Friday, February 19, 2010

A Hypothetical Q & A with a Climate Rookie

Q: How did the concept of global warming originate?

A: Global warming is largely derived from the science surrounding the Greenhouse Effect. The Greenhouse Effect operates in the following manner. When sunlight enters the Earth’s atmosphere it eventually strikes some portion of the Earth’s surface. When making contact with the Earth’s surface it is either absorbed or reflected back into space. Note that the term ‘reflected’ is not technically correct, but is an effective way of separating the different scales of what happens to the energy from sunlight when making contact with the surface.

The reflected energy attempts to return to outer space through the Earth’s atmosphere in the form of infrared radiation, but can be deterred by molecular obstacles, most notably greenhouse gases. If these molecules absorb the returning radiation it excites the molecules causing them to collide with other molecules and release that energy. Unfortunately that energy release is not one-directional (i.e. surface to atmosphere), but in all direction including back down to the surface. This redirection of reflected surface radiation results in a greater level of energy retention and thus a warmer temperature. The higher the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, the higher the probability that reflected energy is returned to the surface and the higher the resultant temperature increase in the atmosphere. Note that the above explanation is just a quick overview of the Greenhouse Effect the overall physics involved are much more specific and complicated.

Overall the issue surrounding global warming is not in the science itself; to reject the Greenhouse Effect is akin to suggesting that 2 + 2 = 1,000,000, but instead the issue is in the question of whether or not human action, largely involving the combustion of fossil fuels, is the principle reason behind the acute temperature increases in recent decades. Those who believe human action is the driving force behind the current warming trend typically refer to the warming as anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

Q: So what are the known greenhouse gases?

A: In order of their perceived influence –

Water Vapor (H2O);
Carbon Dioxide (CO2);
Methane (CH4);
Ozone (O3);
Nitrous oxide (N2O);
Black carbon (black soot);
Hydrofluorocarbons (HCF)/Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC);

Q: How can humans be significantly influencing the climate patterns of the Earth when there are so many factors involved and the carbon cycle operates on a much larger scale than the CO2 emitted by humans?

A: There are two important factors to consider when addressing this question. First, although the natural carbon cycle is considerably larger than what human activity emits, the issue is that the carbon cycle is not adding a significant new CO2 concentration to the environment. Over 99% of the new CO2 that is being added to the environment is derived from human activity. Although this addition is small relative to the total amount in the carbon cycle the climate is delicate enough that the addition of CO2 without the appropriate counter-balance (the ability to remove CO2 from the environment) a rapid change in climate can easily result.

Think of it this way imagine a snowball narrowly balancing on the top of a cliff with steep hills on both sides. There are opposing, but equal forces pushing on the snowball. Because the forces are equal the snowball does not move; however, add a force to one side, even if it is a small force relative to the pre-existing forces, and the snowball will begin tumbling down one side of the cliff because the drop-off point is so close to the original starting point of the snowball.

Second, the speed at which CO2 is being added to the atmosphere is much faster than more natural changes that have occurred in the past. Some like to make the statement that some number of years ago CO2 concentrations were much higher than they are now, which is true; however, it took a lot longer to move from one concentration point to another during that time period relative to the speed of the current concentration change now. That time delay gave the environment an opportunity to slowly adapt reducing potential damage.

Overall although the carbon cycle may be much larger, it is a dynamic, but generally stable cycle that operates over a much slower time frame than the CO2 that is being emitted into the atmosphere by human activities. The issue is not size, but speed and change, both of which are being primarily driven by the actions of humans and not through natural processes.

Q: What are the consequences of global warming?

A: Overall the immediate specifics of any consequences are difficult to accurately specify due to the complex nature of the climate. Basically it is difficult to accurately state with an real level of confidence that due to global warming region x will receive 45% less rain versus the average year a decade ago. However, general statements regarding predictive climate patterns can be made. For example one of the most important consequences is an increase in average global sea levels due to an increased rate and amount of melting of glaciers and sea ice. Such a sea level increase will threaten many coastal cities throughout the world and also pose a legitimate threat to bury a number of island nations underwater.

Also an increase in ocean acidity will be a significant problem leading to a reduction in the biodiversity of the ocean. This reduction in oceanic biodiversity will impact multiple food chains including the amount of fish and other sea life that humans will be able to catch, sell and consume. Overall increasing ocean acidity represents the greatest short-term threat to mass species extinction brought on as a direct cause of global warming.

Third, the increase in average global temperatures and change in precipitation patterns (largely rain) will increase the total stress on drinkable water supplies. Current precipitation patterns seem to be shifting in an extreme manner. Basically wet regions (regions that receive lots of rain) will receive even more rain and dry regions will receive even less rain. Unfortunately such a result is not favorable for either side because more rain will increase the chance of events like flash floods and mud slides and less rain will length droughts and possible famines.

There are other significant consequences such as permafrost melting, possible ocean out-gassing, new cloud synthesis or disappearance at different altitudes, latitude shift in certain animal populations and migratory patterns and many more, but the purpose of this discussion is not to list all of the potential detrimental consequences.

Also on a side note although some claim that there will be benefits to global warming such as more rapid and robust plant growth due to higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is true, any benefits derived from global warming will be buried under all of the negative consequences making the benefits moot. Also those benefits only function under a certain temperature window, once global temperatures exceed that window then they become detriments instead of benefits.

Q: Why are individuals who do not believe in AGW labeled as ‘deniers’ or worse by the environmental community? Isn’t such action unproductive and pretentious?

A: In the scope of a debate it rarely is a good idea to apply a negative label to your opponent from a logical standpoint. However, the term ‘denier’ has its origins in simple frustration by those that believe global warming has a principle human driver over a natural or unknown driver. These individuals believe that there is more than enough evidence to prove AGW beyond a reasonable doubt and that those who do not acknowledge this reality are ‘denying’ reality. Although the use of such a label is unfortunately, the important thing to acknowledge is that the individuals being labeled as ‘deniers’ have done little to disprove such a label.

