Beware the Green Energy Bias

Don't trust findings that contradict your beliefs (and preferences), but also, don't trust findings that confirm them, either.

By + More

Michael Lynch is the president and director of global petroleum service at Strategic Energy & Economic Research.

One of my favorite movie scenes is Jack Nicholson in Batman saying, "Who do you trust? Me? I'm giving away free money." He then proceeds to gas the onlookers. 

This always comes to mind when energy advocates confidently, even triumphantly, point to studies that support their viewpoint, as Carol Browner's blog post "India’s Enormous Cleantech Opportunity" did with a recent Wind Energy Council study that argues, surprise, in favor of wind power—if aggressive policies are employed. (Read: subsidies needed.) Even better, she links to a "credible source" which turns out to be a solar energy consultancy

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should the Government Invest in Green Energy?]

Anyone who has worked in policy analysis knows that all studies have to be taken with enough salt to kill a Buddhist, but also that advocates nearly always accept conclusions that confirm their own biases without questioning. Conservatives tend to promote industry studies, liberals embrace environmental organizations' analysis, and both will slam the other for bias. 

The reality, naturally, is that we are all biased and no one's work should be accepted without scrutiny. But policy decisions should not be made on the basis of our biases, especially where they conflict with reasoned, valid analysis. Don't believe me? Well, the most extreme example was a case of research results by Nazi scientists that was ignored because of its source: that cigarette smoking causes cancer. 

As Michael Shermer, founding publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer says, it is important not to be cynical, but to be skeptical. Don't trust findings that contradict your beliefs (and preferences), but also, don't trust findings that confirm them, either. As Reagan said, trust but verify.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Those promoting alternative and renewable energies should try to display the same skepticism towards reports from renewable companies that they do towards oil industry studies, just as oil industry analysts are foolish to believe unconditionally any research that the oil industry produces. 

But the Browner argument about India becoming a "cleantech" powerhouse is based on a failed premise, namely that India is more concerned with clean than cheap energy. True, the renewable industry was not the first to argue for clean but expensive electricity. That honor goes to Enron, which promoted a large-scale power plant that would rely on liquefied natural gas, one of the more costly fuels historically. The reality is that India's electrical system is ill-equipped to deal with large-scale, variable output from solar and wind plants, let alone cope politically with one of the most expensive power sources currently available.

Renewable energy proponents have a tendency to embrace a variety of arguments to support increased deployment of currently uncompetitive technologies, including pointing to their promotion in rising economic powerhouses like China and India. Instead, they should focus on efforts to improve the technologies, not make them appear attractive by unskeptical acceptance of promoters’ claims.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on gas prices.
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: An insider's guide to politics and policy.
  • Follow the U.S. News On Energy blog on Twitter.