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

Perspectives

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

post a comment

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!

If you like this, consider subscribing to my blog.  Please share it with your friends and family.

post a comment

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. 

post a comment

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.

post a comment

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.

post a comment

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

post a comment

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

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

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

parents telling us what many of them are:

You SHOULD get good grades in school

You SHOULD eat everything on your plate

You SHOULD treat your siblings kindly

You SHOULD (… you fill in the blank).

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

You SHOULD exercise regularly

You SHOULD make your bed every day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

post a comment

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

post a comment

A look at a new book that offers some interesting thoughts on how to address the problem of greenhouse gases and climate change.

      Many books provide useful information that helps the reader better understand a political issue, and some books provide a way to re-frame hotly contested, passion-stirring issues.  A new book called A Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses and Citizens Can Save the Planet does both. 

Its authors, Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, are an unlikely pair.  Pope has spent an entire career as an environmental activist, most recently as head of the Sierra Club.  Bloomberg was a recent two term mayor of New York, but is probably best known as the billionaire owner of Bloomberg News, and also as a philanthropist.  He acknowledges that he is not exactly the kind of person attracted to the Sierra Club, but Pope and Bloomberg have found common ground in ways to address the question of climate change and global warming.  This is not just another book about global warming and climate change, and it doesn't recite the standard, well worn arguments.  Instead, it looks at the issue from a different perspective.

I highly recommend this book, not only because it is highly readable and informative, but also because it is thought provoking.   Moreover, it suggests a potential path to resolve the current lack of consensus on how to deal with the issue.

I believe there are three broad "take aways" from the book.  First, there are multiple sources of greenhouse gases, all contributing in varying degrees to the problem.  There isn't one giant cause of the problem (e.g., fossil fuels).  Instead, the authors cite multiple other causes, including things such as poor agricultural practices around the world, as well buildings and building materials.  That's actually good news, because it means action can be taken on numerous fronts simultaneously.

According to Bloomberg and Pope, "the best way to increase conservation is simple: make it financially rewarding."  The idea of solving the greenhouse gas problem through finance and economics is the second key takeaway from this book.  Coal, they note, is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.  Use of coal around the world, however, is declining significantly, not because of governmental mandates such as the Obama Clean Power Plan but because it is no longer economical.  Increasingly, alternative energy such as wind and solar, as well as natural gas, are crushing the economics of coal.

Progressives and others on the left have decried the fact that the US government never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and worried because President Trump is highly skeptical of the Paris Climate Accord.  But what if none of that really matters? Bloomberg and Pope point out that even though the US government has dragged its feet in addressing the climate issue, it has still led the world in reducing carbon emissions.  Not only that, the economics of non-carbon based alternative energy have improved dramatically. The chart above from the Department of Energy shows the following cost reductions since 2008: a) 41% for Land Based Wind; b) 54% for Distributed Photovoltaics; c) 64% for Utility Scale Photovoltaics; d) 73% for Modeled Battery Costs; and e) 94% for LED bulbs. This is because even in spite of this foot dragging at the national and international level, desirable results are being produced.  Bloomberg and Pope identify two key places where results are being generated: 1) the private sector; and 2) by cities.  Bloomberg thinks this shouldn't be surprising because mayors tend to be more pragmatic and less ideological than politicians on the national level.  Beyond that, Bloomberg notes that 70% of greenhouse gas emissions occur in cities, so that's probably one of the best places in which to address the problem. 

Is there any evidence to back up what Bloomberg and Pope say?  According to Bloomberg, New York City has a carbon footprint that is two thirds smaller than the national average for the USA.  While he cites numerous examples from his time as mayor of New York, he makes a point to say that many other cities around the world have implemented lots of programs that have been both unique and effective in fighting the problem.

Bloomberg and Pope are clearly looking at the issue from a different perspective than was offered recently by the March for Science.  All agree that the greenhouse gas/climate change problem is real and needs to be addressed.  The approaches, however, appear to be vastly different.  In fact, having read Climate of Hope, I have come away drawing the following conclusions about how to solve the problem:

#1: assume that little, if anything, will be done at the national or international level, and actually be happy about it!

Those who believe in climate change are never going to persuade skeptics and deniers to change their minds by: 1) calling them stupid; or 2) scaring them about an uncertain future.  How many times has that strategy worked in the past on any other issue?    My answer is, "zero times".   If we stop doing something that isn't accomplishing anything anyway, we'll all be saving time and effort.

#2: focus attention, as Bloomberg and Pope suggest, at the local and regional level

If results are being achieved at the local and regional level, as the authors suggest, concentrate there. 

#3: win climate change "skeptics" over by emphasizing the value of financial solutions to the problem.

Those who see "red" have a very hard time seeing "blue", and vice versa, but the very same people have little trouble seeing "green".  Bloomberg and Pope emphasize the idea of sharing "success stories".  New ones are appearing every day.

