Random AsidesScience

Just Don’t Say No

I was inspired by a Shell advertisement today. Yes, Shell like the corner gas station. I read the excerpt below and it moved me enough to go to the website, which excited me even more and provoked the thoughts I’m about to share with you.

The advertisement is entitled “Say No to No”.

Isn’t it high time someone got negative about negativity?
Yes, it is.
Look around. The world is full of things that, according to nay-sayers, should never have happened.
“Impossible.”
“Impractical.”
“No.”
And yet “yes”.
Yes, continents have been found.
Yes, men have played golf on the moon.
Yes, straw is being turned into biofuel to power cars.
Yes, yes, yes.
What does it take to turn no into yes?
Curiosity. An open mind. A willingness to take risks.
And, when the problem seems most insoluble, when the challenge is hardest, when everyone else is shaking their heads, to say: let’s go.

So I read that. Twice. And then went to the website to see what all the fuss was about.

There, I learned all about an alternative fuel called GTL (Gas to Liquid) that is compatible with diesel engines. GTL is natural gas converted to liquid, a technology invented in laboratories in the 1930’s, but thought to be commercially unviable. However, this technology has the potential to mitigate our dependence on oil and it burns up to 40% cleaner than gasoline. So, if the problem of commercial viability could be solved, the impact would be enormous on numerous levels.

Shell saw this potential and invested millions of dollars in making it work. That’s a pretty big risk. But the payoff could be tremendous. For everyone. If you go to the website and view the short film entitled “Clearing the Air”, you’ll see a dramatic rendition of their vision, along with an entire plot, including love interests and an epilogue, which I wasn’t expecting. But they’re making it happen. GTL is in use in much of Europe and Shell is building the largest GTL production site to date in Quatar by the end of the decade.

All of this made me think about the perception of skepticism as a negative force and how we really need to combat that.

We don’t want to be the curmudgeons that stifle curiosity and squelch ideas. We don’t want to be the nay-sayers referenced above.

BUT

It’s not enough to have great ideas. You have to be right.

Innovation doesn’t come from caution, but it’s a necessary part of the equation.

It’s all about the intersection of passion and knowledge. It’s about allowing yourself the freedom to dream anything, but not becoming attached to any of your own ideas too much to turn your back based on the data. It’s about fanning the flame of inspiration, but tempering it with skepticism.

And that’s all I have to say about the Shell advertisement today.

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14 Comments

  1. Great post, Stacey. Why is it that names keep being defaced by detractors? Atheist, skeptic, humanist, liberal, all are demonized by people who disagree.

    It's very disingenuous to be name callers instead of having a serious discussion about disagreements. But then again, some positions have no substance to discuss, so what else can they do?

    But maybe now it's happening to "conservative" and "Christian". So their tactic might be backfiring. HhahahAHAHhaah! (read that as an evil laugh.)

  2. Teek – I wondered the same thing. However, I'm not an expert on GTL. Any commenters know the answer to this?

    Donna – Great point about ad hominem attacks. And oh yeah, karma sucks.

  3. What happens when the natural gas runs out?

    Insert your own crass, juvenile joke about beans, sour kraut, and Rosie O'Donnell here.

    But I think certain aspects of this blog and Curiosity Aroused and other sources of that ilk are doing a lot to combat the idea that skeptics are nothing but Nay-Sayers and Know-It-Alls (although wouldn't those be great names for our softball teams).

    Still a lot of the problem originates with "the other side" if you will. People don't like to be shown to be wrong. And when they are, those that have done the critical thinking and have actually looked into something to discover the truth are going to be seen as the oppressive, meanie, jerkward, wet blanket, poopie heads.

  4. "What happens when the natural gas runs out?"

    To state the obvious, you move on to something else. Between the climate change and economic issues connected to petroleum, even a technology that gives us some breathing room to research long-term alternatives is nothing to sneeze at.

  5. Not to derail the thread TOO much, but…The whole discussion about demonizing names got me thinking… what writerdd said about "conservative" is absolutely true and (more or less) has been for ages in the circles through which I travel. The same applies to "libertarian." And I honestly don't think this is avoidable, even though I wish it were.

    People love doing two things: making "in- groups" and "others," and defining themselves by pointing out what they are not and denigrating it. We're all guilty of it to some extent, and I don't know that it's very helpful in reaching out, though it does seem to function as a way of bonding people who choose to unite by one sort of nebulous concept that doesn't always mean they'll jibe in other ways.

