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How not to write an essay on oil, with guidance from the New York Times

I hope my readers will forgive me today for lapsing back into my prior profession rather than my present one as an energy and environmental writer. You see, before I gained fame and fortune writing about our ecological situation, I was a mild-mannered college teacher, whose favorite and most important job was teaching rhetoric to undergraduates.

I am perhaps odd in observing that I thought that teaching writing was the most important thing I did. Most academics believe their primary subject matter is the central portion of their work, but I came to see that the place that I had the greatest impact on students was in teaching them to write, because functionally, the best way to teach people to write well is to teach them to think clearly, or, if they have already mastered that exercise, to clearly express the thought process they used to come to a conclusion.

Teaching students to write and communicate well was thus, extraordinarily rewarding. Students often made enormous and quick progress, once they realized what the mistakes they were making were, why they were making them (ie, the answer is not "you are stupid, or you should already know this) and how to correct them. Almost no other subject was as much fun to teach. Nor were any subjects as important - someone with the ability to think clearly, to reason well and articulate that reason can learn almost anything, and teach it as well. Unfortunately, many people never do get taught how to do this, as we shall see.

The Very Important Paper recently ran an article that might have been tailor made for one of my old classes - it was a perfect illustration of how not to write a persuasive or expository essay. Written by Clifford Krauss and appearing in the New York Times November 17 Energy Supplement, it provides a superb model for the young (or old) writer on what not to do, and in a sense I'm grateful for this illustration. I apologize to my readership then, for digressing into my past profession, and offering a brief lesson on how not to write about peak oil for the interested.

I do get many emails requesting ideas on how to jump into the public discourse on energy and I offer this up to those of my readers who don't feel comfortable as writers, and would like to contribute something to the public discourse on energy. This should provide you with some basic guidelines for doing so.

The first thing to do is to decide what kind of essay you want to write, and we can see that Krauss has struggled with this, and made a common mistake of inexperienced writers (although he is not one). Krauss has allowed himself to become confused about what his objective is. Generally speaking, newspaper articles are expository - they explain an issue, describe different viewpoints on that issue and offer (if they are well done) analysis. There are exceptions to this model, but this is the general rule.

There is also a place in newspapers for persuasive essays, designed to convince people of someone's opinion about something. For clarity's sake, and so that no one mistakes the opinion of the author for actual fact, the newspapers generally classify these all together in the "Editorial" "Opinion" or "Op-Ed," so that you will not become confused . Again, there are a few exceptions to this rule, but this is the general principle.

Oddly, Krauss has written a persuasive essay, although it is not placed on the Op-Ed pages. You can tell this by his assertion "there will be fuel." This is a prediction for the future, and a controversial one that depends on a host of complicated factors. In the article, Krauss attempts to find supporting evidence for his thesis, while not adequately presenting opposing points - that is, he takes a side on this issue. Thus, the article is fundamentally persuasive, but perhaps because it is placed in a spot that generally covers expository material, and Krauss blurs the lines between the two somewhat - and it is perhaps surprising that an op-ed piece would appear as though it were a piece of objective journalism..

Blurring genres happens now and again, and there are two reasons it most often occurs. The first is that the writer doesn't have a strong sense of their own objectives, and hasn't clarified exactly what they are doing. This is common in students of writing who have never fully grasped the range of kinds of writing out there, and how they differ from one another.

The other possibility is that one is being intentionally or accidentally obfuscatory, that is, one is attempting to confuse readers, rather than offer clear exposition of an idea. This may be because the author is themselves confused and unable to articulate their thoughts clearly or it may be because the author is being disingenuous, which is a polite and academically acceptable way to say they are lying.

Intentional obfuscation is a common strategy used by people who have been caught out in an obvious error or lie - consider the reaction of someone who gets called on their racist statement or caught sleeping with someone they shouldn't be. Very slightly more benignly, intentional obfuscation is used by those attempting to support an idea that is not, in fact, supportable by the facts. Blurring distinctions, confusing and distracting people with irrelevancies, and changing the terms of the debate then becomes a useful strategy for the person attempting to support a weak argument or get people to look over there and forget they've been lying. It would be inappropriate of me to speculate what the issue is for Krauss - it is generally kindest to assume the best of one's interlocutors when writing, so we will assume the best here.