            The obvious question is, will the ideas that Bloomberg and Pope advance, be enough, and will they come soon enough?  It's, of course, a giant unknown, and there's no way to conduct a controlled experiment to test it out.  There is, however, a precedent to consider. 

Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century predicted dire consequences of overpopulation: the world was expanding to the point where there would be inadequate resources to feed the world.  His predictions failed to materialize.  In the middle of the 20th century, various latter day Malthusians predicted the same.  Again, the predictions failed to materialize.  In each case, the reason the predictions were wrong was because of changes in technology and economics.  Malthus and his intellectual descendants inadequately took technological change into consideration.

I believe the same thing is going to happen again with respect to climate change.  Improvements in technology are what are causing the reduction in greenhouse gases.  Here are but four examples:

.. Fracking technology has resulted in a huge increase in natural gas production in the USA, reducing the price of natural gas dramatically, and making coal uneconomical;

.. New technology has dramatically reduced the cost of solar and wind as energy

alternatives, resulting in dramatic growth in "clean" power;

.. Improvements in building materials technology, thus reducing greenhouse gases associated with those materials;

.. Improvements in battery technology, making cost competitive all-electric vehicles possible.

Please understand, I strongly believe greenhouse gases are causing climate change.  There's a definite problem.  My wife and I have personally observed it in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, as well as elsewhere.  Notwithstanding that, I am not overly concerned that the USA didn't ratify Kyoto, and I really am not worried that Donald Trump wants to bring back coal.  That's because, as Bloomberg and Pope point out, underlying economics are killing coal, and Donald Trump can't make coal great again (or at least economically viable).  Moreover, economics and technology are driving the reduction in cost of alternative energy. 

I recommend Climate of Hope.  It's an appropriate title for a timely book.

post a comment

Supporting the March for Science Seems Like a No-Brainer. But Maybe It Isn't

On Saturday, April 22nd, a March for Science was held in many cities across the USA, as well as in other cities around the world.  Many scientists, as well as many non-scientists who are passionate believers in the benefits of science, hit the streets to show their support.

            In certain respects, supporting science is something equivalent to "Mom, apple pie, and the American flag."  After all, what's not to like about good science, and who can say they haven't benefitted from scientific and technological progress?  While there are a few Luddites amongst us, they don't gather a lot of support.  And yet, over the week following the April 22nd March, numerous complaints and objections have arisen.  Conservative columnist Ben Shapiro wrote that the March on Science is, unfortunately, another sign that the progressive left is trying to use "science" to further its own agenda.  In fact, Shapiro goes so far as to say that the political left is turning "science" into a new religion.

University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences, and a person considered the "go to" expert on weather in Seattle, Cliff Mass, summed up this concern on his blog:  "Science plays a critical role in civic life, acting as non-political source of information about the natural environment and as the generator of useful technologies. Scientists are credible only when their information is considered unbiased and not politically motivated. The lack of political bias is why both sides of the aisle have supported the nation's large scientific establishment over many years.

The Science March is clearly political and is an attempt to put pressure on the Trump administration. It will be seen as political by everyone and particularly those it means to pressure. Furthermore, the major concern driving this march is not science in general, but of the Trump administration's appointments and future actions regarding climate science and fossil fuel regulations."   Mass reportedly skipped the March on Science.

            As a result, "science", previously considered to be a "Mom, apple pie, and the American flag" subject, is being politicized, particularly with respect to the subject of climate change.

            Shapiro and others object to how the political left is addressing the climate change issue.  What he (and others) seem to have the most trouble with is the idea that not only is climate change an undeniable reality, but that the only way it can be solved is through massive governmental intervention and regulation.  Further, anyone who seems to object to that solution is a heretic or a "denier".

            The "politicization" of the climate change issue might just be an oddity, but it appears there are more problems than just this.  Beyond the "politicization" of science, others have objected on the grounds that there seems to be more and more "bad" science being done.  Perhaps the best example of "bad" science is the famous 1998 study published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature that purported to show a link between vaccines and autism.  It's now well known that the study results were fabricated and that the author lost his medical license over the issue.  Unfortunately, the autism article was not isolated.  Several years ago, John Ionnadis published a study titled "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False".  Houston billionaire John Arnold and his wife, Laura, have a foundation that is underwriting the Reproducibility Project, an effort to try to reproduce the findings of key scientific experiments.  Unfortunately, the results have not been particularly good.  In fact, the results have been so bad, and so many scientific studies have not had reproducible results, that it leads one to start to become very skeptical.  Two examples of this are research into diet and nutrition, as well as the research underlying many modern pharmaceutical products.  Various reasons have been cited for these problems, including the pressure of "publish or perish" for academics.