In science it is very difficult to prove something beyond any doubt (100% guarantee) because humans typically lack all available knowledge about a given subject and have observational and measurement tools with inherent error. Therefore, scientists work hard to identify the most probable solution to correspond with the information available. Similar to the legal system, science looks to devise theories that explain concepts and observations beyond a ‘reasonable’ doubt, not beyond any doubt. One can be skeptical if it is believed that certain assumptions or calculations that comprise a theory are both in error and sufficiently important enough to the theory. However, if one of these conditions is not met, then it is inappropriate to reject the hypothesized solution unless one can devise a theory that better explains the available data.

The group labeled as ‘deniers’ has yet to find peer-reviewed empirical evidence that is not significantly flawed to support the contention that there is another cause beyond human activities, which explains the increasing temperatures over the last 3 decades. Also the errors that have been suggested in empirical evidence that support AGW have not been identified as critically important to the AGW theory itself. Therefore, nothing exists to counter the claims made by those that support AGW outside of small unimportant portions of the overwhelming evidence that support AGW.

Another reason for such labeling is that in modern society the best way to get attention for a particular message, be it positive or negative attention, is to create sound bite worthy labels. The label ‘individuals that do not believe in anthropogenic global warming’ does not have the same emotional bite as ‘denier’. Others also use these tactics such as the label ‘spend thrift liberal’ instead of ‘individual that is thought to believe in the power of government over the marketplace and expends inordinate amounts of money on government programs to promote economic and social growth’.

Unfortunately the world has drifted more towards emotional arguments than logical arguments, thus labels are used more often to categorize certain viewpoints. Overall although inherently unnecessary, the use of the label ‘denier’ should have no influence on whether or not an individual accepts AGW. For example does it make sense for Person A to reject the premise offered by Person B of 2 + 2 = 4 solely because Person B called Person A an idiot in a prior interaction? Of course not.

Q: What about those flaws in the IPCC report or those climate emails that the media talked so much about? Don’t they disprove AGW?

A: No. As mentioned above neither of those incidents nor anything else that opponents of AGW cite weakens the overall empirical evidence that support AGW. The climate emails can be viewed as damaging before realizing that they are taken out of context and that they do not change the published information available on AGW. The emails simply demonstrate researcher frustration and semantics. Any accusations of collusion between climate scientists are irrational due to the lack of money that would be generated from such collusion. Despite what some opponents say, climate science is not a lucrative profession regardless of whether or not global warming was perceived as a legitimate threat. Also climate scientists do not get into climate science for monetary gain.

The IPCC flaws have nothing to do with whether or not AGW exists, but instead focus on the extent and rate of damage that can be expected in the future due to progressing climate change and global warming. Again the best argument opponents of AGW can make regarding the IPCC flaws is that prediction of certain events in the future was incorrect, but the general nature of the core damage that will occur is not affected by these errors. Also it must be understood that a vast majority of the information contained in the reports produced by the IPCC is mutually exclusive. That is one predictive error does not statistically influence another prediction. Thus even if a predictive error is made, it does not invalidate other predictions, so a small number of errors cannot invalidate separate conclusions derived from the report. Basically if one would think of the IPCC report as a sweater and the current errors as a loose string, pulling on the string does not unravel the sweater, but instead just removes a loose string.

Overall empirical evidence clearly demonstrates a warming climate, both through glacial ice and permafrost melting at a much faster rate than normal and increasing surface air and ocean temperatures derived from satellite measurements, regardless of what any emails say or any errors in the most recent IPCC report.

Q: If global warming means the Earth is getting warmer how come during the winter snow is falling in places that have not gotten or gotten very little snow in the past?

A: The main reason for the occurrence of such events is that although average global temperatures are increasing, the influence of global warming is not isolated to temperature. Due to the breach in balance that has characterized the climate for thousands of years the probability of occurrence of certain weather events has changed. Basically in a climate system influenced by global warming certain weather has a higher or lower probability of occurrence at certain places due to changes derived from a response to the higher temperatures. For example due to global warming it may rain more in one region of a country, but rain less in another region versus historical data. In short global warming increases the probability for and intensity of more extreme weather events, be it floods or droughts, thus it is more probable for the State of Georgia to have a winter blizzard versus three decades ago.

Q: There is so much information out there, especially among blogs. How do I know if someone is lying to me, is just stating an opinion or actually knows the stuff?

A. The simplest way is to look for any citations or mentions of any papers. If none exist and statements do not seem to make sense or come to exotic conclusions then such statements can be dismissed. If citations were made then it would be prudent to check the information (abstracts of each of the papers, etc.) to ensure that the author is interpreting the general results correctly. Another option is to email one of the authors of a cited paper with the link of the blog post and simply ask if the blogger is interpreting the information properly.

Q: If all of the empirical evidence suggests AGW as the principle cause for climate change why do people still reject AGW?

A: Good question. There are three principle reasons why with the current available empirical evidence one would still be skeptical of AGW. First, an individual does not have the experience to effectively analyze the available evidence and come to a firm conclusion regarding the validity of AGW. Unfortunately without this experience these individuals tend to turn to others to fill in the blanks and most of those individuals do so improperly either due to a lack of understanding themselves or purposeful deceit due to personal motives. The problem with this situation is that most of the people who fill in the blanks are television, radio or other media personalities and not climate scientists because these media personalities have a greater opportunity to present their opinion. Clearly the probability that these media personalities misunderstand/manipulate the available information is higher than a climate scientist and is demonstrated on almost a daily basis.

Second, some individuals do not believe that it is in their and/or their country’s best interest for the public to acknowledge AGW, regardless of whether or not they do so in private. These individuals believe that a government issued price on carbon, elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and other strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions hurt their own interests. For these individuals the total amount of evidence supporting AGW is meaningless. These individuals work to support a political and scientific environment of, at best confusion, and at worst outright dishonesty to reduce the probability that governments act to stem the threat of AGW.

