Thursday, May 28, 2009

They said it was "too cheap to meter"
Oh no they didn't

Inspired by this excellent post  from Neurosceptic, I thought I'd use Google News Archive to investigate the widespread untruth  that proponents of nuclear power claimed it would be "too cheap to meter". 

Here are the time lines for searches on "nuclear power"  and "nuclear power" + "too cheap to meter" 

In the first we can see the peaks for the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) disasters, and a steady increase from about 1995.

In the second, we can see a peak representing Lewis Strauss speech (and the aftermath of Eisenhower's "atoms for peace" speech) in 1954, a few more references during the 50s, and then a big gap until 1975, when the porky picks up popularity, although we can't see "I told you so" spikes associated with the two nuclear disasters mentioned above. There's a caveat to this - the timeline shows hits in the 1940s, although examination shows that they are from much more recent sources referring to events in the 40s. However, I think the distribution is still interesting.

[Sadly, one of the top hits on the second search is this from "Scientific controversies: case studies in the resolution and closure of disputes in science and technology", edited by Hugo Tristram Engelhardt and Arthur L. Caplan. The depressingly familiar quote is enlivened by a bogus citation: 'In December 1953, when President Eisenhower was promoting the Atomic Energy Act in his famous "atomic power for peace" speech before the United Nations General Assembly, he made his promise of electricity so abundant it would be "too cheap to meter" '. In the internet age, you can read Eisenhower's "atoms for peace" speech here, and use control-F to verify he said no such thing. I suspect the author is confusing the Atomic Energy Acts (the original 1946 McMahon act, and its subsequent modification in 1954) with the International Atomic Energy Agency that Eisenhower's speech eventually led to] 


Neuroskeptic said...

I'm glad I inspired you!

Google Archive isn't ideal for this kind of work, because as you've discovered, not all of the hits were actually written in the year in question.

For some purposes this is probably not a big problem, for others it is.

A site called LexisNexis is rather better in that it is much more comphrensive and has many more features, but it's behind a paywall. Most universities are subscribers though which is nice...

Political Scientist said...

Hello Neurosceptic,

It's a smashing idea - I might try out the LexisNexus when I have a moment.

I'm looking forward to instalment 2 of your "One-in-four" article!

best wishes
Edmund @ Political Scientist

pj said...

I don't know if it is just me but I find Lexis Nexis quite hard to convince that I have an institutional subscription. It seems to take me multiple goes to get the right page. But like I say, could just be me, or my institutions rather rubbish new subscription management process.

Neuroskeptic said...

Yeah. Annoying, but you can usually get it to work if you're persistent.

Political Scientist said...

Hello Pj,
Could that be related to your Shibboleth woes?