The Unexpected Perspective
The Implications of Darwin and the Big Bang for Christians ... and Everyone Else

Perspectives

Electric vehicles are coming on strong. Is the case for them compelling?

Everywhere you turn you see more and more electric powered autos and SUV's.   Names like Tesla have gone from fringe to mainstream.  Many, particularly those who fear environmental apocalypse due to global greenhouse gas emissions, believe a conversion to electric vehicles is absolutely essential.

            So just how strong, and compelling, is the case for electric vehicles (EV's)?  Recently, I received an email that concluded the case for electric vehicles was way overblown.  I concluded that the case against electric vehicles in the email was flawed, mainly due to some bad assumptions.  However, it got me thinking, maybe the email had some flaws, but that the author actually was fundamentally on the right track.  Just how strong is the case for EV's, and will they produce the desired results?   My conclusion is yes, the case for electric vehicles is quite compelling.  They could make a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions, but there are some important variables that need to be considered.  Let's explore the case for EV's, as well as the issues that might be problematic.

            My immediate conclusion is that the case for electric vehicles is pretty compelling.  It comes down to the cost of driving.  Let's consider the out of pocket cost of driving 100 miles in a gas powered vehicle versus an electric vehicle.  A couple of basic assumptions/data points:

  • The average gas powered vehicle can drive about 20 miles on a gallon of gas, which costs about $ 2.20 (actually, it ranges from about $ 2.00 to $ 3.00 around the USA at present).
  •  The average electric vehicle (EV) takes about 30 kilowatt hours (Kwh) of electricity to go 100 miles; and the average cost of one Kwh in the USA is about 12 cents. 

That means the cost of driving 100 miles in a gas powered car is about $ 11.00, but the same 100 miles in an EV is only $ 3.60!  The average driver in the USA is behind the wheel for about 12,000 miles in the course of the year, so the net savings of the EV per year is $ 888, at least in terms of fuel.  Of course, the cost of buying an EV is greater, but the cost of gas is pretty significant. 

            Many people are skeptical that greenhouse gases are a problem, but there's a good chance they'll still be interested in EV's because of the savings on gas, and also because reduced usage of petroleum means less dependence upon potentially unstable countries in the Middle East and Venezuela.

            These numbers are averages, and averages can be mis-leading.  For example, while the average price of electricity is only 12 cents/Kwh, in Hawaii it's 37 cents, over triple the average!  Do the economics still make sense?  Yes they do, partly because the average price of gas in Hawaii is about $ 3.00/gallon.  Thus, in Hawaii it costs about $ 11.10 to power the EV 100 miles, but the cost of gas for the same 100 miles is about $ 15.00, still substantially higher.  Hawaii is a real outlier on electric rates.  The next highest average Kwh cost is New York, at 18.8 cents, half the rate of Hawaii.  Thus, in every state, the out of pocket cost of powering the average EV is a good bit less than a gas or diesel powered vehicle. 

            This alone should help EV's to become an increasing percentage of the vehicles on the road.  That fact that battery technology continues to improve, causing the price/performance of batteries to get better, will also increase demand for EV's.  At the same time, the fact that driverless vehicles are on the horizon may spur the growth of EV's.  People will soon be buying driverless vehicles, so if you're buying a new vehicle because it is driverless, why not also benefit from EV technology?  Because of this, you're probably going to see lots more EV's.  Growth rates are pretty high.

            Which raises an important question: can the nation's electrical grid/infrastructure handle the increased load?  At least in certain parts of the country, this might be problematic.  For example, in San Francisco, the average house draws only about 2 kilowatts of electricity at peak times, but one electric vehicle plugged in at peak times will increase that load anywhere from 6.6 kilowatts to as much as 20 kilowatts, if the vehicle is getting a "fast charge". 

            The US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Lab has calculated that the US electrical grid could handle as many as 150 million electric vehicles, about 75% of all of the cars, pickups and SUV's on the road, so this shouldn't be a problem.  But could it be?  The simple answer is "yes, it could be".  The reason has to do with peak demand.  An electric utility must always be conscious of its peak demand, meaning the point in time during the day/week/month/year when the maximum demand is placed on the system.  The peak may only last for two or three minutes, but if there isn't enough capacity available during those two or three minutes, the system will crash.  The USA has had at least three major power blackouts over the past 50 years, all somehow related to this problem.  So how many EV's could the system handle and not have an impact on peak demand?

            The chart above, representing electricity demand for a New England utility, shows the problem, as well as the solution.  The peak demand occurs in the evening, between 6 and 8 pm (18:00 and 20:00 on a 24 hour clock), especially during the winter when everyone has their heating system on max.  In places like Florida, peak demand occurs in the late afternoon in the summer, when air conditioners are working overtime.  If that peak period grows, the utility has to add expensive capacity, driving up costs for everyone.  Every utility needs expensive standby capacity to handle these peaks.  In contrast, notice that electricity demand is pretty low from midnight until 6 am, as well as from 10 pm to midnight.  Not at all surprising.  Imagine two possible scenarios: 1) Scenario 1 – everyone plugs in their EV to charge from 7 pm to 11 pm; and 2) Scenario 2 – the EV's are charged from 11 pm to 6 am? 

            If there are lots of EV's, Scenario 1 is a disaster, but Scenario 2 could be a sweet dream for everyone.  If you increased electric demand to average 15 gigawatts between 11 pm and 6 am, you'd increase total demand by about 10%.  It would take absolutely no additional generating capacity because the peak demand would not be affected.  Michael Barnard, writing last year in Cleantechnica, estimated how big an impact there would be on California's grid if there were 3 million EV's by 2021, an estimated 10% of the total in the state by then.  Barnard estimated that it would take 20 Twh to charge those 3 million EV's, about 10% of the states current 200 Twh capacity.  Assuming California's load demand is similar to the New England utility cited above, that 10% could easily be found if the 3 million EV's are charged between 11 pm and 6 am.  So the obvious question is, how do you get John and Jane Doe to recharge their EV between 11 pm and 6 am instead of between 7 pm and 11 pm?  Most likely, John and Jane will arrive home at 6 pm or 7 pm, then plug the car in for the night.  Once you plug the vehicle in, the juice starts flowing, and a disastrous Scenario 1 begins to unfold.

            The good news is, there's a simple solution; the bad news is, it may not materialize.  Let's consider the issue.  The simple solution is smart metering and demand-based utility rates.  Utilities have the technology available to load level their system.  With a smart meter, John and Jane Doe can plug their vehicle in at 6 pm, then unplug it at 6 am the next morning, fully recharged.  The smart meter determines the best time to draw upon the system.  The vehicle may only require a charge for about two hours, so the meter should be able to figure out when to turn on the juice, then turn it off.  It may be the best recharge time is between 3 am and 5 am.  John and Jane Doe don't care, as they'll likely be sound asleep.  All they care about is that the EV is charged and ready to go at 6 am. 

            The utility can help ensure that by using peak demand pricing (i.e., increasing the price during the peak hours in the early evening and dramatically reducing the price during the overnight hours).  With these price differentials, the smart meter can then plan the charging schedule accordingly.  An entire grid of smart meters will control usage, system wide, and avoid the peak system demand.

            That should be the end of the story, but it unfortunately is not.  That's because many electric utilities around the country have perverse incentives to increase their peak demand.  Yes, that's right, the utility is effectively incentivized to drive up peak demand.  The reason has to do with one of the perverse side effects of public utility regulation.  Traditionally, electric utilities (and other utilities) have their rates set by state public utility commissions.  The rates are set based upon the following simplified criteria:

  • Total operating expenses of the utility (OE)
  • Total capital investment (C)
  • Allowable rate of return on the capital investment by the company and its shareholders (R)
  • Projected hours of usage  (KWH)

The hourly rate = (OE + R*C)/KWH.  This formula covers all of the operating costs of the utility, plus provides a return on capital to the investors.  Sounds fair, except that it creates a perverse outcome: the utility is incentivized to make capital investments because the bigger its capital stock, the more revenue it generates, and the greater is its profit.  Investors like that.  This is simplified, but you can see that the utility has an incentive to keep building out its capital base.  Thus, it has an incentive to push up its peak demand point, so other things being equal, the utility actually has an incentive to encourage John and Jane Doe to charge their EV in the early evening!

           This is a perverse outcome, but the good news is that there is a solution.  Change the way utilities are regulated.  Some states are beginning to do this, but incentives need to change.

