Friday, January 28, 2011

Diagnosis and the Internet

A recent article in Time Magazine discussed the issue of patients taking the initiative to look up symptoms online prior to visiting a physician and then using the information collected online to suggest possible causes and treatment regiments. The article author argued in favor of this behavior using a single cherry-picked example where a patient’s research had shortened the diagnosis process.

Sadly such simplistic examples are consistently used as backbones to these types of arguments. The author goes on to suggest that any debate surrounding the issue is absurd because patients are already performing research in an attempt of self-diagnosis before visiting a physician. This argument is flawed because the position taken is, that if a group of individuals are engaging in a particular task one should not question whether or not they should engage in that task; that conclusion makes no logical sense. However, regardless of that initial argument the author misses the most important element in the discussion regarding the use of the Internet in self-diagnosis.

While the author does suggest that patients should be given the tools and resources to better understand their condition and the potential treatment options, he neglects to identify the issue of neophyte-expert. The principle reason most physicians get annoyed by patients engaging in self-diagnosis using information from the Internet is that people can look at expertise as an issue of information instead of information and interpretation. Regardless of whatever tools are made available to these patients, they are still neophytes when it comes to using that information to accurately determine whether or not a particular condition is a reasonable cause for their symptoms.

Unfortunately there are a number of individuals that value their inexperienced opinion at the same weight versus the experienced opinion of a practicing physician, especially when it comes to probability arguments. Based on this mindset there are patients that will demand a specific test to rule out a one-in-a-million probability disease when a much more likely and common candidate is available; this testing demand spawns specifically from simply learning about the existence of the disease rather than understanding the disease. This neophyte element is clearly demonstrated by the ‘stack of papers’ which characterize these patients, they bring every possibility not the most likely possibilities.

The ease at which the author, a physician in his own right, dismisses the experiences of medical school and medical residence is almost insulting to the medical profession when suggesting that patients should familiarize themselves with the best sites to extract diagnostic information. Any belief that patients would develop diagnostic abilities similar to licensed physicians by simply viewing information from reputable sites alone is stretching the imagination. This nonchalance is especially troubling when considering that issue that it is highly likely that more patients will focus on end stages for a potential condition over the probability of actually acquiring that condition in the first place making more believable diagnosis more difficult.

However, this attitude is subjectively prevalent throughout the article. Taking an objective observation at a WebMD ‘analysis’ of a given group of symptoms should demonstrate that it is very easy for an inexperienced individual to become mislead by superfluous information even from a reputable site. A big error in analysis made by the author is the belief that most individuals are rational and logical actors when it comes to their health, thus research is always suitable.

It is understandable that patients want to have some measure of control in not only their medical care, but also what condition may trigger the need for that care; however, these patients must also understand that their expertise is lacking compared to the treating physician. A patient may attempt to come to reasonable conclusion regarding his/her condition, but must understand that the physician has the experience to more effectively determine the most probable cause from the available information and that the opinion of the physician should supercede the opinion of the patient. Without this understanding patients will not be ‘doing the absolutely best thing for themselves by going online before the office visit’, but instead will more than likely simply be complicated their office visit.

However, it also must be noted that physicians must understand that they are fallible as well and if the patient has information which contradicts their conclusions a more accurate diagnosis should be developed. While physicians are fallible it is important for patients to realize that in the web community rarely do message board posters and chat room participants report physicians being right in the diagnosis, instead they simply carp about those instances when their physicians were wrong and their own personal research assisted in deducing the proper diagnosis. In these web communities physicians are frequently treated like the CIA in that you rarely hear about their successes, but frequently hear about their failures. Physicians may not have superior intelligence all the time, but they do have superior experience and patients need to respect that experience. Overall physicians must work hard to be cordial to the questions of their patients and in return patients must not be argumentative to the answers or conclusions provided by their physicians.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Case for Banning Automatic Weapons

Oddly enough despite human intelligence and reason, society continuously comes to decisions that do not produce any genuine advantage yet perpetuate detrimental effects. The continued legalization of semi-automatic and automatic weapons in the United States is one of the most prominent examples of this perplexity. After a thorough analysis there is no rational reason to suggest that the legalization of automatic weapons is in any way beneficial for society. Note that for the remainder of this post the term ‘automatic’ with regards to weapons will stand for semi-automatic and automatic weapons.

There are three general points of argument made by gun proponents, like the National Rifle Association, which can be viewed in any light as rational regarding the overall legalization of firearms. First, citizens should be allowed to purchase firearms for recreational and non-recreational hunting. Second, citizens should be allowed to purchase firearms as a method of self or familial protection from individuals that would seek to do harm or invade the home with malice intent. Third, regardless of motive or rational, citizens should be allowed to purchase firearms because the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allows for it.

Arguing for the use of automatic weapons for the purpose of hunting is irrational. For recreational hunting the use of an automatic weapon is grossly inefficient and a waste of money. The capacity to fire 10-20 bullets in an extraordinary short timeframe into a deer, quail or other game fowl is unnecessary and is detrimental to the activity itself. The detriment comes from both the cheapening of the activity through the elimination of the challenge and increasing the probability of damaging the quantity and quality of meat that can be collected from the animal. For non-recreational hunting, such as killing wild hogs and boars that are invading agriculture and livestock lands, double-barreled shotguns are more effective at killing those types of animals. Therefore, from a rational perspective the argument that automatic weapons should remain legal for the sake of hunting is not valid.

