Jim Hickey's criticisms of MacKay's SEWTHA

Jim Hickey (who describes himself on his page at RenewableEnergyWorld.com as a "Progressive advocate for democratic policy-making and sustainable culture"), has written a blog article with the ponderous title: 'No Hot Air' About Renewable Energy While Blowing Smoke: David Mackay plays 'Brutus' to the Sun's 'Caesar'

Jim Hickey describes David MacKay (Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Department of Physics of the University of Cambridge) as "a professor at Oxford" and refers to him as "Dr. David Mackay"[sic], curiously refers to his book "Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air", which is generally abbreviated to "SEWTHA", as "(SE/WHA)", and consistently refers to "England" rather than "Britain" or the "U.K.", including attributing an (unsubstantiated) quote to MacKay that improbably uses that word.

The thesis of Hickey's "essay" is that MacKay "is predisposed to view nuclear energy as essential", "has an explicit and demonstrable bias in favor of nukes", harbours a concealed "favoritism toward nuclear power", has a "pro-nuclear agenda that he has not made clear to readers" and that "for years, David Mackay has insisted that 'England must go nuclear' to meet its energy and environmental goals". However at no point does Hickey demonstrate MacKay's supposedly demonstrable bias -- a slanderous charge amounting to professional misconduct against a scientist and academic in MacKay's position -- and goes on to admit that he "cannot prove that the author of (SE/WHA) has for decades found himself favoring nuclear energy" but lamely offers that he "can show many things that incline [him] to believe that this is the case"; which he proceeds not to do, nevertheless scolding MacKay for not having included a disclaimer about this alleged, unproven bias in his "volume that holds itself out as objective".

I have a copy of the September 2010 re-printing of the book which I assume is the same as the original 2009 edition. Hickey's piece is dated August 2010, so I think we are both referring to the same work. The reader will have to judge for themself but I don't see any bias towards any particular technology (except, as MacKay confesses, arithmetic) in his work, and the book is actually quite pessimistic about nuclear power, assessing that the amount of energy available from nuclear fuel would only provide a sustainable world energy supply using "two technologies that are respectively scarcely-developed and unfashionable: ocean extraction of uranium, and fast breeder reactors". And on safety he is positively scathing of the dismal record of the UK's reprocessing plant at Sellafield. This can only be described, as Hickey does, as being "gung-ho for fission" by comparison with the most rabid anti-nuke ideologue.

Hickey cites an article by Professor Chris Rhodes quoting MacKay as saying shortly after being appointed "U.K. government's chief scientific advisor" (and after he had published his book) that "we should go for nuclear to avert climate change" whilst acknowledging that it was "a short-term solution". (Rhodes cited a Sunday Times article [paywalled, but this article seems to quote it] to which MacKay responded in a comment on Chris' blog as saying that it was "what the Sunday Times made up about me", and on the SEWTHA website MacKay comments "I never said those words! What I said, and have said in all talks for the last year, is that we must choose a plan that adds up. In the talk I showed Plan M, which illustrates an energy mix that is roughly one third domestic renewables, one third imported renewables, and one third nuclear, with a bit of "clean" coal.".) It may be that as a result of his work researching his book David MacKay formed the opinion that nuclear power was worth using to avert climate change. It may be that he held that opinion before writing the book. It seems that he is also in favour of heat pumps, insulation, bicycles and warm woollen clothing: should he have disclosed these opinions in his book? But opinions are not biases and in science, particularly, one can be inclined towards a particular opinion but still be able to understand and convey the arguments for and against it, and those for and against competing points of view.

MacKay has set out very transparently how he has worked out the figures he presents in his book and shown the sources he derives them from. Anybody with primary-school numeracy and access to the internet can check his workings-out and sources for themselves, and challenge them if they think they're wrong. His book enables ordinary citizens to engage with the science of our energy supplies and demands rather than "accepting the mandates of our betters". Hickey acknowledges this where it suits him: "The beginning of (SE/WHA) proffers perhaps the most accessible, down-to-earth presentation about energy and power that I have read. It is positively brilliant about how we should consider things in regard to these matters" but then goes on (with another gratuitous allegation of bias en passant) to say that MacKay then gives us "200 pages of 'facts' and math that add up to nuclear". He doesn't say which these 200 pages are but, assuming that he's not claiming that the references, Bibliography and Index are part of this pro-nuclear tendency, they could be pages 144 to 343 (in Hickey's and my 2009-2010 edition), which would cut out most of Chapter 21 on "Smarter Heating", all of Ch 22 ("Efficient Electricity Use") and onwards to the end of the book.

Hickey waxes philosophical about how "Facts relating to any complex process are never 'just facts,' and an understanding of how data and evidence operate is critical to valid and reliable thinking generally, and especially to any potential for citizen input into policy" and claims in classic post-modern cultural-relativist style that "Neither science nor scientists are 'objective' in any useful sense of the word". Frankly this is the posturing of the pseudoscientist who doesn't like the facts as they turn out to be. Science and scientists strive for objectivity and, while it and they are never perfect, they get close enough to be demonstrably useful, as anyone who uses the internet, telephones, cars, aeroplanes, central heating, electricity, medicine or eats farmed foods demonstrates. Whatever MacKay thinks personally he does not rule out non-nuclear ways of acheiving sustainable energy, either in his book or in the modelling tool for UK energy he has been instrumental in developing at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the more recent and ambitious Global calculator; all of which enable the informed "citizen input into policy" that Jim Hickie extols.

Having railed against MacKay's exhortation to prefer arithmetic to wishful thinking and accused him of promoting a pro-nuclear bias Hickie then asserts, without any apparent sense of irony, that "We too must fight for math and science over fantasy, however; we too must agree that an objective rather than an adjectival argumentation is superior. This requires that citizens either 'skill-up' to participate and play a leadership role or let the 'experts' reach the conclusions that they have already reached. Dr. Mackay's work makes this clear. If people cannot manifest policy alternatives to nuclear, then that approach will transpire." Precisely: Hickey seems so preoccupied by his nuclear-bias thesis that he has missed that this is what MacKay is banging on about this throughout the book; if you want a particular energy policy, whether it's anti-nuclear, anti-wind-turbines-in-your-back-yard, pro-desert-solar, or whatever, then skill-up (using the tools he has helpfully provided) and show how it adds up. Maybe instead of spending time on his pseudo-intellectual ad-hominem attack on David MacKay, Jim Hickey could have devised his own plan (that adds up, of course) for a sustainable energy future and shared that with us.

Comments? email them to me. Please say if you'd prefer me not to publish them.

Postscript: David MacKay died on 14th April 2016, a few days short of his 49th birthday. I have written a piece about him here

PPS: More recently I came across another attack on MacKay's intellectual integrity by a Dr Chris Vernon. I have responded to it here