            So demand for electric vehicles is likely to continue to grow, except for one other problem that's been there all along – the problem of recharging the vehicle.  EV's today have ranges of 200 to 250 miles, sometimes less.  It shouldn't be a problem because the average person drives a little under 30 miles.  Even if you forgot to "top up" your EV overnight, you should have at least 30 miles.  The National Household Travel Survey looks at typical driving habits each year.  During 2009 the survey looked at 748,000 individual car trips, a representative sample for the year.  They found that 95% of trips are less than 30 miles and 99% are less than 70 miles.  If the typical EV has a range of 200 to 250 miles, is there really a problem?  Is the tail wagging the dog?

            Unfortunately, it does seem that way.  People are putting off buying an EV because of a fear that may materialize on only 1% of their trips.  Lots of attention is being paid to setting up charging stations, as well rapid battery changing, but there isn't a quick solution in sight on this.

            Well, actually, there is.  It's one that's been there, in plain sight, for many years: rental cars.  The simple solution for those 1% of trips where one needs to drive 150 to 300+ miles is just to rent a car.  Even if you don't own an EV, or ever plan to own one, the rental car option is smart.  Here's why.  It's estimated that the "all in" cost of driving one mile is about 55 cents.  If you take a 500 mile road trip, your real "all in" cost is about $ 275.00.  You can rent a typical automobile for about $ 30/day plus the cost of gas.  Assuming a one day trip of 500 miles, the real cost of driving your auto is about $ 275.  You should be able to rent a car, as well as pay for gas and insurance, for about $ 100, substantially less than the real cost of driving your car.  My wife and I don't own an EV yet, but we regularly do this for any road trip of 500 miles.  In our case, that's a trip from the Tampa Bay area to Miami and back, all within the State of Florida.

            Now apply that idea to an electric vehicle.  When John and Jane Doe need to take a 500 mile trip, maybe once a year, leave the EV at home and rent a car.  EV manufacturers could team up with Hertz, Avis, or some of the other rental car companies and create a convenient service for EV owners.   So when the EV owner needs to take a long drive, provide a convenient way to avoid the fear of running out of juice on the trip.  Many auto dealers already have rental car operations.  Why not expand it and make it easy for customers to stop by and pick up a rental car for those 1% of trips when they have to make a longer drive?  Get the EV re-charged, washed and serviced while you're away?  Pick it up when you return?

            The case for electric vehicles is pretty compelling, in my mind, and only getting more so.  Yes, there are some challenges, such as the utility ratemaking one described above, but they can be solved.  Even if you're someone who believes global warming is a hoax, you could personally benefit by buying an EV and enjoying what it offers. 

 

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The incredible, exciting new technology called CRISPR is revolutionizing biology. It's got incredible potential, but also huge risks.

Seemingly out of nowhere, an amazing new technology called CRISPR has appeared.  While the underlying biological process was identified less than 30 years ago, it is already both transforming biological and medical research, its producing mind-boggling new methods and processes both to deal with disease, as well as have profound impacts on food and livestock production.

            CRISPR is a naturally occurring process that provides bacteria a defense against viruses and phages.  Scientists have found a way to harness this natural process to revolutionize  gene editing.  One of the key scientists involved with this revolution, University of California Berkeley Professor Jennifer Doudna, and Sam Sternberg, one of her students, have co-written an excellent book on CRISPR, called A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution.  The book is an excellent introduction both to the technology and its development, as well as to the potential and perils of it.  What is especially noteworthy of the book is that is written in a very approachable way, something that presents a complicated scientific topic in a thorough way, yet still something that the average person, who may know no science beyond high school biology or chemistry, can understand with little difficulty.

            CRISPR stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats".  A palindrome is a word or name such BOB or RADAR that reads the same both forwards and backwards.  In this case, it refers to the famous A, C, T, and G nucleotides of the genetic alphabet, which form short and repeated palindromes.  In its naturally occurring form, it provides bacteria with a naturally occurring defense against viruses and phages.  It provides "defense" by acting as a form of biological hedge-trimmer of the DNA of the invading virus.  What researchers like Doudna and others have done is to modify the CRISPR mechanism so it can be used to edit DNA.  In the space of just a few years, the CRISPR researchers have created a set of tools that can edit a DNA sequence, either removing a problematic series of letters or inserting a new sequence of letters.  Moreover, they've created a technology that is both easy to use, as well as very low cost.  Doudna says that one can set up a CRISPR lab for as little as $ 2,000!

            The book is worthwhile simply as an interesting and very readable account of the process to develop CRISPR.  Science often makes for dry, boring reading, but Doudna and her co-author, Sam Sternberg, have made it very interesting.  Many, of course, really aren't interested in reading about how a scientific discovery was made, but they'll very likely be interested in the profound implications of this technology.  That's because CRISPR offers incredible potential to cure terrible disease and improve food production, for example.  At the same time, it has the potential to unleash incredible havoc!  Let's explore both the positive and negative aspects of CRISPR.

            For centuries humans have been tinkering with genetics.  Farmers, for example, have been cross-breeding plants and animals to create desired improvements.  Dog breeders have done the same for generations.  More recently, scientists have developed the technology to exchange DNA from different species.  Beneficial genetic characteristics of one species have been grafted into the DNA of another species to achieve desired improvements.  Of course, there has been a predictable backlash against this, particularly opposition in certain quarters to GMO's (genetically modified organisms).  Scientists say that plenty of precautions are being taken with GMO's, but many people remain uneasy.   A number of countries, particularly in Europe, have banned GMO's in food.

            Another place where there has been backlash has to do with trans-genic organisms such as mice.  Many people are very uneasy with this type of genetic tinkering, sometimes on moral and religious grounds, other times simply out of fear of unintended consequences.

            CRISPR offers a good solution to overcome the problems of transgenic biology.  Instead of introducing foreign DNA into an organism, CRISPR merely modifies the existing DNA.  It's also much simpler and much lower cost.  So let's look at some of the tremendous potential of CRISPR.

            Now that the human genome has been sequenced, the genetic cause of many terrible diseases has been determined.  In some cases, the disease is caused by a single genetic typo.  CRISPR offers the potential of making a correction to those genetic typos, thus providing a real cure to the victim.  Needless to say, this is creating tremendous excitement. 

At the same time, CRISPR offers an interesting potential way to overcome diseases such as malaria.  For example, it may be possible to prevent malaria by modifying the genetics of the various mosquito species that are malarial vectors (i.e., a vector is the organism that transmits malaria).  Alternatively, CRISPR may offer a way to eliminate those species.  Implementing some of these changes might also make it possible to eliminate other mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever, West Nile Virus, or Zika.

CRISPR also offers great potential to address the food needs of the world's ever expanding population.  Gene editing creates great potential to develop new crop species that are more drought and insect resistant, as well as increase yields of individual crops.  Another benefit is the ability of CRISPR to produce breeds of farm animals that have more muscle mass and will yield more food.

These are but a few of the potential very positive developments that should come from CRISPR.  So what could be bad about CRISPR?  Unfortunately, there are lots of potential problems, and Doudna and Sternberg do an excellent job of discussing many of those problems.  I believe the problems of CRISPR can be divided into three categories:

Problem Category #1: Unexpected Genetic Outcomes

            While CRISPR is very effective at editing a genome, it's already understood that there can be unintended modifications that occur along with the intended ones.  Scientists have studied this pretty carefully and concluded that this probably won't be a problem.  This is because natural genetic processes also result in unintended outcomes, and there are other natural processes that overcome these.  As an example, every human body generates unintended genetic flaws in the course of cell division, but the body has natural ways of correcting these errors.  Scientists believe those natural defenses will tend to operate in the event of unintended outcomes from CRISPR.

            On the other hand, there is one particular class of CRISPR processes that is REALLY SCARY!  That's what is called a gene drive.  If CRISPR is used to modify certain cells in the body, every cell thereafter will have that modification.  If an unintended change is made, it could very quickly propagate throughout the natural world.  Doudna and Sternberg say this is already a concern with some "gene drives" that have been contemplated in fruit flies, for example.  While "gene drives" have great potential, they could also create lots of unintended havoc.

