The April 14 commentary "Experts don't always know best" makes some important points but skates over a couple that are key in who should make decisions in the science/policy arena.
First, despite the frailties raised by the writer, Cory Franklin — that we are all human and hence biased — the scientific process works because it recognizes them. It is not just the requirement that science is based on evidence carefully collected under controlled conditions that matters but that the evidence has to be repeatable in a way that convinces the community of scientists. This is why science delivers so spectacularly, like in identifying causes, treatments and vaccines in the pandemic.
Second, with complex policy problems, science gives options, not decisions — for example, public health measures for COVID and the consequent infection and death rates. Which is acceptable in a democracy ought to relate to the preferences of those affected. There is a temptation to go with the expert judgments but, as Franklin argues, these may not square with what the public wants, and science becomes politicized. Capturing public preferences is challenging given the cloud of complexities and misinformation surrounding most public policy decisions. One option is to defer to elected officials to represent the public view. But more participation is likely to lead to more ownership, and IT provides new opportunities (e.g., in crowdsourcing) that are worth exploring.
So: Rely on science as a sound basis for policymaking, be suspicious of experts who advocate solutions as if they are mandated by the science, and find better ways of sounding out what the public wants.
Peter Calow, Minneapolis
Franklin's interesting exposition raises lots of thoughts. Of course, I'm no expert. However ...
First of all, Franklin reminds us that it's always worthwhile to have a certain amount of skepticism. Agreed. The experts quickly voiced concern when former President Donald Trump trumpeted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine for COVID — as an example. But then, one might ask, what qualifies a person as an "expert"?
Franklin says we get into trouble when we allocate policymaking to the experts. Yes and no. If, for instance, 95% of climate experts say the planet is in danger, and they protest freewheeling use of fossil fuel, we better take heed when we craft policy. On the other hand, Franklin seems to endorse COVID public health policy input from economic experts ("others like economists and business leaders had to be consulted"). I would argue that with nearly 1 million COVID deaths in the U.S. and the worst COVID mortality rates of all developed countries (per the New York Times), business leaders have no business weighing in on this life-or-death matter.
Finally, Franklin stirs up Minnesota pride by citing Bob Dylan's lyric, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." I don't know if Franklin submitted the manuscript for his piece to our man Dylan for review. But if he did, I suspect Dylan probably commented: "Yes. But if the weatherman warns that a wind is heading your way and that your house and life are in danger, and all his weatherman colleagues agree, you better listen to their advice!"
Of course, I don't know for sure. I'm not an expert.
Richard Masur, Minneapolis
Its costs must be fairly weighed
"The case against nuclear energy is still powerful" (Opinion Exchange, April 14) gives arguments (not reasons) for not building fission nuclear power plants while avoiding the fact that other courses for carbon-free energy also have issues.
One reason cited was that no acceptable storage locations have been found for radioactive wastes. That doesn't mean there aren't any; it just means we haven't tried very hard. Meanwhile, production of energy by combustion of fossil fuels in the U.S. results in the addition of 1.71 billion tons of CO2 to our atmosphere every year. CO2 isn't as scary as radioactive waste because it's familiar; there are CO2 bubbles in our soft drinks. But climate change is proving to be both toxic and expensive, and we have no way of fixing it. We can't just bury it deep.
Another reason cited was that nuclear power plants have accidents. Accidents also happen with fossil fuels, like the incident with the Exxon Valdez. Trains transporting coal and oil derail and spill, endangering the communities and cities that they pass through on their journeys.
The threat of terrorism also isn't unique to nuclear power plants. The World Trade Center was not a power plant.
Licensing of nuclear power plants is difficult due to opposition by some. That's true of almost anything, as Enbridge can attest.
Building these plants is expensive, but it is possible. The cost of climate change will be far greater, and it cannot be reversed. We can't control climate, but we can choose to limit the damage we might be doing.
As we replace our fuel-powered vehicles with electric, the electricity used to recharge their batteries comes from our power grid. That energy presently comes mostly from fossil-fueled power plants, so it is not carbon neutral. Progress is being made with power generation from wind and solar, but they are long-term solutions. Growth in grid capacity due to solar and wind will not keep up with growth in power consumption due to electric vehicles until more technology is developed.
Nuclear power is not a long-term solution because it needs exhaustible resources and produces toxic waste, the same as fossil-fuel sources. But it can be a near-carbon-neutral stopgap measure to meet our energy needs that will grow explosively if we move to electric vehicles, while we develop the technology to eventually be otherwise energy-sufficient.
Don Foreman, Fridley
The writer is a retired senior scientist and engineer.
Times do change. Think of how computing and networking has changed in the last four decades — it has changed the world and how we live. We'll get a look at that kind of advance in nuclear plant design when a Wyoming coal generation plant replacement that's now underway is complete (see terrapower.com).
Shifting to electrical power for vehicles, home heating, etc., has to be accompanied by a shift away from fossil fuels as the source of that electrical power. Electric power in the U.S. is still 61% fossil-fueled. Half of our carbon-free power is currently supplied by nuclear power. Wind and solar have grown by a huge amount in the last several decades but are still struggling to make a dent in the problem. We are making frighteningly slow progress and running out of decades to eliminate carbon from our power diet.
If nuclear waste disposal/storage is a problem, it would have to be considered a small and solvable problem (as Finland has demonstrated) in comparison to an Earth literally on fire and coastal populations and infrastructure inundated with higher sea levels and ravaged by stronger and more frequent storms. This country's worst nuclear accident at Three Mile Island was about as bad as a nuclear accident can get. It demonstrated the high financial cost (about $1 billion) of such an incident, but not a single death can be attributed to that event, and its cost was less than one of the 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the U.S. in 2021 alone.
Radiation exposure has always existed for life on Earth, so the idea that any level above zero is unacceptable is naive and impossible. The success and safety history of our nuclear power generation and nuclear naval fleet is impressive and will get even better as technology advances. A wider view of the trade-offs needed to avert climate catastrophe, including nuclear development, has to be considered in the limited amount of time we have remaining to save ourselves.
Marlon Gunderson, Lake Elmo