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All that I know is that I know nothing (sometimes referred to as the Socratic paradox).

 

I know how Socrates felt.  Recent research uncovered a new paradox that worries me, one that questions my thought processes.  It is certainly not the only paradox that causes me concern. 

 

I confronted the paradox of plastic in my compost pile.  The paradox of plastic is that one of the advantages of plastic is that it lasts forever and the disadvantage of plastic is that it lasts forever.  Future archeologists will be perplexed by plastic.  Archeologists for generations found artifacts that were the special things, those made of largely immutable gold or stone.  Care was put into the craftsmanship knowing that they would last forever.  Plastic, like gold, can last for centuries.  It is cheap, not at all rare, and allows all matter of things to be made.  Cheap plastic trinkets will last for millennia, confusing future archeologists trying to assign some significance.

 

Biodegradable materials, it would seem, would be a solution. Paradoxically, people are more likely to litter when an item is biodegradable.  I myself think nothing of tossing a wooden toothpick into the shrubbery, but would never toss a plastic item the same way.  Cigarette butts are surprisingly common litter.  Studies have shown that the perception that cigarette butts are biodegradable grants smokers carte blanche to flick them anywhere they please.[i] A UN study concluded that “labelling a product as biodegradable may be seen as a technical fix that removes  responsibility from  the individual.  A perceived lower responsibility will result in a reluctance to take action.  A  survey of  littering  behaviour in  young  people in  Los  Angeles revealed  that  labelling a  product  as ‘biodegradable’  was  one of  several  factors that  would  be more  likely  to result  in  littering behavior.”[ii]  California went so far as to ban the labeling of plastics as biodegradable.[iii]  The paradox of biodegradability is that it leads to litter.

 

Sam Peltzman is credited with noting that added safety equipment leads to more accidents.[iv] Pelzman made his paradoxical observation for automotive safety.  I wouldn’t connect wearing a seat belt directly to more risky driving, but I have certainly observed many cases of personal protective equipment leading to riskier behaviors.  The paradox of added safety equipment is that it invites riskier behavior, leading to more accidents.

 

Crashes of cars on autopilot likely aren’t a manifestation of Peltzman’s paradox, but of the Yerkes-Dodson law.[v] Paradoxically, give a person too little to do and they become complacent. They stop paying attention.  The fix isn’t easy, since, giving someone too much to do overwhelms them and diminishes performance.  Texting while driving being an easy example.   Adding safety equipment, since it encourages distraction, may, paradoxically, actually make us less safe.  Alfred Nobel famously confronted this with the one-legged stool. Making nitroglycerin required an operator to watch a slowly changing temperature while feeding nitric acid. The one legged stool was the way operators were kept alert and awake given the mind-numbing task of slow addition.

 

Ivory and rhino horn are currently both in the news since proposals to farm them seem to be gaining momentum.  Conservation, it is argued, begins by placing a value on a resource.  Public markets define the value and banning the trade of ivory and rhino horn creates a clandestine market.  Clandestine markets rely on breaking laws, such as by poaching.  Opening the market to sustainably harvested materials will cause the value of the elephants and rhinos to increase.  This logic is quite similar to the forestry paradox.  Strange as it seems, it is argued that the best way to save a forest is to cut down the trees.  The paradox hinges on strong markets for wood providing incentive for land owners to keep forested land as forest, managing and harvesting the wood for maximum value. Paradoxically, cutting trees ultimately saves the forest.

 

Jevon’s paradox is equally troubling.  Jevon’s noted that increasing efficiency actually led to more consumption of coal.[vi] Jevon’s paradox, first noted the year the U.S. Civil War ended, prompted over 150 years of arguments.  Studies dissect Jevon’s paradox, or the rebound effect as it is sometimes called, into a summation of effects.  Efficiency increases cause a drop in consumption, leading to a drop in energy prices.  Lower prices lead to more use in what is labeled the direct effect.  Dropping energy prices increases liquidity leading to more consumption of other goods and services, creating an indirect increase in overall energy use.  Other effects have been identified, but are variations at a macroeconomic level of the direct and indirect effects.  No matter how it is sliced and diced, the conclusion is often that we squander efficiency gains, paradoxically using more energy overall when technology improves efficiency.

 

The most troubling paradox is one I ran across most recently.  The Science Literary Paradox is based on the observation that the best educated and most scientifically literate are the most prone to ignore the power of data to inform decision making.  In particular, in politically contentious debates, where science is at the core, the most well-read among us are most prone to what authors call motivated reasoning.  Motivated reasoning is when political or other beliefs trump scientific facts.[vii]  It seems that we are pretty good at finding data that support our world view, ignoring data that disagree.  The most educated among us are, paradoxically, the most willing to ignore data and stick with entrenched beliefs.

 

Public policy discussions rely on scientific data frequently, and seemingly at an increasing frequency.  The GMO debate, the use of vaccines and climate change are just some of the issues we face where a scientific foundation looms large. Discussions inevitably conclude that better education is the solution to resolving differences.  Sadly, the Science Literary Paradox points to education being more effective at solidifying entrenched positions. Recognition of the paradox can have a silver lining. The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing the problem.  Assume the paradox is real and take action.  Be more diligent in allowing the power of data to influence your opinion. I know I will.

 

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Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.

 


[i] Kaufman, Leslie; “Cigarette Butts: Tiny Trash That Piles Up”, The New York Times, MAY 28, 2009. 

[ii] United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP); "Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter. Misconceptions, Concerns and Impacts on Marine Environments",  November 2015, http://unep.org/gpa/documents/publications/BiodegradablePlastics.pdf

[iii] SB-567 Recycling Plastic Products (2011-2012).

[iv] Peltzman, Sam. "The Effects of Automobile Safety Regulation." Journal of Political Economy 83, no. 4 (1975): 677-725. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1830396

[v] Barry, Keith; "Too Much Safety Could Make Drivers Less Safe", Wired, 27 July 2011. 

[vi] Gillingham, Kenneth, et al. "Energy policy: The rebound effect is overplayed." Nature 493.7433, 24 January 2013: pages 475-476.

[vii] Nisbet, Michael; “The Science Literacy Paradox”, Skeptical Inquirer, Sept/Oct 2016, pages 21-23.