Problem Category #2: CRISPR in the Wrong Hands

            As previously mentioned, Doudna and Sternberg point out that one can create a CRISPR lab for as little as $ 2,000.  More importantly, one doesn't need a PhD in biology to implement the technology.  While that's clearly beneficial in one sense, in another its really troubling.  That's because ISIS, or some other terror group, or even North Korea's Kim Jong Eun, might use CRISPR to create a bioweapon.  No doubt, military planners around the world are contemplating this possibility and taking appropriate counter-measures (see, for example, bit.ly/2uiCBBc)

Problem Category #3: Immoral Uses of CRISPR

While people everywhere understandably want to use CRISPR to overcome undesirable genetic defects, others are contemplating the possibility of creating "designer babies".  CRISPR will make it very easy for couples to select/de-select traits such as hair and eye color, gender, and a whole host of other characteristics.  While some things such as eye and hair color might seem benign, the obvious question is, where should the line be drawn?  A few steps and there could easily lead to a latter day version of eugenics.  Eugenics began as a 19th effort to improve the characteristics of humanity.  One thing led to another, and eugenics ended up as a goal of the Nazis to eliminate undesirable characteristics from the gene pool.  Auschwitz and the other death camps were but a mere application of the policy of eugenics. 

The CRISPR train is gathering momentum daily.  As Doudna and Sternberg note, it does have tremendous potential, but one can also see tremendous risk.  To her credit, Doudna has early on called for limits on CRISPR in order to avoid some or all of the risks cited above.  On a positive note, there seems to be an emerging scientific consensus on this.  The authors correctly note that this isn't just a scientific issue, it is also one that needs input from bioethicists and religious leaders.  So my question is, where is the Christian Church in all of this?

I firmly believe Christians need to be intimately involved in the development, utilization, and regulation of CRISPR.  The question is, is that likely to happen?  One of my great concerns is that Christian viewpoints on this may be less respected than they should be, simply because in the popular mind, Christians are anti-science.  This perception of anti-science goes back to the fact that a high percentage of Christians still reject Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.  Thus, the popular conception for non-Christians is, if Christians can't even get Darwin right, how can possibly have anything worthwhile to contribute to a discussion about CRISPR and its uses?

I pointed this issue out early on in my book, The Unexpected Perspective.  Christians, I argue, need to come up with a comprehensive view about Darwin if they're going to be able to participate fully in discussions about science going forward.  Doudna and Sternberg clearly demonstrate the significance of CRISPR.  It does have tremendous potential, but likewise, it has potential peril.  Christians need to participate fully in any discussions about CRISPR, its tremendous potential, and its tremendous peril. 

 

 

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The case of Charlie Gard, the British infant on life support, is certainly tragic. This post discusses a whole range of issues and implications of the case.

If possible, we all want problems and issues solved with simple and neat answers.  We also prefer stories with heroes and villains, but what if the story has neither, or the actors are simultaneously heroic and villainous?  As medical technology advances, we're seeing ever more complicated plot lines, but often still with tragic outcomes.  The recent case of the British infant named Charlie Gard is no exception.

            While the case was slow to emerge, at least outside of the Britain, the story of Charlie Gard has now become distressingly familiar.  Gard had a seemingly normal birth in August, 2016 in Britain, but within a month developed life threatening brain damage.  Doctors concluded that he suffers from a genetic disorder referred to as MDDS.  There are only 16 known cases of the disease in the world at this time.

            Everyone agrees his story is tragic, made even more so by the pictures of the child on life support, but that is about the only agreement there is.  I believe five broad issues have emerged from this case.  Unfortunately, none of the issues has the simple, straightforward resolution everyone wants.  Let's examine each of them.

Issue #1: Who gets to decide?

A number of months ago the doctors caring for Charlie concluded that they could provide no more care to him, and that additional measures would be futile.  His parents, not unexpectedly, disagreed.  Under British law, when there is such a disagreement between medical professionals and the parents, the dispute is referred to the legal system.  The court hearing the case ruled against Charlie's parents, citing what is referred to as the "Futile Care Doctrine", meaning that it makes no sense to continue care when it has been concluded that additional efforts would be futile.  The court decision was not overturned at any of the three possible courts of appeal, the highest being the European Court of Justice.

In the USA, parents have broader rights to decide about the care of their sick children, so there's a good chance the outcome might have been different.  Conservative groups are decrying the outcome, viewing the British and European decisions as evidence of encroaching state power on decisions of life and death, which many, maybe most, believe should only be made by the family, not the government. 

            Should the parents have the ultimate say in what happens to Charlie?  Over the past several months, the parents reportedly have been fighting to bring Charlie to the USA for an experimental procedure.  Others, including Pope Francis and President Donald Trump, have encouraged the same, but the British and European courts apparently are saying "no".  The immediate reaction of many is to grant Charlie's parents the right to make that decision.  Thus, many say the parents should at least be able to decide to bring the child home to die.

            But what if the parents decide to take up the offer of the Pope, and others, to move Charlie for care in another country?  Well, that would up some additional, complicated issues.  Let's consider those.

Issue #2: Should care be provided at all costs?

            100 years ago, there never would have been a Charlie Gard case.  The technology simply didn't exist to keep the child alive, so he would likely have passed away well before this point.  Now there is technology to keep a person alive for very long periods of time.  This raises the question, should care be provided at all costs?  In Charlie's case, there is no known treatment.  There is a potential experimental treatment, but it hasn't been tested yet.  We'll consider that issue in a moment.

            There are countless cases today of patients being kept alive, or given active treatment, in the hopes that they will recover.  Much of this care is at tremendous cost. 

Commenting on the case for the New York Times, O. Carter Snead, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and the director of its Center for Ethics and Culture, said, "Pope Francis believes, along with Charlie's parents, that his life — all life — is worth fighting for, regardless of the presence of disability."  This suggests that care should be provided at all costs.

            The Times, however, went on to provide a contrasting viewpoint.  John M. Haas, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said the church teaching was clear that it was not morally necessary to provide life-sustaining treatment if there was no hope of improvement.  Haas has counseled many Roman Catholic parents with children suffering from incurable diseases or on life support.  Haas said,

."The poor child is suffering from an incurable genetic disorder that can't be cured, so there is no question that there is no moral obligation to continue intervention, according to Catholic teaching,"  At the same time, he also said, "On the other hand, that doesn't mean there is a moral obligation to stop life support." 

            Do religious leaders have a particular viewpoint about this issue?  Robert D. Truog, a pediatric intensive care physician at Boston Children's Hospital and director of the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School, told the Times that in his decades of experience dealing with priests, rabbis, and imams advising families in hospital wards, none of the major religions appeared to support extending life at all costs.   The Times said that Truog was troubled by the Vatican's proposal to take Charlie.  Truog said, "They could keep the child such as Charlie alive for a period of time, but given that Charlie has an irreversible brain injury, toward what purpose?"

            The argument for keeping Charlie alive is the potential to conduct experimental medicine.  Which brings us to the third key issue.

Issue #3: Under what conditions should experimental care be provided?

            The reason Charlie's case was referred to the courts was because Charlie's parents and doctors disagreed on next steps for treatment.  His parents wanted to bring him to the USA for possible experimental treatment.  The provision of experimental treatment on very sick patients has become fairly routine.  My own family has experience with this.  A key problem in Charlie's case, however, is that the proposed treatment is at such an early stage, it hasn't even been tested on lab animals, normally an essential first step.

            Experimental medicine is carefully regulated, a fundamental reason being patient safety.  As an example, all drugs are first subjected to rigorous testing, not simply to demonstrate efficacy, but also in order to avoid injury or death.  If Charlie's parents receive their wish, all of those safety protocols would be thrown out.  Is that wise?  One might make an argument that if Charlie is truly terminally ill and with no prospect for recovery, then what is there to lose by conducting the tests?  Something positive might be learned and, while it might never help Charlie, it might help the next patient with MDDS.

            Charlie's case might be classed as a "oh well, might as well do it, we have nothing to lose" one.  However, that might well lead us down a slippery slope towards eliminating many types of drug safety testing.  Admittedly, there are some who believe much of the work done by the FDA is a waste of time, but likely far more who believe a more conservative approach to safety is best. 

            A possible outcome is that regulators will create a special category of "oh well, might as well do it, we have nothing to lose" drug testing.  If so, patients such as Charlie might begin to receive experimental treatments they might not otherwise receive.  Sooner or later, some type of breakthrough might occur for some disease class, in which case most everyone will be glad that an exception was made.  Unfortunately, that won't necessarily solve the problem.  That's because there will be another Charlie Gard.  Maybe not the same disease, but there will be another equally heartbreaking case.  The difference is that perhaps the next case won't be quite so hopeless as Charlie's.  If so, then the decision about doing experimental treatment will be equally difficult.  Which leads us to the fourth issue.

