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

Perspectives

North Korea's Kim Jong Un poses a serious threat to the USA and its allies. This blog post suggests a different, and unexpected, way to think about how to deal with the threat.


 

It seems every time you open your news feed, turn on TV or radio news, or read a newspaper, there's a story about something that Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, has done.  Since he came to power a few years ago, many of those stories have been funny, but increasingly they're frightening.  Kim Jong Un's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile technology may be one of the biggest menaces faced by the USA, and many other countries, in decades.  The policy choices facing the Trump Administration, as well as America's allies, and even competitors like China and Russia, are increasingly unpalatable.  A nuclear war of any sort is pretty much unthinkable, but that's looking increasingly likely.  Is there any new place to search for ideas or inspiration?  "The Unexpected Perspective" blog focuses on looking at important issues from surprising and unexpected angles, and that's what I propose here.

            The obvious place to seek ideas is the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but I think there may be a better one; and it's from pretty unexpected place: the Bible.  So what insight might the Bible have with respect to Kim Jong Un?  I think it's the Old Testament story of David and Goliath.  The story has inspired Christians and Jews for more than 2,000 years, and it's even an inspiration for many non-Christians.  In the story the Israelite army faces off against the army of the Philistines.  Each army is lined up on opposing sides of a valley.  Rather than have the two armies attack one another, the proposal is for each army to offer up one soldier to represent his army.  The "two man" contest will determine the outcome of the war. 

            The Philistines offer up Goliath, a huge man bedecked in full armor.  Goliath is so large, so fearsome, that no Israelite warrior wants to take him on.  Who could blame any of them?  The most unlikely warrior of all then offers himself, a teenage shepherd named David.  David is offered armor and a sword, but eschews them in favor of his sling shot and some stones.  All figure it will be a suicide mission until David surprises everyone by knocking down Goliath with a single shot from his sling.  He then slays the wounded Goliath and the Israelites are victorious.

            Christians and Jews, including myself, have always believed that God was behind David's victory.  The fight, however, really wasn't as lopsided as everyone has tended to believe.  On a practical level, David's victory included three strategic elements: 1) surprise; 2) avoiding the strength of the enemy; and 3) changing the "rules" and playing to his own strength.  If David had played Goliath's "game" of fighting with swords and armor, he would have surely died.  Instead, he used a sling shot – a highly lethal weapon in its own right when used by an expert – and brought Goliath down.  He surprised the Philistines, played to his own strengths and away from Goliath's.  When the game changed, David's weakness was the inspiration for his strength, and Goliath's strength - being in armor and wielding a sword - became a great weakness.

            An ever-inspirational story, but what in the world does it have to do with Kim Jong Un?  My belief is that today we have a "David and Goliath story" in reverse:

  • The USA and its allies are Goliath;
  • Kim Jong Un is David;
  • Kim Jong Un wants to "play out" the story and is trying to draw the USA and its allies into the battle, but on his terms, not ours.

On the surface, it definitely does look like "David and Goliath": the USA is far superior to North Korea, both in economic and military terms.  If the two countries engage in nuclear war, the USA will highly likely blow North Korea off the face of the Earth.  Unfortunately, there will be huge collateral damage to South Korea and possibly other countries, including the USA.  Definitely, a pretty awful scenario, with millions of casualties; but the USA would certainly be "victorious", even though the USA victory in such a contest would be an incredibly hollow one.

What is a little less obvious, however, is Kim Jong Un's "sling shot".  It isn't the nuclear weapons he is building, or even the missile delivery system.  If Kim tries to use these weapons, it would be comparable to the Biblical David utilizing the sword and armor provided to him, but which he rejected.

Instead, in my mind, Kim Jong Un's "sling shot" is cyber hacking.  While Kim can't possibly win a war against the USA with missiles and nuclear weapons, he could potentially win one if it's a battle of cyber hacking.  There's no question North Korea has developed formidable hacking prowess.  The WannaCry virus had significant impact several months ago, but what if that was merely a "dress rehearsal", or "battle game", to test North Korea's capabilities?  They could very well have been holding back. 

