I first became aware of the friction zone while learning how to ride a motorcycle in 1995. Let’s say that the clutch, when it’s not being touched, is at position zero, and when it’s fully activated (pressed all the way down to the floorboard on a car, for example), is at position ten inches. The clutch has ten inches of possible travel, but often only a fraction of that travel is used by the car, so that, for example, the clutch starts to engage at three inches of travel and is fully engaged at seven inches of travel. All the movement between zero and three inches, and all the movement between seven inches and the floorboard, produces no effect. The distance between three and seven inches is the friction zone, and once you understand this it suddenly becomes a lot easier to drive a manual transmission, especially on a car you’re not familiar with. Getting used to a standard transmission is learning where the friction zone is on that car.
Another example is the hot water knob. Most people turn on the cold water first, so it’s hard to appreciate when, as you turn on the hot water, turning the knob is actually making more hot water come out of the faucet. Often the friction zone on the hot water knob is less than a single revolution, but it might take a couple of revolutions from the off position to get there, so that getting the temperature right on an unfamiliar faucet can be challenging. Ideally, the strategy for operating a new faucet would be to assess the friction zone for the hot and cold knobs individually, which would involve testing the hot with the cold off and the cold with the hot off. Because cold water is usually high-pressure and hot water is usually low-pressure, you can shortcut this methodical approach by reversing what your mother trained you to do: turn the hot water on first, then titrate the cold water to effect.
I apply the friction zone concept when I am providing analgesia for a painful procedure I’m doing on a patient, such as popping a dislocated shoulder back in, or shocking a heart with a defibrillator. The classic drug to use for this purpose is morphine; the trick is to give the right amount. For a given patient, the first ten milligrams might be insufficient to adequately manage the pain of the procedure, and, if I give twenty-five milligrams, the patient is unarousably unconscious. So the first ten milligrams are not important, and all the morphine I give after the twenty-fifth milligram is unimportant, what counts is the friction zone in between ten and twenty-five milligrams. In medicine we call this the therapeutic index. Doctors prefer to use drugs with a wide therapeutic index, so that it’s easy to produce the desired response without having to worry about adverse effects.
In romance, you can look at the push-pull game as a question of scoping out the friction zone with regard to the amount of interest you show. There is a point on the level of interest continuum below which you won’t register on her radar, and a point above which she’s not going to be interested in you because you’re showing too much interest. The goal of the first phase of dating is then to, um, find her friction zone.
Last week I saw An Inconvenient Truth. The movie is Al Gore giving a slide show (in Keynote, incidentally) about global warming, punctuated by clips that show Mr. Gore ostensibly carrying out his day to day business, which coat him with a What A Good Guy varnish. He makes a lot of compelling arguments, and it’s hard not to walk out of the theater feeling that the earth and its inhabitants are fucked. The strongest support for skeptics, however, appeared while I was waiting in line. A lady from PETA was walking around distributing flyers while shouting that if you’re concerned about global warming, the most important contribution you can make is to become a vegetarian, and “It’s not in the movie!” The flyer presented a number of equally persuasive arguments that the vaporized byproducts of raising livestock for meat consumption are more potent in effecting climate change than emissions from fuel consumption.
What is a lay observer to make of this? PETA’s “facts” seem just as true and relevant as Al Gore’s “facts.” In the face of competing facts, where do we find the truth? We are routinely confronted with this and have adapted our grade-school understanding of a fact as a truth to understanding facts as shades of truth as seen through the lens of the agendas that generate them. Confounding our attempts to know the truth are not only the agendas of the viewpoint generators, but also the agendas of the medium through which the viewpoints are presented. A given medium may have a substantive agenda (The San Francisco Examiner vs. The Washington Times), but the media are of course driven mostly by profit, and alarmism sells. This further complicates our consumption of facts, especially in cases of high alarmist potential like global warming.
Yesterday, as I was making my way through the backroads of maritime Canada, I came across an article in a regional newspaper that described a young lady who developed aplastic anemia, which is when your bone marrow stops making blood cells. The title of the front-page piece is “Teenager diagnosed with blood disorder often caused by environmental poisoning.” Two sentences are devoted to what caused her condition: “The cause of her disease is unknown. Causes of aplastic anemia include a genetic disposition – in this case, already ruled out – and environmental poisoning.” Any lay reader would conclude that this poor girl was poisoned by an environmental toxin and, holy shit, I might be next. In fact, of the cases of aplastic anemia where the cause is known, the great majority are the result of infectious agents(usually viruses), and of the very small proportion of cases that are thought to be caused by a toxin, the great majority are prescribed medications. So the likelihood that an environmental poison caused her condition is tiny, which is exactly opposite to the message that the article tries to convey*.
Now this is the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, not the Times, but the distortion is still sickening. Particularly sickening to me, because the only reason I’m aware of the distortion is because I have training in the issue at hand; since I don’t have training in 99% of the issues that come up in the media, the 1% of stories where I can identify the distortion serves as a marker for the other 99%.
So I go about trying to distill the truth from the facts by evaluating for credibility, and there is a friction zone effect here. Organizations or people who broadcast their agenda too quietly are not heard, and those that jump up and down and scream and shout are probably incapable of producing rational conclusions, as their agendas assume an unassailable stature–the hallmark of dogmatism. The paradigmatic example of this is PETA, so even if they’re correct–and the boy who cried wolf was eaten by a wolf–I can’t credit their arguments. What about Al Gore? The movie takes pains to convince us that climate change is *really* his passion, that one of his old professors sparked his interest decades ago. But then what’s up with the segment on his son, who almost died in a car crash, and all the shit about the oh so wonderful farm where he grew up? I went into the film with the assumption that Al Gore was done with politics, because he said he was done with politics, and I found myself wondering what on earth was going on with these interludes. If they wanted to break up the slide show, they could have found ways to do it that don’t pedestalize Mr. Gore. Now all I hear about is Gore 2008. And in retrospect, the film feels more and more like campaign speech. Blech.
So everyone has an agenda, and the problem is compounded by americans consuming entirely american media, liberals consuming liberal media, religious zealots consuming religious zealot media. Not too surprising that we’re becoming more polarized.
So, I ask again, what is the lay observer to make of this? I try to expose myself to competing viewpoints. KCRW’s Left, Right & Center is a show that at least makes an attempt at this, I would be interested if any of you know of other media that adopts a point-counterpoint format. Otherwise, read the San Francisco Examiner AND The Washington Times (you can cheat by isolating their Op-Ed pages), have a look at some international news outlets, surf the enemy.
This strategy at least makes me feel less like a victim, but the bottom line is that unless you saw it yourself, you can never really know. I can investigate the source data for one domain (medicine), because that’s my job, but for everything else I’m at the mercy of the media and the choir-preaching maze of factgendas that more often than not leave me concluding that the truth is not inconvenient, it’s unobtainable.
*Fuhrer M. Blood 2005 Sep 15;106(6):2102-4.