Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Too Much Knowledge

I was listening to one of those internet videos which present "surprising facts", when it struck me that, in many ways, we suffer from being able to see things in too much detail. For example, much is made of the "fact" (actually a generalization), that "your keyboard has more germs than your toilet", or similar. However, true or not, this "factoid" ignores a number of important factors. For example, a toilet is full of water, making it easy to transfer those germs long distances, and is used by humans who expose lots of flesh, mucus membranes, and possibly other areas where contamination is easy, while unless you lick your keyboard on a regular basis, the number of germs are kind of a moot point. Likewise, the regular "discovery" of fecal matter, urine, germs, parasites and the like on hotel beds, lemon wedges, paper napkins and so on also raise lots of fears, but are also often taken quite out of context.

There are three things we need to recall before being alarmed by such discoveries -- or the related environmental scares over finding "chemicals" in water supplies, soil, food and elsewhere. First, nothing is "pure". Every cell in your body contains a number of atoms of toxins, from uranium to arsenic. Likewise, your body is chock full of germs, parasites, feces, urine and the rest. And yet, despite this witches brew which makes up your physical form, by and large you lead a fairly healthy life. Why? Because minute amounts of toxins are not in themselves toxic. It is often denied by those who espouse "zero tolerance" for "environmental poisons", but there are doses below which things are effectively inert, or, in some cases, even beneficial*. Thus, simply discovering a trace of these things is no cause for alarm, the question should be, how much is there?

This is important to recall because of our second point, that being that, in my lifetime, we have gone from being able to detect parts per million to detecting parts per billion, and in the case of many substances, even parts per trillion, and, in a few cases, fractions of parts per trillion. To make clear how small that is, one part per billion is equivalent to seven people out of the entire population of earth. Or, one grain of sand (~ 1 mg) in a metric ton of sand (1000 kg). Or a single drop of water (1cc) in one million liters of water (~264,000 gallons, or 1/15 - 1/30 of the capacity of a GP oil tanker).  One part per trillion is even smaller. It is a single drop of water in the hold of the largest of super tankers. It is a single grain of sand in 1000 metric tons. It is one second compared to a span of ~31,700 years. Or, it is about 15 cm (~6 inches) compared to the distance from the Earth to the sun.  In short, one part per trillion is incredibly small. And thus, if we can detect at one part per trillion, or even a few hundred parts per trillion, the simple fact of "finding" something does not mean very much without some additional information.

And that idea brings me to the third thing to recall, that being that even if the amount is defined, and is shown to be potentially harmful, it is all still irrelevant, if there is no way for the agent in question to act upon you. For example, there was much fear over the burying of transuranic waste at various dump sites, especially the worry over such metals entering drinking water, all of which ignored the fact that plans included encasing the waste in borosilicate glass, which is known to be incredibly resistant to erosion by water. In short, yes it would be awful if nuclear waste got into ground water, but there was no way that could happen.

A similar fear was mentioned in one of the videos I watched today. They discussed how making one's bed creates an environment more favorable to bacteria growth than leaving it unmade**. However, the problem with such a worry is that there are very few, if any, means for bacteria from bed sheets to enter the human body. Perhaps a few which can become airborne, or if the person in question has open, undressed wounds, or licks the sheets frequently, but as a medium for transferring bacteria, I would think bedding is pretty low on the list.

I mention all of this for a reason a bit more profound than debunking internet dear mongering. Even more important than undermining our modern obsession with hand washing and antibacterial sprays. You see, the same mistaken approach is used not just to hype antibacterials or scare Youtube viewers. Sadly, many of our modern popular environmental scares rest upon equally insubstantial foundations.

For example, how often have you heard a newsreader announce that chemical X --usually with "known to cause cancer" or "shown to cause birth defects" appended as if part of the chemical's name -- has been discovered in a river, reservoir or, the subject of the most melodramatic reports of all, in "our drinking water!" Have you ever noticed that such reports never mention precisely what concentrations were found? Or, if they mention that it was "found recently" -- usually associated with some specific bit of new industrialization -- they also fail to point out whether the specific water was ever tested before, and if so, whether the old test could have found such concentrations?

And that is the point I wanted to make. So many times we hear of the sudden discovery of this or that, of the introduction of this chemical to our water supply, and the like. But those reports never point out that the levels detected are not sudden infusions of new chemicals, but instead represent a massive improvement in testing. That is, we don't know if the chemical was there before or not, all we know is that we can now see a few parts per trillion of some chemical is present in water which we previously tested with processes unable to see such trace amounts.

But, of course, that is not dramatic enough, and might actually allow cooler heads to prevail, rather than motivating hysterical demands of "action! now!"***, and so the news much prefers to behave like producers of internet "click bait" and present unfounded claims and bad science.


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* See "The Problems With 'Safe and Effective'" and "GMO Revisited - As Well as Hormones, Soy, Phytoestrogens, and a Host of Other Food Scares".

** Considering the argument was predicated upon a made bed creating "a warm, wet, dark environment", I am skeptical of this claim. First, the amount of warmth in a made bed absent a human body is quite small, and what warmth remains from the body the night before disappears quickly. The same for any moisture from sweat and the like. And, viewed objectively, an unmade bed still creates a number of equally dark, warm and moist spots, simply not in as organized a fashion. All of which makes we doubt this claim quite strenuously. Unless they are comparing making a bed to, say, hanging up each sheet individually in an airy, sunny spot, then perhaps they have some point, but even then I doubt the made bed presents that favorable an environment for germs and the like.

*** For some discussion of the problems with our tendency to insist the state must act immediately whenever we suffer the slightest setback, or encounter the most remote fear, see  "Doing Something", ""Doing Something" Revisited", "Doing Something Revisited, Again", "Don't Blame the Politicians","The Single Greatest Weakness", "What We Deserve", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions" and "Smoking Versus Sex -- Want and Need Take Two".

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