Friday, April 1, 2011

Seth's Blog post: The triumph of coal marketing

The Seth's Blog post: The triumph of coal marketing raises interesting questions. Mr.Godin positions the questions as marketing ones. Overall I understood the general thought flow of his post as:

(a) The graphic allows to experience the perception bias against the nuclear power industry. (b) It is nothing but coal industry's marketing, which moved public perception against the nuclear power industry. (c) Marketing is powerful.

The (a) and (c) statements are quite agreeable to me, albeit a bit trivial. The (b) statement seems to be a careless public disservice - and here is why I think so.

After asking myself, which issues would make me emotionally side with coal or nuclear energy, I found the following (completely unscientifically, just sifting through my memory):

  • Nuclear energy installations' ability to produce less frequent, but large events, while there seem to be more of smaller events, or continuous damage from the coal industry. I believe it is a natural property of our mind to emphasize large infrequent events, than almost routine stream of small events.

  • Highly emotional attachment of nuclear technology to it's first use as a weapon in Japan. Quite reverse (even though centuries ago), coal was initially used to keep houses warm. No wonder coal has a more positive clout from the beginning, vs. the negative one for nuclear power. Modern nuclear arms issues and fears do not help the positive image either.

  • Traditional distrust to many government-provided reports. Such distrust may have diverse roots. For example, for the population of former Soviet Union, it may stem from a long history of fabrications, half-truths and secrecies throughout the government. For American population it may come from the overall secrecy of the original use of nuclear technology by the military. The distrust is also fueled by the questionable reporting practices. For example, "The triumph of coal marketing" blog post is based on an original article at Next Big Future blog. That article in turn bases it's coal and nuclear industries' numbers on a 10-year old ExternE publication, 12-year-old IAEA publication, an unspecified source for WHO data on yearly deaths, a broken link to Metal/Nonmetal fatalities, and a non-specific (not separating coal vs. other) document at the US Department of Labor, a WHO Chernobyl study (single event, not industry-wide), and other resources not related to coal or nuclear power. So, there are about 10 years of missing data about nuclear energy related deaths and 10 years of non-applicable data about mining. Even though the data may be right in the ballpark and fits the purpose of the original article just fine, it's extraction for Mr.Godin's post is bad enough to make this reporting either sensational, fuel that same distrust, or both (no wonder that chart unsettles a lot of people). Such quality of "reporting" comes from all sides of the debate, which does not help either.

  • Perceived choice of living proximity to a source of trouble seems to be different for nuclear and coal industries. Dangerous coal industry's locations perceived to be mostly coal mines at known locations. Many people would not think twice about living nearby those. Nuclear industry's main perceived troublemakers are energy plants - right in everyone's backyard, or at least in a metropolitan area. There also seems to be a perception that a nuclear plant may come to a neighborhood and there is nothing people can do about it. Clearly, it is not the first thought to associate coal industry dangers with coal distribution (transportation) or power plants - people do not consider it a close proximity danger as much as they do coal mines. Although I know nobody who would be thrilled to live by coal power plants, either. The point is that there feels to be less of of them build and with less buzz surrounding them.

  • Perception that long-term deaths (a.k.a. shortened life) and overall impact caused by nuclear industry are more plentiful and more impactful, whatever that means. There is little awareness which I notice about specific long-term effects on life expectancy for both coal and nuclear energy. There is enough awareness of generic long term effects of both. So most people I know will claim that negative side-effects or events of either technology potentially shortening an individual's lifespan in general. However, I can only think of a handful people I know, who would contemplate that the averaged lifespan change is about the same for people impacted by accidents in both industries. Most people will perceive the radioactive incidents to have much bigger impact on life expectancy and quality - both stronger and longer. From what I understand, that comes from a few sources:

    1. The medical fall-off from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (as in the last sentence of the RERF FAQ)
    2. General high-school physics knowledge that some isotopes have long half-lives.
    3. Mass evacuations and relocations (proper or not) which happened throughout the nuclear industry history.
    4. Government and journalistic emphasis on nuclear energy and radioactivity events in general. That seems to be coming from both of those groups' attention seeking behavior, which goes after the novelty of a subject and the subject's large events.

I did not see enough coal industry marketing to attribute my mindset to it. Unless it is an "invisible marketing"".

Based on the thinking above I can only see the "marketing theory" as a conspiracy theory. Mr.Godin says "it was advertising, or perhaps deliberate story telling". For completeness, he brings "the stories we tell", yet still converges on marketing. To me it sounds like a conspiracy theory. Here is why:

  • The "marketing theory" does not seem to explain more of the evidence than a mainstream story.
  • It employs a fallacy to jump to a conclusion.
  • There is no logic offered whatsoever to support the main thesis: "any time reality doesn't match your expectations, it means that marketing was involved".
  • No credible whistle-blowers or examples named at all, less so to support the scale of the claim.
  • The "marketing theory" is hard to falsify in this application.

Here are some reasons I can think of for people to promote conspiracy theories:

  1. if people have no personal interest promoting a conspiracy theory:
    1. they may be dumb - clearly not Mr.Godin's case
    2. they may be bored - also an unlikely case for the busy businessman
    3. they act mindlessly
  2. if people do have personal interest promoting a conspiracy theory:
    1. they may represent special interest groups. Mr.Godin gives neither representations or disclaimers, however, I dismiss that thought as improbable (*).
    2. they seek cheap publicity, often riding on a wave of some public concern.

As one may guess, my bets are on scenarios 1.3 and 2.2 for Mr.Godin's post. Both are unfortunate as the resulting post creates a negative societal value, i.e. a disservice. It is quite disheartening to see it from such a prominent public figure. Especially assuming that many readers will not care about the intricacies of the intentions.

Some needed closing comments and disclaimers:

I do not belong to any special interests party in the debate other than being a concerned citizen. I do believe that data used is correct in general and nuclear energy should have it's place in the future. I do agree that marketing is a powerful tool, which may be used for good and bad. I do not like when people exploit a community trouble without aiding the troubled community in that process.

My contributions in this post are completely unscientific. Rather they are personal observations and speculations, much like the original post of Mr.Godin.

* Also, without the relevant disclaimer a post like that would likely to violate FTC Rules if author received a compensation for it.


  1. While for some an ideal world would see no reliance on thermal coal (steam coal) to produce electricity, coal statistics would suggest the commodity isn't going anywhere. Coal reports show if we have to live with it, we may as well reduce the impact of coal and CCS seems to be the best solution found to date. Cherry

  2. Cherry, I think you totally missed the point of the post while pushing your affiliated industry group agenda. The article was not about the matter of the coal vs. other fuels argumentation. The post is about the quality of data collection in journalism and publishing. So, for example, your comment shows a better post in my mind than that of Mr. Gogin, regardless if I agree with your comment or not.

    Your comment is respectful, because you do not pretend to have anything more than hearsay evidence, and disclose your affiliation. Which allows readers to have a better perception about the quality of information you offer - again, regardless of their point on the subject matter.


Comments which in my opinion do not contribute to a discussion will be removed.