Responses to "The Hazards of Solar Power"

[If anyone wishes to use the "Hazards of Solar Power" document in the classroom, consult this annotated version.]

The Hazards of Solar Power satire suckered in some folks who apparently took it seriously, in spite of plenty of internal evidence that it is a spoof of the style and argument tactics of some activist propaganda from people motivated by an excess of zeal and a deficiency of scientific understanding. One expects people to see the internal evidence of parody, recognize what's being parodied, and laugh at the way you've crammed so many absurd arguments into so short a space. But some people don't see the humor, and take the document seriously, without checking, without questioning assumptions, arguments, facts, and without understanding science.

After responding to what seemed like hundreds of these e-mails, in August 1998 I reformatted the heading on the piece, putting my name just after the introduction instead of after the title. I also included a link at the bottom of the document to this page. I hoped this would reduce the e-mail from poor innocents who were duped. It didn't.

The following are a few of my responses to e-mail received about this piece. I have deleted evidence of source with [...] to protect the identity of those who were taken in, and their institutions.

    — Donald E. Simanek

> Dr. Simanek,
>     I have enjoyed your contributions to the [...] list for a few years
> and have also found useful material on your web pages.
>    But [of course a 'but' must follow flattery!:-)], I think you may need to
> be a bit more careful in acknowledgements on all your pages.  
>    I'm referring, in particular, to your Hazards of Solar Power page.  Even
> though you have a paragraph in italics saying how stupid the following
> information is, your name appears at the top of the page as if you were the
> author.

I *am* the author. I don't see your problem. I was rather pleased with how
this little piece came out.

>    I'm aware of that page because I was marking a high school student's
> "Current Chemistry Research Paper" yesterday and found some strange
> statements contrary to the use of solar energy and wondered where she had
> got them.  Her bibliography contained several internet sources including the
> page in question.   She evidently didn't read your disclaimer very well.
> Should've but didn't.  However, I called my wife over to the computer and
> she also skimmed the hard-to-read italics and was taken in by the large bold
> claim that the content was written by Donald E. Simanek (who would appear
> from further perusal of the web pages to be a legitimate scholar).

Thank you for the assumption. But I also write humor and satire, and this
particular document was found in the humor and satire section of my home
page. I might add that it was among other links to the "Save The Plants" 
parody of environmental activists, and the "Ban
Dihydrogen Monoxide" spoof. This latter document was used by one of
our biologists in a most interesting way. He had a printed copy made, had
his students read it, and write a short essay on it. *Most* of them were
taken in by it, and wondered why more wasn't being done about this great
danger!  Such is human gullibility!  Such is the sorry state of education
that students don't pick up on fallacies of argument, and don't check
facts independently.  These illustrate how naive and gullible students are
these days. And it's our fault, as teachers, because we don't do a good
enough job of encouraging critical thinking. 

>   I agree that your disclaimer should be sufficient and I tell my students
> to closely examine all Internet material to try to ascertain its reliability
> but the novices may make mistakes.
>   Thanks for your time.  Keep up the good work of post items of interest.
> [...]

I didn't intend it as a disclaimer, but part of the joke. The internal
evidence in the pieces should have been sufficient to make anyone realize
it was a joke. No disclaimer seemed necessary.

The internet is not a refereed journal, and students should be warned
about that. Though this was deliberate satire, many sites out there have
absolute foolishness by perfectly earnest and sincere people. Let the
surfer beware.

I suppose you are aware of H. L. Mencken's classic "Bathtub Hoax" which
was taken seriously by many, and is even today. You'll find lots of
other examples on my "Hoaxes" of my web page. 

Next some naive student will think that my biography of "Anon" 
is that of a real person. Wait till I put up my
biographies of Phineas Q. Hickey and Konrad Finagle. I gave the Hickey
bio, complete with genuine authentic historic slides, at a physics
colloquium. My plan was to present it straight, then show the slides
again, telling what they *really* were, and pointing out the historical
parallels between my fictional Hickey and real people of the time: Edison,
Steinmetz, Tesla, etc. One physicist in the audience admitted to me that
until I revealed the put-on, he'd assumed that Hickey was a real, though
obscure person. That, in spite of the fact that I filled the piece with
jokes and absurdities designed to give it away. For example, I had Hickey
inventing an electric sundial which could be used at night. I had
references to real people which were false in time place, or

A good exercise with the solar energy piece is to have the student go
through it now with a very critical eye, and write an essay on the *many*
impossible and absurd statements in it, and also comment on how they
illustrate common methods people use to deceive others. *That* could be
very educational. 

PS. I had one person email me about the footnote I added to the
Dihydrogen Monoxide piece, complaining that I shouldn't have put that in,
for it "Gives it away." You can't please everyone.

