Casaubon's Book

I hope my readers will forgive me today for lapsing back into my prior profession rather than my present one as an energy and environmental writer. You see, before I gained fame and fortune writing about our ecological situation, I was a mild-mannered college teacher, whose favorite and most important job was teaching rhetoric to undergraduates.

I am perhaps odd in observing that I thought that teaching writing was the most important thing I did. Most academics believe their primary subject matter is the central portion of their work, but I came to see that the place that I had the greatest impact on students was in teaching them to write, because functionally, the best way to teach people to write well is to teach them to think clearly, or, if they have already mastered that exercise, to clearly express the thought process they used to come to a conclusion.

Teaching students to write and communicate well was thus, extraordinarily rewarding. Students often made enormous and quick progress, once they realized what the mistakes they were making were, why they were making them (ie, the answer is not “you are stupid, or you should already know this) and how to correct them. Almost no other subject was as much fun to teach. Nor were any subjects as important – someone with the ability to think clearly, to reason well and articulate that reason can learn almost anything, and teach it as well. Unfortunately, many people never do get taught how to do this, as we shall see.

The Very Important Paper recently ran an article that might have been tailor made for one of my old classes – it was a perfect illustration of how not to write a persuasive or expository essay. Written by Clifford Krauss and appearing in the New York Times November 17 Energy Supplement, it provides a superb model for the young (or old) writer on what not to do, and in a sense I’m grateful for this illustration. I apologize to my readership then, for digressing into my past profession, and offering a brief lesson on how not to write about peak oil for the interested.

I do get many emails requesting ideas on how to jump into the public discourse on energy and I offer this up to those of my readers who don’t feel comfortable as writers, and would like to contribute something to the public discourse on energy. This should provide you with some basic guidelines for doing so.

The first thing to do is to decide what kind of essay you want to write, and we can see that Krauss has struggled with this, and made a common mistake of inexperienced writers (although he is not one). Krauss has allowed himself to become confused about what his objective is. Generally speaking, newspaper articles are expository – they explain an issue, describe different viewpoints on that issue and offer (if they are well done) analysis. There are exceptions to this model, but this is the general rule.

There is also a place in newspapers for persuasive essays, designed to convince people of someone’s opinion about something. For clarity’s sake, and so that no one mistakes the opinion of the author for actual fact, the newspapers generally classify these all together in the “Editorial” “Opinion” or “Op-Ed,” so that you will not become confused . Again, there are a few exceptions to this rule, but this is the general principle.

Oddly, Krauss has written a persuasive essay, although it is not placed on the Op-Ed pages. You can tell this by his assertion “there will be fuel.” This is a prediction for the future, and a controversial one that depends on a host of complicated factors. In the article, Krauss attempts to find supporting evidence for his thesis, while not adequately presenting opposing points – that is, he takes a side on this issue. Thus, the article is fundamentally persuasive, but perhaps because it is placed in a spot that generally covers expository material, and Krauss blurs the lines between the two somewhat – and it is perhaps surprising that an op-ed piece would appear as though it were a piece of objective journalism..

Blurring genres happens now and again, and there are two reasons it most often occurs. The first is that the writer doesn’t have a strong sense of their own objectives, and hasn’t clarified exactly what they are doing. This is common in students of writing who have never fully grasped the range of kinds of writing out there, and how they differ from one another.

The other possibility is that one is being intentionally or accidentally obfuscatory, that is, one is attempting to confuse readers, rather than offer clear exposition of an idea. This may be because the author is themselves confused and unable to articulate their thoughts clearly or it may be because the author is being disingenuous, which is a polite and academically acceptable way to say they are lying.

Intentional obfuscation is a common strategy used by people who have been caught out in an obvious error or lie – consider the reaction of someone who gets called on their racist statement or caught sleeping with someone they shouldn’t be. Very slightly more benignly, intentional obfuscation is used by those attempting to support an idea that is not, in fact, supportable by the facts. Blurring distinctions, confusing and distracting people with irrelevancies, and changing the terms of the debate then becomes a useful strategy for the person attempting to support a weak argument or get people to look over there and forget they’ve been lying. It would be inappropriate of me to speculate what the issue is for Krauss – it is generally kindest to assume the best of one’s interlocutors when writing, so we will assume the best here.

If obfuscation is sometimes useful, I don’t recommend that writers use it. Instead, I suggest it is far better to take the time to understand what you are saying and why, and also to avoid lying or choosing weak theses. The obfuscatory essay is not, for some reason, one of the classic styles, and the primary reason for that is that it is dull to read and draws attention not to your ideas, but to the weaknesses in them.

Let’s take a look, now, at Krauss’s thesis statement – you’ve probably been told a few hundred times that having a good and clear thesis statement is important, and that’s true. What you may not have been told is that it is also important to have a supportable thesis statement. In fact, many young writers feel that the best way to write a strong persuasive piece is to admit no doubt, and to take extreme positions as strongly as possible, and indeed, many parts of our culture, particularly our political process support this idea.

I would suggest, however, that in writing for the general public, it is generally wiser to choose a thesis that you can actually support with evidence. In politics, of course, one does not support ideas generally with facts, but with posturing and noise. Writing for a newspaper, however, should not be supported in such a way, but with clear and accurate details. Some students have asked me whether they felt that their argument was weakened when they made more moderate claims – my own feeling is that if someone can dismantle your claims entirely, you will look far weaker than if you have stuck to what the evidence can support. If truthful claims aren’t exciting enough for you, I recommend either you stay away from writing or take up fiction.

