there is another way to think about the two cultures and how the schism in our society has deepened over the past few decades. That schism helps explain, at least in part, the continuing popularity of Donald Trump and the anti-elite populism now sweeping Europe.

America’s most important cultural divide isn’t about left versus right, Biden versus Trump, or Democrat versus Republican. The most worrisome divide is the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. More specifically, it’s the enormous gap between the elites who dominate media, academia, NGOs, and politics, and the working class. Nowhere is that gap more evident than in the policies that promote alt-energy and net zero.

Every one of the climate policies being enacted by liberal states and the Biden administration screws the poor and the middle class, and in particular, the poor and middle-class folks who live in rural America. You name it — EV mandates, bans on natural gas stoves and heaters, strict emission cuts on power plants, lavish tax credits for Big Wind and Big Solar, or the latest FERC rule on high-voltage transmission — all of them are, in one way or another, regressive energy taxes that fuck the working class.

Many other writers are spotlighting this issue. Author and demographer Joel Kotkin has written extensively about the regressive energy policies being enacted by what he calls the “clerisy,” which he defines as “a group that makes its living largely in quasi-public institutions, notably universities, media, the non-profit world, and the upper bureaucracy.” While Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at California’s Chapman University, says the clerisy isn’t unanimous in its politics, it “generally favors ever-increasing central control and regulation.” The most obvious place to see the climate clerisy at work is in California, where draconian decarbonization policies imposed by the administrative state are driving up housing and energy prices. The result of those regressive decisions are what California-based lawyer and civil rights activist Jennifer Hernandez has dubbed “Green Jim Crow.”

Last month, author and former CIA analyst Martin Gurri published an essay in The Free Press titled “The Revenge of the Normies.” Gurri focuses on the cultural gap between the “normies” and the “elites.” His assessment rhymes with Kotkin’s take:

On one side we find the normies: ordinary people who defend, naively, the historic principles of democracy such as freedom of speech and assembly, the separation of powers, etc. On the other side stand the elites, masters of the great institutions of wealth, knowledge, and power, who insist that extraordinary measures must be taken to save a depraved and self-destructive society from its own history and its own people…The normies want to get on with life. They want to work, get married, have children—boring stuff. That’s what normal means. The elites, for their part, wish to change everything: sex, the climate, our history, your automobile, your diet, even the straws with which you slurp your smoothie. (Emphasis added.)

Gurri continued, saying the normies “fight back by pouring into the streets in frighteningly large numbers and electing politicians loathed by the elites, like Donald Trump in the U.S. and Javier Milei in Argentina.”

Last year, Ruy Teixeira, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, identified the same elites-versus-working-class dynamic in a trenchant essay titled “The Working Class Isn’t Down With The Green Transition.” He explained:

Nothing defines the Democratic economic strategy more than a single-minded focus on fighting climate change — an “existential crisis” as Biden, other top Democrats and a galaxy of Democratic-leaning pundits have termed it…Democratic elites and activists are very, very committed to this approach and are willing to pay high costs to make it happen.

Teixeira cited a Monmouth poll that found “just one percent of working-class (noncollege) voters in an open-ended question identify climate change as the biggest concern facing their family.” And what about those EVs that Joe Biden’s EPA mandated last month? Teixeira cited a Gallup poll which found that “just 2% of working-class respondents say they currently own an electric vehicle and a mere 9% say they are ‘seriously considering’ purchasing one.”

Teixeira called the gap between Democratic elites and the working class the “Great Divide.” He concluded by saying, “Really, it’s madness. Biden needs to do more, not less, on moving the Democratic Party away from its obsession with renewables.”

There’s plenty more to write about the class divide over net zero, alt-energy, and the growing divide in American politics over climate policy. But if the clerisy and the elites in America want to understand what lies ahead if they continue their headlong rush to impose ever-more-regressive climate policies on voters, they only need to look at the latest elections in Europe. On Sunday, The Guardian published an article titled: “Green party losses in EU elections raise concerns over Green Deal.” The nut of the story:

In Germany, a core Green stronghold, the party’s vote share appears to have nearly halved since the last election in 2019. Exit polls suggested it fell 8.5 percentage points from 20.5% to 12%. In France, where the far right was leading and President Emmanuel Macron called snap elections, support for the Greens fell by the same amount. (Emphasis added.)

Meanwhile, the Associated Press called the parliamentary elections in France and Germany “stunning defeats to two of the bloc’s most important leaders: French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.” It added that their defeat “could well have an impact on the EU’s overall climate change policies, still the most progressive across the globe.”

I’m not predicting the outcome of the November election, but given the European elections, I won’t be surprised if Trump wins. If he does, it might be called the revenge of the normies.

Media Hits

  • Last week, I was on Jim Puplava’s “Financial Sense” podcast along with geometallurgist Simon Michaux. We discussed commodities, net zero, China’s dominance of critical metals, and why, as Simon claimed copper “may be the new gold.” I disagree with Simon’s take on peak oil, but he has deep knowledge of the mining sector and its challenges, particularly when it comes to producing more copper. You can watch it here.
  • Also, last week, I was on Chicago’s Morning Answer radio show with Dan Proft and Amy Jacobson to discuss my recent Substack on why environmentalism in America is dead. You can watch/listen here.

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