The most popular argument in favor of lax gun control regulation is the notion of self-protection. The predominant component of the self-protection argument is that law-abiding citizens should have the ability to own a firearm in order to protect their home, self and family members from intruders. It must be pointed out that owning a home firearm is much more likely to result in the death of a family member over that of an intruder both statistically and on a simple frequency argument; however, despite that issue the rationality behind allowing for the ownership of an automatic weapon over a non-automatic weapon is non-existent.

The reason behind the reality that ‘protection’ firearms are more likely to kill a family member over an intruder is almost self-explanatory because most commonly a home is burglarized in one of two ways. First, the burglar is only concerned about getting a quick buck. Burglars either case their target because they want to spend as little time as possible in the house when acquiring their ill-gotten gains or the burglary is an spur-of-the-moment smash and grab. Either way the owner being home at the time of burglary only complicates things, so rarely will a burglar strike when an owner is home thus eliminating the protective factor of the gun for this type of situation.

The second type of home burglary is the more rare, but more violent home invasion. Thinking a gun is going to offer any real form of protection during a home invasion is wish-thinking as the individuals that participate in home invasions are frequently more heavily armed, better trained in the use of firearms and more willing and at ease with killing than the owner of the home. Brandishing a gun in this situation will more likely result in the owner getting killed than successfully warding off the invasion. Therefore, unless an individual is being robbed by 11-15 unarmed individuals at the same time, the laws of probability frown on such an occurrence, it stands to reason that owning an automatic firearm over a non-automatic firearm will simply increase the probability of a loved one’s death because of their greater killing potential.

A recent secondary element to the protection argument has emerged: having the ability to utilize a concealed firearm in a public place to prevent or cease the unlawful use of a firearm by another individual. Basically a bystander should be afforded the ability to carry their own firearm in order to have it available to shoot another individual that is ‘shooting’ up a public place in an attempt to kill a large number of people. While mass shootings, which seem to occur with disgusting more regularity in society, have increased the popularity of this reasoning too often have these gun-wielding bystanders been absent. Arguing the theoretical potential of an issue is meaningless if it is not put into practice on a consistent basis. Even then, it should give someone immediate pause to recommend or even envision an environment where public safety is dependent on unofficially trained or untrained bystanders having to draw firearms.

Some argue that motivation or even utility is unnecessary for the legality of firearms due to the Second Amendment. First, the contention that any citizen has the right to legally own a firearm based on the protections offered by the Second Amendment is incorrect. The Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed". Proponents of universal protection under the Second Amendment tend to forget that this amendment was drafted in 1787 and that the word ‘Militia’ is extremely important for that time period. Nowhere in that proclamation can it be reasonably inferred that the Second Amendment gives an individual the right to own a firearm without association with a Militia (note the capital M) sanctioned by the government and possessing the authority to protect the state. Now in modern times due to the existence of a standing national army, something that the framers thought would never be developed because of state autonomy concerns in relation to Federal government power; there is no existing situation in which that condition of Militia association can be met, thus by default no private citizen has the right to own a firearm based on the Second Amendment.

It can be argued that despite the accuracy of this interpretation of the Second Amendment the Supreme Court has concluded, it would seem inaccurately, that the Second Amendment does offer legal protection for gun ownership. However, the Supreme Court also did not eliminate the ability of the Federal Government to place restrictions on the type of arms ownership. For example no private citizen is allowed to legally own a nuclear weapon or large caliber machine guns, thus the Second Amendment protection is not absolute. With the conclusion that Second Amendment protection is not absolute a meaningful utility is required to own an automatic weapon. Yet as demonstrated above that meaningful utility does not exist. In fact the only reason one would even purchase an automatic weapon is that individual is interested in killing as many animals or people as possible in a given time period. Clearly such a rational is not a beneficial, just or meaningful utility.

Now one could make the argument that banning automatic firearms, even though a number of units were banned under the Federal Assault Weapons Ban which sun-downed in 2004, is that it would create some form of ‘slippery slope’ when it came to gun ownership rights. The slippery slope argument is common in philosophical discussions when addressing a controversial strategy and its execution. Despite its notoriety and popularity slippery slope arguments are solely based on fear and there is little reason to take them seriously.

The failure occurs in the assumption of an applied domino effect in that once one decision is made an associated decision will automatically occur at some time in the future. Such a belief is irrational. The true design of a slippery slope argument was to suggest that once a controversial rationalization is made in a given situation, it would become easier to make more radical controversial rationalizations in future situations. However, such arguments can be neutralized by establishing a rational and thorough review system that demands a certain ‘line in the sand’ mentality in the decision-making process. In addition there is nothing controversial about banning automatic weapons because of the aforementioned lack of beneficial utility in their use, thus no ‘slippery slope’ even if the concept were valid.

The final argument that might be used against a permanent automatic weapon ban is the concern that if automatic weapons were banned only criminals would have access to them. This argument has been a mainstay in the pro-gun lobby for firearms in general, but is irrelevant in this instance once again due to the lack of beneficial utility element for automatic weapons. As for the concern with the criminal element, almost all active automatic weapon utilization occurs within some form of criminal enterprise, thus making automatic weapons illegal will reduce the efficiency of operations for these criminals while applying very little inconvenience for the general public. Under the suggested policy private citizens would still have legal access to non-automatic firearms to address any self-protection issues. Realistically the suggest policy should facilitate an environment where the only individuals that are legally allowed to own automatic weapons would be active members of the military and members of a SWAT team.

Overall well meaning people can argue about the extent of gun control applied to non-automatic weapons, but there exists no reasonable or rational argument for the continued legalization of semi-automatic or automatic weapons.

