Mark Jacobson and the Legalistic Scientific Method


There are a lot of analogies that can be drawn between science and law. They both have their respective (if not respectable) practitioners, scientists and lawyers. Scientists present their work to scientific journals, where it is evaluated, usually with a process called peer review, and hopefully becomes science. Peer review is not the only method for evaluation. It can also be based on recommendations and reputations. Nobel prize winning physicist, Luis Alvarez (Richard Muller’s mentor), actually preferred it that way. Lawyers represent their client and make their case, either to a judge for arbitration or to their own lowbrow form of peer review: trial by jury. Neither science nor legal judgments are immune from further evaluation. Science is subject to falsification. Legal judgments are subject to appeals, higher courts and ultimately, voters (even Coup d’état, annexation or revolution).

Scientists make hypotheses and use the previously published science to make predictions and design experiments that will yield predicted results. A lawyer will try to argue that the current body of law and precedent supports his client’s case. Currently, science has a lot of prestige. Everybody likes to talk about how pro-science they are. Lawyers, however, are thought of as a necessary evil. A good way to evaluate lawyers is to check their teeth to make sure they have extra rows of them. It all boils down to: scientists demonstrate their hypotheses, while lawyers do whatever they can get away with to advance their client’s case. If you can combine those two areas, you have something pretty powerful.

Dr. Mark Zachary Jacobson is well poised to take advantage of this. He is a Stanford professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Sciences. He is also an atmospheric computer modeler who has created his own models from scratch. He’s written his own textbook, Fundamentals of Atmospheric Modeling. You can use Google to find lots of sites like this, where you can read from it for free. From my limited knowledge of the various topics, it looks very competent and comprehensive, even clear. He’s written an impressive amount of scientific papers on the subject, including some influential ones on black carbon. He’s expressed concern about the air pollution caused by fossil fuels.

With his considerable cognitive physique and endurance, he has now taken on the world’s fossil fuel energy infrastructure. He wants to replace all fossil fuels with wind, water and solar. Also for some reason, he really has it in for nuclear power. To accomplish his new goals he’s moved from the cut and dried discreteness of computer coding to the fuzzier realm of economic projection. His methods have shifted from the empirical and experimental to the rhetorical. He’s sort of moved from science to public relations. He cuts an impressive figure as a tall, lanky former professional tennis player. He has just a trace of gawkiness to impart a vibe of Aspergers-like focus. To a renewable energy advocate, he’s a dreamy public relations dream. The skills for this new task tend to be more those of the lawyer than of the scientist.

Jacobson first came to the public’s attention when he published a plan to power the world completely on wind, water and solar in Scientific American. Then he did a plan for the state of New York, which I often deride for having 387 100MW concentrating solar plants for that sunny state. Then he did plans for all 50 states and 139 countries. He had a TED debate with Stuart Brand over nuclear power that has almost 400,000 hits on YouTube:

He appeared on Letterman:

Then he did a paper for the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that started winning awards. He’s attracted a following of celebrities and politicians, most notably Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DeCaprio, Andrew Cuomo and Bernie Sanders.

If you read some of this work or watch the videos, you’ll see repeated use of the word “clean”, which seems a bit vague and subjective for use as a scientific adjective. You’ll find “low-cost” sprinkled throughout a followup to his PNAS paper. In the Letterman interview, you hear “science based” a lot. In his pinned tweet, he describes links to three of his papers as “The scientific bases for all U.S. state laws and proposed laws to go to 100% renewable, clean, 0-C, and/or 0-emissions & the #GreenNewDeal”.

He’s known for pushing the arguments for his vision as far as he can, and maybe then some. He’s famous for including smoke from an incinerated nuked city in his carbon footprint for nuclear power. He seems blind to arguments from the other side. In fact he seems particularly blind to what I consider to be the biggest argument against his plans, namely his ridiculously absurd numerical results. He even unwittingly tabulates them for us in nice tidy charts. On page 112 of this paper (it’s near the top—the PDF contains several paged collations), there’s a chart with a column titled “Number of New Plants or Devices Needed for 139 Countries”. It shows the gargantuan numbers of wind turbines (1,580,000 onshore, 935,000 offshore), PV roofs (1,480,000,000 residential, 75.000,000 commercial), solar PV plants (251,000), utility CSP plants (21,000) and more. There’s another column titled “Percent Nameplate Capacity Already Installed 2015” that conspicuously draws attention to how much is NOT installed and will have to be in the 20 or so years that don’t give us enough time to install a few thousand nuclear plants. Onshore wind is the only one of my examples to break single digits at 5.04%. Of course, being five years old, by now they should have shared in half of advances made by the examples shown in the movie, Planet of the Humans.

After Mark Jacobson started getting all this attention lavished on him and influencing energy policy, especially on the state level, other scientists started to take notice and give his work a critical look. A group of fairly influential scientists under lead author Chris Clack wrote a response paper to Jacobson’s PNAS paper. Jacobson was outraged and dialed things up from PR to legal action. He filed what is probably one of the dumbest lawsuits ever attempted in the history of American juris-imprudence. The only person of note that I know of to support him was Brandon Shollenberger and he’s not all that notable. He wrote a blog post that generated 565 comments. He told me he thought some of Jacobson’s work sounded implausible. He was defending the suit on some semantic argument way above my comprehension pay grade.

Jacobson later quietly dropped his suit. He’s just been ordered to pay Chris Clack’s legal fees. Robert Bryce broke the story here. I expect Jacobson to take it in stride and keep soldiering on.

Update:  I have made a slight error. Onshore wind is not the only one of my examples to make it to a single digit percentage. Commercial (/Government) PV roofs made it to 1.16%. This is a rather casual treatment and this is a trivial error, so I don’t have large regrets.


  1. “PV roofs (1,480,000,000 residential, 75.000,000 commercial)”
    For 7.8 billion world population, that is a roof top PV for every 5 people. Someone is going to have to build a lot of new residences for the folks that now live in apartment buildings or have extended families under one roof.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kakatoa, thanks for that. I hadn’t seen it. From the Wikipedia Crescent Dunes entry linked to in your comment:

    … The plant suffered several technical problems, and substantially missed its intended 50% capacity factor, only achieving about a 20% capacity factor in 2018, resulting in lawsuits and changes of control. …

    A lot of this green energy tech is unproven and very speculative.


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