Science, We Need You Back

People have lost the ability to think now that they are firmly in the grip of the cult of technology.

By Ted Mitchell
Published November 08, 2006

We live in a world of technology. Technology is based on science, but these days, we regard science with suspicion even as we revere technology as the cure for our woes.

Well, with few decades of high technology behind us, let's look at a representative example: Automobiles have become vastly more efficient and cleaner burning since the late 1970s, mainly because of computer-controlled fuel injection, catalytic converters, and ever closer manufacturing tolerances.

So what is has happened to pollution and fuel efficiency? The former is staying the same, and the latter is actually slightly worse. Why the failure of technology?

In fact, it is not a failure of technology, but of human thinking that ignores simple science. If you have a more efficient, cleaner engine, you can choose to drive a larger, more powerful (and, most importantly, fashionable) machine, and of course drive it farther and farther each year.

Despite better technology, an irrational thought process leads to egregiously wasteful behaviour. Albert Einstein famously said, "The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind."

Einstein's words apply to far more than just the atomic bomb. They apply to all of the problems arising from taking technology on faith while failing to think scientifically about the consequences of your actions.

So, back to science. Let's do some debunking cases.

How to Gain or Lose Weight

Let's say you are overweight. It seems like nothing that you do has any lasting result. Expensive techno-diets don't work, and exercise, well, it's so hard. It's beyond science!

Well, not really. The first law of thermodynamics is very simple: Q-W=0.

It can be applied to anything, even you. Q is heat, or in this case, the food you eat. W is the work that you do. Zero means that if these quantities are in balance, your weight will stay the same.

Taken at first iteration, if one of these variables gets larger or smaller while the other does not change, you will either gain or lose weight. This is a law of nature, and no, there are no exceptions.

Failing a digestive disease, you absorb most of the energy from the food you eat. Moreover, this factor does not change much between people. All food can be converted into equivalent calories, which are simply units of energy.

Now, certain foods may make you feel more or less full, so you either stop eating or you don't, but a calorie is a calorie regardless of what food it comes from. So far, the playing field is level.

If you eat more but work the same amount, you will gain weight. In fact, for most people the work actually increases slightly when you eat more. Have you ever felt hot while digesting a large meal? That is your body burning off some extra calories for no effort. In other words, despite your best efforts to gain weight by eating more, your body is trying to counteract that effect.

If you eat less and work the same amount, then you lose weight, right? Again, not quite, because the amount your body works doesn't stay the same if you stop eating. Your body goes into "starvation mode", the basal metabolic rate (BMR) falls, you feel colder, and this slows your weight loss.

So from the standpoint of changing Q, W also changes slightly to counteract the effect of your overeating or starvation attempts. However, since eating is a conscious behaviour, from the standpoint of W, Q is not affected.

Taking these facts together, this means that exercise is the more powerful factor in determining weight. Let's demonstrate this by looking at it from the work perspective, assuming a constant, adequate food intake.

There are two components to work: BMR and extra exercise. Assuming no medical conditions such as thyroid disease, your BMR is fairly constant. Exercise, on the other hand, comes in many forms.

The most obvious is the most painful: hard aerobic exercise. A runner could easily burn five times the resting amount of calories, and this obviously will make a dent in your energy stores. But it may also build muscle, which is denser than fat. So, your weight may not even change, but your body will.

People rarely run for long periods. Our runner goes out for an hour a day, so the difference between being sedentary and running is:

Sedentary: 24hrs x 100W BMR = 2400 Watt-hours/day

Running: 23hrs x 100W BMR + 1 hr x 500W exercise = 2800 Watt-hours/day.

This is a difference of 17 percent per day, or about 350 calories.

Then there is the difference between the truly sedentary person and the one who moves around a lot. Most people do not know which one they are ? what they do is "normal". Studies show that overweight people spend far more time sitting, but they are completely unaware that this behaviour is different from thinner folks.

The squirmy person (do you know a child like this?) moves constantly, perhaps burning 200W for ten hours a day, and sedentary for the rest. They do no official "exercise". Total energy burned: 10hrs x 200W + 14hrs x 100W = 3400 Watt-hours. This is 42 percent more than sedentary, or about 850 calories daily.