One other published piece of my satire was "Kepone Truckin" which appeared
in the "Journal of Irreproducible Results" back when Kepone was much in
the news. "Current Contents" picked it up and ran it nearly complete in
one of their April 1 issues. It was a story leading up to a bad pun. I
started getting requests for reprints from all over the world, including
one from the public library in the town where the Kepone problem first
surfaced. The folks requesting reprints thought it was part of a larger
article. One request, from France, was signed "Sincelery yours..." I
worried that that guy might not get the pun.

	-- Donald

Date: Tue, 4 Feb 1997 07:43:10 -0500 (EST)
From: [...]
Subject: solar power

On Tue, 4 Feb 1997, [....] wrote:

	Hello, I just read your article about the "dangers" of solar
power and I have a few questions. 
 	First let me tell you that I am an engineering student at 
[a major university in the USA], and it is my goal to design 
alternate energy homes. I was interested in the use of solar power and 
its benefits.
 	My first question is why does it matter if solar power comes from
neculear fusion.  The sun is 93 million miles away last time I checked.  I
think that it is irrelevent that the sun is a nuclear powerplant and not a
concern to us.  Yes hydrogen is a highly flamible gas, but at the distance
that it is from us I do not see its dangers.  Also, why would it matter if
the sun burned out?  Yes, that would make solar power cells useless, but
that would be the last of our concerns.  Photosynthesis would cease and so
would the entire population which depends on plantlife for food.  It seems
to me that if the sun is the lone power source that allows plants to grow
and reproduce, that there is a lot of potential in using the sun as a
power source for our homes and possibly as a means of transportation. 
	One other thing that I did not understand is the reference to 
light bulbs irridating us with the sun.  It almost sounds like you think 
that we would be in danger of contracting skin cancer from light bulbs 
just as we are from the sun.  That does not make any sense to me at all.
	Please respond, as I am interested in learing all I can about 
solar power.

	-- [....]
This student did take issue with some assertions in the essay, but still seemed to think I was serious. In a later e-mail he admitted that he'd been taken. Maybe my satire was too good at copying the style and substance of other published nonsense, and seemed not all that different from what one reads in the daily papers.

Getting a bit tired of this, I wrote a standard reply which I could easily forward to the standard (and uninteresting) e-mail complaints.

Ah, the silly season is upon us. More and more people are being suckered
into thinking that *I* believe the absurd statements in my satire/humor
document "The Hazards of Solar Power" on my web page. Even though P. T.
Barnum never said "There's a sucker born every day" it is still a valid

Newbie internet browsers should be aware that intelligent use of the
resources of the net require more than casual search with a browser. You

1. Go into the "view source" mode of your browser to see the raw html
code. At the top there should be some HTML Meta tags which describe the
document and give keywords for search engines. In this case, the meta tags
clearly state that this piece is satire. But recently I've even added a
disclaimer for the benefit of anyone who troubles themselves to read the
source code to look at the HTML tabs.

<img align="right" SRC="sun2.gif" WIDTH="155" HEIGHT="148">
<head><title>The Hazards of Solar Power</title>

<meta NAME="author" CONTENT="Donald E. Simanek">

<meta NAME="description" content="Parody of the style of some
anti-technology diatribes.">

<meta Name="keywords" Content="humor, satire, alternative energy sources,

<!  NOTICE:  This document is parody. It does not represent the views of
the author on the subject of solar power, 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 not very bright. 
They won't even be bright enough 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
Josh Billings said, "There's a mighty big difference between good, sound
arguments and arguments which sound good." For more on this, see the
documents "Student responses to science spoofs" linked on my home page, or
go directly to>

2. Back up the directory tree by editing the "go to" window to find the
home page in which the document lives. There you will see who is
responsible, what else that person has to offer, and how the document is
described. In this case, the document is in the "Humor and Satire"
section, which should tell you something.

3. Check who the author is (see vita on my web page) and try to get an
impression of that person's interests and work, which helps you judge the
individual items you find there.

4. The document alone has all sorts of internal clues that it is
a parody. 

As careful readers will note, I didn't claim to have written this piece
(though I did). Then why do so many people seem to think the article is
serious and blame *me* for the ideas it contains? I have links on my
web back page to flat earth and hollow earth theories, but I don't believe
either of them. That didn't stop a member of a flat earth society from
congratulating me for "telling the truth" about the shape of the earth.

The late Mike Royko was right on target when he said:

	It's been my policy to view the Internet not as an 'information
	highway,' but as an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies. 

The preamble to my Solar spoof states: 

	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.'

"Aginers" are those who actively oppose things they don't like and
don't understand. The acronym for this mythical group is "CRACKED". So far
only one person has informed me that he noticed that.