Krauss has gone ahead and made a thesis statement that is quite extreme – “There will be fuel” is a long term prediction, dependent on a lot of variables, and it becomes evident as we read that Krauss is struggling to support his analysis. Indeed, generally speaking for most people to make this kind of assertion would be entering the era of speculative fiction, rather than newspaper journalism, because it requires a set of assumptions that themselves are open to question. It is not the case that one should never make predictions, but when there are a high number of variables and you are not an expert, it is difficult territory, and Krauss gets in trouble almost immediately:

A book making the rounds at the time, “Twilight in the Desert,” by Matthew R. Simmons, seemed to sum up the conventional wisdom: the age of cheap, plentiful oil and gas was over. “Sooner or later, the worldwide use of oil must peak,” the book concluded, “because oil, like the other two fossil fuels, coal and natural gas, is nonrenewable.”

But no sooner did the demand-and-supply equation shift out of kilter than it swung back into something more palatable and familiar. Just as it seemed that the world was running on fumes, giant oil fields were discovered off the coasts of Brazil and Africa, and Canadian oil sands projects expanded so fast, they now provide North America with more oil than Saudi Arabia. In addition, the United States has increased domestic oil production for the first time in a generation.

Consider the way the two paragraphs work together in parallel structure. First, Krauss sets up the old, and (he claims) wrong way of thinking, articulated by Matthew Simmons, that oil, coal, and natural gas are finite and non-renewable. He then responds to this with a paragraph that leads with a “But…” and the implication is that he is offering evidence that this old thinking is incorrect. The difficulty with this, of course, is that it isn’t. There is actually no dispute, barring a few complete nuts who believe in abiotic oil (learning to recognize and ignore nuts is an important part of critical thinking), that oil, coal and natural gas *are* all non-renewable. But Krauss allows his “but” to create the impression that this is wrong.

He then throws together a collection of barely related facts. No sooner had we come to think this, he argues then we did a bunch of things that changed the oil landscape entirely – and Krauss works very hard (or has an astonishing number of coincidental errors) to make us think that these things add up to a logical response to the “old thinking” he set before, and provide evidence that we should all be thinking the “new” way.

First of all, “giant oil fields were discovered off the coasts of Brazil and Africa” – well, this is true, but they weren’t discovered *after* 2008, but before – we already knew about them before oil rose to $147 barrel. Moreover, we still don’t know how large the production from these fields will be – estimates have ranged from extremely high to comparatively low impact. The implication is that these discoveries had something significant to do with the change – but in fact, the world is still discovering one barrel of oil for every four we use, even taking these “giant” fields into account.

Next, “Canadian oil sands projects expanded so fast, they now provide North America with more oil than Saudi Arabia” – this one is particularly silly, because Canadian imports were matched by declining Saudi imports, and while Canadian production did expand, we traded more expensive oil for cheaper oil – tar sands production is expensive, Saudi oil production is comparatively cheap. This is rather like saying “the production of Mercedes expanded so fast that no one needed to buy Fords” – another way of framing it would be “car prices went up a lot.”

This running together of several unrelated ideas with words that sort of imply bigger things than the facts do (the implication to an uncareful reader, for example, is that Canada is producing more oil than Saudi Arabia, obviously wrong) is a technique of obfuscation – a writer with plenty of supporting facts can take the time to treat each idea honestly and carefully, but a writer with a weak case often runs weak or unrelated ideas together to make their case seem stronger. Note, for example, that Krauss doesn’t say how much the US has increased its oil production by (it isn’t impressive, compared to consumption).

More on that last in a minute, but the general emphasis is to suggest that combination of real changes in the oil situation occurred in 2008, and changed the situation. But this is, in fact, not the case. As we’ve noted, those fields in Brazil and Africa haven’t come online yet, and weren’t enough to change the general trend that we’re consuming a lot more oil than we’ve discovered. The change in US production was a small thing, the Canadian oil sands do matter, but they mostly offset declines in other imports. In reality, the oil industry didn’t change radically in 2008 – what happened was that prices spiked, we entered a recession and prices fell. But that’s not a very interesting story, for all that it is inconveniently true.

I won’t bore you all by going through the rest of the article line by line, as I have these two paragraphs – you can probably do it yourself. Look always for places where the author attempts to make implications he simply can’t support. Ask yourself “who are “energy experts” and “how much is an ‘increase’” whenever you encounter that terminology. The key to good analysis is asking these kinds of questions. I will however point out a few particularly egregious difficulties, lest you make these errors yourselves.

The first energy expert cited in the article is a gentleman from an organization called “CERA” which is described as an “energy consulting firm.” Note that this gentleman comes from the for-profit sector, and you might want to Google CERA. What you’ll find is that CERA makes a great deal of its money by arguing that “peak oil theory is garbage.” This is a reiteration of CERA’s previous predictions on this front – again, the basic implication that something has changed radically since 2008 isn’t true. CERA has been predicting that there will be oil for a very long time. One thing that might be worth doing is examining how well CERA has predicted events in the past. Are they a reliable source?

What you will find is that CERA’s record of predictions is fairly abysmal, and that they are one of a very small number of energy analysts that predict smooth sailing on the energy front for the most part. One of the important parts of doing an essay like this is simply to evaluate your sources – and CERA is ostensibly credible. I don’t think it is unreasonable that Krauss quotes them. What is problematic, however, is that Krauss effectively quotes only them.