Communication and Debate in the 21st Century

Perhaps there was a point in time when most beliefs and actions were in tune with what could be supported by empirical evidence or logic and those that were not routinely left the collective consciousness. Sadly the importance of such a mindset has waned in the present day. At first these incorrect beliefs could be engaged using financial incentives potentially eliminating conflict between correct and incorrect beliefs. In fact it can be said that some individuals purposely took positions that were incorrect to reap any potential financial benefits associated with ‘changing’ their opinions. However, it appears that even monetary incentives have reached a limit in guiding debate regarding certain topics. If any successful effort is to be made at neutralizing these newly identified psychological triggers it is important to first understand them in order to propose new aspects of debate to eliminate their inappropriate influence.

There are two critical psychological elements up for discussion. The first is characterized by the term ‘Sacred Value’. The following materials can provide a basis of understanding for what a sacred value is and how it has been researched.1-4 From these studies it was concluded that a Sacred Value could not be bought (negotiated away through a monetary incentive); the very notion of even attempting to exchange money for the value in question normally will anger the individual possibly even solidifying the importance of the value.

So the first question to ask is why does this reaction occur? The researchers offer no definitive explanation, but one possibility may follow this logic: money can be viewed as something with universal value; this type of value could imply psychologically that offering money for something equates to desperation. With non-sacred values money (at least some denomination of money) typically has a greater importance than the value, but with Sacred Values the individual ‘recognizes’ the desperation of the act of offering money. The intention of requesting a change in behavior means disagreement with the value and when taking into account the desperation of offering money the belief in the superiority of the value is strengthened. Another possibility is that offering money can be viewed as a quick-fix or lazy, a means to win the negotiation without actually understanding the position of the other party. For non-sacred values such tact is fine because of the superiority of value element argued above; however, Sacred Values are held in such reverence that failing to even attempt to understand their significance is viewed as an insult.

The research on Sacred Values suggests that cost benefit analysis (CBA) can still be an effective tool for increasing probability of reaching an accord when more sterile language is used in an attempt disarm the volatile nature of Sacred Value language triggers;1 however, when thinking about the application of a CBA there appear to be some caveats. First, there has been no deterministic analysis regarding overall quantitative effect, there is no differentiation regarding if using a CBA will increase the percentage for agreement by an average of 2% or 20%. Second, general CBA is not well designed for time-gap comparisons (giving up something in the present for future benefit), which are commonly applied in negotiations, especially those that involve Sacred Values. Third, CBA arguments have a tendency to breakdown difficult to compare benefits along monetary lines, which could spark the aforementioned hard-line tendency when involving Sacred Values, thus the need for tact. Fourth, while the preliminary data may demonstrate an unknown percent increase in negotiation tact with CBA, there is little information regarding differentiation between Sacred Values, but it stands to reason that based on their psychological standing that associating a ‘cost’ to a Sacred Value would be difficult.

Another strategy proposed by researchers is that a Sacred Value can be negotiated more effectively if the other negotiating party is willing to negotiate on one of their Sacred Values in exchange.1 The problem with this strategy is what if there is no Sacred Value to offer in exchange or it is not appropriate to offer one in exchange because of the Sacred Value in question is based on a false premise.

Another strategy, not discussed by the researchers, for addressing negotiations would be to look for Sacred Value contradictions. It can be rationally concluded that there are two types of Sacred Values, primary and secondary. Primary Sacred Values can be defined as values which have long-standing in an individual’s beliefs and are the basis for other beliefs. The most relevant primary Sacred Values have to do with religious beliefs. Secondary Sacred Values are those values that were once non-Sacred Values, but due to long-standing or self-serving interests have transformed into Sacred Values. Due to their inherent and genuine importance primary Sacred Values are held in a higher esteem than secondary Sacred Values. Therefore, if one can utilize the basic tenets of a primary Sacred Values against a secondary Sacred Value, the secondary Sacred Value will more than likely lose its ‘Sacredness’.

A secondary means of applying this contradiction strategy may be through finding common ground between the two parties apart from the particular Sacred Value that is/will become an issue. Normally it stands to reason that a shared Sacred Value can be identified from those commonalities even if it is as basic as a religious based tolerance for the sanctity of life. Finally that shared Sacred Value can be used to generate an argument between the shared Sacred Value and Sacred Value at issue forcing the individual/group to strip one of those values of its sacred characterization.

Another important aspect to addressing Sacred Values is how one identifies them without first having to interpret the emotional response when offered a monetary amount to reconsider it? There does not appear to be some special hard and fast method of identification; the best way may be simply to observe the subtext of responses when an individual is in a debate. The overall ferocity with which certain points and beliefs are argued can create an outline of understanding relative to what has a high level of significance and what does not, but the analysis must be cautious as some values may have received an ‘artificial’ Sacred Value standing which have to be separated from primary/real Sacred Values.

Sacred Values are not the only sticky problem in debate and negotiation. Another psychological development has been the identification of the Backfire Effect5 (note that this backfire effect is not the same one as sometimes described in the increased level of outrage when challenging a Sacred Value). The backfire effect is a term describing how an individual reinforces currently held beliefs by dismissing evidence that contradicts those beliefs. A significant part of this mindset comes from the psychological imperative that most humans find it difficult to accept being wrong even when obviously wrong, thus a sense of cognitive dissidence is utilized to neutralize any information, factual or opinion-based, which would challenge these views.5

A concerning element to the above existence of the backfire is the suspicion that the conscious mind in some way does not even recall the argument upon realizing the contradiction between it and currently held beliefs. Furthermore this rejection seems to solidify the currently held beliefs under some form of internal response that the beliefs ‘defeated’ the challenge brought by those rejected facts. Basically when the backfire effect operates in response to neutralize the contradictory information the brain can process the results of the backfire effect as: the incorrectly held beliefs were more factually accurate than the contradictory information regardless of whether or not they actually were. Another troubling aspect of this backfire system seems to be the demonization of the individual(s) that present these contradictory facts significantly inhibiting their credibility in future discussions. Note that it is important to acknowledge that not everyone has a backfire effect and even those that do, do not utilize it to reject all contradictory information relative to any held belief.

