The Poverty of Pseudo-Science

Running amok with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.


The Poverty of Power, by Barry Commoner, New York: Knopf, 1976, 314 pp., $10

Thermodynamics is the science of energy conversion to and from heat, and in The Poverty of Power Professor Barry Commoner uses it for a grandiose analysis concluding that America's energy woes are due to the capitalist system, necessitating a socialist revolution.

If one were to judge the book by the many long reviews it has been given, one might conclude that the book is scientifically valuable, even though economically worthless. That would be doing Commoner a grave injustice, however, for the book is scientifically worthless as well.


Its importance, apart from the ecstasy with which it has been welcomed by the mass media, lies in the fact that it is a milestone in the evolution of ideological science. Ideologically biased versions of the fuzzier sciences, such as sociology or economics, have been with us for some time; in the life sciences, one-sided or outright faked evidence has been used for the sake of an ideology by the late Lysenko and, more recently, by the sham-environmentalists. But to pervert the laws and quantitative measurements of the hard sciences into ideological arguments is something last seen in the Hitler-Stalin era.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics (or, rather, its consequences) deals with the special place occupied by heat among the various forms of energy. In any energy conversion from one form to another, some energy is irretrievably lost as heat that cannot be converted back again. Commoner's iron logic deducing the desirability of socialism from thermodynamics misinterprets the Second Law, uses it as a universal fetish, categorizes nonthermal forms of energy by mysteriously adjudicated temperatures, invokes false evidence, and uses double standards for various forms of energy. Ergo, the collapse of capitalism is inevitable.

Misinterpreting the Second Law is the least of Commoner's sins. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to explain mathematically formulated laws in interesting, readable prose without sacrificing some of their accuracy and perhaps even introducing a minor error for the sake of simplicity. But what is the excuse for repeatedly stating that the thermodynamic efficiency is affected only by the difference in the temperatures of the input and output energies of a heat engine? It isn't; it also depends on where that difference lies on the temperature scale. And the point is not minor, for it leads the author into further confusion.


Like good astrology, the book is spiced with heavy doses of truth. It is, for example, quite true that it is more efficient to heat a home with a heat pump rather than an oil furnace. But the reason its use is not widespread is not "that we have failed to use thermodynamics to ask the right questions." It is that government price fixing has kept the price of oil so low that consumers have been unwilling to pay the capital cost of a heat pump, even if its operation is cheaper. If this were not so, the entrepreneurs whom Commoner so despises could have made a profit by offering a cheaper way of heating, and consumers would have reached for it with both hands without even knowing what entropy or enthalpy is about.

It is also true that oil used as a fuel for the diesel engine of a heat pump is more efficiently used than when burnt for its heating value. But if one wants to make the Second Law the supreme fetish for energy management, why stop there? There is an engine superior in thermodynamic efficiency to the diesel engine, and it ought to be known to a biologist: the human body. Untrue to his false ideals, Commoner has overlooked the heat pump driven by a treadmill.

The idea that science and technology are ends in themselves without regard to their social purpose is one that is not held by any reputable scientist or engineer; it is merely an accusation and illusion dear to the heart of every victim of technophobia, a state of mind that Commoner helped to engender with his Science and Survival (1966). As any sane engineer knows, a workable design is a compromise that has been reduced from its scientific optimum by social and economic considerations; but this is quite unknown to the social engineers who, like Commoner, pick up a single scientific law to run amok with it—and into the wrong alley at that.

To minimize thermal losses in electrical transmission lines, for example, the conductors should have the smallest possible resistance. Why, then, are the millions of miles of transmission lines not made of solid silver? Perhaps even Commoner knows the answer.

Apart from liberal doses of half-truths, the book is also full of false and nonsensical statements.

It is nonsensical to associate electricity with a high temperature; it can be generated by the cold water of a hydroelectric dam.

Transmission of electric power is inevitably accompanied by heating losses, but neither are the heat engines transporting fuel exempt from the laws of thermodynamics, as Commoner seems to imply. The decision whether to build a power plant at a mine mouth or near the consumer load—that is, whether to transmit electricity or transport coal—is quite often an agonizing one; it is not made on the basis of the Second Law and could go either way if it were.


A thermodynamically highly efficient way of generating and transporting energy, not yet in use, is to breed nuclear fuel, use its heat to produce hydrogen from water, and then transport liquid hydrogen for thousands of miles (rather than the hundreds of miles for which electricity transmission is relatively efficient). It is a method that would doubtlessly be condemned by Commoner, who leaves no superstition unrepeated in opposing nuclear power. Should this method begin to replace electric transmission in two or three decades, it will be not, because of its thermodynamic efficiency, but because of its economic advantage and necessity.