Now Krauss is at least nominally a journalist, and as you may know, journalistic and expository arguments involve showing both sides of an issue. So let’s look through the article for those two sides. IHS CERA is one that agrees with Krauss’s premise that in fact, there will be fuel. So let’s look for the people who don’t agree in the article, who provide some measure of balance. Ooops, it turns out there aren’t any. That would be a big mistake on Krauss’s part.

The article cites oil company executives and IHS CERA repeatedly. There is no representation of any evidence of viewpoint either to the contrary, or taken from any source that doesn’t make money by its predictions. The only exception to this is a brief, decontextualized reference to the recent IEA report, which glosses over the IEA’s affirmation of a peak of traditional crude oil.

Also, look at the article to see how often the author makes the assumption that things that haven’t happened yet will happen. For example, when he talks about Iraq, he observes “production could mushroom to 12 million barrels a day by the end of the decade – well above what Saudi Arabia produces today.” It could. It could not, and given that predictions that were made early in the Iraq war for near-term production turned out to be completely inaccurate, perhaps we should be cautious about assuming that this will be the case. Krauss makes no argument about *why* we should assume that Iraqi production will rise so high. But his claims about Iraq are less objectionable than those made in many places – here Krauss is more cautious than he is about most other sources, where he tends to prefer the most optimistic assumptions.

It is honestly difficult for people to sort through the range of projections out there for energy supplies, and this is an entirely reasonable thing to have difficulty with, particularly if you are not an expert. Krauss must, in fact, do one of two things. The first is select one set of analyses out there, and make a credible case for accepting these figures as accurate. The second possibility is to explore the range of possible predictions, offering contributions from people who advocate for both of these. Krauss, unfortunately, has done neither of these things. Instead, he’s accepted one set of predictions without making any case whatsoever for choosing them or even acknowledging that there are other scenarios and predictions by other energy experts.

Young writers often struggle, as I said, with the perception that acknowleding the other “side” of an argument weakens their own argument. This is, in fact, a misperception – the strongest arguments are actually those in which a “side” acknowledges the disagreement and then responds to the main thrust of the argument made in opposition to their position. Krauss seems to have skipped this lesson – normally not only standard in journalism, but often taken to excess.

It is rare that you’ll see a newspaper article even about how cute cock-a-poos are without some dissenting voice cited, due to the habit of providing journalistic balance. In areas where there is a clear difference between the quality of the arguments, this can be taken to ridiculous lengths – witness the habit of articles on climate change citing discredited climate deniers for the merits of “objectivity” even when these are not true opposing arguments (ie, they aren’t generally legitimate scientific arguments) made by scientists of equal credibility. There are many people who have argued that the quality of journalism sometimes suffers from a pathological adherence to the principle of balance. Clearly, Krauss does not suffer from that particular pathology, but since the situation in regards to oil is rather different than that in climate change – there are reputable people who argue that we are near a peak and reputable ones who argue we are not, there is no reasonable argument in favor of not including some measure of balance.

Krauss’s failure to provide even the basic format of objectivity, or grounds for accepting the most optimistic of figures is hard to understand. He is an experienced journalist, so it beggars the imagination to conceive that he is unfamiliar with this standard. He’s not a college student new to the concept of writing who thinks that strident reassertion of his premise and one-sided support is sufficient evidence. Again, I think we must attribute this to Krauss’s difficulty deciding what kind of article he’s writing – he simply hasn’t made up his mind whether he’s writing an expository analysis of our energy situation, which would require the former, or an op-ed piece. This is one of the reasons that one hopes for good support for writers – an editor or a comp teacher or even a 7th grade English teacher would have pointed gently out to Krauss that he’s having a little trouble with the appropriate forms of support for his work, and sent him back to working on it. Apparently none of these was available.

Consider another paragraph that again focuses on US production, and makes claims that are not only unsupportable, but patently ridiculous:


Not surprisingly, the back-to-the-future world of oil and gas begins in the United States, still the biggest economy and the driver of energy markets since World War II.

For the last two decades, the United States has produced less oil each year and been increasingly dependent on imports than the year before. As recently as a decade ago, most experts predicted that the country had only 25 years of gas reserves, and that it would need to import at least half of its needs in the future.

Today the country has reversed both trends, chiefly because of new drilling techniques that have opened world-class oil and gas resources. In 2009, domestic production began to reverse its annual decline for the first time since 1991. The Energy Department expects domestic supplies to grow through 2035, absent a significant decline in oil prices.

Read this carefully. He claims that the US has “reversed” its decline – that is, the decline in production that began almost 40 years ago has been entirely reversed? Wow, that’s pretty impressive. So we’re now on the upswing again, right? The thing is, writers sometimes assume that no one will do their own research on people’s claims, but that’s not a wise or safe assumption. What Krauss is basing this on is single year increase – to reverse a 40 year trend? And in fact, it hasn’t been reversed at all – we’re still down over 35% from the original peak. The EIA projects that in fact, this increase will continue until ummm..2010 (ie, now) when it will pretty much reverse again. Here Krauss either doesn’t know what “reverse” means or he’s being intentionally misleading. But remember, good writers assume good faith in the people they write about. So we’re going to try really hard to assume that Krauss means what he says.