One of the most prominent examples of the backfire effect seems to occur within the realm of climate science and the rejection of human driven global warming. Despite an overwhelming amount of evidence arguing in favor of the validity of humans changing the climate due to the excessive release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere there is still a strong contingent of individuals that reject this notion. The ‘blame the messenger’ aspect of the backfire effect may also explain why climate scientists are so loathed by those that reject human driven global warming. So the pertinent question is what can be done to neutralize the backfire effect?

The first element to developing a strategy is to attempt to deduce the overall breadth of the backfire effect. While the overall applicatory influence of the backfire effect is powerful it does not appear to act as a protectorate on all challenged beliefs. Two immediate possible explanations jump to mind regarding this lack of ‘coverage’ for the backfire effect. First, the effect only protects highly important beliefs such as the aforementioned Sacred Values. This rationality is possible, but seems unlikely because there are a number of values, especially in the political arena, which cannot be rationally viewed as Sacred Values, but are still protected by the backfire effect.

Second, the effect may be tied into complexity. The more complex the topic the higher the probability that the brain can associate, whether true or not, some level of uncertainty in the ‘facts’ which facilitates the ‘escape’ or dismissal of these facts if they do not mesh with currently held beliefs. This explanation seems to have more validity than the first because most backfire-protected beliefs have a level of subjectivity to them, which can foster the necessary uncertainty. For example no one experiences the backfire effect when performing basic numerical arithmetic.

The effort to combating the backfire effect can boil down to two different debate techniques, The Sherlock Holmes or Anabolism. The Sherlock Holmes can be best summed up with one of the more famous quotes from Holmes, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Basically the idea is to demonstrate the basic fallibility of other available options thus rendering no choice but to accept a single primary point as correct. Taking the example from above for the ongoing argument about the validity of global warming, The Sherlock Holmes method is probably most famously applied by John Cook and associates at Overall the Sherlock Holmes method is well suited for arguments where individuals have a strong grasp of how to use probability and ample information is available for verification.

Anabolism, taken from the term in biology, focuses on supporting the validity of the overall argument by building a simple, unarguable and factual basis of support. For example if someone is learning how to do derivatives for the first time a knowledge of basic operators like multiplication and division makes understanding the operations of derivatives more effective over just ‘trusting’ the math book and/or instructor. The use of Anabolism in the discussion of human derived global warming would involve first introducing the inescapability of the Greenhouse Effect. Then confirming that human actions do in fact release additional carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Finally connecting the dots between the Greenhouse Effect and those additional carbon emissions to finish the picture of climate change due to human actions.

Realistically there appear to be four reasons individuals would reject arguments against human driven global warming: Ignorance, Lack of Intelligence/Confusion, Self-Driven Short-term Interests and Fear. A fifth reason that could be included is ‘direct contradiction to personally held beliefs’, but the inclusion of this reason is questionable. The reason is that there is no rational direct development of a contradictory belief. It is difficult to rationalize someone somehow developing a specific ‘humans do not drive global warming’ belief because of the specificity of the belief; there needs to be an attributable element, ‘humans do not drive global warming because…’. The lack of a direct independent origin demands an indirect cause, which is largely derived from one of the aforementioned four reasons.

Depending on which of the four rationalities is utilized to question the validity of global warming a different argument technique must be applied. Inquisitive ignorance is probably the most benign when it comes to reactionary hostility and a potential backfire effect. An ignorant individual simply needs to be given the facts, more than likely through the Anabolism method to be convinced of the validity of global warming. Application of the Sherlock Holmes method is risky because exposing an ignorant individual to the possibility of many different variables, regardless of their validity, may spawn unforeseen consequences and promote an unexpected backfire response. If the ignorant individual asks a questions that addresses an element outside of those presented in the Anabolism method then that question should be answered, but overall ignorant participants should be shielded from as much irrelevant information as possible to ensure the lowest probability possible for confusion.

Lack of Intelligence/Confusion is a tricky element because when an individual is not able to understand a situation on its facts and/or merits he/she is likely to be taken in by familiarity and non-relevant credibility of those discussing the issue. Political pundits take advantage of these individuals to disseminate their beliefs even if they are not experts in the field and their argument has no genuine logical or factual information. Unfortunately this reality is also a prime environment for the generation of the backfire effect and possible pseudo-Sacred Values.

Information bombing these individuals, i.e. the Sherlock Holmes method, is almost guaranteed to fail because it simply provides a load of factual information that these individuals do not have the capacity to absorb and sort into relevant and cohesive thoughts and conclusions. In a lot of respects such a strategy simply creates a ‘he said’ - ‘she said’ type argument where the individual will favor the argument that conforms to his/her beliefs regardless of its factual nature. The better argument methodology would be the Anabolism method where simple to understand scientifically valid information can build a bridge to understanding the more complex issues involving global warming.