"He doesn't stop eating but he's thin as a rail". Yes indeed. It is not beyond science.

Our infotainment media give massive coverage to dietary advice, splitting the proverbial nutritional hairs, and sexy advertising of techno-home gym equipment. In reality, a bit of science and medical observation tells us what matters most is how much you move, and how much you sit.

In case you are still skeptical that exercise is more important than diet, it is always instructive to observe the real world. In this case, visit an old-order Amish community. They are very active, but according to nutritionists, eat all the wrong foods. What do you see?

Home Heating With Light Bulbs

It is an unfortunate irony that the universal symbol for a "bright idea" is the incandescent light bulb. In this day of revering high technology, sometimes we refuse to use its best offerings.

The incandescent bulb gives off radiation when heated. Most of that radiation is long wavelength infrared (heat). Some of it is visible light. How much? You're not ready for the answer yet. Let's back up.

To provide that heat, we start at the power plant. Coal, gas, oil, or uranium (high grade energy) gives off 300 watts of heat (low grade energy), which heats pressurized steam. The steam expands in a turbine, which drives an electrical generator (to make high grade energy) and sends the juice to your home.

Because of the second law of thermodynamics, only a small part of that heat energy can be converted to electrical energy. Furthermore, there are losses in wires and transformers on the way to your house, and only about 100 watts out of that 300 we started with can be used by you. The other 200 watts are lost to the environment as low temperature waste heat.

You flick the light switch of a 100 W bulb, short-circuiting high grade electricity to produce intense heat in a tiny tungsten filament. You have a bright idea! It comes to you as in a dream, the Planck distribution of radiation.

Madly, you search a heat transfer textbook and discover that, a 2800 K source gives off 6 percent of its light in the visible spectrum. That is, your 100 W bulb gives off 6 W of visible light, and 94 W of heat.

By the way, trendy halogen bulbs burn a little hotter, so there is about 8 percent visible light. On a DC transformer system, it will be back to 6 percent or less.

So, what happened to that 300 W of non renewable energy?

Net: 2 percent nonrenewable energy efficiency (!)

Worse, you forget to turn it off when you leave the room, or else your "security light" outside stays on all day.

We now have compact fluorescents that produce the same amount of light as a 100 W incandescent, which use only 20 W. More precisely, that is 6 W of light energy (spectral, not black body) and 14 W of heat.

So for the same lighting result and comparable color rendering, we have:

Net: 10 percent non-renewable energy efficiency.

Still embarrassing, compared to something as ultra high-tech and efficient as a window, but not unforgivable.

Why is the technological fix, a factor of 5 improvement over the old "bright idea" not widely accepted (and this despite a payback period of a year or less on the greater purchase price)? Maybe subsidized public power systems have their drawbacks.

Science, we need you back. People have lost the ability to think now that they are firmly in the grip of the cult of technology.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.


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By Locke (registered) | Posted November 08, 2006 at 19:24:50


You might be interested in this article:

I'd love to know your opinion on the future of LED lighting.

I bought some for under the cupboard in our kitchen, and they appear to use less than 5 watts (according to the transformer) compared with the 40 watts halogen would have used. The price: $40 for for flat little discs which is the same as you'd pay for Halogen. The only problem seems to be availability and the price point for other applications. At this point prices seem to be at the level CFL were 10 years ago when I paid $20 for my first compact florescent.

Best, Craig

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 08, 2006 at 20:25:39

"If you have a more efficient, cleaner engine, you can choose to drive a larger, more powerful (and, most importantly, fashionable) machine, and of course drive it farther and farther each year."

This is called Jevons Paradox:

Or as Richard Register explained in his wonderful book _Ecocities_:

"The less fuel it takes to drive about and the cheaper per mile, the farther people are willing to drive. The better the gas mileage, the more the suburbs sprawl out over vast landscapes, the more demand there is for cars and freeways, and the more cars are needed to service the expanding suburbia. Ultimately and ironically, the more gasoline is needed.

"Thus the energy-efficient cars help create the energy-inefficient city."