If obfuscation is sometimes useful, I don't recommend that writers use it. Instead, I suggest it is far better to take the time to understand what you are saying and why, and also to avoid lying or choosing weak theses. The obfuscatory essay is not, for some reason, one of the classic styles, and the primary reason for that is that it is dull to read and draws attention not to your ideas, but to the weaknesses in them.

Let's take a look, now, at Krauss's thesis statement - you've probably been told a few hundred times that having a good and clear thesis statement is important, and that's true. What you may not have been told is that it is also important to have a supportable thesis statement. In fact, many young writers feel that the best way to write a strong persuasive piece is to admit no doubt, and to take extreme positions as strongly as possible, and indeed, many parts of our culture, particularly our political process support this idea.

I would suggest, however, that in writing for the general public, it is generally wiser to choose a thesis that you can actually support with evidence. In politics, of course, one does not support ideas generally with facts, but with posturing and noise. Writing for a newspaper, however, should not be supported in such a way, but with clear and accurate details. Some students have asked me whether they felt that their argument was weakened when they made more moderate claims - my own feeling is that if someone can dismantle your claims entirely, you will look far weaker than if you have stuck to what the evidence can support. If truthful claims aren't exciting enough for you, I recommend either you stay away from writing or take up fiction.

Krauss has gone ahead and made a thesis statement that is quite extreme - "There will be fuel" is a long term prediction, dependent on a lot of variables, and it becomes evident as we read that Krauss is struggling to support his analysis. Indeed, generally speaking for most people to make this kind of assertion would be entering the era of speculative fiction, rather than newspaper journalism, because it requires a set of assumptions that themselves are open to question. It is not the case that one should never make predictions, but when there are a high number of variables and you are not an expert, it is difficult territory, and Krauss gets in trouble almost immediately:

A book making the rounds at the time, "Twilight in the Desert," by Matthew R. Simmons, seemed to sum up the conventional wisdom: the age of cheap, plentiful oil and gas was over. "Sooner or later, the worldwide use of oil must peak," the book concluded, "because oil, like the other two fossil fuels, coal and natural gas, is nonrenewable."

But no sooner did the demand-and-supply equation shift out of kilter than it swung back into something more palatable and familiar. Just as it seemed that the world was running on fumes, giant oil fields were discovered off the coasts of Brazil and Africa, and Canadian oil sands projects expanded so fast, they now provide North America with more oil than Saudi Arabia. In addition, the United States has increased domestic oil production for the first time in a generation.

Consider the way the two paragraphs work together in parallel structure. First, Krauss sets up the old, and (he claims) wrong way of thinking, articulated by Matthew Simmons, that oil, coal, and natural gas are finite and non-renewable. He then responds to this with a paragraph that leads with a "But..." and the implication is that he is offering evidence that this old thinking is incorrect. The difficulty with this, of course, is that it isn't. There is actually no dispute, barring a few complete nuts who believe in abiotic oil (learning to recognize and ignore nuts is an important part of critical thinking), that oil, coal and natural gas *are* all non-renewable. But Krauss allows his "but" to create the impression that this is wrong.

He then throws together a collection of barely related facts. No sooner had we come to think this, he argues then we did a bunch of things that changed the oil landscape entirely - and Krauss works very hard (or has an astonishing number of coincidental errors) to make us think that these things add up to a logical response to the "old thinking" he set before, and provide evidence that we should all be thinking the "new" way.

First of all, "giant oil fields were discovered off the coasts of Brazil and Africa" - well, this is true, but they weren't discovered *after* 2008, but before - we already knew about them before oil rose to $147 barrel. Moreover, we still don't know how large the production from these fields will be - estimates have ranged from extremely high to comparatively low impact. The implication is that these discoveries had something significant to do with the change - but in fact, the world is still discovering one barrel of oil for every four we use, even taking these "giant" fields into account.

Next, "Canadian oil sands projects expanded so fast, they now provide North America with more oil than Saudi Arabia" - this one is particularly silly, because Canadian imports were matched by declining Saudi imports, and while Canadian production did expand, we traded more expensive oil for cheaper oil - tar sands production is expensive, Saudi oil production is comparatively cheap. This is rather like saying "the production of Mercedes expanded so fast that no one needed to buy Fords" - another way of framing it would be "car prices went up a lot."