The problem with that is that we’re left with the conclusion, doing so, that the only person who could believe all these impossible things before breakfast must be, to put it in less than wholly scholarly but accurate terms, dumber than dirt. This is a useful illustration for the young writer, because you never, ever want someone who is analyzing your work to be caught in the dilemma of trying to figure out whether they should call the author an idiot, an ignoramus or a liar. This is a situation to be entirely and devoutly avoided – so you should do a better job of providing supporting evidence than Krauss has done here, because he’s left the reader on precisely the horns of that dilemma. This is an unpleasant situation for both reader and the writer who receives the critique, and the best way of avoiding it is to make claims your evidence can actually support.

If you ever find yourself in the situation of being unable to plausibly attribute a mistake to honest belief or minor error, however, it is useful to know what to say. One cannot call a fellow writer a moron, an ignorant fool who doesn’t do his homework or a liar in many forms of publication – that would be extraordinarily impolite and inappropriate. If you are writing for a blog or another genre that would permit this, you can, of course, say whatever you want, but we should not assume that is the case.

Therefor, my readers, the proper way of reconciling this many errors and misrepresentations here is to state that the author is confused. After all, severe confusion is a state that any of us can experience without stigma, due, perhaps to a small stroke, an emotional trauma or an excess of affection for Jim Beam. This is not a value judgement, and while you would think that one’s editors at the New York Times would probably prefer not to print the writings of the confused, it is possible that they too were suffering from a related form of confusion. It is, nearly the holiday season and who could pass judgement on writers and editors who indulge a bit too much in holiday cheer?

The article ends with a strong supporting quote. This can be a fine way to end a piece of persuasive writing. A rousing statement from an expert can be an excellent way to wind up a piece of writing, particularly one that so desperately needs to come to an end, because the writer has filled it with poor reasoning and evidence that does not mean what the author thinks it does. Krauss quotes a banker here, which is an interesting choice – I would generally suggest that the best choice for a quote would be someone with credentials in the field, but perhaps Krauss couldn’t find anyone appropriate. This is one of those cases where good basic research skills, say, the application of “google” to keywords would be an excellent aid to his work, allowing him to find someone who is an actual expert:

Mr. Morse said the demand side of the equation also helped. He noted that American demand for gasoline appeared to have peaked in 2007 and could decline by 15 to 20 percent by 2020 because of increasingly efficient cars and a federal mandate requiring that renewable fuels, like ethanol, blended into transportation fuels must increase to 36 billion gallons in 2022, from nine billion gallons in 2008.

“When you add it up,” Mr. Morse noted, “you get something that very closely approximates energy independence.”

Here we have one of those “we don’t seem to be using words in the way they commonly are used” problems – the same trouble we had with the word “reversed.” Energy Independence generally means that we don’t rely on imported fuels. But the US has never reversed the trend of relying heavily on imports – we have increased imports by more than 300% since the US oil peak, and in 2009, even with the recession and the slight increase in US production, and biofuels imported more than 11 billion barrels of oil. With the IEA’s predictions of increased demand, there’s no way that those numbers add up to anything like energy independence.

It is perhaps, then, a good thing that Krauss ended with this quote, since any comment he made would likely again bring us back to our prior dilemma about how to politely articulate the problems of the article. What we must ask of this or any other piece of writing, however, is has it proved its thesis? Krauss set up a distinction between “old think” which he expressed as “oil, coal and gas are finite resources subject to oil peaks” and “new think” in which he has said “there’s a lot of possible oil out there.” The problem is that even if the possibilities are all real, and even if all of this is true – both things that Krauss has certainly not proven, he hasn’t answered the question. The “old think” represented by Simmons and such actually happens to be the real state of geophysics. We know for a fact that oil will reach a peak and decline – period, because we’ve seen it happen. We know for fact that oil, coal and natural gas are finite resources.

And in the end, that is the greatest weakness of this argument – Krauss might have tried to make an intelligent and credible argument that the *timing* of these peaks and issues of finite resources has been changed, but he instead chose to shoot for something that he couldn’t support. There’s no evidence in anything Krauss presents that the original point has changed.

What he’s done is provide a lot of obfuscatory detail, projections, quotations and other things all of which add up to “there might be fuel.” None of them add up to an answer to the problem of finite resources, and none of them are sufficient to support his basic claim that there *will be* fuel. Moreover, the muddle in the middle means that the reader is forced to ask why this writer can’t actually connect the dots. It is less than civil to speculate on these reasons – and on why the editors of the paper in question permitted such a muddle – but at the same time, those questions cannot but be raised in the mind of any conscious reader. My own hope is that all of this can be attributed simply to an excess of holiday happiness and perhaps Krauss’s goodhearted desire to provide a cautionary example for other writers who have not yet achieved his stature. For this, we are grateful.

When writing an essay about oil or any other subject, then, you will wish to avoid the errors made here. First, you will want to do high quality research, to evaluate your thesis statement and make sure that your own evidence supports it. You will want to be clear about both what kind of essay you are writing and why you are writing it, and probably will wish to avoid the obfuscatory style, since it immediately turns matters away from the subject and towards the larger question “what is the author trying to hide?” In the same way, you will wish to avoid making the same weak and implausible arguments over and over again in ways that require the reader to ask whether you are being intentionally obtuse or intellectually deceptive, since neither is flattering to the writer, and both again, shift one’s primary attention away from the subject at hand. You will wish to provide a balanced analysis if you are engaged in exposition, and use good research skills and objective data. If the data is uncertain, you will have to make choices, and explain why you have made them and what justifies them, or present a balanced case.

