Energy literacy

In yesterday’s Keene Sentinel guest editorial, YES: Press for more domestic oil, Andrew Morriss consistently misreports oil production figures. Saudi Arabia: 8.1 billion barrels/day; Russia: 10.4 billion; America: 7.9 billion; Iran: 3.7 billion. Those numbers struck me as wrong by orders of magnitude. So I consulted my favorite online scientific fact-checking tool: WolframAlpha.

Q: What is 7.9 billion barrels of oil in dollars? A: $1.05 trillion.

In other words, if we were to convert our daily production to dollars we could pay off the national debt in 15 days. (Real answer: 41 years.)

Q: What is 7.9 billion barrels in gallons? A: 330 billion gallons.

In other words, America’s daily oil production is 4 times the volume of oil transported worldwide in a year. (Real answer: 2.5 times the volume of one of the largest supertankers.)

Q: What is the energy equivalent of 7.9 billion barrels of oil in BTU? A: 45 quadrillion BTU.

In other words, America’s daily oil production is almost half of the total energy consumed by the US in 2001. (Real answer: 1/1000 of that amount.)

What Andrew Morriss meant to write — four times — was million, not billion. Doing that once might be a typo. Doing it four times makes me question his energy literacy.

Now to be fair, most of us — myself included — are not engineers or scientists. We don’t regularly deal with large numbers, and we don’t intuitively grasp relationships among the quantities, prices, and energy content of the various sources that might power our civilization. But we can’t afford to be illiterate (and innumerate) on the topic of energy. The future of the economy, the environment, and of world politics all hinge on our ability to reason about those relationships. Fortunately there is now a tool that can help us all do that more effectively. WolframAlpha isn’t just a boutique search engine. It’s a compendium of scientific knowledge mated to a scientific calculator that understands questions in plain English. And it frames the answers in ways that make sense to everybody. I commend it to Andrew Morriss, to fact-checkers at the Sentinel, and to readers. For more examples of how WolframAlpha can help us reason about energy, see http://delicious.com/judell/energyliteracy.

12 thoughts on “Energy literacy

  1. jmyates01Jim Yates

    Perhaps Andrew Morriss is just numerically challenged as are many human beings. Now a blogger who references his own work in his blog that gets a result of “judell has no links with the tags: energyliterary.” is another matter entirely ;-)

    Reply
      1. jmyates01Jim Yates

        Well, I enjoy your eclectic point of view and therefore, get notified by email of your postings. It is interesting that I had also just gone through a few postings to the Corning video, http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/technology-blog/life-under-glass-corning-vision-future-180034798.html;_ylc=X3oDMTBtcmJrbHI0BF9TAwRlbWFpbElkAzEzMjg1NjkzOTc-?bcmt_s=e that indicated in general GIGO. I guess that also applies to the mistaken data in the article you reference.

    1. Jon Udell Post author

      Seriously, yes, many of us are numerically challenged. But we all do need to be able to reason about quantities, units, and conversions if we’re going to have any kind of rational public discourse about major topics like energy. WolframAlpha’s potential to elevate that discourse is the highest and best use of the tool that I have found.

      Reply
  2. Speed

    Morriss’ column was picked up by many publications around the country (Bing “Whenever gas prices start dipping” in quotes). The few that I checked failed to catch the innumeracy. Interesting that this included NewsOK, “Powered by the Oklahoman, The State’s Most Trusted News.” They should know something about oil in OK.
    http://newsok.com/to-drill-or-not-we-should-but-we-wont/article/3645890

    Morriss has spent time among the numerati. His bio notes that “He received a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”
    http://www.law.ua.edu/directory/People/view/Andrew_Morriss

    Reply
  3. Mike Caulfield (@holden)

    There’s an issue here about memory in the age of the web. Wolfram Alpha will help you get an answer, but how did you know you needed one? And how did you know that the stuff Wolfram Alpha spat back made no sense?

    Part of it is you have some figures which either explicitly or implicitly help guide your process. You probably know that the U.S. population is appx. 300 million, the world population is appx. 7 billion, that the debt is about 15 trillion, that GDP is about 15 trillion too. Or maybe you don’t — but if you are good at guesstimating, you have something equivalent. And it turns out people that are good at sniffing out bad stats usually have some basic figures.

    I wish we would replace all the time kids spend memorizing state capitals in grade school with having them memorize numbers at various scales of magnitude. Having good examples of what a million people means (appx. New Hampshire) or the scale the debt operates at is crucial to quickly groking public policy. And the effect is cumulative — if we have these things ready to hand when processing new data, we retain the new data better as well, and thus get more examples.

    If you are interested, I’ve been thinking of starting a local memory club — I’d like to give myself an excuse to memorize things like the GDP of New Hampshire and the number of molecules in a gallon of water.

    I’ve just realized this post is starting to sound insane, so I’ll stop. But memory club is for real!

    Reply
    1. Jon Udell Post author

      That’s a great point. For thousand, million, billion, and trillion it would be great if we had a common set of touchstone mnemonics for those quantities of acres, miles, gallons, tons, dollars, watts, etc.

      Reply
  4. The J

    This is off-topic, and I know you were using the national debt only for comparison’s sake, but one often hears of the US “paying off” its debt as if that were somethig we should be trying to do. In truth, it’s non-sensical. The US is not a household. The national debt is exactly equal to the net financial assets held by non-government. It’s not the “burden” we leave to our children that many politicians try to frame it as.

    Reply
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