Now imagine that North Korea launched a live attack, for example, against the USA's electrical utility grid?  Not only might they disable it, they could potentially literally destroy infrastructure in the USA.  Imagine they did it in the dead of winter?  Or what if they went after other vulnerable points?  They're all kinds of them.  The good news is that the USA and other developed countries have so much advanced computing technology, and the bad news is that we have so much exposed advanced computing technology.  Imagine, a bloodless war launched from desktops in Pyongyang? 

The idea of such an attack is certainly not far-fetched.  There is evidence the Russians have been deploying a similar strategy against Ukraine's electric utility grid the past several years.

So let's get back to David and Goliath.  David completely surprised Goliath and the Philistines, and won the battle he could win rather than the battle that Goliath could win.  My assumption is that while Kim Jong Un seems to act irrationally, he is anything but irrational.  The fact that he has systematically eliminated all of his opponents in North Korea leads me to think he isn't a crazy man; he's only feigning craziness.  Assuming he isn't crazy, then he isn't going to launch a nuclear war that he would surely lose. 

So is there a lesson out of David and Goliath that the USA and its allies might apply?  Here's what I think it is.  The Biblical story never really refers to the commanding officer of the Philistines, though surely they had one.  Let's also assume he was a pretty bright, capable guy, so let's slightly re-write the story.  We can confidently assume that the Philistines had scouts, so let's assume that one of those scouts had been "scouting" David and discovered that the teenage shepherd was a great with a sling.  Surely, the scout would have informed the head of the Philistines.  Armed with such intelligence, the Philistine commander would likely have done one of the following:

  • Option A: proceed with a fight between David and Goliath, doing so either out of hubris, or a belief that Goliath might still beat the shepherd;
  • Option B: find the guy in his own army who knew how to use a sling (or send home for a Philistine shepherd)
  • Option C: delay the fight to another day.

The good news is that the USA and its allies have pretty good scouts.  We know something about North Korea's "sling shot" hacking capabilities.  We also suspect that Kim Jong Eun, while being extremely belligerent, is still presumably very rational.  Drawing upon the analogy of David and Goliath, we're at the following point:

  • Goliath (the USA) is telling the Israelites (North Korea), if you want to fight, you'll be crushed;
  • David (North Korea) is getting ready to enter the contest, and the Philistines (USA and Allies) think he's getting ready to fight with sword and armor (nuclear weapons), but it's really with his sling shot (cyber hacking).

Thus, based upon the analogy, the commander of Goliath's army – President Donald Trump and his advisors – must make a decision.  Right now, it sounds like Option A above, with the likely disastrous outcome for everyone.  Moreover, as part of any nuclear war, North Korea would still likely utilize their "sling shot": unleashing cyber terror on the USA.  None of North Korea's missiles might ever hit a USA target, but the cyber losses might be monumental.  Still, a huge loss for the USA, definitely not a victory.

            Drawing upon the analogy, I think Goliath's command – President Trump – should explore Options B and C.  Let's look at what that might look like.  Both Options B and C point towards moving the battle away from the current strength of the USA – nuclear war.  Why would the USA and its allies want to avoid playing to their strength?  It's because the likely outcome of that strategy would be a nuclear disaster.  So what would make either Options B or C better?  Quite simply, avoiding a nuclear conflagration.  Further, delay will permit the Philistines (USA and allies) to find their own David with a sling shot (i.e., get better prepared for cyber warfare).

            So how could Goliath – Donald Trump – most effectively implement either Option B or C?  It would involve the following:

  • Deescalate the rhetoric about missiles, but maintain, maybe even increase, economic pressure;
  • Accept the obvious: North Korea is already a nuclear power and that we're not going to undo that;
  • Don't give in to North Korea's demands that the USA remove its military presence in Korea and surrounding areas;
  • Focus attention on reducing or eliminating North Korea's "sling shot" – the ability to unleash cyber terror.

The obvious objection to this strategy is, the USA wouldn't be eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons in North Korea.  Unfortunately, I don't see any way that could be done short of unleashing a nuclear war, which simply is unacceptable.  Thus, North Korea would likely continue to build more nuclear weapons.  The USA could respond by placing more weapons in and around South Korea.  It would begin to look more and more the way Europe did during the Cold War.  Not ideal, but it's something with which we're already familiar.  It's also equivalent to the Philistine army standing down, or at least not engaging the Israelite army in a war they couldn't win at the time.