I have no doubt that given my readers’ native intelligence and the cautionary example presented here, they will provide fine expository and persuasive material when they are called upon to contribute to the discourse on energy and the environment. After all, you could hardly do worse.

Comments

  1. #1 dewey
    November 23, 2010

    Is that a home-canned can of whup-ass you just opened up on him? :)

  2. #2 James Sweet
    November 23, 2010

    Interesting. It’s strangely Pollyanna-ish to be claiming there will be fuel. Even taken at face value, Krauss’ “facts” only say that there “will” be fuel for a little longer than maybe some of us are thinking.

    I do think the banker almost expressed an important point, one that a lot of people miss when it comes to long-term energy issues: When predictions say things like, “At the present rate, we’ll be out of oil in X years”, I think that calls to mind a misleading picture, where on October 15th 2037 we’re just rolling along fine like nothing’s changed, and on October 16th 2037 there’s no more oil and we’re all screwed. It’s a near certainty that as the supply curve stiffens, it will indirectly cause a loosening of the demand curve — whether by catalyzing a more rapid shift to alternative energy and/or greater energy efficiency (as we all hope), or by fostering diminished expectations for standard of living (which would be far less pleasant), or (most likely) by some combination of the two — and so it’s probably safe to assume that there will be a very long tail on oil consumption.

    Which says nothing about whether we’re at peak, before peak, or long past it. But it does say something about what the world will (does?) look like after peak. I’m just saying, he almost could have made a significant point there… if Krauss weren’t so wrapped up in this, “Hey, everything’s just fine!” theme. When oil starts to really run out, it (probably) won’t be apocalyptic, and we can take some comfort in that. If that was Krauss’ point — that we’ve maybe got more time than we thought and that the transition might not be quite as bad as we sometimes picture — I might be more receptive.

    But that there will be fuel? That’s crazy talk!

  3. #3 Steve
    November 23, 2010

    “Data” is plural. The line should read “If the data are uncertain . . . ”

  4. #4 DD49
    November 23, 2010

    Bravo, Sharon.

    Very nice take down. A great lesson for writers every where. Thank you.

  5. #5 Glenn
    November 23, 2010

    Seems like an excessively long rebuttal. A link to the article and the simple statement “this is bullshit” would have sufficed for me. Although it is _very_ hard to reisist the sound of one’s _own_ trenchant and well thought reasoning. It made me laugh though, and that’s always good for me.

    Glenn,
    Marrowstone Island
    Washington

    P.S. Winter started here yesterday with 5 inches of snow (unusual before January) and a hard freeze into the teens last night, up to 29 now. That may seem mild to you, but that is at sea level at 48 degrees 16 minutes North.

  6. #6 Liz
    November 23, 2010

    “…the best way to teach people to write well is to teach them to think clearly…”

    So true! And following rules for good writing can help achieve clarity. I sometimes still write a sentence in passive voice, go back to correct it, and realize that I didn’t really think about who performed the action that I’m claiming took place.

    I’ve never tried to teach the skill of editing, but I suspect it’s tough. I know when I was learning to be a peer tutor back in college, I had to train myself to notice when as a reader I was making assumptions to fill in gaps the writer left. It’s easy not to notice these gaps, unless you’re reading critically.

  7. #7 derek
    November 23, 2010

    The commonest way to pooh-pooh any talk of peak oil is to claim that there’s a lot of oil still left; which ignores that nobody outside the scriptwriter for Mad Max movies ever said there wasn’t. The peak oil hypothesis explicitly claims that there’s approximately as much oil left to extract as has ever been extracted (i.e. the curve of extraction over time is approximately symmetrical). It also implies that we will be extracting oil for at least as many centuries as we have been extracting it, if not more.

    So the commonest way to pooh-pooh anyone talking about peak oil is called “the straw man”: just make up something they never actually said.

  8. #8 Don
    November 23, 2010

    Steve: ‘data’ can be either singular or plural in English. Hardly anyone writing or speaking in English uses the Latin singular ‘datum.’

  9. #9 Don
    November 23, 2010

    Sharon: I find teaching composition the most challenging, and therefore the most difficult, thing that I’ve ever done. Teaching one to think clearly is extremely difficult, especially with brains that are attuned to TV sound bytes and entertainment. It’s quite rewarding when I succeed, but it seems to happen all too infreuently. I will try to keep in mind some of the things you have written here when I enter the classroom–this is excellent!

    An aside: someday I’d love to hear about your almost dissertation and the research you did on Shakespeare and cultural change.

  10. #10 Kevin
    November 23, 2010

    If truthful claims aren’t exciting enough for you, I recommend either you stay away from writing or take up fiction.

    Or theology.

  11. #11 Jennie
    November 23, 2010

    Don, I still use datum.
    Although it’s rare that I’m talking about only one piece of data, it does happen and I do try to use datum for clarity. :-)
    But, I’m a geeky, well read, computer engineer.
    It’s like “dice” versus “die,” most people don’t know what the latter means. What’s even more distressing is when people ask for the plural form of “dice”. *shakes head sadly*

    Also, I can’t get to the article. Even after a bit of Googling. Anybody know of somewhere the article is reposted to where I can read it?

