An academic paper with a false claim
In July of this year, a group of academics including Benjamin Sovacool published a paper that reviewed the electricity-supply mixes of various European nations and concluded that “…intensities of national commitment to nuclear power tend to be inversely related to degrees of success in achieving EU climate policy goals.” In other words, the paper claimed that nuclear power doesn’t help nations fight climate change.
As you can imagine, this paper was widely celebrated among anti-nuclear groups. Here’s a blog post based on the paper: New Study Shows How Clinging to Nuclear Power Means Climate Failure. And here’s a link to the original Sovacool paper: which has been retracted. The retraction is a victory for scientific truth, for nuclear advocacy, and for careful review work by several people. Especially notable among the reviewers was graduate student Nicholas Thompson.
The Thompson Analysis
Nicholas Thompson wasn’t sold on the Sovacool paper, noticing that it was 21 pages long, but rather light on data. Thompson wrote a short letter to Sovacool asking for some clarifications. For example, the starting years and time periods for the various comparisons seemed inconsistent with the paper’s stated conclusions. While waiting for a definitive response from Sovacool, Thompson read of other responses to the paper, and also read that the paper’s authors had looked back at their data and found that they had used some incorrect numbers. However, at that point, the authors apparently thought that some simple fixes would lead to a more accurate paper, and the conclusions would not change. Thompson decided to do a more complete analysis of the paper.
Instead of going blow-by-blow through the various correspondences between Thompson and Sovacool, I will instead refer to Thompson’s first blog post on this subject: A Response to Lawrence, Sovacool and Stirling. Suffice it to say that eventually the authors withdrew the article, as documented in Thompson’s second blog post on the subject: Response from Lawrence, Sovacool and Stirling and Statement of Article Withdrawal. After an initial attempt to fix the articles, Sovacool wrote “In summary, NT [Nicholas Thompson] is correct that our article contains flaws that invalidate the analysis.”
The retraction was noted in the blog Retraction Watch and in some pronuclear blogs, such as Nukes pretty please.
Credit to Sovacool and his co-authors
In recent weeks, pro-nuclear advocates have seen anti-nuclear academics respond to well-documented criticisms by–blocking the critic on Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, on one of my pro-nuclear email lists, “blocked by….” is a badge of honor. In contrast, Sovacool and his group had an honest and thoughtful response to Thompson’s critique. They deserve credit for this.
What we can learn from the Thompson analysis
Thompson’s analysis also shows the power of careful reasoning and thoughtful analysis.
I must note that Thompson didn’t just “do the numbers.” He “did the numbers” and then he shared the numbers on his blog posts, and with the authors of the paper. If the authors had not responded in a reasonable way (which they did), he would have been positioned to take his careful analysis and submit it to an academic journal.
In my opinion, Thompson’s work on this topic is an important part of advocacy. When an academic journal publishes an article that supposedly shows that nuclear doesn’t help with climate change, people opposed to nuclear power are handed ammunition for many of their claims. Thompson took that ammunition out of their hands.
Thompson didn’t just “do the numbers,” he did the follow-up. Numbers plus follow-up–that’s the combination that can make a difference.