	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.

These comments are blatant parody of arguments used by many activist

	...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! 

This is a variant of that old joke about the little old lady who always
made sure that there were no empty sockets in her house which might allow
the "electricity to leak out". James Thurber wrote a humor piece based on 
this joke.

	...what will stop the solar power equipment manufacturers and
	solar power companies from raising prices when they achieve a
	monopoly and other fuel sources disappear?

This echoes many environmental activist groups who impugn the motives of
business and industry, painting them as greedy and unscrupulous, without
any concern for people or the environment.

	...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 needs?

And if anyone reads this absurd paragraph, can they possibly think the
author (me) is serious?

If you want more about how other people have been taken in by this satire,
and the other one (BAN DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE), see the document on my web
page. Just select "education" from the top menu, go down to the documents
section, then click on the document titled "Responses to science spoofs."
But sometimes I'd get interesting responses which required a more personal reply. Here's a nice example.

On Wed, 1 Oct 1997, [Name deleted] wrote:

> I hope criticism of your paper doesn't offend you because this response 
> will be filled with it. First you talk about how people want to use tax 
> money to research solar energy and present this as wasting money but 
> than you say we know nothing about solar power.  How would we know if it 
> was safe if we didn't research it.

[Name deleted],

Oh, I enjoy responses such as yours, which I get at least once a week.
However, yours is without a doubt the most detailed and temperate response
I've received on this subject. Most of the negative e-mails simply call me
an idiot, or suggest that I learn something about solar energy before I
write about it. Then there are those who say they agree with some of it
but take issue with one or two points.

Since you have taken the time for detailed, point by point response, I
will do the same.

> Next you talk about how this power comes from fusion and how unsafe this 
> is.  First of all the sun doesn't undergo nuclear fusion.  Instead it 
> performs fission.

Hmm. Somebody better tell this to the astronomers. All the astronomy
sources I've seen say that it's fusion. For example, a widely used College
text, Chaisson and McMillan, says (p. 381) "Only one known
energy-generation mechanism can conceivably power the Sun in this way.
That process is nuclear *fusion*--the combining of light nuclei into
heavier ones." The text goes on to discuss the proton-proton chain in

> There is a large difference.  If you had done some 
> research about your topic before writing down what ever popped into your
> head you might have known this. 

Actually I didn't write whatever popped into my head, but carefully
crafted this piece, choosing every word with care. You wouldn't believe
the amount of research I did on this short paper.

> Well we can't do a whole hell of a lot about the sun performing fission. 

We can't do anything about the sun performing fusion *or* fission,
but it is performing fusion, according to all the experts.

> The sun has been undergoing fission 
> for billions of years with out us interfering and it will continue to do 
> so.  Next you mentioned that the sun is made out of hydrogen and is 
> highly flammable.  Well for something to burn, 
> oxygen must be present and there isn't very much of that on the sun. 

The process of fusion is called "hydrogen-burning" because hydrogen is the
fuel. It is not "chemical burning" however.

> You also mention that radiation would be radiated at us from all of our 
> electrical appliances.  Did you stop to think that almost all of our 
> food comes from plant and animals that spent all of their lives growing 
> in the sun. 

I set aside several minutes every day to think about this. And you and I
spend our lives growing up in the sun. 

> We aren't getting any radiation from them and why would we 
> get cataracts from light derived from solar power.

Yes, we do need more research to find out the mechanism of how sunlight
causes cataracts, and melanomas also, a point I neglected to mention.

> It wouldn't be sunlight in our houses. It would be plain old
> incandescent light. 

Light is light--photons--whatever the source. Do you have any evidence
that incandescent light is inherently safer than light of the same
intensity and spectral distribution as light from sunlight, or from
fluorescent lights? 

> The only point that you make that could be halfway close to right would 
> be the increased fire hazard.

Actually that point in the paper may be wrong. Further consideration of
the matter has convinced me that there's no clear evidence of any
significantly increased fire hazard from energy obtained from solar
collectors. Why do *you* think there would be? 

However, we now know that one dangerous use of light in our homes is
tungsten-halogen lamps. They are banned in dormitories at some schools
because of their fire hazard. Why? Well did anyone ever consider that it
might be that their light output is more closely matched to sunlight than
that of incandescent lamps or fluorescents? Something to think about.

[Of course this fact that their light better matches sunlight is true,
but the implied conclusion is absurd. The small and intense lamps were 
banned because they got hot enough to ignite nearby materials.]

> Then you say that the sun only has a billion years left and you very 
> loosely cite your source.

This was, of course, only a rough estimate of the lifetime of the
sun, give or take a few million years. It could be off by a factor of 10
or more, but astronomers have do deal with such uncertainties all the

> Was there even a newspaper from which you  read this?  Perhaps the
> Enquirer?  

