Has PR trumped Science at MIT ?
Suspected anomalies discovered in article published at MIT News :
The ongoing, yet destructively repressed and polarized, debates between so called Climate Skeptics (and their ilk) VS. the popular proponents of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) may have cooled slightly in the post-Copenhagen lull. But questions around the scope of Scientific Method employed in determining AGW, are only now beginning to rise to the forefront of Public Consciousness.
The primary question has been to wonder if it’s indeed possible for ‘pure science’ (at least at the educational research level) to be bent or distorted in order to serve pre-ordained objectives.
So can science be bent around the points of peerage that are always subject to new review (according to said Method), to instead selectively support current states of research. In effect whatever specific agendas, that might tap into otherwise unavailable funding, or even simply to act as a public relations tool – in service of much larger visibility campaigns?
If we can possibly leave aside (just for now) the temporarily cooled question of Climate Change, we could look for signs of all of the above in a surprisingly exuberant article published on the MIT News site in July 2008 instead of wondering if science is above promoting itself for the sake of funding or notoriety.
Even though it’s exultant title wildly proclaims that a “Major Discovery from MIT is primed to unleash a Solar Revolution”! the hard science and empirical data or comparative results behind the article are thinly presented (at least from the Layman’s POV), and there still doesn’t seem to be much obvious evidence of wider public discourse or a proper ‘peer review’ process around this “major discovery” either.
Perhaps this is just the style employed for wider press releases via “MIT News”, however one would at least expect to see evidence of published papers/results, or at least links to some shared or foundation research. Perhaps MIT is operating under the principals of private enterprise, and it wouldn’t want to jeopardize plans to commercialize it’s discovery by giving away any un-patented trade secrets.
That last possibility would indicate that we’ve already seriously diverged out of the field of publicly funded research, and into corporately (privately?) held intellectual property. Perhaps someone could clarify the business model that supports MIT, or other such institutions to dispel any such naivete that could be evidenced here.
In any case, let’s try to leave commercial interests aside, and get back to some hard Science.
Curiously this “Major Discovery” seems to have created barely more than a ripple in it’s own Comments section at MIT News to date, let alone setting off the kind of Media feeding frenzy that such a title would suggest is in the offering from such an otherwise reputable and prestigious source of Science News. Perhaps there is more (or less) to this discovery than meets the eye, so let’s review…
First of all the entire premise of this discovery is that solar energy can be stored as Hydrogen(H) according to the “lesson to be learned from nature”.
As Daniel Nocera (Chem.Prof.) condescends,”There’s all those little green things out there called leaves”. He then goes on to describe what is essentially then same process of electrolysis that some might remember from HighSchool, which is apparently only different in his work at MIT in that there is now a mysterious “catalyst” that allows you to make Hydrogen(H) and Oxygen(O) from water!
Instead, the bulk of this presentation in fact focuses on the incredible ability to now store solar energy as hydrogen right in the home…Starting with the photovoltaic panels required to produce the required electricity in this “breakthough” process which has been repeatedly alluded to as being inspired by photosynthesis, but yet which bears almost no resemblance at all to the (mainly) chlorophyll based processes found in plants.
It’s hard to say how this claim factors into the “science” being presented here, nor what efficiencies have been discovered over normal electrolysis (presumably), since there isn’t a comparative number in sight, and since thermodynamic equations appear to be a non-issue, and finally we are left to presume that full disclosure of net energy consumption/production within this “breakthrough would likely ruin an otherwise compelling story.
Which all leads us to think that this might be nothing more than a PR campaign for demonstrating how energy can be converted and stored via alternate processes. Processes which of course have yet to be proven efficient enough to develop any further as it would seem by the date of release, without current updates.
So if Mr. Nocera has indeed cracked the secret of photosynthesis, why isn’t his demonstration happening outside in the sun, rather than inside a beaker setup for electrolysis…being run at the end of an electrical lead from another standard PV cell? Why didn’t MIT claim to have figured out how to (uhm) create energy from wind, and then bubble off hydrogen at some mysteriously composed metallic cathode (powered by a wind turbine of course) as proof that they can generate electrical charge in the same manner as the atmosphere does!?! Wouldn’t that have been an equally preposterous leap in logic to promote to the general public?
Mr. Nocera goes to great length to describe the many benefits off producing hydrogen right in the home (without any concerns for safe storage of course) but only momentarily describes his actual and critical process and glosses over the critical point as being enabled by “our catalyst to break up water and hydrogen”.
Does anyone else sense some slight of hand in this presentation by MIT News? The only remotely groundbreaking possibility here is that this “catalyst” which is quickly referred to as a composition of cobalt and phosphate is what is allegedly inspired by photosynthesis, yet which doesn’t employ a photocell in it’s actual process, but rather as a simple/generic course of free electrons and voltage.
Since we’re clearly dealing with electrolysis, and not photosynthesis, let’s clarify that Cobalt is already known to improve the efficiency of electrolysis, however it also collects on the cathode and results in an electroplated element that needs to be replaced very regularly.
So where else the new efficiencies in this breakthrough described? Shouldn’t a news release from MIT contain some actual Science? Shouldn’t a Chemistry professor have at least one comment to add about (perhaps) organic chemistry, or chloroplasts, or perhaps some other bio-chemical process that could be at play here in an attempt to at least TRY and tie this concept in solar based energy back to the sun somehow? Essentially, where’s the correlation with photosynthesis in what appears to be electrolysis !?!
Perhaps this “breakthrough” is a virtual one? Perhaps the “science” that Nocera is engaged in here is merely a subset of Social Science, where average Laymen is suddenly able to see energy production and storage in an entirely new light, thanks to Nocera’s “breakthrough”. Does this seem like a more appropriate context for such an active publicity campaign? Could MIT News be actually more concerned about the science behind propaganda and the formation of public opinion?
It’s interesting to note that in the following segment with Harvard Physicist Eric Mazur, he at least points out the folly of trying to store that much hydrogen in your home, and the clear inefficiency of photovoltaic power that still need to be overcome…Though in a rather unscientific manner, he still describes the discovery as a ” convenient and magical way to store hydrogen”. This is hardly the language one would expect from a Scientist being quoted in a 15 second spot of limelight.
Moving right along though… Why does Nocera keep right on talking about converting solar energy according to photosynthesis, when it’s abundantly clear that he’s using Photovoltaics (PV) to generate the electricity for what seems to be a curiously undescribed and only slight modification to basic electrolysis? Why does the presentation dwell upon Hydrogen as a storage medium, rather than substantiate the central claim?
In the end we have what appears to be a blatant attempt by a very reputable institution to cajol the public into believing that the complexity of photosynthesis has somehow been harnessed, and will now ‘revolutionize the solar industry’…Since this discover “opens the door to large scale solar because it offers an easy way to store hydrogen”
The lasting image that we’re left with is of a rather self-rightous Nocera making one last bold claim that is likely to also have nothing to do with the Reality of the situation, and simply further emphasizes how corruptible the Science at MIT may have become. As he holds a green leaf in his hand he states: “I own you…I can finally do what you do…and if that doesn’t get you excited then don’t do Science”
At least don’t “do science” without openly disclosed facts, and for the sake of generating PR value at least…That’s for sure.