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By KS (anonymous) | Posted November 09, 2006 at 12:37:15

Science or technology, their applications to modern life have mucht to do with faith as in any other religion. Yes, scientific discovery is theoretically based upon experimentation and experience, but I do not witness those experiments first hand. They are not my experience. Indeed, I seldom experience the results. Instead I am told about them through increasingly unreliable and culturally biased media. Further, in the same media, I frequently read about manipulation of the experimental process and results reporting within scientific institutions by pharmaceutical companies or other institutions in a position to profit from "science."

In my own life I find the subsequent "scientific" knowledge provides just about the same amount of positive rinforcement given a pigeon in a psychologist's laboratory. So I accept that scientific discoveries are for the general good with the same faith that I might at one time have had in prayer. I begin to believe that a good job in a tech industry, one that pays my health care, will make me happy, or that science will allow me to live forever, or make me whole again after illness or injury. The limitations of workplace safety procedures, public and private insurance and my own doctor's skills may come as faith shattering revelations.

But faith has momentum on its side. Just think of the energy behind the automotive industry: hundreds of thousands employed, millions of miles paved, factories, refineries, gravel pits, traffic cops, on and on. If science made teleportation possible by, say, 2010, would this be good for the economy? Would it be good for me?

I don't like to hear about any "science" that contradicts my notions of what is "good." That makes it hard for me to sustain my faith in science and technology, and might cause me to revert to other religions.

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By (anonymous) | Posted November 09, 2006 at 13:22:44

KS, you're wrong about science. It isn't a religion, and it isn't based on faith. People who don't understand science compare it to religion, don't let your ignorance tar science the same as religion.

Science is a way of looking at the world, a way of studying how it works so you can understand it well enough to predict what affect a particular action will have.

Slide a quarter across a carpet, what happens? It slows down and stops. Now slide a quarter across a marble floor. What happens - it slides farther before it slows down and stops. Now slide it across an ice rink. It slides really far before it slows down and stops.

People used to think the natural state of an object was at rest, because in their experience things slowed down and stopped.

It took a scientific attitude - don't assume, test your idea under as many different conditions as possible, control for other variables so you're only testing one thing - to figure out that the natural state of an object is to keep going in the same direction at the same speed until an outside force acts on it.

That's Newton's first law of motion. Once you understand it, you can understand why things appear the way they do (the quarter slows and stops because of two outside forces - gravity, which pulls it down, and friction, which slows it. It slides farthest on the ice rink because ice has less friction than carpet or marble).

If you don't witness scientific experiments first hand, then you need to start doing some science. Don't just assume that it's wrong because you don't understand it or didn't see it, any more than you should assume it's right just because a scientist said it. The whole reason science works so well is not that scientists automatically believe each other, but because they constantly challenge each other, test each other's theories, try to reproduc each others experiments.

Just because you don't do science is no reason to assume it's wrong - that's the real superstition.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted November 09, 2006 at 15:14:52

And perhaps this is a fundamental difference between Science and Religion...? Scientists challenge each other and test their theories dilligently. Religious folks take the current body of religious evidence at face value, do not question it, and do not add to it. And when you ask them 'Why Not?' they say, 'because I have faith'...

And how 'proven' is that current body of religious evidence? It seems to me (and I haven't done a lot of homework on this I'll admit)that it's mainly based on various historical documents found in various parts of the world. As evidence goes this seems pretty weak to me.

I have many friends who are religious and even ultra-religious and I fail to understand why they do not continue to question and test their beliefs as scientists do. Why do they discount science on the basis of flaky notions of flawed testing procedures and different definitions of 'truth'?

I have a hard time understanding this, especially as my religious friends are very intelligent individuals, but I'm doing my best!


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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 09, 2006 at 16:08:02

Ben wrote:

"I fail to understand why they do not continue to question and test their beliefs as scientists do."

That's because faith and religious beliefs are by definition untestable and unfalsifiable. There's no empirical means to establish the existence or non-existence of God. It's literally outside the realm of science.

That's not to say there's no room for faith or that there's no way to examine faith. It's just not possible to do it scientifically.

(Aside: The idea that science is the only valid way of trying to understand the universe is called "scientism". Here's the problem: the theory that science is the only way to study the universe cannot be established scientifically. It's a philosophical, normative idea. That means as soon as one professes scientism, one is guilty of violating it!)