Third, some people realize that they should change their viewpoint and acknowledge the threat of AGW, but unfortunately these individuals have not separated their personal judgments and beliefs from each other. Basically these individuals believe that if questioning their initial opinion of denying the validity of AGW leads to a change in that opinion, then they will have to challenge every single one of their beliefs and such a scenario scares them. Therefore, they avoid that scenario by never changing any of their initial beliefs, including those surrounding the validity of AGW, regardless of what type of new information may be available since coming to their original conclusion.

Those individuals falling into categories 1 and 3 can still change their minds as long as the elements influencing their decision outside of the evidence are properly addressed within the confines of the argument for AGW. Unfortunately those within category 2 have already decided upon which side of the line to stand regardless of what the evidence reports.

Q: OK suppose global warming is being caused by humans; what can I do, I’m just one person?

A: True, you are just one person and regardless of what some in the environmental movement would like to believe, you really cannot make a difference by yourself. However, just because you cannot solve the problem by yourself, does not mean that you should not make practical and intelligent decisions to help the environment. There are some very easy things that you can do to not only reduce the amount of greenhouse gases you emit into the atmosphere, but also save a significant amount of money.

Most notably if you own your own home or are planning on living in your current home for at least another five years, investments in energy efficiency are definitely worthwhile. For example getting a professional to evaluate points of heat loss in your home will provide the appropriate information relating to what efficiency improvements will be most effective and save you the most money in the long-term. Typically most homes are under-insulated and adding loft and/or wall cavity insulation will significantly reduce heat loss saving energy and money. Also windows with double-glazing will reduce heat loss and can be relatively inexpensive. Any appliances older than six years can be replaced with Energy Star certified appliances, especially dishwashers, refrigerators and washers/dryers. Finally even if the prospect of going through the process of adding solar panels to the roof may not be your liking, the addition of a solar power hot water heater can still be practical, relatively inexpensive and useful.

With regards to transportation, the old motto of ‘don’t drive when you can walk or ride’ should be followed whenever possible. Unless your motor vehicle is over a decade old, replacing it with a new more fuel efficient model may not be prudent for another year or two when the fate and popularity of 100% electric vehicles is better understood. Finally although said many a time it should be repeated, when you have to drive see if you and others in your family or friends can effectively combine tasks and only take one vehicle instead of multiples.

The following blog post identifies some useful websites that will provide more detailed information:

Q: I will definitely look into those things, but if government action is required, what should the government do?

A: Encouraging certain government action is easy in a general sense and difficult in a specific sense. For example one of the most important things to reduce carbon emissions is to place an additional price on carbon. However, the complicated part of issue is what is the best way to accomplish such a price. Methods for attaching this carbon price have culminated into support for either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. Both have strengths and weaknesses, although not surprisingly supporters tend to avoid the weaknesses of their preferred method. Although such a topic demands more in-depth analysis than will be provided in this answer, in short a carbon tax is theoretically more economically efficient and expedient in its execution, but unlike the cap-and-trade system does not generate guaranteed cuts in emissions.

Diversifying alternative/trace emission energy choices is another important government action. At the moment most of the construction of trace emission energy is focused on wind power. Unfortunately there could be significant problems with wind power down the line due to dropping wind speeds ironically as a result of global warming as well as the simple fact that wind power will never provide enough energy by itself. Thus, the government also must encourage investment in solar power (which is progressing very nicely in theory and planning, but going almost nowhere so far in reality), geothermal power (a new geological survey would be beneficial) and biomass to ensure a balanced power grid that does not rely on burning significant amount of fossil fuels.

Nuclear power is a sticky wicket in that it has polarized supporters and opponents a lot like AGW. Both sides seem to agree that when talking rationally meeting future energy requirements without new nuclear power plants will be difficult, but is the cost of their construction worth it? Currently most price estimates for new nuclear power plants paint a picture of unnecessary expense for the benefit derived from their construction. However, those price estimates only involve 2nd generation nuclear plants. Overall it is rational to anticipate that 3rd and 4th generation nuclear power plants would provide much lower cost reality over the long run; however, whether or not research and development will establish a viable long-term nuclear plant beyond 2nd generation remains to be seen.

Another important action is to generate a more streamlined and efficient procedure to approve or deny (on legitimate grounds) new power line construction plans. Most of the trace-emission energy sources like wind, solar, geothermal, etc. have their origins away from dense populations, largely because they require lots of land for construction. Therefore, new transmission lines will be required to ensure that electricity travels efficiently from source to consumer. Unfortunately transmission line construction is a tricky business when constructing between states. Thus an updated system that hastens approval or denial will be effective to ensure more rapid construction and problem identification reducing waste and expense.

Finally the government needs to pass a general federal standard for building efficiency (basically establish a national building energy code). The amount of energy lost through powering buildings just due to their inherent inefficiencies is remarkable. Mixed cost structures and a wide variety of state building codes have lead to a hodgepodge of building requirements creating inefficiency and waste. Creating a standard for current and new buildings would prove to be an important step in increasing overall energy efficiency as a nation and reducing the amount of electricity that needs to be generated from trace emission sources when replacing fossil fuel based sources.

Of course there is still more that the government can do, but most of the important stuff has been mentioned in the above paragraphs.

Q: Thank you for the breakdown regarding global warming, why action has yet to be taken and what actions would be useful. If I want to learn more about the science behind global warming where would I go?

