Deception & Misdirection

Like the Social Cost of Carbon? You’ll love the Drake Equation

[Continuing our series on deception in American politics and policy.]

In an upcoming issue of Green Watch, we’ll examine the Social Cost of Carbon—the supposed cost to society of each ton of carbon emitted into the atmosphere by industry, transportation, and the generation of electricity. It’s a number created by bureaucrats and environmentalists working with scientist-activists. It’s used to justify government activities ranging from the shutdown of coal-fired power plants to the regulation of microwave oven clocks. The problem, we will demonstrate in Green Watch, is that it’s an imaginary number with no basis in real science, put out by flawed computer models using data from other flawed models and ignoring the huge cost of not using carbon-based energy.

The Social Cost of Carbon is an example of a common technique in political deception: basing policy on a concept that sounds scientific but is—I’ll clean up my language here—total baloney. From the “poverty rate” to the “unemployment rate” to the “inflation rate”… to the racial categories that are used to distribute jobs, college admissions, and political power… to the list of endangered species made up of things that are neither endangered nor species… a common theme is that, when it comes to science, BUREAUCRATS, POLITICIANS, AND SCIENTIST-ACTIVISTS JUST MAKE STUFF UP.  Some of these involve categories that don’t exist in the real world, and some involve things that exist but cannot be measured scientifically.

When I say some things exist but can’t be measured, I think of something like ugliness. Ugliness, like beauty, exists, but you would laugh in the face of a scientist or bureaucrat who claimed that the government could produce, each month, an “ugliness index” measuring, to one part in a thousand, the number of people who fit in that category, and how many more or fewer ugly people there were in December than in November. Your laughter might dissolve into tears, though, if you learned that the federal “ugliness rate” was the supposedly scientific basis for shutting down the factory where you work. The Social Cost of Carbon is just such a piece of nonsense—worse, even, because it combines the immeasurable with the unpredictable.

In the February Green Watch, we’ll explain how the Social Cost of Carbon calculated, or how they pretend it is calculated, and what they do with it. For now, let’s take a look at another instance in which scientists design a phony formula to fool the public, and sometimes fool themselves. It’s called the Drake Equation.

The Drake Equation is used to estimate the chance that we will contact aliens from outer space. (I’m simplifying things slightly.) Proposed by astronomer Frank Drake at a 1961 conference on SETI (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence), the formula multiplies estimates of the number of stars, times the number of planets around the average star, times the portion of those planets that might support life, and so forth, to come up with an estimate of the number of civilizations with whom we might someday communicate.

One parallel to SCC is that the Drake Equation is self-serving to scientists and reflects their wishful thinking. Remember: The equation was created at a conference on the search for aliens, then used to justify public interest in and funding for the search for aliens.

Another parallel is that each part of the formula is highly speculative. A tiny change in each factor is enough to create a huge difference in the final result, and the estimated range for some factors is so large that no reasonable guess can be made.

Some scientists believe that earthlike conditions are common in the universe. Others (correctly, in my view) believe that the earth has many characteristics necessary for intelligent life, from its dense, gravity-producing core to its binary, regulatory relationship with the moon, that are very rare among planets. But it’s the SETI-believers who dominate the public discussion and the popular imagination, because, well, the universe would be a lot cooler if everything was like in Star Trek. So the Drake Equation is often presented as if it were proof of the likelihood of intelligent aliens.

The person who did the most to popularize the equation was present at that 1961 SETI conference. His name: Carl Sagan. Sagan, as noted in the December Green Watch, often used pseudoscience to push his opinions. Like many scientists who happen to be atheists or agnostics, he saw SETI as a counterweight to religion. Critics of the equation see SETI itself as a sort of religion, one that, like environmentalism and unlike many traditional religions, is socially acceptable in the academic world.

The late Michael Crichton, a physician and the creator of Jurassic Park and the TV show ER, said of the Drake Equation:

The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. . . .  As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything, means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless. . .

The Drake Equation is nothing more than a magicians’ trick performed with math. It creates the illusion of logical proof for a claim that could never be disproven and, therefore, doesn’t represent real science. (The theory that there are intelligent aliens in space, aliens close enough to communicate with us, could be proven by, say, an alien invasion. But it cannot be disproven. If, in fact, there are no intelligent space aliens close enough to communicate with us, we can never know for sure.)

A trick? When you mix science and politics, that’s what you end up with.


Dr. Steven J. Allen

A journalist with 45 years’ experience, Dr. Allen served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. He earned a master’s…
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