Issue #4: Are there limits to experimental care?

            Imagine that Charlie actually has a chance for survival if the experimental therapy works.  Should the fact that the experimental therapy hasn't even been tested on lab animals be ignored?  Is it worth subjecting Charlie to a whole series of risks related to the therapy because it may work?  In that case, we'll be back to the "oh well, might as well, what have we to lose?" scenario.  This brings us to the entire question of the proper role of agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration. 

            The question of experimental care, as well as many other aspects of this case, however, leads us back to a part of the original problem, and a fifth issue.

Issue #5: What is the proper role of government in all of this?        

            The first issue discussed above concerned who should make the decision about Charlie.  Most people likely think that the family should make such decisions.  Conservatives, in particular, want that, and want to minimize the role of the government and other third parties.  At the end of the day, however, one still needs to figure what the proper role of the government is in all of this.  I role of government can't be overlooked, particular with respect to several aspects of this.

The first is experimental medicine.  Do we want to give doctors and researchers a "blank check" to do medical research without any controls?  There are some who advocate this, but doing that would create other problems.  After all, the Food & Drug Administration was created to deal with that very problem.

            Second, unfortunately, is the matter of cost.  If someone is going to spend their own money to provide care to a family member at any cost, few people would object.  After all, it's their money.  However, most of the time, the money being spent in providing the care to patients like Charlie is other people's money.  Are we prepared to give everyone in this situation a blank check?  When we're in the situation of the Gard family, we want everyone else to provide us a blank check, but are we equally prepared to give every other "Gard family" a blank check?  The USA spends more than twice as much as any other country on healthcare.  Unfortunately, our medical outcomes are mediocre at best, with life expectancy not even as high as Cuba's.  It's likely to get even worse.  Given that's the case, government needs to play a role in the allocation of healthcare resources.    

            As I said at the outset, Charlie Gard's story is a terribly sad one.  Because medical technology continues to advance, we're going to see more and more such cases.  They likely won't involve MDDS, but they'll be equally terrible ones.  Our instinctive desire is to look for clear cut and simple answers.  We also want to create heroes and villains.  Some conservatives are trying to turn Charlie's case into one of villainous bioethics committees, and representatives of government, usurping the rightful power of individuals to make decisions about care.  Unfortunately, it just isn't that simple.  But, at the same time, the conservatives have a legitimate concern.  For each decision rule we create, we raise possible problems for the next, equally sad, case; and for each new technology we develop, we create potential new versions of the Charlie Gard story.  I wish it weren't that way, but our desire for simple, neat, clean solutions just isn't realistic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Should Christians "draw a line in the sand"? If so, where should it be?

The world has many philosophies, religions, ideologies, and other systems of thought, each with adherents who have strong beliefs.  What distinguishes one from another?  At the end of the day, each "ism" or "ity" has a certain set of fundamental beliefs and assumptions that underlie the belief structure.  If you take one or more of these away, the "ism" tends either to fall apart, or at least become less distinguishable from others.  Nothing surprising about that.   So it should come as no surprise that anyone who embraces a particular belief structure wants to "draw a line in the sand" when it comes to the veracity of those fundamental beliefs and assumptions.

            Christianity is certainly no exception to this.  So you may ask, what are the fundamental beliefs of Christianity of the "draw a line in the sand" variety?   What makes Christianity different from any other religion, philosophy or belief structure?  When asked that question, many Christians, especially the more evangelical ones, say, "the Bible is the revealed word of God and is completely true."  Not necessarily a bad answer, except that non-Christians also believe certain things about the Bible are true.  For example, Jews believe the entirety of the Old Testament is correct.  Muslims also strongly believe many parts of the Bible, including parts of the New Testament, are true.  For example, the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, found in the New Testament, is also an important story in the Muslim Koran.

            Of course, with the possible exception of Messianic Jews, neither Muslims nor Jews think of themselves as Christian.  Thus, there must be parts of the Bible that most Jews, all Muslims, and adherents of other religions (or no religion at all) don't accept.  It would be at least some of these sections that make Christianity unique.  These, I maintain, are the "line in the sand" doctrines for Christians.  So what are they?

            If you listen to what many Christian churches, particularly more evangelical ones, have been saying lately, you wouldn't be far wrong if you arrived at the following as the "line in the sand" issues:

  • God created humans in a special way, different from all other creatures and species, in a manner that is inconsistent with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection;
  • Homosexuality is one of the worst kinds of sins, and is to be abhorred.

These are very strongly and sincerely held beliefs for many, maybe even most, Christians, but are these the real "line in the sand" issues for Christians to defend?  I think not.  Let me explain why.

            Consider, first, the idea of a "special creation" of mankind.  Well, some other religions believe the same thing.  Historically, even Deists believe this.  Deists generally believe that God created the heavens and the earth, but acts like the watchmaker who has created an incredible masterpiece that runs on its own, and is content to sit back and watch it operate.  Christians, especially evangelical ones, strongly reject the Deist narrative, believing that God is active in the world to this day.   So the notion of "special creation of humanity by God" is not unique to Christianity because adherents of other religions many times believe the same.

            Same with beliefs about homosexuality.  Many other religions reject it, most notably, Muslims.  Many evangelical Christians might be surprised to learn that Muslims have very similar views about homosexuality, viewing it as a sinful choice that individuals make. 

            If that's the case, then even though many Christians have very srong beliefs about these issues, neither of these can be "line in the sand" doctrines that distinguish Christianity from other religions.  Instead, I believe it has something to do with Jesus. Let's consider what it is.

            It isn't that Jesus was an historical figure.  People of all beliefs tend to agree with that.  Moreover, people of pretty much all faiths, and atheists or non-theists with no faith at all, believe Jesus was not only a good person, He was a model for others to follow.  Muslims and Jews don't disagree about this.  Atheists are the same.  Without a doubt, if pressed on the matter, the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins would say he admires Jesus. 

            What all of these non-Christians, however, don't say about Jesus is a belief that He was sent by God the Father to Earth.  Instead, non-Christians generally think of Jesus as a profound, even prophetic, person with many very admirable qualities, but not someone who is the Son of God. 

            Christians, on the other hand, accept what Jesus said in the Bible especially in the Book of John, namely that He is the Son of God who was sent by God the Father with a very specific purpose.  What, then, are those things that provide a unique viewpoint for Christians about Jesus?

One can make an argument that it comes down to two things:

  • Original sin
  • The inability of mankind to overcome sin.

Original sin is the idea that the very first humans sinned against God, and the sinful nature of those original humans has been somehow transmitted to every subsequent human.  It is a stain affects every human.

Both Jews and Muslims accept the idea that the original humans sinned against God, but their views are somewhat different.  Jews believe that humans do sin, but they do so by choice, not so much that it is an innate part of their natures.  Muslims tend to believe that after the original humans sinned, God immediately forgave them but also admonished them to avoid sin in the future.  According to the Koran, one can avoid sin by remaining in a state of submission to God, practicing the Five Pillars of Islam (i.e., faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and at least one pilgrimage to Mecca).  Other religions believe in the idea of sin, but no other ones that I know of believe in the twin ideas that mankind is inherently sinful and that humans cannot somehow either overcome or avoid sin on their own.

Which brings us back to the "why" for Jesus.  Christians believe that Jesus came to Earth, simultaneously fully human and fully God, with the purpose of dying as an atonement for the sin of mankind, then rising from the dead.  Beyond that, the risen Christ serves as the way to overcome sin.  It isn't done through any particular actions taken by the person, simply through faith that Jesus Christ is the route to salvation. 

The "why" of Jesus set forth above is something that Christians of all sorts can agree.  Of course, there are other important things, but I would argue that these are the most basic, most distinctive doctrines of Christianity.  If you take these away, you no longer have Christianity.  My argument then is that if Christians want to "draw a line in the sand" – and at certain times, we should – this is the place to do it.  Conversely, drawing the "line in the sand" on "special creation" and homosexuality really doesn't make sense because those are not essential doctrines of Christianity.