So if you're faced with the choice of fighting a war that either you can't win without acceptable losses, the best strategy is to avoid a war until you can get into better position.  That's the same thing as the Philistines not engaging the Israelites – not letting Goliath battle David, at least for the moment.

Now will the status quo remain the status quo forever?  Of course not, something will change.  If the USA's leaders are smart, they'll avoid an unwinnable confrontation today to wait for a potentially winnable one at a future point.  Drawing upon the analogy, it would be similar to the Philistines doing one of the following:

  • Waiting until they found their own "David", who could be a match for the Israelite David;
  • Waiting for the terms of battle to change so they might get into a winnable position.

Would failure to respond to another weapons launch by the North Koreans (i.e., a form of Option C) be perceived as weakness?  Not necessarily, especially if is coupled by more sanctions.  Building upon the analogy, the Philistine army probably had other ways to beat the Israelites than using Goliath, they simply failed to be sufficiently creative or imaginative.

In terms of the USA, "finding its own David" is the same as overcoming any vulnerability to cyber terror, reducing or eliminating North Korea's "sling shot" threat.  Presumably, lots of work is already being done on this.  Most likely, a lot more is required.  Waiting for the terms of battle to change means keeping North Korea in check.  The best way to do that is to maintain economic pressure and maintain military presence.   However, it probably also means de-escalating the rhetoric.  The Biblical Goliath taunted the Israelites to come out to fight.  Today's Goliath – the USA – should be careful about making antagonistic statements – just maintain the pressure in more quiet, subtle ways.  I'm reminded of President Theodore Roosevelt's dictum: walk softly but carry a big stick.  Might be a bit of a challenge for the current President, but I think he can do it – and the world is depending upon him to do it.

The analogy to David and Goliath is not perfect, but I think it is instructive for the current situation.  Let's hope our leaders do everything possible to avoid the mistakes by the leaders of the Biblical Philistines, and avoid creating a modern day version of the story of David and Goliath, with the roles reversed, but with an identical outcome.

     

 

 

 

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This blog post is in the form of a letter to former USA Vice President Al Gore, offering a unique perspective on the climate change debate.

Former Vice President Al Gore (Jen Hill Photo)

5 August 2017

 

Honorable Albert Gore

Former Vice President of the USA and

  Senator from Tennessee

 

Dear Mr. Gore:

 

While I have not had the opportunity to see your new movie, An Inconvenient Sequel, due to travel, I have heard a range of reports about it, mostly positive.  I look forward to seeing it.  My reason for writing to you is because I hold a possibly very odd view about global warming.  This viewpoint hasn't gotten much attention, but I believe it holds promise for making progress in resolving the issue about which you are so passionate.  What makes my viewpoint odd is that I am simultaneously a solid believer that global climate change is a very serious problem that needs to be addressed, and that humans are the primary cause of the problem; but in equal measure, I am a huge skeptic about the efforts being made to address the problem.  I'm skeptical because I think that proponents of addressing the climate change problem are unintentionally "shooting themselves in the feet".  Unless and until the strategy of those seeking more action on climate change is revised, we won't solve the problem, or if we solve it, it will happen far too slowly.  Thus, this is really an open letter not only to you, as well as everyone else (myself included) who believes in human-induced climate change, but it is also an open letter to all of the skeptics of climate change.  I encourage you, and everyone else, to read on, for an unexpected perspective on the entire issue.

My argument is based upon four facts.  These aren't "alternative" facts (aka "lies").  I'll call them "additional" facts, things upon which people on both the Left and the Right, Democrats and Republicans, can actually agree.  Neither side has paid a great deal of attention to these additional facts.