In the case of those characterized with Self-Driven Short-term Interests little can be done. Those that fall into this category are not ignorant of the situation nor are they confused. These individuals simply value their place in society and feel that place would be compromised if the necessary steps to mitigate climate change were taken. Overall there is no effective argument because any current strategy to mitigate climate change has no short-term benefits that exceed those benefits already being acquired by these individuals. The significant long-term benefits of mitigation are of little negotiating importance because they are not guaranteed unlike the currently acquired benefits and they typically take too long to materialize to the magnitude that would rival the current benefits. The only real strategy to deal with these individuals is to isolate them and slowly strip them of any power and influence until the long-term benefits of climate change mitigation policy exceed their short-term benefits provided by the current system.

Fear is an interesting opponent because of its associated emotional tenor. The manifestation of fear as an impediment primarily occurs one of two ways: fear of change in general or fear of accepting the potential consequences of inaction or insufficient action. The emotional element that accompanies fear makes it difficult to use facts and logic to accept the coming reality associated with a changing climate and more than likely maximizes the influence of the backfire effect. Fortunately these particular elements of fear are no different from other events where fear plays a role, especially for those that simply fear change in general.

For those fearing change there are two elements that should help alleviate the fear. First, one should ask the individual in question about another time when he/she was afraid and how that individual overcame the fear. Simple reminders that fear is conquerable can be a powerful self-motivator. Second, illustrate how the individual’s life will be similar to the present even during and after the change to a lower emission environment, focusing on simple everyday tasks and events. One key element is not to oversell how easy the transition will be, but to focus on the minimal nature of the overall change.

For those fearing accepting the potential consequences of climate change most environmentalists attack this fear by using fear through the suggestion that if nothing is done to mitigate climate change then the future will be much worse. While popular and accurate, the method of using fear to attack fear is extremely hit-or-miss with its success largely dependent on the personality of the individual. One may respond as intended with the fear of consequences from an unmitigated future climate overcoming the ‘fear paralysis’ currently limiting the ability to act. However, others may have created a desensitized fear ceiling where they are only affected by fear to a certain point and additional fear beyond this ‘paralysis’ point is immaterial. Others still may view this fear-based argument as spurious due to a lack of credibility given to the environmental movement as a whole.

These ‘counter-mechanisms’ are probably why environmentalists have not seen much traction in overcoming individuals hesitant to act due to fear. A better means to deal with fear is demonstrate a detailed and transparent plan of attack to deal with emission reduction. The environmental movement has either not done this or not advertised that such a detailed numeric exists because they still resort to the above fear-based argument or trot out plans that talk about wedges, but do not discuss in specific detail how society is going to go from point A to point B; how is society going to build that x million MW of ‘insert alternative energy source here’? Simply hoping that the free market is going to get the job done in some mysterious way will more than likely result in failure. This lack of specificity continues to be a problem for environmentalists in convincing the general public of the dangers of climate change and the plausibility of a mitigation and remediation-based response, for the public is like business they like to have a plan and see what is in front of them so effective predictions can be made regarding the future. Without this certainty fear and confusion have a much higher probability of being relevant detrimental factors inhibiting the steps required for action.

While the issue of human driven climate change was used as the example for the secondary part of the discussion relative to the backfire mechanism, the two problems of Sacred Values and backfire are relevant in any topic of discussion. The climate change example did highlight the importance of general simplistic background information when entering into a negotiation. Limiting the amount of information to what is immediately relevant is important when explaining a complicated issue and attacking the backfire effect. Unfortunately the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ method does not appear to be an effective persuasion tool relative to the reasons one may reject human driven global warming, yet it appears to be the method most preferred by the environmental movement. Overall a critical component for the continued evolution of society will be the abandonment of incorrect ideas; one aspect of that goal is to employ discussion strategies that will better allow individuals to recognize and accept being incorrect and how to adjust their value system to eliminate the incorrect mindsets and adapt those mindsets that do not conflict with reality.

1. Ginges, J, et, Al. “Sacred Bounds on Rational Resolution of Violent Political Conflict.” PNAS. May 1, 2007. 104(18): 7357-7360.

2. Tetlock, P, et, Al. The Psychology of the Unthinkable: Taboo Trade-Offs, Forbidden Base Rates, and Heretical Counterfactuals.

3. Dehghani, M, et, Al. “Emerging Sacred Values: Iran’s Nuclear Program.” Judgment and Decision Making. 2009. 4(7): 930-933.

4. Baron, J, and Spranca, M. “Protected values.” Organizational Behavior and Decision Processes. 1997. 70: 1–16.

5. Nyhan, B, and Reifler, J. When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. 2006.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Is Global Thermostat any different from GRT?

Some recent attention has been given to a new technology start-up firm called Global Thermostat (GT), which similar to GRT (Global Research Technologies, which is now apparently Kilimanjaro Energy) aims to establish a profitable business from drawing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the ambient air. GT's system differs from GRT’s system in that it uses waste heat produced by interconnected power plants to power an amine reaction system over using independent power generation with a sorbent reaction system. Regardless of the technique, similar to when GRT first hit the news, most media publications have ‘conveniently’ foregone the debate regarding how this strategy should be perused and instead just anointed it another potential tool in the fight for reducing carbon emissions. Sadly such na├»ve and ballyhooed intentions do a disservice to the potential legitimacy of the ambient air capture strategy.

