The Science of Fear

  • Posted: May 21, 2014
  • Category: Politics
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Funny thing about water, you might call it the ultimate escape artist. Engineers know that water runs downhill, but everyone else knows that water leaks. Everywhere. Sooner or later, there is a water leak in your house and that’s bad news. A couple of months ago, the tenant in a house we rent out called our property manager to report a wet spot on the wall behind the washer and dryer in the utility room. A plumber called in to fix the problem found a leaking washer in the water valve and replaced it. He also reported some dark spots on the damp dry wall near the leaking water valve. Uh oh!!

With alarm sirens going off in our heads, we called in a company specializing in mold remediation to remove the affected dry wall and replace it. During the resulting demolition work, SOMETHING HAPPENED. Our working assumption is that the tenant’s cat played with the flaking paper on the open drywall in the utility room. The cat then somehow got through the containment barriers and walked upstairs. As this house was built before 1980, the plaster used to texture the dry wall contained asbestos, which plaster now dusted the cat’s paws.

There is an old proverb that talks about small causes and large disasters. It goes something like this, “for want of a nail . . . . . the kingdom was lost.” After spending an amount now at $ 40,000 and counting because a fifty-cent gasket wore out in a water valve, I think we now see a light at the end of the tunnel. Though it may just be the headlight of an oncoming train. Notification of a pending lawsuit sometime in the near future would not surprise me. The tenant appeared to have gone into paranoia overdrive about mold in the house and the danger it presented, she was a health professional after all. We tested for airborne mold at a cost of $ 700 per test. Of course the test showed no airborne mold. After all this is Denver. Unsatisfied and convinced we were hiding the truth; the tenant called in the State Inspectors. The State found no mold either. Again this is Denver, otherwise known as high desert. But as those of you who have been audited or subject to any kind of governmental inspection know so well, the State did find a problem. They found asbestos in trace amounts on the main floor. One can only wonder in retrospect about the asbestos found upstairs; how it got there and how the state inspectors came to find it.

The neighbors have now been treated to the spectacle of men in moon suits carrying small sacks out of the house into closed vans bearing vivid warnings about the toxic substances being handled. I suspect the neighbors believe the house was cooking meth, ala Breaking Bad. I have received an official letter from the landfill where our contractor disposed of the deadly substance. The letter wants us to know that we retain full responsibility and ownership for that bag of drywall material containing asbestos for now into eternity. After spending $ 40,000 on a house worth $ 200,000, the house remains much the same as when we started. However, we have spared no expense to assure the great State of Colorado, the esteemed City of Littleton and the tenant that the twin terrors of mold and asbestos have been removed.

Lest you imagine a vision of slumlords and ramshackle rat infested hovels, let me hasten to assure you that the rental in question is probably cleaner and better maintained than my own house. If you have a basement, lift the rug along the edges. It is very probable that you will see black spotting along the edges on the underside of most any rug. That is the dreaded mold. If you live in a house built before 1980, the texture on the wall almost certainly contains asbestos. If your ceiling has “popcorn” acoustic texture, it is a virtual certainty that it contains asbestos. I would speculate that well over 90% of the people reading this post live in “contaminated” homes.

We are educated people living in a society based on Science. We are no dummies about how evil corporations and greedy businessmen have spread poison into our environment. We have standards and our governments promulgate regulations to make sure we are safe. No cost is too high, no burden too great to bear to protect our children and our families from the evils that lurk in the shadows of our homes and workplaces. We are fearful of that which allows us to live lives far healthier, longer and in greater comfort than any who came before. In a world where driving to work is the greatest danger we face, our fears are drawn into the darkness of our ignorance.

I am reminded of one of my part time jobs in college. I worked my junior year as a lab technician in a soybean processing plant. You know soybeans. Today, we eat hamburgers made out of soybeans because we fear the antibiotics, hormones and trans fats in real hamburgers. Forgive me for that rabbit trail about soy burgers, I couldn’t resist.

