The age of snakeoil

The internet has brought many benefits. But it also has created many problems. And probably top of those problems is the ease with which bad ideas can quickly proliferate. Its all too easy to create a slick advertising campaign for something that fundamentally does not work or is just impossible (because it violates the basic laws of physics). Solar roadways, the Fyre festival, those water woo devices I tackled sometime ago (notably Fontus) and the Thernaos scandal are merely some examples of this trend.

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As a result we are now living in the age of the charlatan, the fraudster and the con artist. In much the same way some snake oil salesman could pull his one many show into a town in the old west and make a fortune selling turpentine to a couple of slack jawed yokels, the same can be done today – only they can defraud millions over the internet instead. It is perhaps no wonder we have the likes of Boris Johnson or Trump in charge of their respective countries, they perfectly fit in with the age. For they are by no means even the worst.

The problem is as I see it, we’ve lost our ability to spot bullshit. On the internet cool (but implausible) click bait tends to win out over pragmatic (but analytical) science, much like fake news. And politicians and company CEO’s are just as vulnerable to such persuasions as the rest of us. There s therefore a need to rediscover how to spot bullshit and apply some due diligence.

The next Steve Jobs

Now it has to be said, that to be successful as a business person (or a politician), you have to be able to blow your own trumpet. Some level of salesmanship is required. And yes some of our more successful entrepreneurs have been known to tell the odd white lie. Case in point, Bill Gate’s selling MS-DOS software to IBM, even thought he didn’t actually own it at the time of signing. Or how Apple basically ripped off the design of their first Apple Mac from Xerox. Then when Gates & IBM ripped off their idea, they got upset at him stealing the ideas that they’d stolen.

But my point is they were selling a product that actually existed. They might have been less that forward about certain technical details….such as who actually had invented it! But they were selling something real and deliverable. Part of the problem recently has been fraudsters selling a product that doesn’t currently exist, beyond some photoshopped images and a slick internet advertising campaign. They have in essence crossed the line between salesmanship and fraud.

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Beware of an entrepreneur in a black turtleneck!

And I’d argue that one of the first warning signs is anyone comparing themselves to Steve Jobs. This is what Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos used to do (to the point of going around in turtlenecks sweaters and making her voice sound deeper) and so too did the developer of the now infamous Jucerio, a $600 juicing machine that was rendered useless when it was realised you could just squeeze the bags instead with your hands (and he’s now promising to be the Steve Jobs of raw water…or bottled cholera as I’d call it).

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Now, don’t get me wrong, Steve Jobs was a visionary and played a key role in the computing revolution. But he wasn’t exactly the full shilling, known for having some strange habits and odd behaviour. His eccentric management style eventually led to a board room revolt against him, leading to his firing from Apple in the 1980’s. And he was more of a personality and a show man than a tech person, largely leaving the tech side of things to other better qualified people.

In fact I often find it strange how nobody wants to be the next Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Warren Buffet. Even thought all have arguably been much more successful than Jobs. Presumably because that sounds like a lot of hard work and you might actually need to know something. So with all due respect to Jobs, I’d say anyone comparing themselves to him is a big red flag.

They laughed at Christopher Columbus

This is another warning sign. Firstly its not entirely true, there was scepticism about his proposals, but mostly from cartographers (not the catholic church) and not because people thought the earth was flat. It was well known since the time of Ptolemy that the earth was round and the ancient Greeks had even managed to estimate its circumference (as had Indian, Arab and Chinese astronomers). What Columbus was proposing was that everybody was wrong and that the earth was much smaller and hence a voyage west would get you to Asia quicker (which may have been because he mucked up his units studying Arab made maps, which used a different scale for miles). Obviously, this is not the case.

Unfortunately the Queen of Spain was as vulnerable to such slick showmanship as many of us in the modern day. So she gave money to this loon who went about trying to prove it was true (until she came to her senses and had him arrested). Hence why America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, who through careful analysis of the facts deduced that the world was the size calculated, that Asia hadn’t moved and thus any new lands had to be part of a new as of yet unseen continent.

The reason for a lot of this “laughed at Columbus” stuff was largely down to anti-catholic propaganda from the early 20th century, as it annoyed the piss out of right wing baptist southerners that they owed their country’s existence to a bunch of catholic European monarchs. Hence they latched onto a work of fiction (by Irving Washington) about ignorant catholic’s who believed the world was flat and didn’t believe Columbus and began spreading it as fact. Fake news is unfortunately nothing new.