The trend in energy supply over the last two centuries has not only been one of ever higher amounts but also of ever higher concentration of the conversion units and ever longer transmission lines. The breeder-hydrogen system would be among those to follow this trend, and it will take more than Commoner and similar dreamers to return to feudal conditions, when everybody produced his own energy just as he produced his own shoes.

The statement that nuclear reactors have a particularly low Carnot efficiency is one of many that is false. The average light-water reactor has an efficiency very close to the average coal-fired plant; the most efficient light-water reactors have an efficiency within two percentage points of the most efficient coal-fired plants; and the world record in efficiency for thermal electricity generation is held by the French Phenix, a plutonium breeder.

False is the statement on nuclear reactor accidents: "There is probably only one other existing man-made device which has the physical capability of causing such a disaster (with massive loss of life) in a single event." Quite apart from the difference in probabilities by several orders, the mere consequences of man-made devices can be far more terrible, even in the field of electric power generation. There are several dams in the United Stastes that could not only burst with a far higher probability but could each kill more than 100,000 people at a time.

The double standards used throughout this catechism are humorous. "Unfortunately, the realities of the modern world have encumbered the word ["radiation"] with the misleading idea that radiation is invariably dangerous and destructive. In the technical sense, the term includes not only dangerous X-rays and nuclear radioactivity, but also the warmth of a hot stove," says Commoner in plugging solar power and knocking nuclear, which he always associates with bombs. Let him look at bombs, then: in the two Japanese explosions, only a very small fraction of the victims died of radiation sickness; the vast majority were killed by blast and heat, the latter in precisely the same form as "the warmth radiated by a hot stove" (infrared).


It is an unchallenging task to recount the technical falsehoods with which the book abounds; it is hoped that enough have been mentioned to make it clear that it is scientifically worthless. In the field of ideology and economics, it is better only in the sense that it does not masquerade under false colors. At least the reader is spared the lip service to free enterprise quite often found in this type of book. "Economists and other students of capitalism," writes Commoner, "will recognize that the basic ideas I have discussed in this [final] chapter are among those first put forward by Karl Marx." And contemporary environmentalism seems to have vindicated Marxism: "An explanation of why Marx's prediction [of the collapse of capitalism] failed to materialize—that is, until now—emerges from the improved understanding of economic processes that is one product of the recent concern with the environment." The whole book is, in fact, a clumsy attempt to make science a handmaiden of socialist propaganda; it would be tedious and trivial to show that Commoner's pseudo-economics is no better than his pseudoscience.

There is only one point that makes this tome interesting, and that is the widespread and obsequious adulation with which it has been welcomed by the major newspapers and periodicals. That it should be extolled by George Wald ("Masterful") and The Village Voice ("Should be required reading") merely confirms the book's debility; but the ecstasy was almost universal. "Probably the best book around on the overall shape of our society" (Christian Science Monitor); "most important work on energy and economics of the decade (Library Journal); "cannot have too many readers" (Newsweek); "a closely reasoned, adult primer on energy" (Time); "monumentally important" (Chicago Daily News); "by far the best treatment of energy" (Washington Post); and so forth.

The supposedly capitalist spokesmen were equally exuberant. Business Week (5/31/76) printed a one-and-a-half page review under the headline "Tolling the Bell for Capitalism," lauding the book with masochistic fervor. "Police should hand out summonses for infractions of the Second Law at least as frequently as they do for traffic violations," wrote its energy editor; and as if that were not enough to characterize him, the reader is told that he found thermodynamics a fascinating subject in engineering school but never quite understood the Second Law until he read Commoner's book. It remains for Business Week's industrial editor to reveal that he never quite understood the hazards of food toxins until he read Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Why is it that those who would have most to lose by Commoner's virulent statism are its most fervent altar boys? Why is the systematic corporation baiting of the TV networks financed by the advertising of the big corporations? Why are large sections of the academic community bent on destroying the system that elevated them to their present influential and unfettered position? Why do the media use the freedom of the press to censor news unfavorable to regimes that have reduced the press to an instrument of oppression? How can large sections of the upper middle class be brainwashed into ignoring safety and environmental protection on the grounds of safety and environmental protection? What are the forces that drive intellectuals, professional men, and business executives to weave the rope that will hang them? Why does Atlas, far from shrugging, beg to be kicked harder?

The deeper reasons of the epidemic of self-deception are not easy to fathom. For friends of economic and political liberty, the real challenge lies in fully understanding those reasons; Commoner's thermodynamic abracadabra is merely a symptom of the disease.

A professor at the University of Colorado, Dr. Beckmann is the author of several books—most recently, of The Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear. He is publisher of the lively monthly newsletter Access to Energy (Box 2298, Boulder, CO 80306).