  12. #12 Don
    November 23, 2010

    Jennie: I understand. When I’m writing, I still insist on the Greek singular ‘criterion’ and plural ‘crieria.’

    But the dictionary tells us that ‘data’ in English is often used as a ‘collective singular,’ somewhat synonymous to ‘information.’ If I were speaking of a single piece of information, I might use ‘datum.’ But otherwise, I’d probably use data as both singular and plural.

  13. #13 dewey
    November 23, 2010

    As far as I’m concerned, “data” is always plural, and while we’re at it, the plural form of octopus is octopi, not octopuses, dammit. The singular of dice, obviously, must be “douse.” Mice… mouse… ;)

  14. #14 Mike Cagle
    November 23, 2010

    I haven’t even read that article (because it sounds so ridiculous), just read about it, and it does sound very misleading, and as you tactfully put it, “confused.”
    Just a couple of things, though. As it’s a newspaper article, it’s not quite right to assume that it just sprang from the writer’s head alone, and that its defects can all be traced to his personal quirks or defects. Which section of the paper it was placed in, for instance, was surely an editor’s decision. Perhaps a better way to say it is, the idea of creating a persuasive article for a non-Op-Ed section of the paper, probably came from an editor, and I’ll bet the point of view which is being pushed was part of the assignment, too. The headline/title, too, assuredly was created by someone besides the article writer. It’s quite possible that even the list of sources came from an editor. Not to excuse the writer, but even though he’s an experienced journalist, he may not be experienced with this particular topic. Maybe he even wrote a much different article than the one that finally appeared — that’s not uncommon. Anyway, much of the blame for the article lies with whoever assigned it, I suspect.
    I also have to quibble with you about the term “reversed.” If something’s been trending downward for a number of years, but lately it has been going up, it’s quite alright to argue that it has “begun to reverse.” It may or may not have really done so — only time will tell — but it’s reasonable to make that argument. It certainly doesn’t have to get all the way back to the level it was at when it started to decline, for the trend to be said to be “reversed.” If a trend used to go down but now goes up, then the trend is reversed, even whatever is being measured is still very low. In the springtime, the downward trend of the temperature is reversed, and one can say “it’s getting warmer now” even when it’s still quite cold.
    Just one other thing — and I say this with affection — isn’t “be concise” also among the writerly virtues? ;-)

  15. #15 daedalus2u
    November 23, 2010

    I do use datum when I am trying to emphasize that it is singular as in “there is no datum inconsistent with evolution”.

  16. #16 Stephen B.
    November 23, 2010

    Thanks for this Sharon.

    I came across the article several days ago and quickly thought it to be the intentionally deceptive piece that it is. I also imagined that it was something assigned to the writer from above, that is, an editor, a publisher, or some other VIP from The Powers That Be, putting pressure on their owned and bought media outlet, to distribute.

  17. #17 Megan
    November 23, 2010

    Actually, the plural of octopus is “octopuses”; or if you are really keen, “octopodes”.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFyY2mK8pxk

  18. #18 Edward Itemus
    November 23, 2010

    An excessively long diatribe on a totally flawed piece from the NYT. I appreciate your passion for words but as I have limited time I’d appreciate a bit more succintness in getting to your point.

  19. #19 seraphima
    November 24, 2010

    Ah, a fine piece of expository wit! How can there be too much of this type of mental candy? Go to, Ms. Astyk, you have me laughing aloud! Touche! Huzzah! Go for it!

    Poor Mr. Krauss just walked into the proverbial buzz saw.

  20. #20 Phyllis Sladek
    November 24, 2010

    Thanks, Sharon, for a much-needed commentary. I hope the NYT editor(s) see it.

    I’d first like to address James Sweet’s post above, because it seems to give credibility to the same statement Krauss’s essay makes, and so it, too, overlooks key features in our “global problematique,” of which finite oil resources is a hugely significant component.

    re: “I do think the banker almost expressed an important point, one that a lot of people miss when it comes to long-term energy issues: When predictions say things like, ‘At the present rate, we’ll be out of oil in X years’, I think that calls to mind a misleading picture, where on October 15th 2037 we’re just rolling along fine like nothing’s changed, and on October 16th 2037 there’s no more oil and we’re all screwed.”

    This is not exactly what’s misleading about the phrase “at present rates of consumption.” The misleading aspect of this type of characterization is that it leaves out the fact that our current global industrial civilization is premised on growth.

    This means, it’s also premised on growth in the consumption of resources, including – and especially – oil.

    This means, in turn, that if oil supplies remain available only at “present rates of consumption” – something has to give.

    What “gives” is growth.

    When growth cannot occur, because it’s physically and materially impossible, then we no longer have the economic organization we are used to and which supports us. This is extremely bad news.

    It is not at all the case, as James Sweet implies, that the two alternative scenarios he suggests – (1. change to so-called alternatives; 2. use less by becoming more efficient) – are the most likely ones.

    In fact, many factors point to the opposite of his conclusion that “When oil starts to really run out, it (probably) won’t be apocalyptic…”

    It will be amazing and wonderful if it is not. The current trajectory is exactly apocalyptic.

    We can imagine, work, collaborate and make decisions to lessen the impact of the decline in total global supply of oil. Thus, it’s possible that humanity can change the trajectory.

    But we have to understand the tangible impacts of exactly what we face. It’s not about “long tails” on available supply. Nor is it about curves that force other curves.