Additional Fact #1: The Issue of Climate Change Has, Over Time, Gone From a Consensus Issue to a Partisan One

 

            People may believe that Democrats have always endorsed taking action on climate change and that Republicans have always been dragging their feet.  Actually, the evidence shows that back around 2003, the percentage of Republicans who believed in climate change was only 13 percentage points less than Democrats.  That doesn't sound like a hugely partisan issue.  Today, however, the percentage of Democrats who believe in human induced climate change is 41 percentage points higher than Republicans.   In a sense, you could make this into a "good news/bad news" argument: the "good news" is that you and others have heightened awareness of the issue, and it's galvanized lots of action; and the "bad news" is that it has been turned to a partisan political issue.  But if climate change is such an important issue – and I think it is – then this partisan divide needs somehow to be overcome, or at least reduced.  Somehow, someway, a way needs to be found to turn a charged, partisan issue into a bipartisan one.  Unfortunately, the road we're on now isn't going to do that.

            Well, if I'm right about additional fact #1, then additional fact #2 ought to scare everyone a lot! 

Additional Fact #2: When You Tell Someone That His or Her Facts Are Wrong, and That They Don't Know What They're Talking About, You're Not Very Likely to Have Any Influence.

 

            Those of us who believe that climate change is a real problem have, unfortunately, not exactly been persuading skeptics or the "undecided".   For a moment, consider additional fact #2 without referring to the climate change debate.  Usually when we try to tell people they're wrong, maybe even stupid for their beliefs, they usually get at least a little defensive.  You, and most everyone else, probably learned the truth of this as a kid.  I don't know everyone, but everyone I do know tends to act, think, and behave is this way.  Yet that approach is exactly the one that those trying to persuade the skeptics and undecided are using: I'm right about this subject, you're wrong about, maybe even stupid, so listen up!  Whether or not it is intended, that's the message that much of Trumpian America hears from urban, liberal elites: you people are ill educated, you're stupid, even occasionally "deplorable"!  Well, I have an Ivy League education, I don't think I'm stupid, and definitely not deplorable; and even though I believe in climate change, I find these types of arguments from Democrats and others on the left to be offensive, pandering, and, frankly, stupid!  They're stupid because they're having precisely opposite effect of the intended one.

Somehow, I just don't think that's a winning strategy, so if you you really want to persuade climate skeptics and the undecided to change their minds, you might want to pull a page out of Dale Carnegie's handbook, aka "how to win friends and influence people".   The current strategy to persuade skeptics maybe ought to be re-thought.

            What are the implications for the climate change debate?   Here are some suggestions:

  • Stop making movies about climate change, not because the movies are bad, just that they reinforce a partisan divide that doesn't need to exist.  Your new movie will reinforce what climate change believers already believe; and skeptics will never see the movie, so you're not going to persuade them to change their minds;
  • Stop insisting to skeptics that "there's a huge global scientific consensus about climate change, so you climate change skeptics should stop being skeptical and get on the bandwagon!";
  • Stop criticizing climate skeptics and the undecided and, instead, say, "we think there's an issue here, and we believe we need the help of skeptics, so first, please help us depoliticize this issue, then let's figure out a way that all of us can claim a victory.

You may think, "this is a naïve view", but I really don't believe it has to be, for the reasons laid out below.  Instead, climate change needs to be converted into a bi-partisan issue that has enough credit that can be shared by all sides.  Let's talk about how that might happen.  Let's begin with Additional Fact #3.

Additional Fact #3: Since the Kyoto Protocol Was Enacted in 1997, the United States Has Eliminated More Carbon From the Atmosphere Than Any Other Country

 

            Additional fact #3 is something that doesn't get a lot of attention, yet it's really good news!  The USA never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and we dropped out of the Paris Climate Accord before it really could have a lot of impact.  But while the USA never really signed on to either global climate accord, we've led the world in eliminating greenhouse gases over the past 20 years.  Which actually is one of the arguments used by conservatives.  It goes like this: if there is a human-induced greenhouse gas problem, it is getting at least partially solved without Federal government or international treaty-based action.  One of the arguments that conservatives use is that whatever the problem is, it can be solved in ways that don't involve international treaties, international bureaucracies that spring up as a result of it, and the unintended deposits of USA taxpayer money in the accounts of developing country despots.  This is really a variation of a traditional Republican/conservative argument: we can solve problems without creating more Federal government, and more Federal government spending.  Well, I have to agree, they have a point.

