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Science vs Journalism

Some years ago I worked with a very astute social scientist (you know who you are!) who had worked in journalism and in academia and she made a number of observations about the difference between writing for the two. The recent article in Fast Company (http://www.fastcompany.com/1285154/top-scientist-slams-electric-vehicles-misses-mark) contrasts markedly with Research Fortnightly’s article (http://www.rsc.org/images/ResearchFortnight_tcm18-152803.pdf) which it is critical of.
As my friend contended the difference between writing science and writing journalism is rigour. In science you need to be thorough, carefully validate your arguments, check your facts and things don’t neatly fit you are obligated to mention the bits that don’t fit and why they do / do not fit. Journalism has much more freedom. In particular, opinion pieces are just that.

So examining the electric car articles we find the article appearing in research fortnightly prints out that on a power efficiency basis from fossil fuel powered power stations that after counting in power system losses electric vehicles aren’t really more efficient than fossil fuel powered vehicles. The author, Richard Pike, carefully works through the numbers and suggests that justifying subsidies for this type of vehicle on green house bass savings from their tail pipes is actually hard when their real production of gasses is considered.

If we contrast this with the fast company article the author Kit Eaton notes that Pike has not considered the distribution costs of the petrol station network. At this point he has an “Ah Ha” moment and proceeds to discount all the detailed analysis. It should be pointed out that with a few seconds thought you can figure out that the distribution costs in the petrol based network while not exactly negligible aren’t high1. Eaton then wanders off into speculating on clean energy - while ignoring the greenhouse contribution of building those sources of energy.

The point of Eaton’s article comes in the last line: “By highlighting the supposed problems of EVs Pike is detracting from the main point: We should stop using petrol, and coal and oil in power stations, and get EV cars on the road as soon as possible.” Unfortunately, no matter how much I agree with this sentiment, Eaton has not justified this position by scientific argument in his article and has merely cast doubt over a well researched piece of work to provide a platform to express what is, based on this article, only his opinion.

These two articles illustrate the key difference between the rigour of science - a carefully thought out and justified article operating within a narrow topic - versus a more journalistic endeavour which although it raises issues (in this case they turned out to be more of a straw man than reality - but I will give the journalist the benefit of the doubt), it is not confined by what the journalist can demonstrate or prove.

The cold hard truth about science (and why it is hard to be a good scientist) is that if the facts don’t support your position you have to change your mind. Opinion pieces are not quite so constrained.



1. How much fuel does a semitrailer consume to do a delivery?

Some back of the envelope calculations show:

28kl - 45kl with 34kl typical (http://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20071001081735AA0LKHb)

30l - 35l / 100km with 40t on the back (“Even in normal traffic, the 40 tonne trailer/tractor combination performs significantly better, boasting fuel consumption figures between 30 and 35 litreshttp://www.carpictures.com/vehicle/08F9F313815993/Mercedes-Benz-World-s-Most-Fuel-Efficient-Semi-2008)

Gives a ratio of 35 / 34000 or .1% under optimal conditions for 100km delivery radius.

More realistic numbers might bring us closer to 1% still a very small overhead.

Electrical overheads for pumping fuel from storage and lighting and powering stations?

Would need to be accounted for.