            Given how important science, and scientific research are, this is certainly an unfortunate set of circumstances.  The obvious question is, who is to blame?  Those on the left have a tendency to say it's the fault of anti-science religious fundamentalists.  This brings up the old question about a fundamental split between science and religion.  As I, and others, have written, extremists and each end of the spectrum have hypothesized a fundamental split between science and religion.  Atheists at one end of the spectrum, and some religious fundamentalists at the other end of the spectrum, have each fostered this idea.  Elsewhere, I've written that the Bible was not intended to be a scientific textbook, so there is no underlying reason for such a dichotomy.  In the popular consciousness one finds the idea that Christian evangelicals are anti-science.  Those who subscribe to this idea also seem to think that scientists are somehow more rational, more unbiased, and more "truth focused" than everyone else is being advanced.  In effect, the narrative goes like this: if we only stop listening to supporters of religion, and listen to the unbiased, rational scientific community, that somehow tainted by religion, we'd all be better off. 

However, the research of Elaine Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston, shows that isn't really the case.  Ecklund found that only 15% of Americans say that science does more harm than good, and only 14% of evangelicals say the same.  If that's the case, then Christian evangelicals have pretty much identical levels of opposition to science as the population as a whole.  Thus, one can't make the argument that conservative Christian religious views are causing evangelicals to be more anti-science than others, and "tainting" or otherwise impeding the efforts of the somehow more rational scientific community.  Further, Ecklund has found that 70% of Christian evangelicals don't see a conflict between religion and science.

            If that's the case, then it's hard to make the argument that Christian evangelicals are promoting an anti-science agenda.  Could that mean that Ben Shapiro is correct in his assessment that the political left, which is clearly not strongly Christian, is the group with the political agenda?  Perhaps.  But I don't wish to draw that conclusion. 

            Instead, the conclusion I draw is one that may be unexpected.  The first conclusion is that we need good science and technology, and we also need to be assured that good science is done.  Not much controversy about that.  The other conclusion is one that will probably be surprising.  That conclusion is that the Christian church ought to be amongst the leaders of those supporting the practice of good science.  For some, that's probably an unexpected conclusion, but let me explain why I think it makes a lot of sense.  Historically, Christian churches have emphasized the importance of avoiding the sins of lying, deception, pride, and greed.  The Bible considers each of these as sins, and reminds believers to avoid these sins at all costs.  When you think about it, though, these sins appear to be rampant in the world of science.  Not that it is any worse in scientific circles than anywhere else, just that it is present every day.  The only difference is that somehow the public up to now seems to have been buying the notion that scientists are somehow more rational, more honest, and somehow different than everyone else, particularly those with religious views.  I hate to say it, but while scientists are often better educated than the population at large, they're still like everyone else.  They still embody all of the flaws of the rest of the population.  They're no more rational than everyone else, and there's no evidence that they're any less likely to succumb to lying, deception, pride, and greed than anyone else.  If that's the case, they're just as likely as everyone else to succumb to the temptations of deception, lying, pride, and greed, among other things.

            So what, specifically, could be done?  First, Christians who work in the sciences should be reminded that things like lying, deception, pride, and greed are considered sins in the Bible (and are equally objected to by atheists), so they are to be avoided.  Christian scientists need to avoid the temptation and snares of these things.  That may sound obvious, and many people may think it is unnecessary to say anything, because scientists already know these things are wrong.  Most likely so, but we can see that these problems not only are there, they may actually be getting worse.  Who will be there to provide the appropriate reminder? 

Perhaps Christian scientists should take the lead and try to serve as models for their fellow scientists.  In a sense, that might be parallel to what happened in the first century of the Christian church.  Those who became Christians started behaving in ways dramatically different that the population as a whole.  The general population started to notice this.  Perhaps that's just what is called for in the scientific community.  It might lead to some of the following:

  • Greater attention to "fudging" or omitting data from studies
  • Avoidance of projects with actual or perceived conflicts of interest
  • Avoidance of using science to advance a political agenda.
  • Greater attention to ethical issues, as they relate to scientific experiments.

As with pretty much every profession, practitioners don't normally set out to be dishonest and/or deceptive, but we keep seeing cases where people end up going where they don't plan to go.  Scientists are no exception.  Someone needs to take the lead on this.  Why shouldn't it be the Christian church, especially since Christians have played this role for so much of the past 2,000 years?  While that might seem odd, especially given the somewhat strained relationship between the Christian church and science over the past century or so, one can reach farther back in time to realize it's not so unreasonable at all.  Without a doubt, our increasingly science and technology-based culture needs good, honest science to be done.  We cannot afford a science community riven with problems of lying, deception, pride, and greed.  Absolutely no one – Christian or non-Christian – benefits from that. 

Let me know what you think, whether you agree or disagree.  If you find these posts interesting, please consider subscribing.

post a comment

Buy the Book Now

Westbow Press · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

Get Carl's Updates In Your Inbox

Subscribe to our free e-mail updates and receive a free chapter from his latest book, The Unexpected Perspective.

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.

CONNECT WITH CARL

© 2016 - 2017 Unexpected Perspective - All Rights Reserved.