Getting back to the point, I remember clearly the very strong sharp odor that permeated every part of the plant I worked in. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the cause of this odor, a lucky thing that, as I wasn’t even a scientist, just a junior engineer in training. The smell blanketing the plant was caused by benzene. In the plant, soybeans were soaked in benzene to extract soybean oil, an important ingredient of peanut butter among many other things. Many of the old hands who had been at the plant for thirty and forty years, of which there were many, assured me that the smell of benzene was quite pleasant. In fact, I found out later that benzene was a common additive in household products of the day. The benzene was used to give them an inviting smell, much like lemon is used today.

Of course, that was 40 years ago. We are smart today and know that benzene causes cancer. Of course that should have been obvious with a name like benzene. Duh!! As it happened, I kept running into benzene during my engineering career in the oil and gas business. Only we called it by its regulated name, BTEX. Benzene is a known carcinogen, but it has sister chemicals equally harmful to human health that go by the names of toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Put the first letter of their names together and you have the acronym, BTEX. If you have used paint thinners, you have probably smelled both toluene and xylene which exposed you to their dangerous effects.

BTEX is of concern to the oil and gas industry because natural gas and crude oil contain BTEX. On the projects I worked on, we went to great lengths and great expense to ensure that BTEX vapors didn’t get into the air. Next time you are in a small mid-western town and are stopped at the rail crossing, watching a 150 railcar train carrying crude oil going through the middle of town, you can take great comfort in the fact that the air didn’t smell of cancer causing chemicals when the tank cars are loaded or unloaded. Of course if the train gets derailed and spills oil, the resulting BTEX in the vapor cloud would be of concern, unless of course that vapor cloud ignites. But then it is a small town. They are so clueless that they probably let their kids play in playgrounds still containing lead painted benches.

Lead, it’s actually an element, an original piece of Mother Nature. But it hung around with a bad crowd and is now just another lethal chemical. Up until the early 1970’s, we practically bathed in the stuff. Pretty much any paint used in your house contained lead. The exhaust fumes from our cars and truck were saturated with lead fumes from the ethyl gasoline we used in our hopeless inefficient cars. Every time we filled our car with gasoline, we got a few lungful’s of it. Not that it really mattered that much as all of the lead that went into the gasoline tank came out of the engine exhaust anyway. If only we had known that the ethyl in our gasoline was really an organolead compound of tetraethyl lead. With a name like that, there could be no doubt of its danger. Given the extreme dangers of lead poisoning and the pervasive amounts we were exposed to, it is a wonder that anyone over the age of 45 isn’t a cancer plagued drooling idiot. Even more surprising when you think about it is the fact that drinking water was carried in either lead pipes or pipes containing lead from 2500 BC clear through till the end of the Twentieth Century. It can only be one of those oddities of chance that we aren’t extinct as a species.

And then there is the big bogeyman of our time, radiation. The very idea of radiation gives us blind panic. Nuclear power is a prospect so frightening that anything other than uncontrolled hysteria is considered an unreasonable response. Even the fact that crude oil carrying railcar accidents have killed more people in the past five years than have ever died as a result of nuclear power plant accidents is no reason to do otherwise than ban it forever. I can understand blind unreasoning fear. I feel the same way whenever I see a snake.

Risk is the unresolved issue of our culture and our age. No one disagrees that asbestos, black mold, BTEX, lead and radiation, as well as virtually everything else we come into contact with, are potentially dangerous. But what do we really know about any of them with any reasonable degree of surety? We know that at sufficiently high levels they are dangerous, at least to some people. We know, and the experience of the entire species proves, that they are not dangerous in sufficiently low levels. But we don’t know any more than that.

To deal with this issue, we simply require zero tolerance. We want it gone. No amount, however minute or intermittent, is tolerable. Of course, we start with reasonable standards allowing for reasonable exposure limits. To do otherwise would cause the economy to crash. Important campaign donors would lose money. But as time goes on, and more importantly as our ability to measure small concentrations increases, those allowable limits are ground inexorably down to a stated, or unstated goal, of zero. Where once the limits of allowance were expressed in parts per million, they are now expressed in parts per billion, soon to be parts per trillion.