A: It is true that this Q and A was light on the citations largely because there are many sites available that do a high-quality job summarizing the scientific specifics behind global warming and reprinting large swathes of that information here was unnecessary. Also how enjoyable of a conversation would it have been if you were inundated with citations all over the place? It is reassuring that you are interested in expanding your understanding. Good places to start would be:

Union of Concerned Scientists Website:

Union of Concerned Scientists FAQ regarding Global Warming:

Skeptical Science:

NASA GISS Surface Temperature Analysis:

The Copenhagen Diagnosis (PDF):

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Website:

Also there are a number of posts on this blog that could be helpful to better understanding global warming, its consequences and what to do about it.

A Qualitative Analysis about Depression - Part 1

Currently anti-depressant medication is the most prescribed class of drug being taken by the American public outpacing drugs for heart conditions, cholesterol and even high blood pressure. The pertinent question then is what are people so depressed about, what in their lives is so bad that they have to take drugs to neutralize their ill feelings? Overall depression can arise from one of two causes, psychological or physiological, so the first order of business in this situation is to categorize the origin of the depression from these two avenues. Physiological mechanisms for depression will be discussed at a future time. This post will address psychological depression.

An initial mindset towards psychological depression is that it is self-induced. Such a statement makes rational sense because psychological depression occurs in those of sound mind, otherwise the depression is physiological (there is some form of abnormal brain function that induces depression). Therefore, regardless of whether or not the depression stems from general feelings or a particular event, it is in the control of the individual to neutralize any psychological depression. One of the big presumptions that foster depression is the present existence of obstacles that prevent individuals from undertaking tasks that promote happiness. Although at first glance such a statement seems to make perfect sense, many studies have been conducted which conclude that after a certain threshold point of annual earnings, usually $40,000 – $50,000, money no longer promotes happiness. Basically, more money does not increase happiness.

The interesting question is why exactly does money not seem to augment happiness to a more reasonable threshold of $500,000+? First things first, assume that these studies were not flawed in a way that eliminates their validity. An individual with greater financial resources can participate in a wider variety of opportunities allowing this individual a higher probability to engage in experiences that are fulfilling or rewarding. Basically, the individual has more choice. It seems rational to suggest that participation in fulfilling or rewarding experiences should increase the level of short-term happiness and possibly long-term happiness of an individual. So if more money increases the number of fulfilling or rewarding experiences one can undertake, why do studies contradict this basic reasonable conclusion?

One issue is the paralyzing nature of choice. When options are manageable, for instance 6 different types of computers, have the power of choice derived from wealth is a blessing. However, when possible options increase substantially, instead of 6 what if there were 34 different types of computers, then experts believe choice becomes a burden. One recalls the famous example of the donkey. A donkey is equal distance between two identical bales of hay. Without any distinguishing characteristics to dictate the decision making process, the donkey is unable to decide which bale to eat from and dies of starvation.

The sad fact of the matter is that the paralysis is silly. There is no difference between the bales, thus it does not matter which bale the donkey selects. The same goes for those with money. Money is a fantastic safety net in that even if an individual chooses poorly amongst all of the available options, that poor choice is better nullified by the remaining excess wealth that the individual possesses. So what if the millionaire purchases the wrong type of car, the purchase can simply be recorded as a failure, identify why and a new purchase of another car can be made that better fits the individual’s desires. Thus the problem is not money, but how people interact and view money.

Others would argue that the more financial resources an individual has the greater number of problems that person could come to experience as well. However, such a conclusion does not seem to hold water in that if an individual finds him/herself with more problems solely due to having more money it is the fault of that individual. For example there is no rule that an individual has to demonstrate a certain level of wealth through the purchase of a specific number of tangible elements or that character or personality automatically changes corresponding to a specific amount of wealth. In addition a person does not lose the ability to think rationally or decline certain opportunities after a certain level of financial worth is attained.

Realistically the only thing that really changes for certain in an individual's life with the acquisition of greater financial resources is the number of available opportunities and the level of personal freedom for that individual. That said, there is one problem that can be directly attributed to having excess capital, the appearance of individuals who intend to swindle or beg for money. However, despite this problem for the most part problems with ‘too much money’ arise from the fact that people make bad decisions with money. Whether or not bad decision-making should be considered when relating available capital to happiness is a question for the psychological experts, but how can money, an inanimate object with no ability to reason, be blamed for poor decisions. The fact is that even those bad decisions are muted in their severity for those with money as described above.

A possible counter-argument to the above analysis is that certain problems do not exist for an individual until reaching a certain minimum level of wealth. Some may relate such a statement to living longer because although in theory living longer is great, the longer one lives the greater the probability that certain degenerative neurological conditions arise, problems that tend not to exist for those of a younger age. These problems strip value from those additional years in that although living is better than not living, the additional years are not as joyful or productive as past years. However, such a comparison only works if one allows money to control one’s life. For example one does not need to change personality or behavior when acquiring greater wealth. An individual's personality and decision-making are the controllable and primary elements that determine the types of problems that arise due to the new found wealth unlike the currently uncontrollable degradation of telomeres and free-radical production which largely influence aging and the corresponding neurological conditions.

Now it is true that the probability that unscrupulous individuals seeking to acquire wealth through deceit or intimidation targeting a particular individual will increase with increasing financial wealth. Unfortunately such things may occur even if the individual does not change his/her behavior, but these events are unlikely and there are steps to protect from and remedy these situations. For instance if one does not flaunt wealth then the probability that these unscrupulous individuals will accost that individual will be quite low. In addition, there are legal steps that can be taken to eliminate these individuals from continuing their actions. If one desires the simplicity of life before an excess amount of money there are steps that can be taken to solve this problem as well such as donating money to a worthy charity or giving some money to close hard-working friends and associates of less financial means. Overall with all other elements remaining equal, if an individual is not being harassed or stalked then the total happiness of that individual should increase with increasing available wealth over a much higher rate than simply 40,000 dollars.

