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.
> 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 circumstances. 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 observation. Newbie internet browsers should be aware that intelligent use of the resources of the net require more than casual search with a browser. You should 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.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 detail. > 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 time. > 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. -- DonaldThe 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 them. 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 ignorance. 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. Regards T.C.S.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.
Send comments to this address. When commenting on a specific document, please reference it by name or content.
Return to Donald Simanek's page.