Imagine if you will a shot glass of fine single malt scotch, perhaps Laphroaig, my favorite. Imagine pouring that shot glass of scotch into the water of an above ground swimming pool 18’ in diameter. That is one part per million of Scotch, which in many cases is above the allowable limits for many “hazardous substances”. But parts per million is too easy. We are now increasingly regulating to parts per billion. Imagine that same shot glass filled with Kool-Aid this time. Now imagine the Coors Brewery in Golden, CO, the largest brewery in the world. Pour that shot glass of Kool-Aid into the total amount of beer produced by that brewery running at maximum production, for three months. Imagine that shot glass filled with cyanide, or any other poison you care to imagine. Would you hesitate to drink one of those Coors beers if it contained one part per billion of cyanide? Regulation at parts per trillion is on the horizon. That is one shot of Kool-Aid into the total production of the Coors Brewery running for 250 years.
As science allows more and more things to be measured in smaller and smaller amounts, we learn of all the dangerous things we are exposed to. You might be shocked to learn what is in the odor coming off the craft beer you are drinking. It likely has propylene glycol algenate, diacetyl, 3-methyl-2-butenyl mercaptans, . . . You get the idea. Just so you know, if you can smell it the concentrations are much higher than parts per million. Science, or rather engineering, allows us to know much more about the world that we live in, the things we are exposed to. But it tells us no more than that. For opinions on its effect on our health, we rely on that group of scientists and mathematicians better described as stamp collectors.

These scientists lovingly collect stamps, or study participants, or case studies, or whatever. Through the adroit use of statistics, their enabling mathematicians can prove many things about the stamps, or study participants, or case studies or whatever. Of course it is an unavoidable fact that the choice of the stamps, study participants, . . . . have a very large influence on what is to be proved by statistics. It’s a blessing that we can be sure selfless and noble Scientists would not manipulate their stamp collections or statistics to get a desired result or to get published or to get more grant money or to meet celebrities. As the ever perceptive Mark Twain observed, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Part of the problem is that we use the word “science” to refer to both engineers and scientists. Engineering and science are very different things. Even more confusing, we use the word scientist to describe both physicists and biologists. Again, they are very different things. Physics and chemistry rely on repeatable mathematics and experiments. Engineers can use the work of physicists and chemists to build things that work. Every time. Other “scientists” collect stamps and speculate about their value and what it might mean. Sometimes other “scientists” can find stamps that fit into the same collection and sometimes if they have a bit of the entrepreneurial spirit, they just start their own stamp collection. Sometimes the medical profession, or management consultants, or government regulators can use the speculations of stamp collectors to improve the human condition. Sometimes they can’t. And no one really knows why it works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. It just depends on the stamps.

This of course is a very desirable state of affairs for lawyers. Lawyers and the courts thrive on uncertainty. Having a wide acquaintance with the legal system over my professional career, I have come to know that the legal system of the United States is not concerned with facts, but instead, is concerned with theories. Just like scientific theories, a legal theory is a speculation about cause and effect that might be true, or might not be true. Such a theory might be that the presence of asbestos and mold in a house caused harm to the people living in that house. Like any theory, it may be true, or it may not be true. The quantity of asbestos and mold, the actual time span of exposure and the harm itself are not facts, but the variables in the theory that allow for a favorable outcome. Such theories cannot be disproved, only defended against. If one is foolish enough to fight in court rather than negotiate a settlement, eventually a jury of twelve citizens will decide the validity of the theory.

And those twelve citizens represent the crux of our dilemma. Our culture depends on science and technology, but the great majority of our citizens know very little about science and technology. We are adept in our use of science and technology. Our lives are not possible without daily access to smartphones, computers and the Internet. We fly on jet planes to cross thousands of miles, grumbling about the scanners that invade our privacy. In winter we live in warm houses worrying about how to lose weight, rather than wondering if our food supply will last until spring. We know how to use the science and technology, but have no idea how it works. For all we really know, it is black magic. And as our ancestors knew so well, magic has always frightened us.

