The Scientific Activist

After writing a global warming denialist piece for his Washington Post column back in February that was totally eviscerated for running roughshod over anything actually resembling the truth, it looks like George Will is at it again. Fortunately, Carl Zimmer is already on the case:

Today, George Will is back on the subject of global warming. The occassion for his column is the alleged uselessness of energy-efficient light bulbs. The column is basically a cut-and-paste job on a recent New York Times article on the bulbs-the same newspaper that Will claimed in an earlier column is “a trumpet that never sounds retreat in today’s war against warming.” Somehow, a paper Will knows is nothing but a climate propaganda machine can publish an article related to global warming that he relies on as absolute authority.

Zimmer then goes on to explain Will’s various fallacies. Check out his post for details. What struck me about Will’s article, though, is that it relied on the same New York Times article that I lambasted last weekend for being totally anecdotal, lacking any hard facts, alarmist, and generally irresponsible:

The article gives the reader no idea of what the actual failure rate of the light bulbs are and instead relies wholly on anecdotal evidence to make an alarmist point. Here’s a counter-example: over the last couple of years, I have replaced every conventional light bulb in my house that has burned out with a CFL. None of the CFLs I purchased were defective. And, I have yet to replace a single one. Maybe I should write an article for The New York Times about how amazing CFLs are since, anecdotally at least, they have an infinite lifetime and a 0% failure rate. This would be no more inaccurate than yesterday’s article.

Do I know what the failure rate of CFLs is? No, unfortunately I don’t, although I would like to. And, although my own anecdotal evidence runs counter to that presented in the article, without some valid numbers I can’t draw a conclusion firm enough to satisfy my own interest, and certainly not one upon which I would base an entire article in a major media outlet–especially if it could hamper efforts to fight global warming.

That would just be irresponsible.

On second thought, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at all that this is the sort of article Will is using for a source.


  1. #1 larrydalooza
    April 2, 2009

    Oh my AGW. How in AGW’s name can he get away with this. AGW bless you for bringing light to this AGW damn liar.

  2. #2 bobh
    April 2, 2009

    One thing that is not anecdotal is that voltage regulation does not allow them to be dimmed like incandescents and that sucks. Does anyone know if dimming switch for them is available? Does variable current work?

  3. #3 Nick Anthis
    April 2, 2009

    You need to buy special CFLs for use with dimming switches, but these definitely are available.

  4. #4 Scott Belyea
    April 2, 2009

    Here’s a counter-example: over the last couple of years, I have replaced every conventional light bulb in my house that has burned out with a CFL. None of the CFLs I purchased were defective. And, I have yet to replace a single one.

    I’ll match your anecdotal evidence.

    I’ve done the same, and I’ve experienced a totally unacceptable early failure rate of CFL’s. I believe that 5 failed within 3 months. And friends have recounted similar experiences.

    There seems to be a problem here.

  5. #5 Jim
    April 2, 2009

    More anecdotal evidence. I have been using about half a dozen CFLs in my home for over a year and have not had a single failure. I bought the bulbs at walmart.

    Perhaps the failure issue is with the bulb manufacturer and not with the technology itself?

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    April 2, 2009

    Scott: As several commenters on the previous thread noted, that may also be a symptom of problems with the wiring in your house, or with the specific light fixture you are using. CFLs seem to be more sensitive to voltage fluctuations than incandescent bulbs–which is why ordinary CFLs do not work so well with dimmer switches.

    I noted on that thread that I have had three CFLs fail in a ten year period: one early failure (within a week of purchase) and two that lasted for ~7 years (as expected) before failing. The latter two were among the lights I use most frequently.

  7. #7 larrydalooza
    April 2, 2009

    I pray that AGW grants me the ability to afford the holy CFL. May AGW have pity on us and spare us with his rapture before the second coming of AGW.

  8. #8 Walt
    April 3, 2009

    For what it’s worth, I have both tubes and CFLs and the tubes last quite a while (haven’t changed one in 5 years) but the CFLs crap out all the time, as do the incandescents.

  9. #9 rb
    April 3, 2009

    well, I have to routinely replace CFL in my house. We get brown outs all the time. These seem to burn the out almost immediately. In the past 1 year alone I had to replace all CFL three times for some reason on other. So I am back to incandescent. Sorry.

  10. #10 Art
    April 3, 2009

    rb – “We get brown outs all the time.”

    I would call in an electrician to check the wiring. There is a good chance your voltage sags of a fault in your service lateral or riser, connections in your main panel or main breaker.

    Most power companies will check the external wiring, laterals and riser and meter, for free. Meter to main panel are usually yours and, assuming you don’t get a very accommodating lineman with interior experience, you would need to hire someone. Most electrical contractors will do an inspection as a courtesy or for a nominal charge.

    The sort of faults that cause these issues are also the sort that can cause early failure of electronics, appliances, and potentially, fires. Better to take care of them sooner than later.

  11. #11 natural cynic
    April 3, 2009

    Three CFL’s in a light fixture on for ~8hrs/day for 4 years. No problem. Bought them at the 99cent store.

  12. #12 rb
    April 3, 2009

    Art, they are town wide, (we live in middle of applachia)

    and I know my wiring is good, wired house myself.

  13. #13 Home Electrician
    July 24, 2009

    Thanks for sharing this info post.

  14. #14 Chip
    November 1, 2009

    I use CFLs all over my house, no failures, including dimable bulbs. Let’s get to the heart of it, you buy bulbs from the cheapest source ( Walmart ) and you get the cheapest bulb. Walmart and the other box stores do NOT sell the same items as other stores even if the brand is the same. Look at the number of recalls of common items that were “only” sold through those box stores.

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