This running together of several unrelated ideas with words that sort of imply bigger things than the facts do (the implication to an uncareful reader, for example, is that Canada is producing more oil than Saudi Arabia, obviously wrong) is a technique of obfuscation - a writer with plenty of supporting facts can take the time to treat each idea honestly and carefully, but a writer with a weak case often runs weak or unrelated ideas together to make their case seem stronger. Note, for example, that Krauss doesn't say how much the US has increased its oil production by (it isn't impressive, compared to consumption).

More on that last in a minute, but the general emphasis is to suggest that combination of real changes in the oil situation occurred in 2008, and changed the situation. But this is, in fact, not the case. As we've noted, those fields in Brazil and Africa haven't come online yet, and weren't enough to change the general trend that we're consuming a lot more oil than we've discovered. The change in US production was a small thing, the Canadian oil sands do matter, but they mostly offset declines in other imports. In reality, the oil industry didn't change radically in 2008 - what happened was that prices spiked, we entered a recession and prices fell. But that's not a very interesting story, for all that it is inconveniently true.

I won't bore you all by going through the rest of the article line by line, as I have these two paragraphs - you can probably do it yourself. Look always for places where the author attempts to make implications he simply can't support. Ask yourself "who are "energy experts" and "how much is an 'increase'" whenever you encounter that terminology. The key to good analysis is asking these kinds of questions. I will however point out a few particularly egregious difficulties, lest you make these errors yourselves.

The first energy expert cited in the article is a gentleman from an organization called "CERA" which is described as an "energy consulting firm." Note that this gentleman comes from the for-profit sector, and you might want to Google CERA. What you'll find is that CERA makes a great deal of its money by arguing that "peak oil theory is garbage." This is a reiteration of CERA's previous predictions on this front - again, the basic implication that something has changed radically since 2008 isn't true. CERA has been predicting that there will be oil for a very long time. One thing that might be worth doing is examining how well CERA has predicted events in the past. Are they a reliable source?

What you will find is that CERA's record of predictions is fairly abysmal, and that they are one of a very small number of energy analysts that predict smooth sailing on the energy front for the most part. One of the important parts of doing an essay like this is simply to evaluate your sources - and CERA is ostensibly credible. I don't think it is unreasonable that Krauss quotes them. What is problematic, however, is that Krauss effectively quotes only them.

Now Krauss is at least nominally a journalist, and as you may know, journalistic and expository arguments involve showing both sides of an issue. So let's look through the article for those two sides. IHS CERA is one that agrees with Krauss's premise that in fact, there will be fuel. So let's look for the people who don't agree in the article, who provide some measure of balance. Ooops, it turns out there aren't any. That would be a big mistake on Krauss's part.

The article cites oil company executives and IHS CERA repeatedly. There is no representation of any evidence of viewpoint either to the contrary, or taken from any source that doesn't make money by its predictions. The only exception to this is a brief, decontextualized reference to the recent IEA report, which glosses over the IEA's affirmation of a peak of traditional crude oil.

Also, look at the article to see how often the author makes the assumption that things that haven't happened yet will happen. For example, when he talks about Iraq, he observes "production could mushroom to 12 million barrels a day by the end of the decade - well above what Saudi Arabia produces today." It could. It could not, and given that predictions that were made early in the Iraq war for near-term production turned out to be completely inaccurate, perhaps we should be cautious about assuming that this will be the case. Krauss makes no argument about *why* we should assume that Iraqi production will rise so high. But his claims about Iraq are less objectionable than those made in many places - here Krauss is more cautious than he is about most other sources, where he tends to prefer the most optimistic assumptions.

It is honestly difficult for people to sort through the range of projections out there for energy supplies, and this is an entirely reasonable thing to have difficulty with, particularly if you are not an expert. Krauss must, in fact, do one of two things. The first is select one set of analyses out there, and make a credible case for accepting these figures as accurate. The second possibility is to explore the range of possible predictions, offering contributions from people who advocate for both of these. Krauss, unfortunately, has done neither of these things. Instead, he's accepted one set of predictions without making any case whatsoever for choosing them or even acknowledging that there are other scenarios and predictions by other energy experts.

Young writers often struggle, as I said, with the perception that acknowleding the other "side" of an argument weakens their own argument. This is, in fact, a misperception - the strongest arguments are actually those in which a "side" acknowledges the disagreement and then responds to the main thrust of the argument made in opposition to their position. Krauss seems to have skipped this lesson - normally not only standard in journalism, but often taken to excess.