Why do I say those are not essential doctrines of Christianity?  "Special creation" is not an essential doctrine because one can easily construct a narrative that includes original sin and the imperfectability of mankind but leave out "special creation".  How?  Creation through the process of evolution by natural selection, started and controlled by God, provides an excellent explanation of creation.  Moreover, it fits both what the Bible says and modern scientific data.  The key act of God was not how He created humankind, it was His response to the emergence of sin in the original humans.  Christians believe that God's response to original sin and human imperfectability was to send Jesus.

The belief that homosexuality is both a choice, and is a sin, is also not an essential doctrine.  As noted above, it is not a unique Christian doctrine.  One can believe in the doctrine as a devout Muslim, for example, so it can't possibly be a core Christian concept.  Please understand, I am not saying anything about the acceptability or wrongness of homosexuality, merely that it is not a core Christian doctrine.

Given these arguments, what am I trying to say?  Simply that if Christians want to be real defenders of the faith, we should focus attention on the things that make Christianity unique.  Those, I believe, are also the things that serve to make Christianity compelling.  If we're going to draw a line in the sand, let's draw it at the right place.

How, then, should Christians go about this task?  Of course, by placing reliance upon the Bible.  However, what happens when Christians encounter people who honestly and sincerely believe Christians are mis-interpreting the Bible, or who even believe the Bible is rubbish?    Is there something beyond the Bible that could back up these "line in the sand" arguments Christians make about Jesus?

I believe the answer is "yes".  Ironically, it's the least likely place many Christians would ever go: Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

Briefly, Darwin provides Christians the following:

  1. An excellent way to explain the source of original sin, and why humans possess it, in contrast to other species; and how it is transmitted from one generation to the next;
  2. A way to explain why humans cannot by themselves avoid or overcome their sinful natures.

Thus, if Christians really want to "draw a line in the sand" that distinguishes what we believe, the very best way to do that is to consider (or re-consider) what we think about Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

Thank you for reading!

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When I told family, friends, and business associates that I was writing a book, and the book was about Charles Darwin, the Big Bang, and Christianity, I got a broad range of mostly "funny looks".  You probably know the sort.  They smile and say, "that's interesting", or "that's nice", but you know they're thinking, "is he out of his mind?"  Here is the South, the response might be along the lines of, "Well, bless your heart …"  For Southerners, that's "code" for, "he may be too dumb to come in out of the rain!"

            But while it may seem crazy, three things inspired me to spend more than three years writing and researching this book.

The Christian Church Has Been Hurt Because of the Issue

            Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species more than 150 years ago, and the Big Bang Theory was formulated almost 100 years ago, yet the Christian Church is still arguing about this.  In the meantime, lots of people have given up on Christianity because they perceive that the Bible is at odds with what the science shows.  It's especially a problem when young people go off to college: many grow up learning one thing about Christianity and science, then confront something very different at a university.  While young people have long experienced a crisis of faith as young adults, they very often come back when they're a little older.  This seems to be different, and many aren't coming back, even when they're older.

Christianity and Science

            Many non-Christians perceive Christians to be anti-science, and the issue of Darwin and the Big Bang are "exhibits A and B" for this.  Unfortunately, non-Christians have a tendency to think that if Christians have seemingly weird views about Darwin and the Big Bang, then they must have equally weird, and wrong, views about other matters of science, so they conclude that Christians have nothing worthwhile to say about science.  When Francis Collins was recommended to take over leadership of the Human Genome Project a few years ago, despite the fact that he was a very accomplished scientist, a number of people feared that his strong Christian views would somehow taint his ability to lead the project. 

            This is happening at precisely the time when science and technology are playing ever greater roles in ordinary life.  Moreover, new science is creating ever bigger ethical and moral dilemmas.  The very latest is "gene editing".  Christians need to be very involved in these debates, but to the extent that we're perceived as naïve about Darwin and the Big Bang, we'll be similarly perceived when it comes to these other science-related issues.  We need to be taken seriously about all science matters that have ethical and moral components, but we won't be taken seriously until we figure out a better answer to subjects such as Darwin and the Big Bang.

Stupidity

            And then there is what in my mind is the worst one of all.  Many, maybe even most, non-Christians perceive that Christians believe things that seem to be at odds with modern science.  While they may be polite about it, what they're really thinking is, "Christians are just plain stupid!"  That's clearly the narrative of militant atheists, who'd like you to believe that for one to hold religious beliefs must be stupid because "they're so clearly wrong!"   Even Christians, to some extent, buy into this narrative: I know many committed Christians who privately laugh at fellow Christians who believe Adam and Eve were contemporaries of the dinosaurs.  There are even Christian theme parks that promote these views. And, doubtless, many of these non-Christians also are reminded of comedian Ron White's famous line, "you can't fix stupid!"

            I don't think the average Christian is stupid or anti-science, even if they strongly believe in Creationism.   Instead, the average Christian believes what he or she believes because of an abiding faith.  On the other hand, my argument is that, notwithstanding the solid scientific arguments of non-Christian scientists, in the mind of the average Christian, no compelling reason has been offered to make one want to believe in Darwin and the Big Bang.  Thus, my goal has been to reframe the entire issue.  The starting point has been to ask a different question: what would have to happen in order for Christians to want to believe in Darwin and the Big Bang?  The answer is, Darwin and the Big Bang would have to reinforce something that Christians already believe, and it certainly would have to accord with a conventional understanding of the Bible.  When I started, I didn't know if I could answer this question affirmatively.  Having done the research, and written the book, I can authoritatively say the answer is a resounding "yes!": not only should Christians accept Darwin and the Big Bang, I think they should love these ideas even more than committed atheists like Richard Dawkins. 

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This Halloween will be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's Nailing His 95 Theses on the Church Door in Wittenberg, Germany. Some thoughts on Luther and higher education.

Halloween this coming October will include the usual door to door trick or treating, as well as parties, to which we've all become accustomed.  This year, however, will include an additional, quite unusual celebration: the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his famous 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.

            Luther's "theses" were complaints to the Roman Catholic Church about the practice of selling "indulgences".  Christians in the early 16th century would make a payment to the church in return for the priest to intercede on the person's behalf with God, providing forgiveness for some sin the person had committed.  The Roman Catholic Church claimed it was good theology, and historians tell us it was also a very big business.  In fact, it's been reported that the German banker Jacob Fugger made a fortune in financing the sale of indulgences.  Luther, an Augustinian monk, was incensed by this practice, and made a formal protest by nailing the 95 Theses to the church door.  One thing led to another and soon the Reformation was underway, forever splitting Protestant churches away from the Roman Catholic Church.

            As Halloween, 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of Luther's act, numerous celebrations and commemorations will occur around the world.  One I've read about this week is by the 1517 Fund.  In commemoration of Luther's anniversary, the 1517 Fund is seeking to create a latter day set of 95 Theses, focusing on what it calls "America's modern day religion – higher education."  In fact, the fund is soliciting ideas for how higher education might be radically reformed, much as Luther called the faithful to reform the Roman Catholic Church in 1517.

            Much of the focus of higher education reform is on its high cost, as well as the resultant mountain of student debt, which presently is greater than credit card debt in the USA.  This is certainly a huge problem, but I'd like to focus on some other serious problems in higher education.  As a nation, we're spending exorbitant sums on higher education, yet complaints about the lack of preparation of graduates are as loud as ever.  The 1517 Fund is soliciting additions to its latter day "95 Theses" list, so let me offer two of my own "theses".  Why am writing about a subject such as this?  Well, there's clearly a need for innovative thinking on the subject.

Thesis #1: Let's create a modern day apprentice system by utilizing the power of MOOC's and the Khan Academy, but apply it to businesses.

            Employers everywhere are constantly complaining that the graduates they hire are ill prepared.  In many cases, graduates seem to have serious deficiencies in communication skills.  They often can't write very well, and they also often can't speak clearly and articulately.  At the same time, there's an ongoing problem of providing good skills training programs.  Some think American companies ought to adopt German style apprentice programs.  Those programs are often highly effective, but they're very expensive, especially for smaller enterprises.

            Here's my idea: 1) get universities and other education providers to create short courses, much as Khan Academy does for grade schools and high schools, but focused on employees in companies; 2) encourage companies to allocate one hour/day to these programs.   Here's how it might be put into practice.