The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They may have laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

Carl Sagan

Black boxes

As noted several of these Charlatans will, via a slick advertising campaign, often present investors with something of a black box…..but be reluctant to discuss what’s inside. In fact with Theranos this was literally true, their product was an actual black box….which you literally had to pour blood into. Well needless to say, that should be alarming. After all one assumes if there’s some unique new technology inside it that would have been patented already (otherwise what happens when a competitor dismantles and reverse engineers it?) and its all too easy to get people to sign an NDA.

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….and beware of black boxes also!

I mean I’ve been on factory or lab tours round a facility where they know I’m working for a rival team of researchers. Yes they aren’t going to give me a ten minute power point presentation revealing all of their secrets, they’ll not discuss certain key details, but they can and will show you what’s going on and generally talk shop. So any unwillingness to do any of this should immediately trigger alarm bells.

And this is even more true if they don’t have a working prototype. Or they have one but it hasn’t been subjected to independent testing. This immediately signals that any sort of cost projections or marketing estimates can be ignored as pie in the sky. Until they actually have a working system its going to be impossible to tell how well the product will perform, nor how much it will cost to make. And anyone investing prior to this stage is gambling that the device can actually be developed and will work. In other words its a fairly high risk investment.

Technology readiness

Which brings us to another key red flag, technology readiness and what sources of funding the developer is chasing. Crowd funding or seeking venture capital funding for something that is at a high level of technical readiness doesn’t make a lot of sense. If the developer is really that close to market, why not just negotiate a line of credit with a bank? Naturally it implies that the banks keep asking awkward questions the developer is unable to answer (e.g. they insisted on independent testing or getting some outside expert in to review it), or they aren’t as close to prime time as claimed.

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At the opposite end of the scale a project with a relatively low level of readiness is a fairly high risk investment. And again, it makes little sense for the developer to seek private funding at this stage, when there’s plenty of money available from various research institutes and government agencies. The EU’s Horizon project for example provides tens of billions of euros worth of funding to develop new technologies. That the developer is ignoring this large pot of what is essentially free money suggests one of two things. Either they don’t know what they are doing (and thus don’t know such funding options exist). Or they were unable to convince the funding body that the project is worthy of funding (or that they can be trusted with public money). Either way, not something you’d probably want to invest in.

Reinventing the wheel

In fact, I’d take a step back and ask the most basic question right at the start, if your idea is so great why has nobody thought of it before? Because the odds are good that somebody had thought of it before, but dismissed it for a good reason. Hyperloop for example is not a new idea, its been proposed before in various forms. But they quickly realised it just wasn’t a practical proposal and ceased all research. Worst still if nobody has thought of it before, maybe its because such a device would need to break the basic laws of physics to work properly (as is the case with a number of the aforementioned water woo devices).

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The hyperloop concept has been proposed many times before

Granted times change and so does technology, but some things don’t change. Take for example flying cars or jet packs. Why don’t we have those? Because they are very expensive to build (well beyond the budget of anyone but the super rich) and difficult to fly. Plus, given how fuel inefficient they would be, their range would be poor. And air traffic control would struggle to cope with so many flying objects in close proximity to the ground. In short they combine all the disadvantages of a car with all of those of a helicopter. To the point where you are better off just driving to an airfield, getting in a plane/helicopter and flying to your destination.

Now granted, recent advances in drone technology, materials, batteries and electric motors has allowed a drone to be scaled up to the level where one can carry a person, as recently demonstrated by a French daredevil flying over the English channel. So while I could see a few niche rolls evolving for such devices (the play thing of billionaires, military uses, smuggling drugs and migrants across Trump’s wall, etc.). But its never going to go to be a mass market, as the other factors still apply.

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If there’s anything more terrifying for brexiters, its flying foreigners over the white cliffs of Dover

So the question has to be asked, is there some simple practical solution that exists right now that can do the same thing as the proposed product. Because more often than not, there is. Do you need a $600 wi-fi enabled monster in my kitchen to press fruit out of a bag, when can you just squeeze it with your hands? As opposed to getting “water from air” how about you just get it from the tap, a river, or even the sea and filter it or use reverse osmosis to remove the salt. Not only does this suggest that such a device will fail commercially, it suggests the crank developer proposing it hasn’t even done the most basic market research.