It is rare that you'll see a newspaper article even about how cute cock-a-poos are without some dissenting voice cited, due to the habit of providing journalistic balance. In areas where there is a clear difference between the quality of the arguments, this can be taken to ridiculous lengths - witness the habit of articles on climate change citing discredited climate deniers for the merits of "objectivity" even when these are not true opposing arguments (ie, they aren't generally legitimate scientific arguments) made by scientists of equal credibility. There are many people who have argued that the quality of journalism sometimes suffers from a pathological adherence to the principle of balance. Clearly, Krauss does not suffer from that particular pathology, but since the situation in regards to oil is rather different than that in climate change - there are reputable people who argue that we are near a peak and reputable ones who argue we are not, there is no reasonable argument in favor of not including some measure of balance.

Krauss's failure to provide even the basic format of objectivity, or grounds for accepting the most optimistic of figures is hard to understand. He is an experienced journalist, so it beggars the imagination to conceive that he is unfamiliar with this standard. He's not a college student new to the concept of writing who thinks that strident reassertion of his premise and one-sided support is sufficient evidence. Again, I think we must attribute this to Krauss's difficulty deciding what kind of article he's writing - he simply hasn't made up his mind whether he's writing an expository analysis of our energy situation, which would require the former, or an op-ed piece. This is one of the reasons that one hopes for good support for writers - an editor or a comp teacher or even a 7th grade English teacher would have pointed gently out to Krauss that he's having a little trouble with the appropriate forms of support for his work, and sent him back to working on it. Apparently none of these was available.

Consider another paragraph that again focuses on US production, and makes claims that are not only unsupportable, but patently ridiculous:

Not surprisingly, the back-to-the-future world of oil and gas begins in the United States, still the biggest economy and the driver of energy markets since World War II.

For the last two decades, the United States has produced less oil each year and been increasingly dependent on imports than the year before. As recently as a decade ago, most experts predicted that the country had only 25 years of gas reserves, and that it would need to import at least half of its needs in the future.

Today the country has reversed both trends, chiefly because of new drilling techniques that have opened world-class oil and gas resources. In 2009, domestic production began to reverse its annual decline for the first time since 1991. The Energy Department expects domestic supplies to grow through 2035, absent a significant decline in oil prices.

Read this carefully. He claims that the US has "reversed" its decline - that is, the decline in production that began almost 40 years ago has been entirely reversed? Wow, that's pretty impressive. So we're now on the upswing again, right? The thing is, writers sometimes assume that no one will do their own research on people's claims, but that's not a wise or safe assumption. What Krauss is basing this on is single year increase - to reverse a 40 year trend? And in fact, it hasn't been reversed at all - we're still down over 35% from the original peak. The EIA projects that in fact, this increase will continue until ummm..2010 (ie, now) when it will pretty much reverse again. Here Krauss either doesn't know what "reverse" means or he's being intentionally misleading. But remember, good writers assume good faith in the people they write about. So we're going to try really hard to assume that Krauss means what he says.

The problem with that is that we're left with the conclusion, doing so, that the only person who could believe all these impossible things before breakfast must be, to put it in less than wholly scholarly but accurate terms, dumber than dirt. This is a useful illustration for the young writer, because you never, ever want someone who is analyzing your work to be caught in the dilemma of trying to figure out whether they should call the author an idiot, an ignoramus or a liar. This is a situation to be entirely and devoutly avoided - so you should do a better job of providing supporting evidence than Krauss has done here, because he's left the reader on precisely the horns of that dilemma. This is an unpleasant situation for both reader and the writer who receives the critique, and the best way of avoiding it is to make claims your evidence can actually support.

If you ever find yourself in the situation of being unable to plausibly attribute a mistake to honest belief or minor error, however, it is useful to know what to say. One cannot call a fellow writer a moron, an ignorant fool who doesn't do his homework or a liar in many forms of publication - that would be extraordinarily impolite and inappropriate. If you are writing for a blog or another genre that would permit this, you can, of course, say whatever you want, but we should not assume that is the case.

Therefor, my readers, the proper way of reconciling this many errors and misrepresentations here is to state that the author is confused. After all, severe confusion is a state that any of us can experience without stigma, due, perhaps to a small stroke, an emotional trauma or an excess of affection for Jim Beam. This is not a value judgement, and while you would think that one's editors at the New York Times would probably prefer not to print the writings of the confused, it is possible that they too were suffering from a related form of confusion. It is, nearly the holiday season and who could pass judgement on writers and editors who indulge a bit too much in holiday cheer?