If there is a group that has reason to be depressed it is those that are impoverished. Such a lack of basic funds severely restricts the ability to overcome certain obstacles blocking positive experiences. It is these groups that better appreciate the obstacles that wealth can breakdown. Perhaps the upper-middle class and rich can learn a thing or two from that mindset. What can be done about improving happiness for these individuals? The best way is to ensure that they have a level of hope that things can get better. Basically ensure a path exists for these individuals that can be followed which will improve their lives.

Although the specifics of the biological/physiological will be left for another time, it must be mentioned that the problem of depression cannot be solely limited to a biological problem in that if certain genes facilitate depression a person with those expression patters is doomed to depression. As conscious beings with the ability to make choices in our lives, genes can only predispose certain types of action or behavior, but they cannot force action; it is the individual that consciously commits a given action. For instance an individual's genetic structure may predispose that individual to becoming an alcoholic, but it does not drive an individual to consume those first initial alcoholic beverages that could trigger alcoholism. Therefore, in addition to treating the symptoms of depression with pharmaceuticals, not surprisingly it would also be wise for an individual to place him/herself in situations that are not depressing.

Another significant driving force behind depression may be the human sense of the void and the expansiveness of time and the universe itself. At a conscious or subconscious level an individual may embrace an existentialist philosophy where nothing that is accomplished has any lasting meaning in the context of the universe or time itself because the accomplishment is small and finite. This philosophy strips joy from any type of accomplishment because if time is going to eventually destroy the accomplishment and all that benefit or remember it, why accomplish anything that is not essential to survival? Interestingly enough this existentialist philosophy realistically only affects those without real talent to accomplish anything (defense mechanism for inadequacy) or those who do not care about their place in society. Those that find their identity through comparison against others look to accomplish as much as possible to bolster their self-worth, so the ephemeral nature of accomplishment is lost on those people, ironically this may be the only positive attribute of such a shallow mindset.

Although it is true that time acts as the greater eraser the purpose of accomplishment is to provide meaning in the short-term, not the long-term. A simpler way for those with these existentialist beliefs to think about accomplishment is to return to a simple cost-benefit analysis asking the question: is the short-term gain for the individual and society worth the investment? Therefore, although the accomplishment may not last forever it still has meaning and is worth the time the individual puts into it.

In the end non-physiological depression is largely self-induced because individuals do not know how to or choose to not be depressed. Regardless of what empirical studies may report, the inability of money to directly augment happiness past a certain threshold value can largely be attributed to inefficient use and handling of said money by the individual, instead of the money itself. Overall every individual of sound mind has a state of contentment, if not happiness, that is achievable without significant access to resources. Although it can be interpreted that the last sentence was pulled from a kooky self-help book, it really is true that there are scenarios where an individual can find happiness regardless of their current environment. The appropriate strategy seems rather cliché, but individuals should aim to put themselves in good situations as much as possible without detriment to others and learn as much as possible from bad situations in order to avoid future bad situations and terminate current ones as fast as possible.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Over for NFL Overtime?

In recent years a growing outcry has built up against the current sudden death overtime system in the NFL. The vast majority of the complaint comes from the power of the opening overtime coin flip in determining the winner. It is unnecessary to rehash all of the statistics supporting the ‘power’ of the coin flip when sites like,, and others have already done it in far more detail than is necessary here. The simple fact is that over the last 10 years the winner of the coin flip wins the game approximately 61% of the time with 60.4% of those wins coming on the first possession without the other team ever receiving an offensive possession. Basically 37% of overtime games end with only one team getting an offensive possession. Clearly opponents of the current system believe these numbers provide enough support to demonstrate how unfair the system is and that it needs to be balanced.

The possible outcomes for the current overtime system are shown below for the first two possessions;

Assume that Team A wins the coin flip and elects to receive –

Team A scores a touchdown, Team B receives no possession, Team A wins;
Team A kicks a field goal, Team B receives no possession, Team A wins;
Team A does not score, Team B does not score, game continues;
Team A does not score, Team B kicks a field goal, Team B wins;
Team A does not score, Team B scores a touchdown, Team B wins;

There are two popular counter-arguments to the cry for overtime reform. First, if the team that lost the flip and then later losses the game had done their job in regulation there would have been no need for overtime. Therefore, if a team cannot win in the first 4 quarters there is no justification to complain about losing in overtime and never receiving an offensive possession.

Second, the age-old statement of: ‘if you want the ball stop the offense.’ Defenses in the NFL are paid to stop the opposing team’s offense. If a team loses the coin flip and wants to win the game then the defense should be able to stop the offense and get it back, otherwise the defense has failed in its job limiting the ability to complain about the system. Although valid, neither argument actually addresses any inherent ‘unfairness’ of the overtime system. Instead they attempt to avoid the issue in effort to focus on the team’s responsibility for the situation. Basically the attitude is: ‘do not complain about the circumstances of the scenario because you are responsible for the occurrence of the scenario in the first place.’

With that said suppose a change would be made to the overtime system in an attempt to neutralize the unfairness. The principle element of the solution would have to have a level of finality. It is probable that players would balk on a system that could go back and forth similar to the overtime system in college football both due to the additional potential for injury and a mindset of ‘unpaid overtime’. Also most would demand that both teams receive at least one possession. Unfortunately these two elements may initially contradict each other because of the reasonable possibility that both teams go back and forth with one taking the lead and then the other equalizing the previous score.