            Khan Academy takes a subject such as calculus and breaks it down into short, bite-sized classes that can be watched online.  The student might watch the program during class, then do the homework at night.  Alternatively, one might ask the student to watch the program at home, then devote class time to working through the problems.  My idea is to use the very same system, but for subjects relevant to a business. 

The work of acknowledged experts such as Anders Ericsson  of Florida State University shows that the best way to learn something is to dedicate about 60 to 90 minutes at a time.  Beyond that amount of time, the mind simply can't absorb more without a good break.  If that's the case, then why not suggest that the employer block out 60 to 90 minutes each work day for continuing education purposes?

Yes, I know, the immediate response will be, "we don't have enough time to get our work done now, so how can we give up that time?"  My argument is that if proper training is provided, employee productivity will increase, possibly dramatically.  The task of training and skills development is broken down into ideal length increments, at least according to cutting edge research.  So imagine that a company adopts this approach on a daily basis?  The employee will now be spending only 6 ½ hours on regular work and 1 ½ hours on education.  Will the average employer really miss the 90 minutes of work activity?  My best guess is, no, especially if you take everyone's mobile phone away for the 90 minute period.  If anything, the other 6 ½ hours of regular work will become more productive because the employee is learning relevant skills, the very skills the typical employer says have been missing.

What will this approach cost?  If a Khan Academy or university based MOOC (massively open online course) is employed, the cost of curricula should be far less than if the employees are sent to a traditional off site training program.

Thesis #2: Let's apply the wisdom of the X Prize to a broad range of problems related to higher education effectiveness.

            Most everyone has heard of Charles Lindbergh.  Lindbergh's most notable accomplishment was to make the first non-stop plane flight from New York to Paris.  He made his historic flight in 1927.  While such a flight is not the least bit noteworthy today, it bordered on the unthinkable and unimaginable in the 1920's.  Lindbergh was merely one of many trying to accomplish the feat, spurred on in part by the opportunity to win a $ 25,000 prize from the French hotelier Raymond Orteig.  That same prize would be worth about $ 341,000 in today's dollars, so there was definite incentive.

            The Orteig Prize served as the inspiration in the 1990's for the creation of the Ansari X Prize by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis.  The winner had to launch the same rocket within a two week time period, something that seemed almost unimaginable in the early 1990's.  After all, up until that time, rockets typically disintegrated after launch so they couldn't be reused.  This time the prize was a check for $ 10 million USD.  Twenty six teams entered the competition, which was won in 2004 by Mojave Aerospace Ventures.  Once again, the seemingly possible was achieved.

            The idea of the X Prize has spread to numerous other seemingly impossible ventures.  Each X Prize is intended to foster three key goals:

  1. Attract investment from outside the sector that takes new approaches to difficult problems
  2. .Create significant results that are real and meaningful. Competitions have measurable goals, and are created to promote adoption of the innovation.
  3. Cross national and disciplinary boundaries to encourage teams around the world to invest the intellectual and financial capital required to solve difficult challenges.

 

A quick perusal of the X Prize Foundation website shows the breadth of projects, all seemingly impossible.  What strikes me is that while the prizes tend to have large payouts, they really aren't especially large at all.  It simply shows that incentives such as these can spur incredible entrepreneurial activity.

            So what does any of this have to do with Martin Luther and education reform?  Well, please refer back to the X Prize "goals" list.  The initial one, "attract investment from outside the sector that takes new approaches to difficult problems".  This seems spot on to the whole issue of increasing the effectiveness of higher education.  The other two goals fit exactly in, too.  So how might this concept work?  One simple way would be for the Federal government to create an incentive for very high net worth individuals to create such prizes.  For example, imagine if one could get not just a charitable deduction but a tax credit for creating such a prize?  The former is likely worth much more than the latter.  Provision might be made that an independent organization such as the X Prize Foundation would have to oversee the project.  A simple way would be for the tax credit to be offered only if the prize money is given to the X Prize Foundation.   Critics will say that there will be abuse.  There may be, but if properly constructed, the resulting benefits in at least a few cases will produce great benefits.

            One way to think about this is if a portfolio of X Prize projects are created for a given field.  By analogy, an angel investor will make investments in 20 different ventures.  Most likely, at least half of the ventures will fail, and some of the rest will only provide a modest return.  What the angel investor hopes is that 10% of the portfolio is hugely successful, thus providing a great overall return.  Applying the same concept here, a portfolio of 20 different X Prizes in subjects related to higher education innovation might be created.  Assume a group of individuals or companies contribute a combined $ 200 million to create 20 $ 10 million prizes.  If two wildly successful wins result from this, the $ 200 million will be just a pittance.  Other thing to keep in mind is that the prize money won't be touched until the goal is achieved.  Thus, if the goal isn't achieved, nothing is really lost.

            Martin Luther's 95 Theses did indeed spark a world changing revolution, one still being felt today.  The 1517 Fund's commemoration of the 500th anniversary is a great idea.  I've proposed two ideas that could be added to the list.  No doubt, at least some readers of this will have other seemingly outlandish ideas.  Luther's ideas were both outlandish and heretical to the powers that be in his day.  We need more such ideas to deal with that modern form of religion, the institution of higher education.

            Please share your own outlandish ideas for how higher education might be made more effective or more reasonably priced.

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Unless You're a Nudist, You're Probably Contributing to Climate Change In an Unexpected Way

When the subject of climate change comes up, most people have images of belching smokestacks at coal plants, or polar bears standing on melting icecaps.  We all have some familiarity with these things, but I'm going to suggest something much more familiar … and intimate … to you – the clothes on your body. 

            Now, I realize, some of you may be reading this in the buff … likely while still under the sheets on your bed, but even you are highly likely sometime today to put clothing on your body.  Sooner or later, we all have an intimate relationship with our clothes. 

So what in the world does that have to do with greenhouse gases and climate change?  Well, according to the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration, the textile industry is the fifth largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the USA, after primary metals, nonmetallic mineral products, petroleum and chemicals. 

In their concern to reduce greenhouse gases, I know lots of people are trying to reduce the amount of driving they're doing, but I can't say I know anyone whose planning to give up their clothing!  So if you're not willing to give up your clothes, what can be done?

Actually, a lot!  More importantly, a lot is already being done.  Here's the interesting thing to note: a lot is being done, and virtually none of it is related to the Paris Climate Treaty.  So with respect to textiles, there's bad news and good news.  The bad news is that textiles definitely contribute to the greenhouse gas problem around the world.  The good news is that even though the US is dropping out of the Paris Agreement, there will likely be absolutely no impact on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas intensity in textiles.  Let me explain why.

As I mentioned previously, textiles represent the fifth largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the USA.  The production of a broad range of textiles creates these gases, but polyester and other synthetic type textiles are the biggest contributors.  This is because synthetics are largely made using a chemical reaction involving coal, petroleum, air and water.  Synthetic polyester represents 10% of the market share for all plastic materials, coming third in terms of popularity after polyethylene (33.5%) and polypropylene (19.5%).  A study done by the Stockholm Environment Institute found that 9.52 kilograms of CO2 are emitted per ton of polyester produced, and 49 million tons of polyester were produced in the USA in 2008, the latest data I was able to locate.  Non-synthetic fabrics such as cotton and hemp produce less greenhouse gas emissions than synthetic polyester, but still a lot.  For example, conventionally produced cotton creates about 5.9 kilograms of CO2 per ton, still about 62% that of synthetic polyester.  Most of this is a by-product of farm production.

The other really bad thing to note is that synthetic fibers also create problematic gases besides CO2.  Nylon, for example, creates emissions of N2O, which is 300 times more damaging than CO2.  The problem is compounded by the fact that N2O has a very long life, taking more than 100 years to break down.  It's so bad that during the 1990's, the N2O emissions from a single nylon plant in the UK were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK's entire CO2 emissions!

So unless you're planning to join a nudist colony, you're going to be contributing to the problem.

That's the bad news, so let's talk about the good news … and there's actually a lot of good news.  That's because of an emerging field called synthetic biology; and it holds a lot of promise, but also a lot of challenges.  A few years ago, it was hoped that synthetic biofuels might displace the use of a lot of petroleum.  Around 2008 some startups promised to use synthetic biology to produce biofuels from pond scum.  A lot of money was invested.  Unfortunately, while the technology worked on a small scale, companies had a lot of trouble scaling up: the microorganisms that produce the biofuels behaved differently in factory settings, it turned out, than in laboratories. 