Another way of putting the difference between science and faith is that science is public by definition - science works to the extent that scientists share their hypotheses, their methodologies, and their observations - whereas faith is private by definition - a matter between the individual and God, or between members of a relatively closed faith community.

You just can't walk into a church and challenge that church's doctrine; the congregation and religious leader would be outraged, and would probably ask you to leave rather than engagte in a debate with you.

This is partly cultural - it's considered bad form to debate religion - and partly normative - religion is a combination of faith in the absence of evidence and a system of values and norms about how to behave and why.

It's possible to assert that a religious person is being hypocritical, that is, not acting in a manner consistent with one's stated beliefs. For example, it was hypocritical for Ted Haggard, President Bush's spiritual advisor, to lecture people about the evils of homosexuality and pretend to be an upstanding family man while secretly seeing a male prostitute for three years.

However, this is a challenge against inconsistency between beliefs and actions, not a direct challenge against those beliefs.

You can argue that homosexuality is not evil (I would certainly argue that), but you will not get anywhere trying to change Ted Haggard's mind, and nor will he get anywhere trying to change yours.

Because we live in a liberal country, the legal default is that the state should not try to regulate or interfere with consensual, non-violent activities among adults. That's the stated goal of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it's a goal toward which our actual, historical, body of common law, legislation, and judicial precedent is slowly moving.

The mutual tolerance enshrined in the Charter says that Bob is entitled to think Doug is a sinner, and Doug is entitled to think Bob is wrong about it - live and let live, in other words. That's the best way to address conflicting normative claims that cannot be established one way or the other. In science, on the other hand, is is possible to decide that one answer is "right" (it makes risky predictions that turn out correct) and another answer is "wrong" (it does not make predictions, or else makes predictions that turn out wrong).

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 09, 2006 at 16:24:25

I think you make a good point Ryan - science and religion are different. Although, the Bible is the most historcally proven document in history - for all the science nuts. They are different things, yet are related. In college I took a course called 'Science and Religion'. It was fascinating. The problem is, some 'scientists' do themselves a diservice by trying to refute historic claims, such as the one I shared above about the Bible. If they would instead take the Bible and it's various discussions on history, human nature, creation etc....they would see science all over the place. After all, where did the laws of nature/science originate??

One other thing - I'd like to know what kind of churches you guys have been to if you've encountered enraged ministers and congregations by simply asking questions?? I presume you're talking about churches in Western nations. I'd question any church that won't listen to someone's questions or concerns and try to answer them in a proper manner. Being a Christian I consider it a privilege to answer questions people may have. I realize that faith does come into play and there are some things we'll never know here on earth, but most questions and misunderstandings about my faith can be answered quite easily.

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By Locke (registered) | Posted November 10, 2006 at 10:30:25

Uhmm... the notion that you can't walk into a church and question the doctrine... is that a scientifically reached or evidence-based conclusion? ;)

Religion is not a homogeneous perspective but full of questions. I'm a Christian, but I'll guarantee that Jason and I won't see eye to eye on everything just because we're both willing to out ourselves here. I'm sure there would be people at Melrose who would eagerly tell you that they don't share all of my views on religion -- but we're all welcome there. Philosophical and Theological debate and exploration is integral to church life for many.

I think many who aren't a part of a religious community have antiquated ideas what church is like. Yes, Ryan, there are some cultural norms about how and when debate should happen, but that is changing. More and more it is less about the sage on the stage and more about small group ministry and discussion.

I'm curious is anyone saw the article in the local rag about the united church's new outreach initiative

Quote: The UCC's research shows this age group craves meaningful conversation about ethics, life and how they can make a difference in the world, said Rev. Fred Monteith, executive secretary of the UCC's Hamilton Conference. EndQuote

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 10, 2006 at 11:00:34

good points....I'm still getting a chuckle out of how an article on technology and science got us here. lol. us out Ryan - were you making the point that churches and their people aren't open to discussion or were you proposing that someone can't walk into the middle of a sermon on Sunday morning and start debating the preacher from the crowd?? Obviously there is protocol in place like there would be at any political convention or business meeting.
I'm interested to know where this idea came from. The previous writer said it well - the younger generation is very interested in discussions and dialogue on all sorts of life issues. We've seen that in our church as well.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 10, 2006 at 11:05:41

Locke, you're quite correct. I was over-generalizing in an attempt to stop an already-long post from getting even longer...

