Prove it!

When I was a small boy, if a schoolmate made a statement with which another disagreed, the accepted rejoinder was “Prove it!”

Later on, having discovered an interest in science, I learned that this is an appropriate response to any theory.

“Prove it.”

Today, however, theories abound, proofs are as scarce as hens’ teeth, and many scientists, let alone laymen, politicians, media commentators and movie stars, are utterly disinterested in an evenhanded debate about any notion that suits their fancies. Thus, we live in a nation – increasingly, a world – of perpetual alarmism.

“Concerned” scientists, media gurus and self-important movie stars have done a remarkable job of peddling alarmism since the 1970s, banding together to undermine the credibility of anyone who disagrees with them. Hardly anyone insists that they “prove it” when they tell us the sky is falling. If they can’t, they deserve the fate of Henny-Penny and her friends. If you’re of a pre-Sesame Street era, you remember them. We need someone to play the Foxy-Loxy role.

A few selected examples:

The gloom-and-doom Henny-Pennys continue to preach about declining prosperity at home and abroad. Newspaper reporters and television anchors take up the cry with enthusiasm and the general public buys into it. Strange, then, that the nations of the world are so prosperous that they are paying back International Monetary Fund loans so rapidly that the IMF is finding it difficult to justify its own enormous cost.

Politicians and media wonks insist that greedy oil company profiteering is behind the rising cost of fuel, but their only evidence is the huge total profit numbers.

Let me explain.

The total profit is huge because oil companies and, consequently, their incomes are huge. However, their profit per dollar of income is quite ordinary.

If you own a typical American business, your pre-tax profit last year probably was around the U.S. average of 5.6%. The petroleum industry’s average was 5.9%. Your bank, on the other hand, kept an impressive 17.7%, pharmaceutical companies averaged 16.7% and your friendly real estate broker made 11.2%. These figures came from “Business Week” magazine but are backed up by other sources.

While Henny-Penny is squawking that we’re running out of petroleum, she’s also pushing ethanol and hydrogen as “cheap and available” substitutes. Ethanol and hydrogen will give us independence from foreign oil and remove any necessity for drilling in America or off its shores, the starry-eyed insist – but can’t prove it.

I have a few questions for them, and I won’t settle for vague “we’ll figure it out before it becomes a problem” answers.

Let’s start with hydrogen. To separate hydrogen from water or anything else requires energy, usually electricity but other sources are possible. There are solar concentrators but, like solar electricity, commercial operations would cover vast land areas, making them utterly barren, and that’s not environmentally friendly. There is nuclear thermo-chemical water-splitting, but anything nuclear – regardless of how efficient – raises red flags among the greens. What’s left is electricity produced from hydrocarbons, hydropower, perhaps tidal flow, and wind. However you do it, producing commercial hydrogen still requires more energy than that nice, “clean” stuff yields, so somewhere along the line there will be a net energy loss and pollution of some sort from the energy source.

Mention these and other important concerns to the greenies and they’ll give you some variation on the Scarlett O’Hara philosophy: “We’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Ethanol has some interesting – and seldom-addressed – problems of its own.

Most of it comes from corn. Corn comes from farms. Farmland is vanishing. In addition, you can’t single-crop corn, growing it year after year in the same soil, so you need enough acreage for alternate crops. Then, too, corn used for fuel can’t be used for food, so what happens to corn flakes, corn oil and chicken feed, among other current uses for the crop?

More to the point, ethanol produces less energy per unit than gasoline, diesel oil or Jet-A. A recent study at the University of North Dakota found that “brake specific fuel consumption with AGE-85 (avgas that’s 85% ethanol) was 48% higher than with aviation gasoline.” Whoa! I’m going to burn half again as much fuel at the same or higher price, in an engine that needs modifications to use the stuff, to decrease our dependence on foreign oil? If that makes sense to you I have a bridge I’ll sell you. You’d have to be very green, indeed, to find that acceptable.

Alcohol – ethanol is an alcohol – is notoriously hygroscopic. Unlike gasoline or Jet-A, it absorbs water. You won’t find water in your tank sump, your engine will find it in the fuel. Happy thought, at icy-cold altitudes. Unless its proponents can prove the value of ethanol, maybe we’d better stay with 100LL.

I’m growing weary of theories being widely accepted as fact. I’m thoroughly irked by professional alarmists who demonize anyone who questions their version of orthodoxy. Ask MIT’s Richard Lindzen, who recently raised a public alarm of his own, pointing out how such intimidation is stifling serious scientific debate.

Whether it’s alternative fuels, global warming, political hypocrisy or presumptuous dismissal by Airbus of its A380 wing failure more than 3% shy of its static ultimate load (or any other criticism of its products), I’d like a return to civil, and strictly scientific, debate rather than today’s rampant rudeness toward anyone questioning a “politically correct” theory.

A theory, by definition, is “speculation…a hypothesis; a guess…a plausible principle offered to explain phenomena.” Not proven or established as a principle or law; just a hypothesis.

I want the facts, please.

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