Manipulation, Distortion and the Role of Belief-Based Decision Making in U.S. Energy Policy

September 21, 2009

Chi-Jen Yang, 919/681-7191,

DURHAM, N.C. – Nuclear power was supposed to make electricity too cheap to meter. Synthetic fuels were going to free the United States from dependence on foreign oil. Neither promise has been fulfilled. The failures stem not from insurmountable flaws in the technologies themselves, a new book by a Duke University researcher argues, but from the pervasive – and unavoidable – influence of belief-based decisions on U.S. energy policy.

“We assume our national energy decisions are based on rational choices,” says Chi-Jen Yang, a technology policy analyst at Duke’s Center on Global Change. “But that’s often not possible because of the extreme long-term nature of energy planning and high uncertainty about sociopolitical and economic conditions in the distant future.

“Decision makers can’t rationally choose between one unknown and another,” Yang says. “Pivotal decisions in long-term energy planning must inevitably be belief based, and beliefs are subject to political manipulation and distortions by social mechanisms.”

In his book, Belief-based Energy Technology Development in the United States: A Comparative Study of Nuclear Power and Synthetic Fuel Policies, he traces the sharply differing trajectories of the two technologies to illustrate how social values, corporate culture and political convictions influence technological outcomes.

“Understanding how these forces shape energy policy and the energy business bears important lessons for decision making today,” Yang says. “With the need to restructure our energy system to address rising fuel costs and global warming, the stakes, if anything, are even higher than before.”

The book, published this month by Cambia Press, was written neither as an apology for, not a condemnation of, the technologies it examines, he stresses. “They are merely examples,” Yang says, “of the pervasive and peculiar belief-based decision-making mechanisms in U.S. energy policy.”

For instance, political leaders in the Cold War manipulated public beliefs about civilian nuclear power and distorted the speed and ease of the technology’s development. “U.S. national security planners intentionally idealized and deified nuclear power to support their Cold War psychological agenda,” Yang says. “They attached important symbolic meaning and moral significance to it, which explains the nationwide enthusiasm with which it was received. The fabricated myth of the Atomic Age established nuclear power as our inevitable destiny and ushered in a bandwagon market.”

On the other hand, long-term ideological support and political endorsement for synthetic fuels has been sporadic, ebbing and waning from administration to administration, Yang finds, and this has slowed the pace of their technological development. “The technology has remained ‘imminent’ for over half a century,” he says.

Synthetic fuels are liquid or gaseous fuels, similar in composition to gasoline or natural gas, but made from hydrocarbon-rich solid earth materials such as coal, tar sands or oil shale.

“In the case of synthetic fuel, the government’s effort observed boom-and-bust cycles,” Yang says. “It didn’t possess symbolic significance in Cold War psychological warfare, so the government treated its development solely as an economic issue. In the 1980s, a confused, indeterminate and relatively powerless federal government pushed to rekindle synthetic fuel’s development to achieve energy independence, but this effort failed miserably and left the synthetic fuels program with the reputation of being wasteful and, to some, a symbol of government squander.”

The contrast between the unfaltering faith in nuclear power and the indeterminate attitude toward synthetic fuel reveals insights into the inherent flaws of the U.S. energy policymaking process, Yang says.

“Today, a ‘renewable future’ seems as inevitable as the Atomic Age used to be, and carbon capture and storage technology appears as ‘imminent’ as synthetic fuel has been for the past 50 years,” he notes. “History tells us that technologies that are believed to be inevitable often prove much more difficult than expected. And those that appear imminent may take an extremely long time to commercialize if government support is indeterminate and sporadic. These lessons, if heeded, could help decision makers today make smarter choices.”

The Center on Global Change was established at Duke in 2001 as a universitywide initiative, housed in the Nicholas School of the Environment, in response to rapid changes in society’s demands on science and a consequent shift in the way environmental science is done.