We live in a world that we don’t understand and it frightens us. We are prone to find phantoms in the darkness of our ignorance. It is currently fashionable to lament the lack of students in our schools enrolling in STEM, the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. One loses count of the high profile and fashionable initiatives begun by educators and celebrities to make STEM attractive to the female of our species. Juxtaposing the word “attractive” and the appearance of those typically found in STEM classes shows the gulfs to be crossed for success to be found in such initiatives. Just why society feels that more Nerds of the female persuasion are important is a bit puzzling to me, but then society seldom asks for my opinion.

As a lifelong member of the STEM fraternity, I have a deep-seated appreciation for those who belong, male or female or even LGBT. There is no doubt in my mind that the present material wellbeing of Western Civilization is built on their accomplishments. But as a lifetime member, I am also certain that we STEM’s can be every bit as foolish, short sighted and prone to panic as anyone else. As an example, just check out what inanities and circular logic drip from the mouth of Stephen Hawking on non-physics topics.

I think the problem is of a deeper sort. While it may be a good thing if more people were proficient in math, I don’t think it would really change the problem. I think that our world suffers from a strange mix of hubris and fear. Hubris and fear are an odd mix, as they are opposites of each other. The hubris in our world is readily apparent. We no longer have any need for God, even if He did exist in the past. We have taken over His responsibilities and are quite sure we will do a better job than He ever did. We are now responsible for the climate, for the fate of human beings both living and unborn, as well as judging whether their quality of life is up to the standards we have set. It is a fundamental tenet of our public and private life, that if something bad happens, it is someone else’s fault. We no longer believe in either the hand of God or blind random chance. Despite the lack of diversity in the fraternity of STEM’s, we have a touching faith, a blind faith in the theology of Science. We are sure that Science understands how the Universe operates, needing to only tidy up a few loose ends in its understanding. How can this be seen as anything other than hubris?

But at the same time, we are fearful. We are fearful of so many things. Despite our hubris, in our hearts we know that we are lambs in a world populated with wolves. Even if we are STEM’s, we are fearful for our children and ourselves. STEM’s are as ignorant as anyone else about how much exposure is too much and what the hidden dangers are in new developments. As soldiers on the eve of battle have known since time immemorial, there are no atheists in foxholes. So too, in the presence of unknown dangers in our home and workplace we turn to faith. In the absence of God, we instinctively seek comfort in Mother Earth. Our faith in Her, along with our inborn knowledge of our own dark sinful nature, assures us that mankind is a bad thing. The doctrine of the Mother is clear about the toxic effect of mans’ presence on Her.

Having found faith in the foxhole, the soldier must still face the enemy. So too we are left with the need to make judgments about the risks in the world we live in. Despite our power, our knowledge and our faith in Mother Earth, we must live in a world less than perfect, a world with danger in it. This has been true for human beings in all times and places. The presence of saber-toothed tigers did not mean that mothers didn’t allow their children out of the cave to play. Immigrant settlers in search of a better life for their families didn’t leave their families back in the old country as they risked the stomach churning fear of Comanche raiders on the Texas plains. Human beings have always accepted risk.

But it seems to be different now. The calculus of risk has been replaced by something else. Judgment and reason have been left behind on a journey to Utopia. There is something childlike, something of innocence, in our attitudes about these things. Perhaps we are childlike in our thoughts about the risks of the natural world because we have so little experience with it.

Those who most fear the poisons in our food and environment, climate change and all the other myriad ill-defined risks in our 21st Century world are those who are most educated. We call ourselves the professional class. We live in cities and work in office buildings. When it is hot outside, we turn on the air conditioning. When it is cold outside, we turn on the heat. We have a deep and abiding faith in Nature, but we always meet Her on our own terms. Perhaps this is something we learned from our Christian upbringing.

This is not to say that we do not experience risk and danger in our lives. We face the prospect of losing our job and not being able to pay the mortgage. Perhaps our 401k will not be adequate to fund our retirement. We are squirrels on the treadmill, running faster and faster simply to stay in place. We watch the television in fascination at news of forest fires, landslides and hurricanes. People are hurt and homes are destroyed by such natural disasters. But we know the fault is not Mother Nature, but rather inadequate building codes and improper zoning. As we spend our lives driving in our climate controlled cars from our climate controlled houses to our climate controlled work cubicle, we never experience a danger not caused by our own or another’s stupidity, cupidity or carelessness.