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Take solar roadways. Now the solar aspect of these has been widely debunked by many other sources, so I’m not going to dwell too long on that. What I’m going to focus on is the other aspects of this technology. The use of LED’s for road markings for example, because they don’t make a lot of sense. If we want to communicate hazard warnings to drivers, why not just broadcast that information directly to the vehicles? Most cars these days have driver assist features and an integrated sat-nav, as well as internet access (via Wi-Fi or a mobile phone bluetoothed to the car).

solar led glass road

Not only does this bring the benefit that warnings will be received much earlier (while the car is further away from the hazard), but we can also include an audio warning within the car, increasing the likelihood that drivers will react in time. Bottom line, it’s going to be easier to implement a software update on the car (or install a mobile phone app) than paving the road with LED displays. And there’s also an element of future proofing the system. How will a driverless car react to a bunch of disco lights suddenly flashing at it? Ignore them? Sit on the brakes and get rear-ended? Take evasive action and drive off the road? I don’t know and I’d rather not find out!

Also, when it comes to heating elements to clear snow, it would be more sensible to just use a snow plough than heating plates Or alternatively, for sections of road prone to icing where we don’t want to rely on a snow plough (e.g. the on or off ramps of motorways), how about just using a heat pump? This is something which has been demonstrated by a pilot project in the UK. And we are comparing a magical woo device that only works in la la land, to something in the real world built by real engineers, subject to real world testing, with real vehicles driving over it.

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A snow clearing heat pump under test in Japan

My point is that you can easily see how under the microscope of ration scrutiny such a concept rapidly falls apart pretty quickly.

The ponzi factor

Given all what I’ve said above, you’d wonder how they get away with it. I mean yes you can stumble on a slick advertising campaign online, or some fake news conspiracy theory, but there’s dedicated teams of debunkers out there who are quick to shoot down such ideas. And a few minutes or rational reasoning (or a quick google search) should expose the flaws in any such snake oil salesman’s pitch. So why do people fall for it? And why don’t they recognise that they were conned?

Well its down to something I’ve talked about before, what I call the ponzi factor. A key part of any con is to get the mark to emotionally commit to the con. The objective here is two fold. Firstly it reduces the chances of the mark backing out of the con when the inevitable cracks start to appear. And secondly, it means they are less likely to go running to the authorities after being fleeced (either because they still believe in the con, or are too embarrassed to report it).

Such is the power of myth. Its why people (such as the UK’s farmers or fishermen who voted brexit, or the farmers in the US who voted Trump) will remain committed to a con well after its obvious they’ve been fleeced. If they admit they’ve been conned then they will look stupid to their peers and their ego is too fragile to take that sort of a hit. Similarly, those taken in by solar roadways, LFTR’s or water woo devices will cling to this belief. And, as discussed, even politicians and business leaders can be taken in by such click bait. In fact even the developers themselves, who might not have set out to con people, has gone so far down the rabbit hole they start to believe their own propaganda (which has almost certainly happened to more than a few of them).

So what is the solution? Well clearly anyone prompting this stuff be they crowdfunding  or tech news websites needs to apply a bit more sceptical scrutiny to any such proposals. Granted they may not have the technical skills to do so, but why not just consult someone who can, such as an academic at a local university (this is something we do get asked to weigh in on from time to time by more professional investors). One idea being floated is a sort of Hypocratic oath for scientists and engineers (that said, plastic surgeons don’t follow such an oath, nor the ones supervising executions, so not sure if it would work if there’s not some sort of penalty for breaking the oath).

But ultimately it means taking any new ideas with a pinch of salt. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in aviation, climate change, economics, environment, flying car, future, Global warming denial, Japan, LFTR, news, politics, robot car, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport, water scams and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The age of snakeoil

  1. dougaj4 says:

    Nice post (with both meanings of the word “nice” :))
    But when you said “As a result we are not living in the age of the charlatan” I presume that should be “now living”?
    As an engineer interested in how misconceptions are instigated, accepted, and perpetuated, you might be interested in:
    https://newtonexcelbach.com/2008/02/27/the-history-of-the-theory-of-beam-bending-part-1/

  2. Brett Stokes says:

    Are you talking about nuclear advocacy fraud?
    There is a lot of it about.
    “Part of the problem recently has been fraudsters selling a product that doesn’t currently exist, beyond some photoshopped images and a slick internet advertising campaign. They have in essence crossed the line between salesmanship and fraud.”