While the first question asked of carbon emission remediation processes should be total potential rational annual impact (TPRAI) on carbon emissions, in the current environment with all environmental remediation and mitigation strategies the first question boils down to economics. TPRAI should be considered as the principle issue because it is highly probable that, similar to power generation, a piecemeal approach to carbon emission remediation will not be successful because of the necessary resource division that arises from the myriad of strategies that would comprise a piecemeal solution. It stands to reason that two or three principle remediation strategies should be used to reduce the severity of global warming with the remainder being used only in case of emergency. Despite all of the publicity surrounding reforestation and biochar, ambient air capture appears to have the most potential in reducing the probability of occurrence and the severity of detrimental events derived from global warming over a near-term (10-30 years) timeframe. However, for this potential to be attained an effective and accurate analysis of ambient air capture must be developed, something that start-up companies like GT and GRT are not doing.

The sizable remediation potential advantage of ambient air capture, especially in the GRT system, is its reduced primary resource dependency. With both biochar and reforestation land use becomes a significant limiting factor reducing the overall remediation potential. For example most of the numbers that biochar proponents throw around require reverting a large amount of land already occupied for food consumption or other reasons to swichgrass remediation farms. Realistically this requirement will and should never come to pass, thus while biochar and reforestation can provide non-trivial remediation elements with genuine commitment, competitive land use reduces its absolute level of remediation potential. The sorbent/amine reactant for ambient air capture can be recycled, in the proper design, eliminating the chief limiting factor because the energy required for the recycling element and other elements can be acquired through use of renewable energy sources or waste heat as proposed by GT.

However, the economic realities proposed by these corporations are rather silly. Both groups propose that ambient air capture can be made economical by reducing the current price of carbon capture from the hundreds of dollars per ton ($200-$500 based on what estimate one uses) to less than $100 per ton ($30 per ton is a figure commonly cited by Klaus Lackner). Of course no details are given to how this dramatic drop in price will be achieved. Without details one simply assumes the rationality is that the price drop will come from mass production scale-up; however, to anticipate such a dramatic price drop with a lack of use of exotic or rare minerals or lack of first generation manufacturing technology which are both lacking in these designs, is difficult.

Another means to make ambient air capture economical is sale of the capture CO2. Some of the ideas floated around are use in soda and other carbonated products, aiding oil extraction, and use in the development of synthetic fuels, etc. Outside of aiding oil extraction the other ideas have little growth potential despite the incredibly optimistic beliefs of air capture proponents.

The best way to view ambient air capture is as a preventative measure designed to reduce future costs over actually being an economically self-sustaining entity. For example think of ambient air capture like a gym membership. Typically a person does not get paid money in the present term for going to the gym. The purpose of a gym membership (beyond issues of vanity) is it is a tool that is used to improve overall health, which reduces the probability that an individual spends money in the future on medical care due to poor health like high-blood pressure, high cholesterol, high tri-glycerides, etc. So while in the present owning a gym membership results in near-term debt (the cost of the gym membership) the inherent end design is future profit due to reduced future costs brought on by health related problems. Note that this future profit potential is not guaranteed, but is instead a probability-based arrangement.

The same goes for ambient air capture; the belief that ambient air capture will ever be near-term profitable is rather unrealistic and potentially dangerous. If too much importance is placed on near-term profitability then groups may not pursue the expansion and deployment of ambient air capture, which as discussed above, eliminates the remediation methodology with the most realistic carbon absorption potential. Returning to the gym membership example, owning a gym membership is almost analogous to a sunk cost if an individual only goes to the gym once or twice every month; no genuine health benefit can be derived from such little exercise.

Similarly if only a few ambient air capture units are constructed the effort is basically wasted. That reality is why the shift needs to be made away from near-term profitability because while one may find buyers for the first 50-100 million tons of CO2 collected every year, what about the other 1-2 billion tons of CO2? On a side note if humans are not going to fully tap the remediation potential of ambient air capture there is no point in further pursuing the technology. If humans cannot escape the near-term profit mindset and substitute a long-term profit cost reduction mindset then any serious mitigation and remediation strategy will struggle for acceptance, which will lead to much more difficult living conditions for the human species as the decades advance.

Another glaring problem with ambient air capture is a lack of specifics. This blog has already discussed the how the lack of specifics strip the legitimacy of GRT here. How does GT fair in specifics? The initial answer is not well. While there is an understanding of the need to protect proprietary information, the information provided by GT does not even reach a point where the need to shield proprietary information becomes a concern. For example here are the selling points that GT uses to demonstrate the worthiness of their idea (from their website):

Unique benefits of GT's Technology [Comment to the Point]

• Based on known and proven processes [This point is accurate;]
• Unique use of readily available surplus process heat [While true, describing the process as unique is a reach; a disingenuous use of technicalities to attempt to make the idea seem more creative than it actually is;]
• Makes carbon negative technology possible [True, but the word ‘possible’ implies that only this system can generate a carbon negative attribute, which is inaccurate and disingenuous;]
• Uses existing technology with most equipment off the shelf [Reiterating point 1 with different words;]
• Completely modular design allows greater flexibility and scale [Reiterating point 1 with another set of different words;]
• Economically viable process for capturing CO2 from ambient air [Really, where is the technical data validating this claim? Not on the website;]
• Offsets emissions from non-point sources such as transportation [Yes, but will transport of the amine base responsible for the absorption of the CO2 counteract this ‘advantage’?]
• Increases energy supplies while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions [A rather vague statement. Assumption is that energy supplies will increase due to unrestricted power plant construction due to lessening of CO2 emission accumulation fears;]
• Ultimate flexibility in location requiring only heat and air [Again too vague because there are a number of required elements beyond just heat and air in amine absorption;]

Not surprisingly the individuals at GT seem more interesting in hyping their process than actually demonstrating its legitimacy as the superior process among those representing its competition. Sadly no serious discussion, on GT's website or anywhere else for that matter, has been conducted regarding the two most important elements of ambient carbon capture: water use and sequestration of the captured carbon. Until these issues are at least addressed relative to the proposed methodology any individual or group advertising ambient air capture as a solution should be viewed with significant scepticism. As the old saying goes, ‘The ball is in your court GRT and GT'. Note still no technical details from GRT/Kilimanjaro Energy.