            This bit of "good news" can be the basis of forging a new bi-partisan consensus on climate.  It could go like this:

  • Democrats and other liberals/progressives stop preaching about climate change to skeptical Republicans and other conservatives; after all, it isn't working;
  • The issue can be reframed as follows: "what can we do to build upon the success of the past 20 years in the USA in being the world leader in eliminating climate change greenhouse gases"?  If we do this, we may have potential because it will change from a "we're right/they're wrong" type of proposition into "we can both be right, if for different reasons.
  • We can tell the rest of the world, we seriously wish you good luck with the Paris Climate Accord, but the USA is forging a slightly different path; and based upon our results of the past 20 years, we are confident a nongovernmental, non-treaty solution can work well.  One size does not necessarily fit all.

What might those "different reasons" be?  For Democrats and other liberals/progressives, let's make "carbon removal" a priority in order to save the planet.  For Republicans and other conservatives, it could be, let's make "carbon removal" a priority because it will help employ lots of people and can make a lot more people rich (and if not that, at least give them an honorable job that will help them support their families).  Which leads me to additional fact #4.

Additional Fact #4: There Is Lots of Evidence Today Showing That Removal of Carbon From the Atmosphere, Or Preventing It From Entering, Can Be a Highly Profitable Business Strategy

 

            Additional fact #4 is unabashedly a piece of good news.  While it is a fairly recent development, unquestionably, money can be made from removing carbon from the atmosphere.  Billions of dollars are being invested in companies to make this happen.  Significant numbers of jobs are being created in alternative energy, for example, more than in traditional industries such as coal mining.  In fact, whole new industries are being created.  Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, has truly moved the needle on electric vehicles.  Electric vehicles are no longer just a fringe thing, they've gone mainstream.  A key reason is that the operating cost of these vehicles is getting to be less than a traditional gas-guzzling one.  So the investment increasingly makes sense without any reference to climate change.

            Additional Fact #4 can be the one upon which Republicans and other conservatives get on board.  The important point to make is, they'll get on board not because some Democrat or Progressive persuaded them to stop thinking like an idiot.  Instead, they'll get on board because they're actually really smart.  Their version of "smart" probably isn't the same as that for many Democrats.  That's because the Republican/conservative version of smart is to figure out ways to make money, and find solutions that don't require more government.  In other words, there can be more than one way to be smart!

            Now the idea of making money isn't the exclusive preserve of Republicans.  If memory serves me correctly, Mr. Vice President, you've made a huge amount of money since you were Vice President as a result of making some shrewd business investments.  Good for you!  I sincerely applaud your efforts, and results, in the business arena. If you want to win over skeptical Republicans and conservatives, I think you'll be more successful if you emphasize the economic benefits of removing carbon, not to beware sea level rise.  Provide skeptics and the undecided a way to want to be part of this solution, and let them do it for their own reasons, not yours.

            To be fair, the responsibility for this is definitely not entirely yours, but you have the potential to be part of the "reframing" effort (i.e., reframing the climate change issue in ways that can permit a real bi-partisan consensus to emerge).  At the same time, Republicans and conservatives need to take steps to de-politicize this issue.  There are plenty of issues that deserve to be partisan – given the significance of climate change, and potential disastrous effects, THIS IS NOT ONE OF THEM.  To be fair, from what I've read, you do want to turn this into a bi-partisan one.  Unfortunately, current efforts aren't moving us closer to bipartisanship.  Assuming so, a change in course may be in order.  Thus, while I wish you well with An Inconvenient Sequel, more importantly, I encourage you to find a way to be part of a national effort to de-politicize this issue and make it truly bi-partisan, one that everyone can claim part of the credit, if for very different reasons.  We can all benefit.

                                                                        Sincerely,

                                                                        Carl W. Treleaven

                                                                        St. Petersburg, Florida

                                                                        Author, The Unexpected Perspective

 

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The latest CRISPR breakthrough is creating even more concerns. This post suggests a strategy for managing the risk.

