the friction zone and an inconvenient truth

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.

9 thoughts on “the friction zone and an inconvenient truth”

  1. I find it odd that the Telegraph-Journal would finger environmental toxins as it is owned, like everything else in my lovely home province of New Brunswick, by the Irving oil company.

  2. I know a few people from home with weird birth defects (usually extra thumbs, sextets of nipples, mis-carried freak sibblings, that sorta thing.) That are usually blamed on chemical weapons testing in CFB Gagetown.

    Watch out for them New Brunswickers. Freaks. Each and every one.

  3. My mom taught me to start with the hot water. In fact, I thought this was the common practice, and can’t imagine why it’s not, given that it makes so much more sense.

  4. reuben, as you rightly point out in this post, the NewBrunswick Daily Bugle is a bad place to find out about enviro toxins & sickle cell anaemia (or whatever); PETA is a bad place to get your info about how to reduce your global warming fart potential; and al gore is probaly not an agenda-free speaker about climate change or anything else.

    but we have developed a system over, say, the past 500 years or so, perfected since the late 1700s which is our (true, imperfect) scientific model. A theory is proposed; a scientist tests in reproducible ways. Other scientists check the testing, amend, posit other theories. poke holes, kick tires. the theory is tested in many different ways by many different scientists, all over the world. There are conferences, and papers and teams of researchers, new findings, new evidence, improvements etc . once a theory has been tested and tested and keeps coming out solid, once it has been used successfully (again and again) as a predictive theory, then you can say, for the time being, the theory holds water.

    this is true in medicine. true in climate change.

    of course there are disagreements – as there are in any scientific issue, and nothing is ever gospel. but big policy decisions ought to be made on the best available scientific evidence, almost all of which points to climate change being:
    a) happening
    b) happening in large part as a result of human activity
    c) fucking bad news on a scale that Ms PETA probably isn’t even aware.

    the best analogy i can think of is evolution. evolution is “controversial” in the same way that climate change is – that is, not very fucking controversial among serious scientists, but very controversial in “media” and among the few scientists who the media might talk to for “balance.”

    I thought the movie was shit: all that weepy-eyed gorifying should have been spent talking to the scientists who know what’s what.

    if you can, dig up elizabeth kolbert’s climate series for new yorker (not available online). or go check these guys, this is one of the best uses of blogs I’ve seen:

  5. I agree that the scientific community seems to be converging on a unified position with regard to global warming, and I agree that insofar as that is happening, we should use that as an approximation of the truth, or at least the truth as-best-we-know. Thing is, I am invested in medical science, and every doctor knows how tenuous that brand of scientifically-derived truth is; the list of things that medical science thought was good for you and turned out to be bad for you and vice versa is a long, storied list that grows longer every day, to say nothing of the pseudoscience and alternagendas that drive what we think of as the scientific method as it applies to medicine. How relevant this is to global warming I’m not sure. And I don’t question the reality of human-activity derived climate change, although I am not sure that the effects will be as “fucking bad news” as is touted. My point has more to do with the unfortunate state of the media and how it affects our access to the truth.

  6. three things:

    re: scientific consensus: the scientific community is doing much more than converging on a unified position. it is converged. overwhelmingly. that this is not reflected in the media is a similar sort of thing to the evolution vs ID issue where “controversy” is presented as finding someone who has the opposite view. there is no scientific controversy about evoluntion, although there are questions. but unless you are willing to throw out the scientific model (which is possible) then

    re: media: the mainstream media does a horrendous job of covering climate change. ditto I am sure with medicine – how many accurate medical articles do you read in NYTimes/Globe etc. This is what happens when generalists who are good at writing things are given deadlines, and have other assignments to do. they don’t get things right. I have read so many articles in MSM about climate change where the most simple, fundamental things have been wrong – about policy frameworks and about science. it is a big problem, and it turns out that media is a terrible place to get your information about many things, especially of the complex kind. so what to do, as joe citizen? is it fair to ask people to seek out better sources? i would say that on certain issues, we have no choice. If we think an issue may be of great great importance, and we agree that media is a shitty place to find info, then surely we have a responsibility to inform ourselves about that issue. is climate change such an issue? it is to me… but i guess the rest of the world will has to make up their minds. at least gore made you think about this.

    Re: bad news: if you look at evolutionary history, you note that certain organisms do well not because they are smarter or better than others in general, but because they are smarter and better in a certain environment. hence penguins are pretty good in antarctica, rattlesnakes in the desert, and humans in a relatively stable climate where they have predictable growing seasons. it turns out this state of affairs is relatively recent (the past 10,000 years = rise of human civilization), and relatively abnormal. the climate is a very complex system, in a kind of equilibrium, which has enabled humans to thrive. eventually this equilibrium will be thrown out of whack. this will happen no matter what humans do – about once every 100k years, regularly, there is a big climate swing. the historical record shows what happens: it gets really hot, and then really cold. in about a 100k cycle. and the temp graph follows the CO2 graph (or maybe the other way around). this is not disputed. in both cases (hot or cold) human civilization is toast – at least the civilization as we know it. this isn;t a question of some cities getting flooded – it’s real doomsday like the dinos. now that’s *probably* an issue on the scale of thousands of years – one hopes. but given our dependence on climate for survival, it seems to me … insane … to regard climate change as just another environmental problem (like acid rain or something). the scale is much more serious. and given
    a) that CO2 and temp are correlated
    b) that there is NO DOUBT that we are increasing CO2 concentrations (already beyond anything in the record for the past 600k years
    c) that increasing temp will definitely destabilize the climate

    then it seems to me that… we should start paying much more attention to this issue, regardless of what a jerk al gore is. again, check out elizabet kolberts work for, i think, the best lay review of the science.

    now knowing that, you could say, it’s gonna happen anyway, so

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