A Brief Discussion of Agriculture Adaptation

The continuing increase of surface temperatures catalyzed by human driven climate change has lead some individuals to question the future of the current system of monoculture agriculture. When considering the weather related events of 2010, especially the heat wave in Russia, such questioning seems appropriate; however, it is also reasonable that individuals are overreacting to those events. One problem with the psychology of a number of individuals that correctly acknowledge human driven global warming is the incorrect association of all severe weather events with global warming.

Throughout history a number of extreme weather and other geological events occurred before any significant human driven global warming could have been an influencing element. Certainly in the future there will be a warmer environment with a higher probability of extreme or multiple standard deviation weather events due to global warming, but to attribute the occurrence of all extreme weather events as a result of global warming is inappropriate. The same can be said of assuming the entire collapse of the current annual monoculture agricultural system within the next decade simply because of one extreme heat wave event; such a mindset may in fact do more to damage the credibility of global warming than to push ‘on-the-fence’ individuals to action.

However, despite the inappropriate overreaction to the demise of the monoculture agricultural system, the future shift in climate will place more pressure on that system and if this pressure is not properly addressed then there will be significant problems. Sadly a number of individuals address these potential problems by suggesting a move away from monoculture to a more niche system without addressing why monoculture is used in the first place. To most that wish to replace monoculture it would be reasonable to suggest that their rationalities involve the belief that monoculture is used solely to increase profit margins for major agribusinesses and the general unsustainability of monoculture as currently practiced. While true, the profit margin increase is largely derived from an increase in planting and harvest efficiency. This efficiency allows for more effective scale-up, a greater production level and the capacity to feed more people.

Regardless of any sustainability issues the world population could never have climbed as high as it has without this particular method of agriculture. There is a debate to whether a more organic methodology can produce equivalent yields to a monoculture methodology on a single given plot of land, but there is no effective debate regarding whether a more organic methodology can match the total yield per input of monoculture on a replacement scale. Basically this debate breaks down to some arguing that organic or permiculture methods can produce the same average yield on 1 acre of land as monoculture, but no one is reasonably arguing that organic or permiculture can produce the same average yield on 10 acres of land as monoculture at similar cost.

That lack of large-scale efficiency from other methods is the looming problem for those wanting to replace monoculture with another methodology for as it currently stands such a replacement will either increase the total cost per yield or decrease the total yield with either result more than likely increasing food price. A decrease in yield will not only raise food price, but also reduce total food availability which would increase the number of malnourished or starving individuals in the world. This rarely mentioned by its supporters drawback to non-monoculture agriculture in addition to the total cost and effort required from switching from a high intensity monoculture methodology to a non-monoculture methodology should drive individuals to ask what can be done, if anything, to salvage the current system over simply scrapping it for something else.

So what are the real problems facing monoculture in the future? The number one problem will be continued access to ample supplies of water. Taking the United States as an example, in 2000 40% to 65% (depending on whether thermo-electric power is counted) of freshwater used the United States is directed towards irrigation as a theoretical necessity to supply enough food for the populous.1 This level of water use has not declined significantly since and no major environmental study attempting to discern global resource allotment signals that water supplies will increase in a beneficial and control manner. In a vast majority of regions either water supplies will decrease increasing the probability for more drought or water supplies will increase at a much faster rate than can be naturally controlled increasing the probability of flooding and crop damage. Neither result is useful for the general supply structure for any form of agriculture be it the current monoculture system or an alternative.

One reason such a large amount of water is required for irrigation is due to the annual nature of harvesting; most crops that are currently used in monoculture do not have the opportunity to establish deep root systems which disallows ‘reaching’ for natural deep water aquifers and reduces effective retention of human supplied water. However, once again that lack of a root system becomes a sticking point because if a methodology like permiculture is established in effort to facilitate the production of deeper root system to reduce both water and nitrate use, harvesting yields are reduced over the same amount of land used.

It stands to reason that there is a reasonable chance that after a sufficient period of time the conversion from monoculture to permiculture would result in similar yields, but again the period of time required for this transition and the total effective size ceiling is unclear. At present a better strategy to address water use than convert directly to a new agricultural methodology would be to change the current irrigation method. Most farmland currently uses either flood or spray irrigation1 which uses more water than drip irrigation in part because the more immature root system cannot process it all and in part because some water is inherently wasted through evaporation in effort to ensure enough for the entire crop; overall the only rational reason why flood irrigation is used over drip irrigation is cost, the significance of which lessens with every passing year.

Flood irrigation also causes a problem with run-off. The unutilized water typically collects nitrogen compounds as it runs off the edges of the farmland. If this run-off ends up in a larger river/stream it can be taken to a larger body of water where the nitrogen and other organic compounds facilitate algae growth leading to dead-zones. So regardless of what agriculture methodology is utilized, one of the most important steps in preparing for a warmer future is to change the irrigation technique most commonly used from flood or spray irrigation to drip irrigation. Some may argue that spray irrigation is the preferred irrigation technique, but the key issue is water conservation and drip irrigation uses less water on average than spray irrigation due to less evaporation and general water exposure.