The article ends with a strong supporting quote. This can be a fine way to end a piece of persuasive writing. A rousing statement from an expert can be an excellent way to wind up a piece of writing, particularly one that so desperately needs to come to an end, because the writer has filled it with poor reasoning and evidence that does not mean what the author thinks it does. Krauss quotes a banker here, which is an interesting choice - I would generally suggest that the best choice for a quote would be someone with credentials in the field, but perhaps Krauss couldn't find anyone appropriate. This is one of those cases where good basic research skills, say, the application of "google" to keywords would be an excellent aid to his work, allowing him to find someone who is an actual expert:

Mr. Morse said the demand side of the equation also helped. He noted that American demand for gasoline appeared to have peaked in 2007 and could decline by 15 to 20 percent by 2020 because of increasingly efficient cars and a federal mandate requiring that renewable fuels, like ethanol, blended into transportation fuels must increase to 36 billion gallons in 2022, from nine billion gallons in 2008.

"When you add it up," Mr. Morse noted, "you get something that very closely approximates energy independence."

Here we have one of those "we don't seem to be using words in the way they commonly are used" problems - the same trouble we had with the word "reversed." Energy Independence generally means that we don't rely on imported fuels. But the US has never reversed the trend of relying heavily on imports - we have increased imports by more than 300% since the US oil peak, and in 2009, even with the recession and the slight increase in US production, and biofuels imported more than 11 billion barrels of oil. With the IEA's predictions of increased demand, there's no way that those numbers add up to anything like energy independence.

It is perhaps, then, a good thing that Krauss ended with this quote, since any comment he made would likely again bring us back to our prior dilemma about how to politely articulate the problems of the article. What we must ask of this or any other piece of writing, however, is has it proved its thesis? Krauss set up a distinction between "old think" which he expressed as "oil, coal and gas are finite resources subject to oil peaks" and "new think" in which he has said "there's a lot of possible oil out there." The problem is that even if the possibilities are all real, and even if all of this is true - both things that Krauss has certainly not proven, he hasn't answered the question. The "old think" represented by Simmons and such actually happens to be the real state of geophysics. We know for a fact that oil will reach a peak and decline - period, because we've seen it happen. We know for fact that oil, coal and natural gas are finite resources.

And in the end, that is the greatest weakness of this argument - Krauss might have tried to make an intelligent and credible argument that the *timing* of these peaks and issues of finite resources has been changed, but he instead chose to shoot for something that he couldn't support. There's no evidence in anything Krauss presents that the original point has changed.

What he's done is provide a lot of obfuscatory detail, projections, quotations and other things all of which add up to "there might be fuel." None of them add up to an answer to the problem of finite resources, and none of them are sufficient to support his basic claim that there *will be* fuel. Moreover, the muddle in the middle means that the reader is forced to ask why this writer can't actually connect the dots. It is less than civil to speculate on these reasons - and on why the editors of the paper in question permitted such a muddle - but at the same time, those questions cannot but be raised in the mind of any conscious reader. My own hope is that all of this can be attributed simply to an excess of holiday happiness and perhaps Krauss's goodhearted desire to provide a cautionary example for other writers who have not yet achieved his stature. For this, we are grateful.

When writing an essay about oil or any other subject, then, you will wish to avoid the errors made here. First, you will want to do high quality research, to evaluate your thesis statement and make sure that your own evidence supports it. You will want to be clear about both what kind of essay you are writing and why you are writing it, and probably will wish to avoid the obfuscatory style, since it immediately turns matters away from the subject and towards the larger question "what is the author trying to hide?" In the same way, you will wish to avoid making the same weak and implausible arguments over and over again in ways that require the reader to ask whether you are being intentionally obtuse or intellectually deceptive, since neither is flattering to the writer, and both again, shift one's primary attention away from the subject at hand. You will wish to provide a balanced analysis if you are engaged in exposition, and use good research skills and objective data. If the data is uncertain, you will have to make choices, and explain why you have made them and what justifies them, or present a balanced case.

I have no doubt that given my readers' native intelligence and the cautionary example presented here, they will provide fine expository and persuasive material when they are called upon to contribute to the discourse on energy and the environment. After all, you could hardly do worse.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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