In addition to this potential back and forth, it would be useful for the change to alter the dynamic of the coin flip. As a vast majority of NFL teams select to receive the ball in the current system, almost all college teams select to play defense first if they win the coin flip. In a ‘each team gets the ball at least once’ situation clearly the team that wins the coin flip will simply select defense instead of offense. There should be more equality in selecting offense or defense by the team that wins the coin flip. One possible reform to the overtime system is described below:

In a given overtime period if both teams are guaranteed to have the ball once there are nine possible outcomes:

Assume that Team A wins the coin flip and elects to receive –

Team A scores a touchdown, Team B does not score, Team A wins;
Team A kicks a field goal, Team B does not score, Team A wins;
Team A does not score, Team B does not score, game continues as sudden death;
Team A scores a touchdown, Team B kicks a field goal, Team A wins;
Team A kicks a field goal, Team B kicks a field goal, game continues as sudden death;
Team A does not score, Team B kicks a field goal, Team B wins;
Team A scores a touchdown, Team B scores a touchdown, game continues as sudden death;
Team A kicks a field goal, Team B scores a touchdown, Team B wins;
Team A does not score, Team B scores a touchdown, Team B wins;

As statistically anticipated the results are broken down into three categories of three where Team A wins, Team B wins or the game remains tied and continues into sudden death. The first two categories are appropriate because the game ends; however, with a statistical probability of 1/3 and an actual occurrence probability exceeding 1/3 for a continuing game such a ‘each team receives 1 possession’ rule may not be suitable by itself. Fortunately the possibility of such a dilemma offers the opportunity to generate new conditions that would not only solve the problem, but also add a level of strategy to overtime in addition to diversifying coin flip selection. The addition of two new ending conditions could resolve these concerns by eliminating two of the three continuation conditions.

First, if the receiving team scores a touchdown then the game ends similar to if the sudden death system were still in place. Second, if the receiving team kicks a field goal and then the kicking team kicks a field goal in the next possession tying the game, the kicking team would win the game.

Initially it could be argued that these two new conditions destroy the point of the overtime reform. Application of the first condition revives the ‘unfair one team may not get the ball’ aspect of the current overtime system. Although true, most of the problems that opponents have with the current sudden death overtime system is that a field goal ends the game, not a touchdown. No one complains that it is unfair that the game ends after the team that wins the coin flip drives 70 yards for a touchdown. No, the complaints come from the fact that the team that wins the coin flip can drive 35 yards and kick a 52 field goal for the victory without the opposing offense getting the ball. Overall if the kicking team cannot prevent the receiving team from scoring a touchdown on their opening drive of the overtime period the kicking team has no reasonable ability to complain.

Application of the second condition would be criticized in that the game is once again tied so why should one team be awarded the victory over the other team? There is no explanation that will completely satisfy that complaint; however, such a condition is useful in both improving the variance of and shifting the power of the coin flip as well as reducing the probability of a prolonged overtime period. Think of it as a special overtime rule similar to the current sudden death system.

For instance if Team A wins the coin flip they now have an important decision to make. They can choose to receive the ball and try to end the game with a touchdown. However, if they fail and only end up kicking a field goal, then the opposing team can win the game with only a field goal instead of a touchdown. If Team A chooses to kick the ball they may never get a chance on offense if the opposing team scores a touchdown, but if they can hold the opponent to only a field goal or nothing then they have an offensive advantage.

The new breakdown of outcomes with these two new conditions:

Assume that Team A wins the coin flip and elects to receive –

Team A scores a touchdown, Team B receives no possession, Team A wins;
Team A kicks a field goal, Team B does not score, Team A wins;
Team A kicks a field goal, Team B kicks a field goal, Team B wins;
Team A kicks a field goal, Team B scores a touchdown, Team B wins;
Team A does not score, Team B does not score, game continues as sudden death;
Team A does not score, Team B kicks a field goal, Team B wins;
Team A does not score, Team B scores a touchdown, Team B wins;

Looking at the possible outcomes one may balk at the new conditions for now from a pure statistical standpoint with a 50% - 50% determinate when neither team scores on the opening possession the receiving team only has a 35.71% chance of winning (2.5/7) where as the kicking team has a 64.29% chance of winning (4.5/7). This new system simply flipped the percentages, how is that fair? Remember that 61% vs. 39% are the empirical percentages (the real outcome percentages) for the current overtime system even though the statistical theoretical percentage is 50% - 50%. Clearly if the statistical theoretical percentage were genuine to real conditions the controversy regarding the overtime system would not exist. Therefore, it is important to estimate the real outcome percentages in this new system through extrapolation from existing data to truly judge the outcome percentages.

Recall that in the current system there are two avenues of automatic victory for the receiving team, but in this new system there is only one. 37% of the games in the current system end without the kicking team having an offensive possession. Initially one may think that cutting that value in half is appropriate; however such a thought is not accurate. It would be more appropriate to suggest that 75% of the aforementioned 37% instant victories come from kicking field goals and only 25% come from scoring touchdowns. One may argue that field goals should account for more, but not all overtime first possession field goals are outside the red zone. There are a sufficient number of situations where a team drives to inside the 20 and then proceeds to kick a field goal prior to 4th down because it ends the game. However, would the team behave in the same manner if a field goal did not end the game? It is unlikely, therefore, those drives would continue with the team in question attempting to score a touchdown. Therefore, 75% field goal vs. 25% touchdown seems reasonable.

The above assumption leads to an extrapolated instant win percentage for the receiving team scoring a touchdown of 9.25% (37% * 25%). That is, under the new system 9.25% of the time the game will end without the opposing offense getting the ball instead of the current system of 37%. So what is the probability of winning on a field goal for the receiving team?

Assuming the same probability of kicking a field goal on the opening drive as current empirical evidence generates a probability of 27.75% (37% * 75%). However, because a field goal no longer ends the game automatically what is the probability that the opposing team responds with at least a field goal on their next drive? It is reasonable to assume a probability of 40% based on league averages when it comes to producing points on an average drive and factoring in a slight advantage due to the conditions of the drive allowing for 4 downs instead of 3 and a punt because a score is required. With that said the probability that the receiving team ends the game with a field goal and no response on the first two drives of the overtime is 16.65%. The probability that the kicking team answers is 11.1%. Note that the outcome of the score is meaningless. It is not relevant whether the kicking team answers with a field goal or a touchdown because either one results in a victory.

