Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Worrying about the right things?

What brings eyeballs to many a website (or, in Ye Olde Days, sold printed newspapers) is trouble. Something that has, or might, or inevitably must, Go Wrong.

The retractions (if any) or stony silence when disasters don't come to pass are less obvious. Is it any wonder that anxiety is the natural mood?

For example, Radiation from cell phones can possibly cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Never mind that WHO had previously assured consumers there is no risk and that there is no known mechanism by which cell phones can cause cancer (the radio frequencies used by cell phones are not ionizing -- they can't cause mutations). You heard all about the "warning" at the time (end of May), right?

"Risk" being probabilistic to begin with, what is a "possible" risk? That appears to be "a risk that we can't rule out, although we sure as hell can't rule it in." Happily -- if far less visibly -- an international study decided about two months later that, "Evidence 'increasingly against' phone cancer risk."
A major review of previously published research by a committee of experts from Britain, the United States and Sweden concluded there was no convincing evidence of any cancer connection.
It also found a lack of established biological mechanisms by which radio signals from mobile phones might trigger tumors.

"Although there remains some uncertainty, the trend in the accumulating evidence is increasingly against the hypothesis that mobile phone use can cause brain tumors in adults," the experts wrote in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Likewise, we're supposed to worry about some key materials whose supply China dominates. As in: "Rare earths: why China is cutting exports crucial to Western technologies." That's from the Telegraph, which begins by telling us:

The key to hundreds of modern technologies, from iPhones to smart-bombs, lies in the little-known rare earth metals, 95 per cent of which are mined by China. Its decision to slash exports has left the West scrabbling for alternative supplies
Rare earths elements are (no surprise) rare. But are they all in China? The BBC claims 97 percent of the supply is produced in China, but notes that "Japan finds rare earths in Pacific seabed."

How significant is the Japanese find?

The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one square kilometre (0.4 square mile) of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption," said Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo.
Recovering materials from the sea floor at depths up to 20,000 feet won't be easy -- but neither, once upon a time, was exploiting crude oil from thousands of feet beneath the sea floor. Or extracting natural gas -- present in the trillions of cubic feet -- from the shale thousands of feet below the Pennsylvania farmland.

And closer to the surface, how about a a major rare-earth find in Afghanistan? From Moneynews.com, see "Afghans Dream of Bonanza in Scarce Rare-Earth Minerals." In January,

Afghan officials proudly presented what they say is $3 trillion worth of deposits scattered throughout the country, more than triple the initial dollar amount estimated by the U.S. Defense Department last June.
Afghanistan is inhospitable in its own way, of course.

The essential point remains, paraphrasing the first of Clarke's Laws (call it Lerner's Corollary):

When you read that something is going right, that may well be true. When you read that things have gone wrong, or are running out, or can't work -- that we're doomed -- that is very probably wrong.
Shortages and side effects are almost always resolvable with human ingenuity -- as long as we retain the ambition to try.

Alas, dystopias garner more eyeballs than utopias. If you want to worry about something, worry that too few of us retain the power of positive thinking.


Erik said...

I was just reading an article on cracked about how the human mind fails at statistics (among other things). You might like.
probability is #2

Edward M. Lerner said...

Yes, probability and statistics are Greek to too many people.

Sort of like balanced budgets (especially to the Greeks).

- Ed

Mike H said...

History is full of religious/political/scientific Cassandras who come onto the scene making big claims of doom. There are two groups: those with good intentions and those with bad intentions. Those with “good intentions” are driven by altruism and those with “bad intentions” are driven by a desire for power or control. Bad Cassandras tend to make predictions that will be realized in most everyone’s lifetime and offer rigidly concrete solutions that will Interestingly, the bad Cassandra’s predictions are close enough to impact you directly but far enough out that when they don’t occur no one seems to remember who made them or if they were made at all.

Think of Paul Ehrlich predicting the Soviets would nuke us in the 1980’s for our use of insecticides or Will and Paul Paddock’s “Famine 1975”.

Bad Cassandras have solutions at the ready, and these solutions nearly always concentrate power with people and organizations they identify with.

The other group, the more altruistic Cassandras are either wrong or just idiots.

Societies are risk adverse by nature and tend to listen to Cassandras, especially when they speak with some kind of scientific authority and out fifth estate doesn’t perform its due diligence.

While I agree that shortages are best handled with market forces, the Chinese have really distorted the rare earth market and we world be in a world of hurt if they decided to use that leverage against us.