Alexander DeVolpi versus Amory Lovins: Part I

Part I: DeVolpi on Expert Knowledge, Scientific Knowledge and Ethics
Amory Lovins has Chutzpah. Lovins, a Harvard & Oxford physics drop out, believed that he could argue with Alvin Weinberg about reactor technology. Not long ago he showed up at Argonne National Laboratory where he attempted to argue with Alexander DeVolpi about nuclear proliferation. This was a big mistake, first because DeVolpi ought to be regarded as one of the world’s leading authority on nuclear proliferation, and further DeVolpi does not suffer fools gladly. And Lovins is nothing if not a fool, and only a fool would have argued with DeVolpi at Argonne about nuclear proliferation. For Amory Lovins to argue with DeVolpi on nuclear proliferation is more than a little like Alfred E. Newman attempting to argue with Albert Einstein on the theory of relativity.

Nothing illustrates the confusion of the Era of Confusion better than the fact that Amory Lovins is imagined to be an expert on energy by Al Gore and hundreds of of other political and business leaders in contemporary American Society. Lovins tends to overwhelm his auditors with a dense presentation of supposed facts and references, that cannot be easily or quickly or easily deconstructed. Thus an authorizing link may be in fact be to a statement that was published in an obscure South African humor magazine, and which is locked beyond a firewall, with the payment of a fee required for admission. Another Lovins trick is to reference a statement which he himself made 30 years ago, without any further support. Unless the auditor has a copy of the collected works of Amory Lovins, it is impossible to determine if the 30 year ago statement had just as weak evidence as the statement presented today.

Dr. DeVolpi can recognize shabby tricks for what they are, but most people, including Al Gore, doubt their own intelligence when confronted with a MacArthur Genius. To such people I can only recommend a reading of the story The Emperor’s New Clothes together and Immanuel Kant’s essay, What is Enlightenment. But such remedies may come with distress, because they invariably require a person to look at how he or she thinks and feels, and then to think about the answers to the questions those thoughts and feelings raise.

Dr. DeVolpi has written excellent and instructive Google Knols that should be read by anyone who wishes to think about let alone openly discuss nuclear issues like proliferation and nuclear safety. Beyond simply talking about proliferation issues, Dr. DeVolpi looks at a question that clearly strays into an area that might be described as practical epistemology. It particular how can we know if someone who claims expertise actually possess authority. Dr. DeVolpi shreds claims to authority on such matters, with a particular zest”

For progress in non-proliferation, we need be saved from the assumed or accorded authoritarianism of well-intentioned professors, especially from the East Coast, who have titles mistaken as credentials. Frank von Hippel of Princeton comes to mind. Notwithstanding good intentions, pleasant personality, teaching experience, and published papers — these do not constitute hands-on field or laboratory experience. Nor should one count time spent in Washington corridors, offices, and conference rooms.

I hold Frank partially responsible for the decade-long hiatus in reaching agreement with Korea on nuclear demilitarization, for decades of lack of progress in conversion of the Siberian plutonium reactors, for stalling growth of nuclear power in the United States, for misrepresenting the weaponizability of reactor-grade plutonium, and for sustaining radiophobia.

On the latter point, over two decades after the Chernobyl accident, Frank is yet to acknowledge in print that he was utterly wrong in projecting or implying a huge number of fatalities due to the accident. He and others cling to unvalidated beliefs regarding the effects of low levels of radiation . . .

DeVolpi scorns the authority of the under experienced.

were it not for the professors of the 1930s and 1940s who gained hands-on laboratory and field experience, we would not have succeeded in the timely development of nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. With the demise of Hans Bethe and Pief Panofsky, a good example remaining is Dick Garwin (aside from some uncharacteristic overreaching he has done with regard to Chernobyl cancer projections).

DeVolpi offers us nothing less than a phenomenology of expertise.

Expertise isn’t fungible; it can’t be bought or transferred; it’s accumulated from sometimes-tedious, but aggregate years of hands-on experience. Nor is anyone’s accumulated expertise unique or exclusive; some individuals have subsets of very relevant knowledge or experience that include skills and understanding of energy released in fission or fusion, or of policies and implications regarding nuclear weapons. These fields of knowledge overlap and supplement each other; there are no islands of expertise.

Incidentally, professional conferences and lectures are a common adjunct for keeping up to date, but they do not contribute directly to hands-on experience in the functioning of complex equipment. The same can be said about presentations, lectures, and facility visits; these are an integral aspect of technical development, but they are not substitutes for actual laboratory or field development, construction, experimentation, and analysis.

To a certain extent DeVolpi is an advocate of the tacit knowledge tradition without formally acknowledging Michael Polany’s writings on the concept. In addition to focusing on the practical dimension of expert knowing, Dr. DeVolpi also focuses on ethical issues implicit in expert knowledge claims, authorized by a presumed claim to scientific authority. In particular Dr. De Volpi’s, focuses on be called a phenomenology of scientific authority. That is he offers a description of the essential characteristics of a knowledge claim that is advanced with scientific authority. That description did not originate with Dr. DeVolpi, rather he found it in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1993 statement of standards for testimony regarding areas of science that required an explicit estimate of probabilistic error. That statement, presented in connection with the courts ruling on the Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals case, set forth a four part qualifying standard:

peer review,
replicability,
documentation,
and stated rates of error

DeVolpi notes:

Judiciaries have retrospectively encountered deficiencies in ad hoc scientific/technical testimony and in forensic evidence that did not fully comply with a standardized methodology. Individuals have been wrongfully convicted of crimes; cancer and other illnesses have been incorrectly attributed; and epidemiological data has sometimes been misrepresented.

This is an ethical issue in DeVolpi’s view. Making claims to scientific authority which do not conform to the Supreme Court’s Daubert standard are not just epistemologically flawed, they are also ethically flawed, and such scientifically wrong statements have lead to moral wrongs.

Individuals have been wrongfully convicted of crimes; cancer and other illnesses have been incorrectly attributed; and epidemiological data has sometimes been misrepresented.

While DeVolpi focuses primarily on a case study of the over statement of anticipated public health consequences for the Chernobyl and TMI reactor incidents. He observes:

The scientific, technical and journalistic professions, though not alone, must share significant responsibility f
or premature and exaggerated predictions that have not materialized nor been rectified.

This professional ethical lapse have had serious public consequences:

Unsubstantiated characterizations contribute to public confusion, rather than clarification. Inordinate risk estimates have lead to the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars to protect against dangers whose existence is highly questionable.

(In Part II, I will address the substance of Dr. DeVolpi’s “Bill of Particulars” against Amory Lovins.)

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