Today, a new crop of startup companies is applying synthetic biology technology to textiles.  While the textile applications may still be problematic, there is some cause for hope that the outcome will be different this time.  One reason the result may be better this time is because the startups are focusing on higher margin products that have fewer market fluctuations than fuels and specialty chemicals.  The other key reason for hope is that new technologies for gene editing, as well as for scaling up biologic processes, have been developed over the past decade.

While there are a number of startups trying to develop textile products using synthetic biology, one that stands out is called Bolt Threads in Emeryville, California.  Bolt has developed technology to induce spiders to produce silk.  Bolt's CEO, Dan Widmaier, says that the synthetic fabric the company can produce is stronger than steel, stretchier than spandex, and softer than silk.  Moreover, the Bolt product is both biodegradable and does not create the greenhouse gas problem of traditional synthetics.  Bolt has built an 11,000 square foot factory to produce commercial quantities of bio-engineered silk from spider.  The company employs more than two dozen PhD scientists.  The company is presently trying to scale up its process to industrial scale.   It needs to do this because it has inked deals to sell to multiple customers, one of which is the apparel company Patagonia

Bolt isn't the only company in this space.  A German company called AMSilk is also developing synthetic bio textiles.  Beyond textiles, Boston is home to GingkGo Bioworks.  Gingko is focusing on organisms that can create new perfume fragrances and food sweeteners, among other products.  At the same time, certain investment groups are focusing on this area, one of which is OS Funds.

While there is no assurance of success, Bolt Threads and other companies in this emerging space offer an exciting potential way to produce textile products that have a far lower greenhouse gas footprint than traditional textiles.  If at least some of these companies are successful, most likely a huge amount of additional capital will be invested. 

Besides the fact that the technology is both interesting and exciting, I bring this to everyone's attention because it is a solution that does not depend upon the government.   The technology underlying these companies, as well as the companies themselves, is not the result of any international climate agreements.  International agreements such as Paris have absolutely zero impact on these companies, or the technology they might produce.  They represent just another example of how the USA can have a hugely positive impact in addressing the greenhouse gas problem even without the Paris Climate Agreement.  Not only that, if the companies are successful in scaling up the technology, people will be beating down the doors to invest.  Those trying to beat down the doors will include people who deny that greenhouse gases are causing climate change. 

What's the takeaway?  The synthetic biology industry should be encouraged.  It's happening as we speak, through investments by angels and venture capitalists.  Is there a role for government?  Yes, most likely in the form of research grants.  These can be provided both at the Federal and State level. 

Which brings me back to the bad news and good news.  Unfortunately, textiles produce a lot of greenhouse gases, so the fact that the average person wants to wear nice clothes, and probably can't afford to eliminate synthetic fabrics from the wardrobe, we can look forward to lots more greenhouse gas emissions caused by textiles.  Beyond that, as incomes in the rest of the world increase, everyone else will have expanding wardrobes contributing to the problem.  After all, as poor people begin to have higher incomes, among the first things they buy more of is clothing.  The good news is that if Bolt, and similar synthetic biologic companies, can produce very low greenhouse gas emitting synthetic fabrics, textiles will move from being one of the problems to one of the solutions.

Synthetic biology holds a great deal of promise as a technology.  It isn't a panacea, but it could help provide all of us the "dress" to address some of the problem of climate change.

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A video that reaches an astounding conclusion about Darwin and the Big Bang Theory

 

CHRISTIANS SHOULD LOVE DARWIN AND THE BIG BANG THEORY EVEN MORE THAN COMMITTED ATHEISTS. REALLY??!!!

 

 

Check out this video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qt_brZDJokI.

If you like it, or just find it intriguing, you can find other videos at

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4Jy5oqNrPmtqgUMC9iCTxg

Share it with your friends because no matter what their particular beliefs are, they're likely to learn some surprising things!

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A Different Perspective on How to Bridge the Gulf Between Those With Opposing Viewpoints

The mere mention of the words "should" and "want" can evoke a visceral reaction.  Here's the relevant dictionary definition of SHOULD: "used to indicate obligation, duty or correctness, typically when criticizing someone's actions."

We all have things we should do, and we probably have vivid memories of our

parents telling us what many of them are:

You SHOULD get good grades in school

You SHOULD eat everything on your plate

You SHOULD treat your siblings kindly

You SHOULD (… you fill in the blank).

As an adult, there are lots of other things you KNOW you SHOULD do.  For example:

You SHOULD exercise regularly

You SHOULD make your bed every day

You SHOULD put aside 10% of your paycheck for your retirement.

And I'll bet there's a little conversation going on inside your head for each of these "SHOULDS".  One part of you is saying:

            Yes, you're absolutely right, I ought to do these things, and I'll try …

The other part of you is saying, "YA, YA, YA, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH … pass me another slice of pizza".

When it comes to WANT, the story is completely different.  Here, the dictionary definition is more soothing and pleasing: "have a desire to possess or do (something); wish for."

For most of you, such talk about the difference between these two terms is almost a flash of the blindingly obvious!  So why bring it up?  I mention it because I think it's relevant to one of the big problems we face today: our tendency to ignore, even dismiss, the ideas of those with whom we disagree. 

There's been a lot of discourse about this problem – speeches, commentary, and even books written about it.  In general, they pretty much all come to the following conclusions:

  • We are increasingly divided in our views on a whole range of issues
  • Rather than try to engage in a dialogue with those of differing opinions, we surround ourselves only with those with whom we agree
  • We live in "filter bubbles".

That's a brief diagnosis of the problem.  The widely shared prescription is that we should listen to what the other side has to say, then try to find some common ground.

            While that's the common prescription of what we SHOULD do, it isn't done very often.  I believe at least part of the reason for this is because the prescription falls within the realm of all the other SHOULD's I mentioned above.   Yes, these are things we SHOULD do, but so much of the time, we just don't do them.

            It's a real problem, with no obvious solution.  This is because we all know what the "solution" is, it's just that we really don't want to undertake it.

            I'd like to offer a different solution.  The solution can be summarized very simply and neatly: "turn a SHOULD into a WANT."  Let me explain.

            As discussed above, we all know what we SHOULD do, but oftentimes it's just tough to do, or too unpleasant to do, and it just doesn't get done.  We also know what we WANT to do, and our motivation to address a WANT is normally much stronger than the motivation to deal with a SHOULD.   Not always, but certainly true enough of the time.  So to help us deal with the problem of considering what "the other side" has to say, my solution is to "turn the SHOULD into a WANT."  This will involve addressing and answering a couple of questions:

            Question #1: what would have to happen for me to WANT to listen to, and possibly adopt, some or all of the ideas of my adversary?

            Your initial reaction probably is, NOTHING could possibly make me want to embrace any of the ideas of my opponents!  That's because they're IDIOTS!  Maybe, but even if they are idiots, I believe you'd still want to embrace some or all of their IDIOTIC ideas if the following were true: you could personally benefit from one or more of those IDIOTIC ideas! 

Now if you knew you could personally benefit, might you at least give a little consideration to the IDIOTIC idea?  I know I would, and I bet you would, too.  Of course, you're never going to know the answer to this until you at least engage in a simple exercise.  That leads to another question:

Question #2: how could I turn one or more of these IDIOTIC ideas to my benefit?

This may take a little bit of work, but see how the situation has changed?  You've moved from dismissing the other side's ideas outright to trying to search for ways you might benefit from those ideas.  Now, please understand, there is no assurance you'll find a benefit from any of those ideas.  THE ONLY WAY YOU'RE ASSURED NOT TO BENEFIT FROM THE OTHER SIDE'S IDEAS IS IF YOU DISMISS THEM OUT OF HAND.

            Please understand, this is not any sort of "touchy feely" exercise.  At bottom, a cynic would say that it's an exercise in pure self interest.  But at the end of the day, exercising our self interest is what gets each of us moving, when we do something not because somebody else told us we SHOULD do it, but because we decided we'll do it because we WANT to do it!

            Two examples, one from the realm of religion, the other from the secular world of politics. 

            The first example has to do with what Christians think about Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection and the Big Bang Theory, the subject of my book, The Unexpected Perspective.  Overall, about half of Christians believe that these scientific ideas fit quite nicely with the Bible, and the other half reject the idea.  That divide has existed for the past 150+ years, and little has changed.  For that entire time, those who exhorted conservative Christians to embrace modern science have been using "SHOULD" type arguments, with predictable results.  Conservative Christians have rejected the arguments.  I believe a key reason they've rejected the arguments is because no one has provided them any really satisfying reasons they should WANT to embrace the science.  Predictably, they don't.