Changing temperature patterns derived from climate change is the second most important issue in the evolution of agriculture systems. Most of the attention that is given to agriculture adaptation is derived from this element. Interestingly most of the adaptation measures suggested are quite high-tech and/or extreme such as genetically engineering heat and drought resistant strains. What is somewhat unknown is how many low-tech solutions have been proposed for addressing increases in average surface temperatures in high yield agriculture regions possibly because they are not ‘sexy’ enough to receive significant attention. For example something as simple as a tarp held aloft over crops should reduce the total negative influence of the increased temperatures. This tarp could also reduce heavy rain and wind exposure during growth and after harvesting which would aid yield quality and reduce after-harvest erosion probability respectively. Also due to the ‘grounding’ nature of ozone, a tarp may even offer some protection from increasing tropospheric ozone concentrations.

One low-tech solution could involve incorporating a drip irrigation system with a tarp at a declining angle of approximately 8-9 degrees (one side of the tarp elevated to 40 ft and the other elevated to 10 ft on a field with a length of 1 acre should do) could reduce temperatures, collect rain water and protect from heavy rain and wind exposure at nominal cost. Without an enclosed system the crops would receive some exposure from the x-axis on a given y-axis (slanted rain and winds originating below the height of the tarp), but the overall exposure should be significantly reduced. The one outstanding question with such a strategy would be ensuring that the crops received enough exposure to light; thus the tarp would have to be somewhat transparent and brief testing would have to be carried out to measure any significant drop-off in growth rate.

Some argue that future shortages in oil and gas will be significant problems. This contention is true only if society continues to depend on outdated methodologies. Based on supply structure, to be concerned about a dwindling supply of natural gas, which in an agriculture environment would be largely devoted to fertilizer production, seems alarmist. Some of the top food producing countries in the world, the United States, Canada and Russia all have ample supplies of natural gas that most experts content would last for centuries. Granted potential environmental problems stemming from fracking may slow exploration of new supplies, but if recent history is any indication industry is rarely stopped from doing what they want by environmentalists. Overall fertilizer production is much more likely to face a phosphate shortage (another possibility that drives more fear than it should) than a natural gas shortage, but neither is very likely in the near future.

A supply shortage of oil is much more real because oil prices have already begun climbing as the global economy comes out of the recession. In 2008 a rapid spike in oil prices, partially aided by speculation on futures, gave the world a brief glimpse of the future if oil continues to drive agriculture harvest and transport. The important element to note about 2008 is that most of the food riots in developing countries were not necessarily caused by a lack of absolute supply, but instead more by a lack of acquisition potential where food prices rose to a point out of reach of most individuals. One solution to the potential oil supply shortage and the projected corresponding increase in price would be the development of a solar powered combine and other harvesting machinery. Solar power would work well because of the high potency and availability of sunlight in the more crop heavy environments. The design of such equipment would not require any exotic technology or techniques because of similarities to solar power cars; these heavy farm implements would simply require more electricity due to the higher power demands.

The final major issue regarding agriculture is soil degradation. One of the chief arguments against annual monoculture is the progressive loss of high-quality topsoil due to various tilling techniques and empty field erosion. There are two significant elements in soil loss; first the loss of nitrogen compounds requiring the use of nitrogen-replenishing fertilizer and second the loss of the soil itself. Loss of the soil typically stems from erosion events which are most prominent immediately after a harvest in an annual monoculture system because of the ‘nakedness’ of the soil.

The most viable strategy to reduce the potency of these erosion events is to not remove all of the crops from the plot in the same harvest period. This is one point argued by most permiculture supporters when highlighting the benefits of permiculture. However, the problem with this solution is a significant loss of total yield, which reduces total available supply leading to price increases. Another possible solution to these loss of soil events would be to protect the soil after harvest by reducing exposure to water and wind elements. The above mentioned tarp cover idea would accomplish this goal and would probably reduce overall soil loss due to erosion.

Another strategy that is widely suggested to stem nitrogen compound loss in soil outside of fertilizer use is to rotationally plant nitrogen fixing crops like legumes in between normal crop rotations. This method has earned widespread acceptance and is frequently used in smaller organic plots. However, once again the question of scale and quantity rears its head as planting these legumes in fields that primarily run corn, wheat, soybeans, etc. reduce growing time for these crops. High-quality micromanagement with specific planting timetables can alleviate this problem by extending the growing season to accommodate both sets of crop rotations. However, it still remains to be seen how effective such a strategy would be in placement of large-scale annual monoculture farms. Fortunately a near-future nitrogen shortage seems unlikely, which gives farms time to introduce more natural nitrogen replenishment techniques. To those that believe farms will be hesitant to develop these techniques based on past experience one method of motivation may to be instill a small, but steadily increasing tax on fertilizer.

It is unfortunate when individuals decry current infrastructure and yet suggest a replacement that does not address the core problems of that current infrastructure, thus not actually solving the problem. This reality tends to be the result with individuals that proclaim their personal niche replacement to annual monoculture, focusing on the problem of monoculture and not effectively analyzing how their solution succeeds or fails to correct these problems and whether or not that solution creates its own problems.

The most important issue regarding the future of agriculture is the acknowledgement that barring a miracle food production will be done in a warmer world. Once that reality is accepted then effective analysis must be made regarding potential solutions. This analysis should first start by focusing on making changes that will address the four previously mentioned points from above with as little infrastructure change as possible to easy mass scale-up change. For those individuals that prefer a new agriculture methodology over annual monoculture, they need to show that not only can that replacement method replicate annual monoculture yields on small plots, but can also replicate annual monoculture yields over the whole system in addition to the future problems faced by annual monoculture.

1. United States Geological Survey Website. 2000.