    It’s about apportioning what remains – (who gets what, and how do they get it? For what purpose?), while at the same time planning and acting in ways that achieve the goal of living without war, protecting and fostering human rights and meeting our common needs without victimization of the less powerful – if we want to put “humanity” in there as a concept.

    And we must dramatically lessen the role and number of oil-consuming machines, whose days themselves are numbered as that oil supply curve goes down, down, down.

  21. #21 phil harris
    November 24, 2010

    Hi
    Yes, very disingenuous piece in the NYT. Agree with Sharon.
    Canada is the biggest supplier of oil to USA, of course, and has been increasing its oil production on a longer term trend, even though their conventional crude oil production has declined. That decline has been more than made up by increasing Tar Sand oil and some off-shore oil.Of course TS oil is expensive as Sharon points out, and is difficult to ramp up. The second major supplier to USA is Mexico. (Mexico shows signs of serious decline, and is consuming a bigger fraction of the oil that they are able to produce.)
    For current top suppliers to USA, see below:
    “Canada remained the largest exporter of total petroleum in August, exporting 2,483 thousand barrels per day to the United States, which is a decrease from last month (2,534 thousand barrels per day). The second largest exporter of total petroleum was Mexico with 1,282 thousand barrels per day.
    Crude Oil Imports (Top 15 Countries)
    (Thousand Barrels per Day)
    Country Aug-10: Jul-10: YTD 2010: Aug-09: YTD 2009
    CANADA 1,933: 2,055: 1,981: 2,002: 1,924
    MEXICO 1,158: 1,174: 1,119: 1,057: 1,119
    SAUDI ARABIA 1,080: 1,033: 1,071: 707: 1,010
    and etc …

    EIA released 28 October 2010
    http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/oil_gas/petroleum/data_publications/company_l… ”

  22. #22 dewey
    November 24, 2010

    Well, I have egg on my face. Octopi certainly is and has been far more common than “octopodes.” However, in response to Megan’s comment I looked it up and learned that octopodes is preferred by the serious language nerds because “octopus” was a Latinization of a classical Greek word, and “-podes” was the Greek third-declension masculine plural ending. OTOH, I cannot accept that we should start using Greek plurals for English words, since they are much messier than Latin plurals and almost nobody knows the rules for forming them. So: Octopuses it is. As Pogo once said: “Forewarned is forearmed. And four-armed is half an octopus. Who wants to be that?” End of digression.

  23. #23 Christina
    November 24, 2010

    More fun singular/plural pairs:
    rice in grape leaves? not dolma/dolmas, but dolmas/dolmathes
    pork in corn biscuit? not tamale/tamales, but tamal/tamales

    @17/Edward:
    I think Sharon made her essential point in her introduction, and made it clear she’d be doing an in depth analysis of the writing itself. She’s very special, honestly – but you don’t have to read every word she writes :-) The job of the reader is to be discriminating – browsing, skimming, distilling are essential skills when dealing with expository writing.

  24. #24 ll
    November 24, 2010

    While I enjoy your blog, this piece reminds me that I very often think you need an editor.

  25. #25 Sara
    November 24, 2010

    Speaking as a petroleum engineer, I can say that I agree wholeheartedly that Mr Krauss did not do his homework very well at all. The reason he has to end with a quote from a commodity researcher, not someone directly affiliated with an oil company is that no oil company employee who wanted to keep his/her job would say something so obviously false to the press.

    I also feel that I have to point out that in spite of your many criticisms of the article, you missed what I thought was the single largest “oversight” by the author! Gas is not oil. Mr Krauss does not seem to know the difference, and refers to them either collectively or interchangeably in much of the article.

    The article starts out talking about a large number gas fields under development in the US. This is true, the US has recently discovered potentially large resources of unconventional gas across the country. (emphasis on ‘potentially’) Now gas is a fantastic energy resource, in particular it can be used for relatively clean natural-gas power plants instead of coal-burning.

    But you cannot drive your car on natural gas, for that you need oil. The US is not discovering anywhere near the volumes of oil we consume and expect to consume in the future.

    It is possible for us all to go buy new natural-gas powered cars and for every gas station to put in compressed natural gas pumps. You can even make an argument that this is an excellent idea. Indeed, many city buses already run on natural gas because it is cleaner than diesel. But the world of transport doesn’t seem to be heading this direction en mass because of the huge infrastructure that would have to be built.

    So in the future, we may have lots of gas, but what we’ll need is oil.

  26. #26 Brad K.
    November 25, 2010

    @ Kevin,

    That seems a bit gratuitous, and unkind as well. I tend to mostly respect the life choices other people make, as long as they aren’t making my choices as well.

    @ Sharon,

    ” . . because you never, ever want someone who is analyzing your work to be caught in the dilemma of trying to figure out whether they should call the author an idiot, an ignoramus or a liar. This is a situation to be entirely and devoutly avoided – . . “

    First – thank you for an amusing, obfuscatory persuasive piece. The snark was delicious.

    I think, though, that a bit of context that I have observed might explain part of the issue you have, with the biased slant that Krauss’ article is built upon.

    The NYT is biased. Their election and other political coverage reveals a deeply embedded source of funding in liberal, Democrat party, and organized crime . . uh, labor circles. At least, that is the impression I get from reading articles and references that I trust.