Now what is the probability that the kicking team holds the receiving team on the opening drive without points and responds with a score to end the game? Based on the current empirical evidence over the last decade the kicking team wins 39% of the games. Assuming a 50% - 50% split between the first possession and later possessions there is a 19.5% chance that the kicking team wins on their opening possession after holding the receiving team scoreless. Note that this percentage includes any turnovers that may directly result in a touchdown on the opening possession for the receiving team (interception or fumble run back for a touchdown). Similar to the previous paragraph the percentage distinguishing whether the kicking team kicks a field goal or scores a touchdown is immaterial as the base percentage is all that matters for the comparison because either results in victory.

Finally what is the probability that the receiving team wins when neither team scores on the first two drives of the overtime period? Based on empirical evidence from the last decade the receiving team has an overall winning percentage of 24% after the first possession. The kicking team has a winning percentage of 19.5% based on the aforementioned 50% - 50% split from the above paragraph. Therefore, the extrapolated occurrence percentages for the new system based on current empirical data would be:

Assume that Team A wins the coin flip and elects to receive –

Team A scores a touchdown, Team B receives no possession, Team A wins; (9.25%)
Team A kicks a field goal, Team B does not score, Team A wins; (16.65%)
Team A kicks a field goal, Team B kicks a field goal, Team B wins; (5.55%)
Team A kicks a field goal, Team B scores a touchdown, Team B wins; (5.55%)
Team A does not score, Team B does not score, game continues as sudden death; (Team A wins = 24%; Team B wins = 19.5%)
Team A does not score, Team B kicks a field goal, Team B wins; (9.75%)
Team A does not score, Team B scores a touchdown, Team B wins; (9.75%)

So when moving beyond theoretical percentages to estimated occurrence percentages the two new conditions create an environment where the receiving team wins 49.9% of the time with 9.25% of the games ending without the opposing offense getting a possession and the kicking team wins 50.1% of the time. The new system proposed in the above analysis appears to be extremely fair. However, clearly with results so close to 50% - 50% some may find such a conclusion fishy. In the analysis only two of the numerical assumptions are challengeable in that it is appropriate to use different values: the percentage split between the receiving team concluding the game on the opening possession with a field goal vs. a touchdown in the current system and the probability of the kicking team answering with a score after the receiving team kicks a field goal on the opening possession.

Assume that an individual believes the 75% - 25% split assigned favors touchdowns too much and it is changed to 85% - 15%, how does that change the final percentage of victory? A 15% touchdown split lowers the instant victory percentage to 5.55% and changes the total probability victory for a field goal with a stop to 18.87%. Thus this change drops the total probability of victory for the receiving team from 49.9% to 48.42%, a rather miniscule change. Overall it seems unreasonable to assume a field goal – touchdown percentage split higher than the one assumed in the original analysis.

Next assume that an individual believes the 60% - 40% split assigned for the kicking team’s response after a field goal on the opening drive is too high and it is changed to 70% - 30%, how does that change the final percentage of victory (assuming the original 75% - 25% split)? Under the new percentage split Team A now has a probability of winning with a field goal with no response of 19.425% and a total winning percentage of 52.675%. The change in winning percentage is 2.775%, which is higher than the change associated with altering the field goal – touchdown split. Such an outcome is understandable as long as the field goal – touchdown split favors field goals by more than 50% because the response split focuses on what happens after the receiving team kicks a field goal. Overall any reasonable assumption for either of these two splits creates a boundary condition probability of victory for the receiving team of 48% - 53%.

In the end whether or not the overtime system used by the NFL needs reform is probably still up for debate based on personal preference. However, if reform comes it needs to be effective reform that ensures a balance between dragging out the game and fairness. If these two elements cannot be attained in a given reform strategy, that strategy is not worth pursuing. The system proposed here seems to fulfill those two elements, but may have a problem with some pundits due to the trading field goals results in a winner scenario.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Solving the Question of Abortion

This coming Super Bowl Sunday marks another instance where the issue of abortion takes center stage when former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow will reminisce with his mother about her decision to forgo the abortion of Mr. Tebow despite an increased threat to her life. Clearly many individuals believe that this advertisement, sponsored by the Christian group Focus on the Family, is inappropriate for its Super Bowl venue on a wide variety of grounds ranging from those that do not want to mix politics and sports to those that believe outlawing abortion is legally and/or morally wrong. Unfortunately once again another discussion about abortion however tangential, in this instance the venue, fails to identify the genuine reality behind the issue of abortion because of emotional fervor and stubborn selfishness.

The principle element upholding the argument of outlawing abortion in the anti-abortion crowd (why such a designation is appropriate over pro-life will be explained later) is that the fetus is a human being and therefore, it is morally wrong, and should be legally wrong, to end the existence of the fetus. Unfortunately in the realm of science a fetus cannot be viewed as an independent life form until it is outside of the mother’s womb. Instead one can only argue from the position of ‘potential human life’ which from a legal standpoint is not enough. No ‘potential’ anything has the expectation of any form of legal protection. Any attack or attempt to forcibly ‘birth’ the fetus, under the mindset of ‘the fetus would live if the potential mother would give it a chance’ is a violation of the women’s rights and cannot be tolerated in a civil society. Therefore, until the fetus is born, it cannot be afforded any rights akin to that of a currently independent living human being. The only categorical position that can be taken against abortion is one of a religious nature with the perspective that life begins at conception not at birth. Overall for anti-abortionists their argument for outlawing abortion is not only disallowed by logic, but is also disallowed by the 1st Amendment which separates church and state and prevents the passing of laws based on specific religious beliefs or scriptures.