It is in our nature that as we gain experience with things, we become more confident in our approach to them. Confidence is not hubris. Confidence is based on knowledge, experience and demonstrated competence. Hubris is confidence where knowledge, experience and demonstrated competence are lacking. True confidence requires both education and experience. Confidence based on experience alone is made false by changing circumstances, while confidence born of education alone is simple hubris. It is a trap filled path between the textbook and competent professional.

And this is the trap that we are in. We lack experience with a nature beyond human control or knowledge. We are educated. As a professional class, we are defined by our education. Our hope for our children is invested in their education and worries about affording that education dog us from the day of their birth. We are educated but we live and work in a closed and controlled environment. We have no experience with that which is beyond the narrow horizons of our home and workplace. Since we have no experience with that beyond ourselves, we are afflicted with hubris because we are educated and fear because we have no experience.

In my working life, I came to know a great many engineers. In working with these folks on many projects, I found the great majority of them to be technically competent and knowledgeable about their area of practice. But at the same time, there was a great divide between those whose judgment about their work could be trusted and those whose work must be carefully reviewed for naïve solutions and ill-considered designs. It was necessary to supervise this second group closely because they consistently focused on imaginary problems while missing dangers that were real.

The difference between these two groups of people was not in IQ, or the prestige of their education or their years of experience. The difference was easily apparent. The difference was in whether they had spent their entire career in the office working on paper, or whether they had actually been on a construction site working with contractors building their design, or taken their design into start-up and made it work, or worked with the client developer to get it approved and funded. All of the engineers I worked with were well educated, but not all had the humbling experience of a world outside the office, and that experience made all the difference in the world.

Our culture is in a difficult spot. The dynamics of human nature and the cultural imperatives of our Civilization expand our presence and impact on the world we live in. Our footprint in the world is large and getting larger. We have awakened billions of people to the possibility that they might live lives like ours, rather than the short primitive disease filled lives of their parents. They have lived in an organic natural paradise and want no part of it. They want what we have and they will fight to get it. We will be forced to deal with change, with the impacts of what it takes to give them a better life. Nanotechnology, biotechnology, space based industry and advanced energy production can easily meet the challenge. They offer exciting new opportunities and a better life for everyone on the planet. But new technologies will bring new risks whose effects are unknowable, but we cannot turn our backs on the need of those billions of human beings. If we do callously consign them to their organic paradise, they will overrun us and take what is ours. In which case our present debates on how many asbestos molecules can dance on the head of a pin will be moot.

Our faith in the organic goodness of Mother Nature and our lack of experience with who she really is stand opposed to that better future for ourselves and those billions who yearn to join us. There has always been an unmistakable difference between Western Civilization and the rest of the world. That difference has been the Christian faith, totally different in outlook to any other. Unique to the Christian faith is the understanding that God created the world. We believe that God created the world for man’s use, to be subject to man’s stewardship on behalf of God, who still owns it. The West alone has believed in progress, in linear time, in the belief that tomorrow could be different from today. From that belief has grown the science that has enabled the world we live in today.

Yet that science has become Science, which leads us away from that God and to a belief in a Mother Earth. A timeless Mother Earth where plants and animals and human beings live in equilibrium with each other. If a tiger takes away a baby from the village, that is just the circle of life and we must rejoice in it. It is a world where human waste is carefully collected in buckets to spread in the fields. When people die from cholera or e coli, that is just the circle of life and we must rejoice in it. That is the real world of Mother Earth and those who know it best are desperate to escape.

The faith of the Mother is that man is an unwelcome interloper in a benign and happy place. It is an article of faith that man invariably harms and destroys the happy balance that was before. Man can only allowed if he lives in harmony and makes no changes. For those of us from earlier generations, our embrace of this ancient faith in the Mother has been balanced and offset by the remnants of our older Christian beliefs. But our children are true believers. We have taken them to Disney movies. We have let them watch “wholesome” shows on television. We have taken them to museums and encouraged them to participate in Science Fairs at school. They are indoctrinated. Our children and grandchildren have drunk the kool-aid.

 

 

 

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