how not to write a skeptical pop sci article

Greg Fish
national ignition facility
national ignition facility

Generally, I don’t like making two posts linking to the same source back to back, but in the case of the egregious wall of sophomoric bile vomited by Charles Seife, I’m going to let myself make a rare exception. As written here many times before, making fusion energy a viable power source is hard. Really, really hard. It involves very complicated high energy physics that we’re only now starting to understand. When the first ideas for commercial fusion plants were just germinating, we didn’t have the technology or the knowledge base to accurately map out the challenges and as a result, as the machines, computers, and research advance, we’re only now starting to get a more accurate picture of what it would take to make industrial fusion work. But if you listen to the fact free rants of Seife, the only people supporting the idea of viable fusion are cranks, nutjobs, or naive futurists divorced from reality, and every research project from ITER to the NIF is ran by idiots who have no idea what they’re doing and exist only to waste taxpayer money.

While I’d love to tackle scientific arguments as to why this is the case, Seife presents exactly no factual reasoning behind his obnoxious and snide dismissals. The only science we get is in his critique of cold fusion — which, of course, lured LENR cranks to the comments — before which he presents Martin Fleischmann of Fleischmann and Pons fame as a leading fusion researcher whose zeal for fusion fueled the rest of the field apparently populated by idiots and cranks who convince gullible politicians to waste billions on their pipe dreams. This is like naming a random cancer quack who achieved notoriety with a failed experiment and then arguing that all oncology and basic cancer research is being done by ignoramuses just like him. Not only is this a childish and incredibly ignorant thing to do, but this should’ve alerted Slate’s editors to tell Seife that his column isn’t going to be published unless he can actually get his facts together rather than fume about money and politics and call every researcher in the field incompetent in what reads like an insult comic’s act on amateur night with the punchlines left out of the final product.

If Seife wants to call all of fusion research crap, it’s certainly his right to do so. But as he does, it becomes apparent that his entire argument boils down to “if you can’t make this work right now, you’re all a waste of space and this whole idea is impossible.” I suppose this is an easier stance to take than figuring out that fusion research has been funded with a fraction of a fraction of the pittance that governments force themselves to give to basic science or actually studying how all of the proposed confinement and ignition methods work, as well as why milestones are delayed as energy levels go up and reaction times increase. Why bother with any of that when you could just act like a political talk show pundit? Nature doesn’t give a damn about your dreams, hopes, guidelines, or budgets. Basic research like fusion has a solid theory behind it and no amount of foaming at the mouth about time and money is going to make the theory any less solid. Likewise, no amount of unwarranted insults is going to make scientists discover things any harder. If a pop science writer doesn’t understand that, he doesn’t understand how science works.

Greg Fish

Written by

Greg Fish

techie, Rantt staff writer and editor, computer lobotomist

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