Suppose for a second that somehow logic and respect for the Constitution of the United States ceased to exist and Roe v. Wade was overturned allowing states to determine the legality of abortion within their boarders. Then suppose that for some reason all 50 states banned abortions. Would such action prevent abortions from occurring? Looking at the track record for anti-laws it is unlikely as speed limits hardly stop individuals from speeding nor does the illegality of possession and/or distribution of certain drugs stop those activities and the list could go on and on. Therefore, outlawing abortions would not stop abortions, but instead probably result in fewer abortions (which anti-abortion individuals would cheer), but also make an abortion for those that still insist upon on (there will still be a number of individuals that fit this mold) much more dangerous, which no one should cheer.

However, the issue of outlawing abortion does not end with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, despite almost every anti-abortion group thinking it does. What these groups fail to address is what happens to fetuses, which would have been aborted, when they are born? Remember these new infants are being born into an immediate environment where their parents, especially the mother, do not want to or are not willing to care for them. Do anti-abortion groups believe that once the fetus is born that everything will magically work out and the parents will instantly want to care for the child? If that is their plan then these groups are truly living in a delusional dream world because child abuse and domestic violence certainly never happens in the real world. That is why these groups should be regarded as anti-abortion not pro-life because a vast majority of them, if not all of them, care nothing for the fetus once it becomes an infant. No, they just pat themselves on the back because the fetus was born, say ‘job well done’ and then move on to the next case. Out of sight, out of mind, not actually solving the problem, what a nice philosophy to have.

There in lies the real solution to the abortion ‘problem’. Making abortion illegal does not solve the problem; in fact depending on the course of life those newly surviving take it may create even more problems in society in general, a reality that is more probable due to the type of home life these individuals will experience. Ending abortions cannot truly come from stripping them of their legality. Unfortunately this fact seems lost on the anti-abortion movement. Instead the strategy should be to limit abortions through strengthening the alternatives and reducing its overall probability of necessity.

First things first, the process of going through an abortion is both physically and mentally taxing on a women; there are many other avenues which cost less both financially and emotionally that reduce the probability of pregnancy when having sexual intercourse. Thus it is unreasonable to conclude that abortion is used as a consistent measure of birth control. Therefore, anyone that argues against abortion using that particular point is a fool who should be dismissed.

Two key elements must be addressed when looking to reduce abortions without focusing on the status of their legality. The first issue is expanding sexual education to limit the amount of error present when two young individuals engage in sexual behavior, thus lowing the probability of creating a situation where abortion is even an option. Being realistic abstinence only programs are a complete joke and have failed in every major instance in which they have been applied. Through legitimate and frank discussion of sex both by educators and by parents, teenagers and young adults can be better prepared to responsibly engage in sexual behavior which in turn lowers the probability of abortions.

In addition to proper discussion about sex through sex education, the discussed tools must also be made available to those that do not have effective access to those items. Unfortunately some ideas to ensure this access have been criticized, most notably free condom programs in schools. Opponents of these programs harbor unjustifiable fears that if individuals are given access to free condoms it will substantially increase the probability of those individuals having sex. The primary reason that these fears are irrational is that a condom is not a necessary element to the process of sexual intercourse, thus having better access to one is not going to effectively change the probability that sexual intercourse takes place. Secondary is that a condom is not perishable; there is no set short-term time period in which it has to be used, so there is no increased incentive to use it before it ‘goes bad’. Overall there is no reason to believe that increasing available access to things like condoms in an education environment will increase the probability of individuals engaging in sexual intercourse. However, it must be said that it is important that this increased access be accompanied by proper education in their application and use otherwise there is a chance that their application will be incorrect thus creating unnecessary waste.
The second issue is increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of adoption. As previously discussed even if abortion is eliminated there are a number of fetuses that will enter environments in which they are not welcome. Therefore, there must be a better means to extract them from that environment and place them in a more beneficial environment. Unfortunately very little attention is paid to the adoption and foster-care programs throughout the country and as a result they are under-funded and frequently unpleasant. In fact since Dave Thomas’s death, one really does not see anything concerning adoption in the mainstream anymore. Such a reality is sad because streamlining and improving adoption proceedings is an essential element to reducing the number of abortions.

Overall if the goal in the issue of abortion is to minimize the total number of abortions performed in a given year, at least if it is not then it should be, then the most popular strategy employed by anti-abortion groups is not plausible. Trying to deduce convoluted rationalities on how a fetus is a human deserving of rights or stacking courts with dishonorable justices that care more about their personal beliefs than the law will not accomplish the goal.

Coming full circle, this is what is wrong with the forthcoming Tim Tebow-Focus on the Family abortion commercial. This commercial will focus on a sentimental message/argument with little value beyond the immediate players involved and entirely dependent on the result of the childbirth. What would have happened if both Tim Tebow and his mother had died during childbirth instead of both surviving? Either way a commercial with such a message convinces no one of consequence. What weak-minded individual is going to change his/her personal viewpoint on abortion after viewing it? In essence the entire idea is just a waste of time and a waste of money. A donation equal to the cost of the Super Bowl advertisement to a group like the Dave Thomas Foundation would be much more beneficial in the fight against abortion.

The strategy anti-abortion groups should utilize is a focus on reducing the probability that abortion can even be entertained as an option by reducing unwanted pregnancies through sex education and then ensure that viable options exist beyond an abortion for when education fails as an option largely by reforming and expanding the adoption and foster-care. An alliance with Planed Parenthood, as ironic as that seems, would also be useful in this regard allowing pregnant women the ability to understand their options some of which may originally be unknown.

In fact the entire issue over 3rd trimester abortions acts as a microcosm for this entire issue. Many anti-abortion groups and politicians work hard to ban 3rd trimester abortions. However, such action is rather silly because unless the health of the mother is at stake no prospective parent is logically going to abort a fetus carried for so long. Any thought of an abortion is simply the result of fear or apprehension, which in the proper education and nurturing environment can be alleviated eliminating the prospect of an abortion. In the end the real issue is whether anti-abortion groups genuinely want to limit the number of abortions in the world or whether they want to try to limit the number of abortions their way using their methodology even if their way is not the most effective or practical way.