    An anecdote. A friend and I picked up a tool at Lowes. Halfway through checkout a mistake was noticed – and the cashier had to call a manager to recover. The ensuing production was lengthy and tedious. The manager and my buddy both complained about the computer. But – I my thought is different. The register (computer) is a machine. Somewhere there is a programmer that put in the functions, and removed bugs. That programmer has a manager (maybe several levels of manager and supervisor). That manager chose to ship the product with the current blend of function and discomforts and bugs. The store has a manager that bought the software. Another manager let the company install the computers in his store.

    That makes a lot of managers responsible for the particular blend of features and discomforts and bugs at the checkout line with the cashier, my buddy, and I. The computer and programmer had relatively little to do with the problem, and blaming either would never affect the next blend of features and discomforts and bugs.

    Krauss wrote a piece. His editor accepted that piece. Blaming Krauss for the slant and bias, seems short sighted. Like that programmer, Krauss writes for his audience. For Krauss that audience is the Very Important Paper, in the person of the accepting editor.

    Krauss’ editor might not have edited out balancing views and datum points directly from Krauss’ piece. That might have been done by Krauss’ understanding of previous editing and possibly an unwritten “bias guide”, sort of an analog of a style guide – that is, a prior constraint, present before and while the article was written.

    For all I know, Krauss was given instructions to write this article, with these many words and this conclusion – and perhaps insufficient time to do more than generate blithering text.

    As for Krauss’ interest in avoiding looking confused, wrong, or deceptive – that only applies to the audience. Glenn Beck, B. Hussein Obama, Ted Kennedy, Chicago’s Mayor and Democratic Boss Richard Daley, J. Edgar Hoover, the Als (Franken and Gore), and many others have shown, unless the criticism comes from the folk paying you, it need not be a big concern.

    I imagine that most of the people interested in journalism, professionalism, or even honesty, have already formed their opinions of what to enjoy (the funnies) or trust about the New York Times, and critical thinkers look elsewhere for balance and insight. Of course, in the New York Times’ defense, even the village idiot has a story to tell.

    Which makes your persuasive criticism of Krauss’ journalism, grasp of rhetoric, ethics in publishing, and command of his faculties an obfuscation of your disagreement with his facts and conclusions.

    Thanks again for the laugh-out-loud parts!

    Blessed be, and have a joyous Thanksgiving!

  27. #27 Ed Straker
    November 26, 2010

    Doing this sort of rebuttal is really an endless game of whack-a-mole.

    How much energy do we have to devote to this game of countering cornucopianism? Shall we repeat the same information again and again? It never ends, really. The fact is that people believe what they want to believe and they have little patience to get fully educated on the complicated topic of limits to growth. They cherry pick a few favorable datapoints and run with it. That’s all there is to it, really.

  28. #28 Perry
    November 26, 2010

    I can’t keep up with these corporate mergers. When did Rupert Murdoch buy the New York Times??? Mr. Krauss and his editor certainly have the qualifications to work for Fox.

  29. #29 george
    November 27, 2010

    if horse manure were as energy efficient as fossil fuels
    then the very important paper would be the next saudi arabia .

  30. #30 cynic
    November 28, 2010

    What matters in the end is that Krauss has a much bigger microphone than Sharon. Unfortunately.

  31. #31 JMG
    November 28, 2010

    Oh snap! That’s going to leave a mark. This could follow this guy forever, like Taibbi’s takedown of Thomas (The Mustache) Friedman.

    I see a good job with CERA or similar in his future once enough people read this and no editor will publish him.

  32. #32 Sharon Astyk
    November 29, 2010

    The thing is, Ed, if you never repeat the same things over and over, only those “in the knew” who knew early get the news. Since this is pretty critical news, it is worth doing some mole whacking – even though no one can do it as a full time job.

    Sharon

  33. #33 James W Bittner
    November 29, 2010

    Just wonderful, Sharon. Loved the essay. Matter of fact, it put a bee in my bonnet:

    Until I retired in 2002, I taught freshman rhetoric for 30 years, and I remember assembling scads of documents for my students to read as we went along. Just imagine what it was like to assemble an anthology of readings about Roe v Wade in the early 1970s, or about El Salvador in the 1980s, or about Iraq, etc., very careful and scrupulous to gather voices from all across the spectrum. Like you, I was always on the lookout for a good bad example, as well as the more rare good good example.

    If I were still teaching, I would assemble a little anthology, a moderately thick handout, with articles and essays by Krauss, with articles by you (I choke on the word “blog”), and with articles and essays from the many other stars in the Krauss and the Astyk constellations, and we would have all sorts of fun.

    Matter of fact, I’m doing that just now, just for my own pleasure. So I thank you for enlivening my retirement, and I especially thank you for the gift of your June 2010 essay on the first nine years. Best wishes for the next nine.

  34. #34 darwinsdog
    November 29, 2010

    Therefor, my readers, the proper way of reconciling this many errors and misrepresentations here is to state that the author is confused.

    No, the proper interpretation is that the author is intentionally lying. The author represents vested interests that benefit from having a public that believes their lies are true. They know that informed people can pick the article to pieces and identify all the falsehoods it contains for what they are. They also know that for every one who possesses the information and motivation for doing so, there are tens of thousands that will uncritically accept the lies as fact. Nor do they fear that those who can identify the lies will inform those who cannot, that they are lies. As cynic points out, “Krauss has a much bigger microphone than Sharon.”

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.