I never read the Enquirer. Yes, it was from a newspaper, 
an Associated Press item (would I lie about such a
thing?), and the clipping is in my files somewhere but I neglected to dig
it out. The figure was pretty "common knowledge" when I wrote 
the first version of this piece and therefore I saw little need to 
reference it, and good reason not to (as you may eventually discern). 
I wrote this "Hazards of Solar Energy" 
article back in the 1970s, when lots of people were urging us
to research and implement solar-derived power, and others were warning us
of the environmental hazards of nuclear plants, coal and oil burning,
often without understanding the physics, engineering, or economics of
these things. That news report appeared at least that long ago.
Astronomers are continually revising and improving these estimates of the
sun's future. 

Actually astronomers now claim to know a lot about the sun's aging
process, and current references do give a figure of 5 billion years for
the time remaining till the sun evolves into a red giant. The sun's
photosphere will then reach nearly to the orbit of Mars, and the earth
will be swallowed within the sun (and already be fried to a crisp).
Actually the sun will live still longer, after the earth is vaporized. 

> From all the sources I have ever 
> read, the sun is about halfway through its "lifecycle".  That would mean 
> that it will last for another 5 billion years.  

One billion, five billion, who's counting? The fact remains that it *will*
die and our source of solar energy will go with it, as you acknowledge
below. You seem to find that extra 4 billion years sufficient to conclude 
that we can be complacent about the future.

> You also mention that 
> solar energy is not a permanent source of energy.  Well did you bother 
> to think that if the sun burnt out life on earth would end.  

I reserve several more minutes each day to think about that. By the way, 
do you have something against use of the question mark at the end of questions?

> The earth 
> would become so cold that it would not be able to support life.  We 
> would also need some way of growing crops.  We could use greenhouses but 
> we would have to supply all the light.  Also greenhouses are so labor 
> intensive that we would all have to work in one to produce enough food 
> to survive. 

This just points up the urgency of finding other energy sources, rather
than relying on the temporary panacea of solar energy. I'm glad to see
that you share my concerns about this serious threat to human existence.
(You seem to know a lot about greenhouses.)

> These were just some of the points on which you were wrong. If you care 
> to discuss this with me you can e-mail me at 
>       [e-mail address deleted]
> If you don't respond I will assume that you now realize you are wrong.  
> You should do more research before you write an article and try to pass 
> it off as the truth.  Most of your ideas here need some rethinking.

I hope that you, too, will research and rethink the matter. Perhaps
you will find some additional useful information on my web page (address
below) which (judging from your e-mail) you haven't yet looked at. Try
the "education" section under "documents" to find the paper "Student
responses...". And do, please, get back to me if you have any further
insights or questions.

	-- Donald
The next one apparently took me seriously, but presented no counter-arguments and no evidence of my mistaken facts or logic, simply asked me if I have any other solution. Solution to what? She doesn't say. A lot of people think that you shouldn't criticize or riducle something if you haven't something better to replace it with. I reject that notion entirely. Criticism, ridicule and parody are valuable in themselves, if only to embarrass other people into finding better arguments and better solutions, or simply to remind us of how emptiness of thought clothed in passionate prose is often mistaken for wisdom and profundity.

Date: Fri, 14 Nov 1997 12:11:12 +0000
From: C. E.
Subject: (no subject)

What great solution have you got then? Surely making use of an energy
source that is hitting the earth is quite sensisble. We recieve
solar-radiation anyway, it's one of those handy things that fuels
photosynthesisin all those pretty, oxygen producing plants. I wouldn't
have thought we'd receive more solar radiation by using solar power,
rather we get more solar radiation by burning fossil fuels and the
releases of greenhouse gases. 
    If you have any illuminating answers I'd be very interested to hear
             Yours sincerely 
                 C. E.
Then I get abusive and insulting responses, often from people who can't spell or structure intelligible sentences. It's interesting that replies to some of these messages bounce back as undeliverable. I am intrigued, but baffled, by the possible meaning of "The sun is reacting full stop."

Date: Wed, 26 Nov 1997 09:40:37 +0000
From: T.C.S.
Subject: Soalr Power

Dear sir,

You are a misguided fool, never before have I read such an ill informed
article. I suggest you do a little more research to evaporate your

The sun is reacting full stop. Nature relies on solar and has done since
time on earth began.  How can you possibly argue that it is not a good
thing when every living thing on earth is in effect (albeit indirectly)
solar powered. I have no more time now, I have to go to a lecture.


I hope this person, who I assumed was a student, went to that lecture, and stayed awake this time so he might learn something. There seems to be a law of nature that people with the least perception and understanding seem the most confident of themselves.

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