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For true reporting on nuclear fusion, non-magical science is needed

We want to know about the uncertainties attending fusion research, but are the people best placed to discuss those uncertainties because they are at the coalface of technical innovation, mired in commercial, and sometimes military, incentives to underplay risk and overplay potential?


“…………………….. ………………. Net gain in fusion research today exploits holes in our broader culture about what we do not know we know. It is unevenly known that more power is consumed than is produced by fusion experiments. The process of manufacturing ignorance about that unevenly known fact turns on excluding uncomfortable knowledge because of the way that knowledge might threaten fusion-related institutional goals and interests.

We are not ignorant of fusion gaslighting because of some natural but temporary state of maldistribution of knowledge, nor because we just happen to have not done the relevant work of knowing. Instead, fusion hype actively makes and sustains broader ignorance. Manufacturing ignorance is an achievement which in the case of fusion relies on fuzzy measures today being masked by heroic projections about tomorrow, aided by eliding the uncertainties attending fusion technology.


If the managing of uncomfortable knowledge is leading to the manufacturing of ignorance about fusion research, is the solution to embrace frank assessment? Unfortunately, a tension exists whereby we reasonably suspect both that experts are best placed to know of uncertainties, and that those same experts might have incentives to underplay them. Social and political analysts of techno-science represent this as the conflict between the certainty trough and the commercialisation of science.

The certainty trough is the finding that those alienated from institutions committed to a non-preferred technology are uncertain due to distrust, but that insiders or producers of knowledge are uncertain (even if only in private) due to close experience with the relevant techno-science. If the question can be established as technical, not political, then by the principle of the locus of legitimate interpretation, in science the producers of knowledge ought to be the arbiters of meaning (unlike in the Arts, where we accept that consumers can play the role of interpreters of meaning).

Yet the commercialisation of science often incentivises an instrumental function of hype in which scientists sell opportunity and underplay risk, producing warranted distrust in the delegating of meaning-making to experts. The hermeneutics of suspicion can be either crude (financial investments are said to directly undermine norms of objectivity), subtle (a medialisation process is shifting the norms of science towards the norms of marketing, entertainment, media and attention cycles), or deep (a restricted agenda of tractable uncertainties, resolvable by existing frameworks, makes invisible the limiting commitments and assumptions of any given techno-scientific project).

The NIF experiment is especially burdened by the tension between trusting and being suspicious of experts because it is a weapons project. The DOE announcement slipped in that the ‘breakthrough will ensure the safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpile’. The director for weapons physics and design at LLNL  (California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) did not hide this, clarifying that fusion ignition is important because it ‘has direct application to maintaining the weapons stockpile—NIF’s (National Ignition Facility) primary mission)

The DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration warranted the NIF ignition test as part of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, in which thermonuclear weapons are assessed and certified without the need for explosive testing. In reply, critics linked the test to concerns about proliferation and continued weapons development, and clean energy was branded a ‘convenient reason to keep the dollars flowing to dual-use weapons R&D’.

Is this tension a catch-22? Is there no escape from the mutually dependent but conflicting conditions? We want to know about the uncertainties attending fusion research, but are the people best placed to discuss those uncertainties because they are at the coalface of technical innovation mired in commercial, and sometimes military, incentives to underplay risk and overplay potential?


Maybe there is a sliver of hope. The director for weapons physics at LLNL lamented that ‘he would have preferred [the results] be released through a scientific journal. But the results were sure to leak out’. The unedifying hype accompanying fusion research trades on the image of science as magically pulling rabbits (clean, infinite power for all, tomorrow) out of hats. Distrust follows when exaggerated projections are revealed to be emperors with no clothes.

But here is a scientist, enmeshed in all the complexities of military and commercial work, still holding on to a key value of science: organised scepticism. The more scientists opt for the less sexy route of assessing results and uncertainties, checking before unveiling and opening research to scientific scrutiny before turning meaning-making over to the norms of sensationalism, the more the rest of us might have access to their distributed judgements about uncertainties.

Note there is an historical precedent: the LIGO result announcing the detection of gravity waves. LIGO detected the ripple in September 2015 but waited until February 2016 to announce it, using the time to double-check everything. The story is told by the sociologist of science Harry Collins in Gravity’s Kiss (2017), where he suggests that the result was withheld because LIGO was still hostage to the ‘science is revelatory’ image. There remained a commitment to flawless and glorious truth, and a reluctance to let science be a bit uncertain and maybe even wrong. There is historical precedent here too: some nuclear waste disposal programs have let their institutional selves be vulnerable, which is a key condition for building trust, by making their choices amenable to checking and changing by broader audiences. I am just, I guess, fusing some ideas together.


December 16, 2022 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, media

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