Dr Chris Vernon's attack on David MacKay

"Fudges the Figures in Favour of Nuclear Power"

I have responded to Jim Hickey's attack on David MacKay's Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air. More recently I learned that back in 2011 Dr Chris Vernon, a physics graduate who retrained as glaciologist and climate scientist, has attacked Mackay, claiming that he "Fudges the Figures in Favour of Nuclear Power". Unlike Hickey, and like MacKay, Vernon is a scientist. In his blog article Vernon says he attended a lecture in which MacKay talked about the 2050 Pathways model he was working on at DECC in his role as Chief Scientific Advisor there, and about the density of different energy sources,.

MacKay's energy density demand and supply graph

I don't know if David MacKay invented this method he used to graphically represent the density of energy demand for different countries and relate it to the density of energy supplies of different power sources (no doubt it was inspired by Edward Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information which informed so much of SEWTHA), but he can fairly be credited with popularising it. It gives an elegant visualisation of the fundamental physical constraints to particular energy supply technologies; for instance it shows that the UK simply could not physically produce enough energy to supply its entire needs through energy crops alone because we consume much more energy per square kilometre than such crops can yield.

Dr Vernon didn't seem to "get" this from MacKay's talk. Possibly this was the gist of the talk and MacKay didn't communicate clearly that there are umpteen other factors to consider in comparing different energy sources: factors he discusses in greater depth in his book. Maybe Vernon didn't know about MacKay's book? Maybe MacKay forgot to mention it at the talk? Yet in a discussion in the comments on his blog Vernon refers explicitly to the book,

Both in his blog piece and in the comments Vernon persists in mis-understanding energy density - a purely physical constraint - and mis-representing it as being MacKay's sole criterion for comparing energy sources (specifically for comparing wind with nuclear). Yet it is abundantly clear both from his book and from talks available on YouTube etc that MacKay uses this as merely one tool in evaluating different sources. And Vernon shows no signs of having actually asked MacKay for clarification of his meaning but has simply launched into print with an allegation of gross intellectual dishonesty against MacKay: that he "Fudges the Figures in Favour of Nuclear Power".

Chris Vernon doesn't seem, from his other writings, to be an anti-nuclear ideologue, but neither has he either retracted or amended his piece or added a disclaimer. And it is used as ammunition by anti-nuclear campaigners to attempt to discredit MacKay. I hope Dr Vernon will consider making amends.

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

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