    • daryan12 says:

      There is some element of that within nuclear I as well I suppose. But equally, for renewables we have solar roadways!

      • Brett Stokes says:

        I would say that nuclear has long been a leader in such fraud – the “electricity too cheap to meter” line is one example of the deceptions, from the 1950s.

        Since then we have had an abundance of false statements about costs and safety and reliability.

        Nuclear fanatics have even claimed “zero emissions”.

        Currently we have the standard claim that nuclear power is only 12g/kWhCO2equivalent when the real number is much higher.

        And when you look at the resources consumed and the public money spent, many trillions of dollars, then dirty nuclear makes “solar roadways” look harmless and inconsequential.

        Thanks for your useful article.

      • daryan12 says:

        My understanding is the true figure for nuclear is closer to 40-70 gCO2/kWh, which is a bit higher than most renewables. That said, given that the lowest you’ll get as far as fossil fuels is in the order of 450 gCO2/kWh, closer to 1000 gCO2/kWh for coal, so we’re kind of splitting hairs. Any form of energy production that involves fossil fuels is going to have a higher carbon footprint than the worse case scenario for nuclear or renewables, even if you use CCS (as this only tackles the emissions at combustion, not those at extraction, which in the case of coal, tar sands oil or shale gas, can be quite significant).

  3. Brett Stokes says:

    What is the g/kWh number for nuclear ?

    Nowadays the industry line is 12.

    Reality says maybe 66, maybe 250, maybe 280, even higher when the high quality uranium ore runs out – and these numbers do not include the carbon footprint of Fukushima 2011 to present and Chernobyl 1986 to present and many other catastrophes – these numbers also do not include the costs of Monju, Superphénix, Westinghouse and many other failures.

    In a 2008 report, Sovacool screened 103 lifecycle studies of greenhouse emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle to identify the most current, original, and transparent studies.

    He found that the mean value from those studies was 66 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (gCO2e/kWh), with the much higher figure of 288 being credible to Sovacool (and much more real, in my view).

    Sovacool’s paper provides the following figures (gCO2e/kWh):

    Wind 9−10

    Hydro 10−13

    Biogas 11

    Solar thermal 13

    Biomass 14−31

    Solar PV 32

    Biomass 35−41

    Geothermal 38

    Nuclear 66

    Natural gas 443

    Diesel 778

    Heavy oil 778

    Coal 960−1050

    Sovacool stated in 2008: “Offshore wind power has less than one-seventh the carbon equivalent emissions of nuclear plants; large-scale hydropower, onshore wind, and biogas, about one-sixth the emissions; small-scale hydroelectric and solar thermal one-fifth. This makes these renewable energy technologies seven-, six-, and five-times more effective on a per kWh basis at fighting climate change. Policymakers would be wise to embrace these more environmentally friendly technologies if they are serious about producing electricity and mitigating climate change.”

    See the report at https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1006/ML100601133.pdf .

    Since 2008, wind power costs have dropped dramatically reflecting reduced carbon footprint for that technology.

    Since 2008, solar PV costs have dropped even more dramatically reflecting a much reduced carbon footprint for Solar PV.

    A recent article by Mark Z. Jacobson (Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Director, Atmosphere/Energy Program, Stanford University) says:
    “There is no such thing as a zero- or close-to-zero emission nuclear power plant. Even existing plants emit due to the continuous mining and refining of uranium needed for the plant. Emissions from new nuclear are 78 to 178 g-CO2/kWh, not close to 0. Of this, 64 to 102 g-CO2/kWh over 100 years are emissions from the background grid while consumers wait 10 to 19 years for nuclear to come online or be refurbished, relative to 2 to 5 years for wind or solar. In addition, all nuclear plants emit 4.4 g-CO2e/kWh from the water vapor and heat they release. This contrasts with solar panels and wind turbines, which reduce heat or water vapor fluxes to the air by about 2.2 g-CO2e/kWh for a net difference from this factor alone of 6.6 g-CO2e/kWh.”
    https://www.leonardodicaprio.org/the-7-reasons-why-nuclear-energy-is-not-the-answer-to-solve-climate-change

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