            My proposal is to reframe the problem, getting conservative Christians to look for reasons they would WANT to embrace the science.  The book comes up with five such reasons.  This completely changes the situation!  Where before, conservative Christians had, in their own minds, absolutely no reason to WANT to embrace the science, they now will WANT to embrace it wholeheartedly.  In fact, I go so far as to say that Christians ought to love Charles Darwin and the Big Bang Theory even more than does the eminent atheist scientist Richard Dawkins!

            Now let's consider a secular example of the same.  The issue I have in mind is global warming and climate change.  A certain fairly sizeable segment of the population either doesn't believe there is a problem, or believes the problem has been overstated.  Once again, the skeptics are being told they SHOULD consider this a serious, even dire, problem that must be addressed immediately.

            The outcome is predictable: the SHOULD  arguments have failed to persuade a fairly high percentage of people.  Thus, I suggest reframing the problem.  I'll start with those on the right. I would reframe the problem by asking the following questions:

            Question #1: is there a reason why I, the climate skeptic, might WANT to believe that global warming and climate change are both real, and a problem?    The answer I come up with is this: whether or not I believe in the science of greenhouse gases, I'd be interested in this if I thought it could be financially lucrative to me.  Suddenly, we've moved from a SHOULD to a WANT: one can be the greatest possible climate change skeptic, but be highly motivated to act if he/she thought it could be profitable. 

            The good news is that there's more and more evidence that people can make lots of money trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The alternative energy sector is growing by leaps and bounds!  The funny thing is there is evidence that much of the money is being made by people who profess skepticism about a link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. 

            This type of thinking/re-thinking applies to BOTH SIDES.  Likewise, those on the left ought to ponder the same question #1: is there a reason why I, the person who is very fearful of global catastrophe due to climate change, might WANT to believe that the problem isn't as severe as I've been thinking, or I've mis-characterized the problem in some other way?  The answer I come up with is, YES.  I say this not because of any skepticism about the science.  I'll assume that the science is correct (and for the record, I absolutely do believe the science is correct).  What might be in question, however, relates to how to solve the problem.  Why might someone on the left WANT to embrace a more conservative view of climate change?  Well, the profit motive applies equally to those on the left and right.  As some people like to say, "I don't care whether the clothes you wear are blue or red, I really only care that what's in your pocket is the right color green." 

            But that isn't the only reason someone on the progressive/left side of the issue might WANT to embrace some alternative ideas about climate science.  Another reason is simply because government-imposed solutions often either don't work, work far too slowly, or they work but have lots of unintended consequences.  Most every governmental program has those, and they can be VERY EXPENSIVE and VERY UNDESIRABLE unintended consequences.

            For both sides, please remember, there is no assurance that exploring reasons why you might want to embrace some of the other side's thinking is going to produce the desired result, BUT FAILURE TO DO IT WILL MOST CERTAINLY ASSURE A SUB-OPTIMAL OUTCOME.

            While one example is in the realm of religion and faith, and the other in the world of public policy, they share the following elements:

  • Intransigent views on either end of the spectrum, with lots of screaming but very little dialogue;
  • Prescriptions to the other side given in the form of "YOU SHOULD", with little realistic motivation provided;
  • The potential for movement when the issue is reframed from SHOULD to WANT.

Those who study and/or practice negotiation will recognize what's really happening here.  One of the most basic principles in negotiation is: focus on your interests, not your position.  Too much of the time, today, each side gets stuck in its "position".  Instead, a good negotiator needs to understand what his or her "interests" are.  By taking the approach described herein, I believe one is really taking into consideration his or her real interests, not just the current position.

I've given two examples here, but I very much believe this approach can be very useful for just about any issue.

In summary, here's the takeaway for both those on the left and right of most any issue:

  • Stop preaching to the other side, what they SHOULD and SHOULD NOT do/believe/feel;
  • Start assuming that there likely is at least some merit in what the other side thinks, it's really just a matter of figuring out what it is;
  • Start asking, what is there in the thinking of the other side that could be beneficial for me, and others like me, that I just haven't realized/perceived/understood? 
  • Start actively looking for ways to benefit from some of those ideas.

In other words, STOP thinking in the realm of SHOULD and START thinking in the realm of WANT TO.

If you found this worthwhile, consider subscribing to my blog. 

 


 

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Scientists in South Africa have made an important new discovery of a species related to Homo sapiens.

 

Several years ago scientists in South Africa reported the discovery of the fossil remains of a new species called Homo naledi.  As reported in Scientific American, "[Homo naledi] had a curious mix of primitive traits, such as a tiny brain, and modern features, including long legs.  They determined it was a capable climber, a long-distance walker, a probable toolmaker."    The remains were found in an underground cave system called Rising Star.  This past week, Lee R. Berger of the University of Witwatersrand, as well as a group of other researchers, reported in the online journal on the discovery of remains in a separate chamber of the Rising Star cave system, approximately 100 meters from the 2013 first discovery.  The original discovery was made in September, 2013 by two recreational cavers who pretty much stumbled upon the original specimens.  The second discovery included 131 Homo naledi specimens, mostly the bones of an adult male who has been nicknamed "Neo", meaning "gift" in the local language.  What was reported has the potential to shake up many commonly accepted ideas about the evolution of mankind in Africa. 

            To be certain, the Homo naledi specimens are definitely different than typical Homo sapiens.  The researchers reported that they have a more primitive trunk, shoulders, pelvis, and femur than Homo sapiens.  On the other hand, the specimens appear to have humanlike adapatations of the hand, wrist, foot, and lower limbs.

            The first thing that has caught the attention of many about this find is the estimated age of the remains.  The scientists involved with the discovery had two labs independently date the fossils.  Both concluded that the remains are between 236,000 and 335,000 years old.  That's, of course, pretty old, but not really.

            The second reason this find is so interesting is because there is evidence Homo naledi intentionally buried their dead.  Other than Homo sapiens, there hasn't been any evidence of a species doing this.  If the evidence can be confirmed, it would imply a level of sophistication in Homo naledi not seen in other primitive species. 

How did the scientists reach this conclusion?  It has to do with the location of the burial site – deep within the cave.  The researchers concluded that the remains could only have ended up where they did if intentionally taken there, not by chance.

The third reason Homo naledi might be of particular interest is because there is some evidence that they may have been toolmakers.  Nothing definitive at this point, but there appear to be some tantalizing clues.  Moreover, the researchers didn't discover any specific evidence of this, merely hints of it.  If it turns out that Homo naledi were toolmakers, it could well overturn some widely accepted notions about the role that brain size plays.  This is because the Homo naledi specimens showed brain sizes of about 600 cubic centimeters, substantially smaller than the 1400 cubic centimeter sizing of the Homo sapiens brain.

The fourth, and possibly most controversial, reason this is an important discovery is that it may call into question accepted ideas about the role of southern Africa and eastern Africa in the emergence of modern humans.  The generally accepted view is that modern humans emerged out of east Africa, but the researchers working on Homo naledi are building arguments that Homo naledi may have given rise to Homo erectus and/or Homo sapiens.  Other experts in the field, not involved in the South African discovery, are at somewhat skeptical of these claims.  J. Tyler Faith, a paleoecologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, for example, is skeptical of the claims about southern Africa as the center of evolutionary development.  He also questions the idea that Homo naledi helped lead to Homo sapiens.  He says, "If the dates are correct, then Homo naledi is a classic example of an evolutionary dead end … [Homo naledi] couldn't possibly have given rise to living human populations today."

Berger, the principal researcher, was born in Kansas and grew up in Georgia, but now makes South Africa his home.  He has worked closely with National Geographic.  He apparently is also somewhat unusual in that he is attempting to make his research projects "open source", somewhat akin to "open source" software development projects wherein the research is made openly available for others to see, comment upon, and make contributions.  The number of co-authors in this week's paper attests to that idea.

This week's report shows that new discoveries are still being made around the world, helping to shape and refine our understanding of the emergence of our species, Homo sapiens.

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Carl Treleaven is an entrepreneur, author, strong supporter of various non-profits, and committed Christian. He is CEO of Westlake Ventures, Inc., a company with diversified investments in printing and software.

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