CRISPR gene editing technology, which burst on the scientific scene over the past several years, is creating scientific breakthroughs at a seeming breakneck pace.  This, the last week of July, 2017, was certainly no exception.  Earlier this week it was reported by MIT's Technology Review that a scientific lab in Oregon has done gene editing on human embryos .  Technology Review reported, "Until now, American scientists have watched with a combination of awe, envy, and some alarm as scientists elsewhere were first to explore the controversial practice. To date, three previous reports of editing human embryos were all published by scientists in China.  Now [Shoukhrat] Mitalipov [the lead researcher] is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases."  Certainly very promising, but many, maybe most, people are justifiably concerned about where this is heading.  Should this type of research be encouraged, or should we press the brakes?

CRISPR (an acronym for clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats), is a naturally occurring defense mechanism that has evolved over millions of years to help bacteria gain protection against attacking viruses.  Scientists have adapted this naturally occurring process as a means to edit genetic information, much as one would edit computer software.  In her recently published book,  A Crack in Creation, Professor Jennifer Doudna of the University of California Berkeley and co-author Sam Sternberg note that CRISPR has both incredible promise but also tremendous peril.  The authors have called for scientists, ethicists, religious leaders and others to study the risks of CRISPR before launching into certain types of research, especially with respect to human cells.  While CRISPR shows tremendous promise of treating, even preventing, terrible diseases that have afflicted humankind, the same technology can also be used to create "designer babies".  The caution of Doudna and others has largely been heeded, but not universally. 

The ethical problems of "designer babies" aside, CRISPR poses other serious potential risks, and two in particular stand out.  The first has to do with the risk of editing "the germline".  Humans, as well as animals, plants and other organisms have two types of cells – somatic and germline.  A somatic cell is one that can divide, but the DNA in the cell can't be passed on to the next generation.  Most of the cells in our bodies are of this type.  Conversely, a germline cell is one that can be passed along to your children, grandchildren and all posterity.  If a somatic cell is edited using CRISPR, the "editing" will be passed along to other somatic cells in the organism, but not to offspring.  In a germline cell, however, all the changes, both good and bad, intended and unintended, are passed on to posterity. 

If the change induced by CRISPR is good, that means that a genetic error could be fixed in one person, but also the risk of passing the genetic error on to subsequent generations would be eliminated.  For example, if the DNA of a person who suffers from Sickle Cell Disease is edited in the right way, not only would the person no long suffer from this terrible disease, but he or she would no longer pass the bad genes on to subsequent generations.  Sounds great, but what if a mistake is made?   It will be passed on to subsequent generations, too.  Maybe the mistake will be caught quickly and fixed, but what happens if the editing mistake is made in very fast reproducing species such as bacteria or viruses?  Lots of potential for unintended consequences.

The second problem with CRISPR is that as a byproduct of gene editing, sometimes unintended gene edits occur.  Further, sometimes the desired edits are passed along to other cells, but sometimes they arent't.  This is a problem called "mosaicism".  As described above, it's one thing for errors to occur for one individual, but what happens if these errors occur in the germline and the error passes to all subsequent generations?  Pretty scary stuff!  The risks of mosaicism, as well as incorrect edits in the germline, are causing CRISPR researchers and others considerable pause.  We need to be very careful!

Despite the caution of Doudna and others, certain researchers are "pushing the envelope" on CRISPR research.  Perhaps no scientific researcher fits that mold better than Shoukhrat Mitalipov, the lead researcher in Oregon mentioned earlier.  Mitalipov perfectly embodies both the potential, but also peril, of CRISPR. 

Mitalipov hails from Kazakhstan, one of the former republics of the Soviet Union.  He reportedly is of Uighur ancestry, the Uighurs being an oppressed minority group from northwest China.  Mitalipov earned a PhD from a prestigious school in Moscow, but then emigrated to the USA.  At present, he is with the Oregon Health Sciences University.  His career suggests that he enjoys "pushing the envelope."  Consider two of his research accomplishments:

  • In 2007, he was involved in creating the world's first cloned monkey;
  • He also developed what is called the "spindle transfer" technique.  This involves removing the nucleus from a human egg, then placing that nucleus in another egg.  If the latter egg is fertilized, it has three parents;  

These are important accomplishments, along with this week's announcement, but I think what he did in 2013 is truly emblematic: developing a technique to create human stem cells from skin cells.  It was lauded as one of the Top 10 scientific accomplishments in 2013 by numerous prestigious scientific publications.  This was certainly a great scientific accomplishment, but what has made it especially important is that it resolved a dilemma: how to obtain stem cells without destroying a fetus.  Recall that much research in this field almost ground to a halt because many people, particularly the religiously inclined, objected to the destruction of human tissue that was the byproduct of abortions.  When limits were placed on using human stem cells, many felt that scientific research was being unnecessarily limited.  Many also believed that the hands of scientists in countries such as the USA would be tied, but scientists in other countries would proceed without fetter, putting American scientists at a serious disadvantage.