With my own faith, questions far outweigh answers, so I'm not opposed to the idea of discussion and even debate - in fact, I think it's a very good idea. After all, as the saying goes, "Don't talk about religion or politics", and I already break the second half of that rule as it is :).

What I meant is that most church services are not designed to challenge and debate religious doctrine (the Unitarian church seems like a notable exception, although I can't say that firsthand). Of course there is a place for challenges, but it is not central, and the core set of institutional beliefs is highly resistant to change.

With science, by contrast, its very premise is that by challenging established beliefs in a rigorous and systematic way, it is possible to make that set of established beliefs progressively more accurate and applicable.

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By Locke (registered) | Posted November 10, 2006 at 11:43:41

Ryan, I think Jason and I both understood what you were getting at and even the reason for the over-generalization. I just wanted to make sure we poked the notion that churches are closed to debate in the eye.

Jason, as to how we got here from a discussion of technology and science? Well, Ted started us off by saying: Science, We Need You Back -- People have lost the ability to think now that they are firmly in the grip of the cult of technology.

Someone subsequently equated this with faith and religion, but as Ted point out, it is cults which demand we not ask questions. While most churches do have a core set of beliefs or a statement of belief, even this will often evolve through (albeit sometimes formal) debate.

In any case, I've been most intriqued by Jevons Paradox Ryan mentions. I suppose this means that even as I replace my regular lightbulbs with CFL and LED replacements, I'm likely to just use them more. I can see this happening already. Just wait until I can buy an electric car...

Which brings up another interesting point: The energy loss from generation to the point of use which Ted noted in his article. It seems to reason then that the promise of electrical generation at or close to the point of use would be an ideal model... or in the case of my future electric car, at or close to the point where I'm charging my batteries. :)

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 10, 2006 at 13:58:32

Locke, the canonical example of Jevons Paradox seems to be the refrigerator, which keeps getting bigger and more elaborate (crushed ice, anyone?) even as it gets more nominally energy-efficient.

As for power generation, I'm highly intrigued with the idea of decentralized, small-scale power generation (wind turbines on roofs, solar panels on the sides of buildings, micro-hydroelectric dams, etc.).

Of course, there will be some major engineering hurdles, especially for retrofits, but think of the typical 120 year old house standing today in Hamilton, and all the retrofits it has endured over the years: forced-air gas furnace, new plumbing, new wiring, insulation, etc.

With political will, we'll find affordable ways to dig geothermal sub-basements, install wind turbines, and so on. The great thing about lights is that no structural retrofit is required: just screw out the blown incandescent bulb and screw in a compact fluorescent (soon a white LED) bulb.

Rather than banning the incandescent bulb (a specific technology), a better regulatory approach would be to set a minimum efficiency target (so many lumens per watt) and then tax anything with a lower efficiency to eliminate the false economy of a cheap purchase price and recoup the cost of additional pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

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By A reader (anonymous) | Posted November 20, 2006 at 18:28:05

Two things.

1) It is unfortunate you chose to focus on obesity as a scientific example of energy balance. While simple energy-transfer and chemical processes are strictly subject to the laws of thermodynamics and chemistry, complex organic systems like mammalian bodies are not.

To say nothing of the extreme stress North Americans must face from the man-made chemicals in our air, water and food. Want to know about rising obesity, disease and psychological dysfunction in our society? Look to "better living through chemistry" for a large part of the answer. The "starve and exercise" mantra is just a way to separate the most vulnerable victims from their money and provide sanctimonious weapons of mass distraction from the systemic poisoning of our bodies and minds.

2) I believe the most accurate analysis of humankind's truest grasp of all things cosmic has been provided by the one of the Hammer's own greatest philosophers, Harold Green. To quote- Now for the Experts portion of our show, where we examine those three little words men find so hard to say (audience joins in) "I DON"T KNOW!".

The sooner both scientists and religious types admit this simple truth to themselves and others, the sooner the world will be at peace and free from mad, uncontrollable world-scale experiments.

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