To the rescue came Shoukhrat Mitalipov.  By developing a way to create human stem cells from skin cells, Mitalipov found a way to permit scientific advances with stem cells without having to rely upon fetal tissue.  Everyone could win: the concerns of religious conservatives could be met, and scientific research could proceed.  The seeming "zero sum game" turned out to be a false dichotomy.   Mitalipov's experience of creating human stem cells from skin tissue could serve as a great model of how to move forward with CRISPR:

  • As a first step, limits should be placed on CRISPR research involving human cells, just as limits were placed on the use of human tissue in stem cell research;
  • As a second step, however, researchers such as Mitalipov should be encouraged to "push the envelope": figure out ways to develop "unexpected solutions", much as Mitalipov did when he found a way to create human stem cells without relying upon aborted fetal tissue;
  • Enterprising scientists such as Mitalipov, should be able to figure out ways to address the clear risks of CRISPR, particularly on human germline cells, even if significant restraints are placed on the scientists now.

            Of course, there's no guarantee that the "stem cells from skin cells" model can be replicated in this case, or that it can be done in a timely manner.  CRISPR research is happening at breakneck pace, and funding is plentiful.  Moreover, researchers are increasingly mobile.  Restrictions on CRISPR research may be place on laboratories in the USA, Canada, Europe, and other developed Western countries, but there may not be similar restrictions in places like China.  There is already some evidence that China has taken a fairly aggressive approach in CRISPR research.  It's been reported that several Chinese scientists have already attempted to do CRISPR editing on human cells. 

The other problem is how great the restrictions on research should be.  We already have a pretty idea about the risks of too few restrictions, but what about the risks of too many constraints?  Very likely, if too many restrictions are placed in the USA, for example, scientists will simply decamp to research institutions in these other countries.  The restrictions will be overlooked, and the type of risky research that Jennifer Doudna is frightened of might still occur anyway.  In a certain sense, this is a Goldilocks problem.

            Maybe … but maybe not.  I agree with Professor Doudna, it's worth being very cautious about CRISPR research, and encouraging scientists to be the same.  So how might that be done in practice?  First, do whatever is possible to encourage other countries to impose the same types of restrictions on dangerous research.  As much as possible, develop an international scientific consensus about the risks, then encourage collective restraint.  Not easy, and there won't be assurance of desirable outcomes, but the alternative is potentially much worse.  That appears to be in progress.

            Second, while imposing lots of restrictions, make sure there is plenty of research funding available.  Moreover, make sure there are plenty of incentives to encourage scientists to continue working in countries and labs that are encouraging reckless, dangerous research.

Third, utilize the experience of the "stem cells from skin cells" case as a guide.

Encourage CRISPR scientists to look for what I'll call "Mitalipov solutions".  A "Mitalipov solution" is one that produces a "human stem cells from skin cells" type solution: out of the box thinking that solves a problem in a unique way that avoids ethically questionable, and potentially safety compromised, projects. 

            CRISPR continues to hold tremendous promise, but also tremendous peril.  Professor Doudna is absolutely right: we need to be very careful.  Yes, some scientists may pack up and head for jurisdictions with lax restrictions, but that should not deter us from encouraging caution.  Scientists are going to continue to "push the envelope".  We likely can't stop that, but in a certain way, we should welcome scientists like Shoukhrat Mtalipov, and encourage them to "push the envelope" in ways that will help achieve positive outcomes while simultaneously avoiding the ethical and other risks.  The irony of "pushing the envelope" is that it may be the very best way for us to protect ourselves against the unintended consequences of CRISPR.   

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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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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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