    I mean, just because one is "skeptical," say, doesn't necessarily mean you like the same music, use free time the same way, or even vote for the same politicians as other skeptics. There are some areas of convergence, naturally, but I'm sure there's a range of positions on all things.

    I think it becomes a problem when, whether for the reasons I mentioned or for something else, people start to become SO one thing that people who would otherwise agree except in that area get repulsed.

    For instance, I disagree politically with PZ Myers. I tend to be an independent, have small "l," left-libertarian ideals, but believe in being pragmatic and not just doing things, political or otherwise, for the sake of ideology or party. I've stopped commenting/reading the comments at Pharyngula because of the strong "in-group" tendency to mock and denigrate other political perspectives, often without (effectively) saying more than "conservatives suck lulz amirite?"

    Now, I'm generally a liberal fellow and usually thick skinned about this stuff, so if I'm driven away I can only imagine how people with more greatly divergent ideas on economics and politics might feel. I don't mean to advocate a Neville Chamberlain appeasement approach, don't get me wrong. I just get annoyed by cavalier dismissals of other people based on one dimension of their personalities, whichever way it slices. I hate the average Pharynguloid use of "conservative" at least as much as I hate Ann Coulter's use of "liberal."

    Well, anyway, sorry to rant. Slow day at work! :-P Back to your regularly scheduled thread…

  6. Since this is actually related to what I do every day I'll go ahead and post. What we basically have here is a potential stop gap technology for one of many form of blended diesel. While diesel is easier to refine out of crude oil than gasoline. With our current sulfur regulations and very low refining capacity it's not more economical than gasoline, most of the time. In order to make any form of blended diesel viable we would have to divert more of our refinement capabilities or build more refineries. We could just as easily build more refineries for gasoline and not have to change the technologies used by most people in their cars. Therein lies the problem. No one wants to build refineries, they cost buttloads to build, you have the government breathing down your neck at every turn and the net profit after expenses makes it about as attractive as burying all your money in a pickle jar. Long story short, this probably won't help us without huge changes in refinery regulations, which aren't gonna happen because refineries stink like all hell, and pollute like all hell, and no one wants one in their back yard. But strangely, everyone still wants what they make.

  7. Expatria – I’m so glad you brought this up. Even though being in a group that has many beliefs in common is a bonding experience, the essence of science and skepticism is the free exchange of ideas. So we, of all people, should be open to the validity of differing viewpoints. Like anything, it’s a balancing act because some viewpoints have so little validity that they should be at least provisionally shunned. But an “exclusive” environment where membership is contingent on a certain set of beliefs cannot encourage open discussion of divergent beliefs, which should be the identifying characteristic of a group like us.

  8. Petroleum and natural gas extraction and marketing is complicated. In many cases there is substantial NG in crude oil when that crude comes out of the ground and that NG has to be removed. It actually just flashes off when the oil is depressurized. You have to do “something” with all that natural gas. For a long time they flared it, that is they released it and simply burned it to get rid of it. The NG was a waste product because there was no economical way to get it from where it was produced to where it was needed and could be sold.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gas_flare

    In some places they are still flaring it. To put it back underground would require compressors and the power to run them. That is an additional cost, but the value of the only product sold (the oil) is the same. It is more profitable to burn the gas to get rid of it than to invest in the equipment to save it for later. Depending on who owns the gas and how the costs and profits are divided among the various stake holders, who puts up the capital, there may be no economic incentive to not flare it and strong economic disincentives to not flare it.

    This is a generic problem of how value is allocated over time. Gas in the ground only has value when it is extracted and sold. If it is sold today, you use the present value in today’s dollars. If the gas is sold in 25 years, you have to use the value in 25 years and then apply a discount rate to move that “value” to the present. If the discount rate is 10% per year, then gas in 25 years is only worth 1/(1.1^25) as much as gas today (0.092 as much).

    If you can turn NG that is being flared into something you can sell, your raw material cost is essentially zero (or even negative because you are saving the cost of disposal). Using NG that would be flared in this way does have a net benefit to the environment (the benefit is slight because the CO2 is the same, it is only delayed between the time of flaring and ultimate fuel consumption). If it does displace other oil that would not be burned, there is a net benefit. However if a different feed source is used, such as coal, there may be no environmental benefit. Coal can be used, you simply have to gasify it first. That takes energy which you get by burning coal, but coal is cheap. But that burning produces more CO2. NG might make one gallon of fuel equivalent with no increase in CO2 emissions (if flared gas is used). If non-flared gas is used it might be a wash, a gallon of fuel from NG might release as much CO2 as a gallon from oil (+/- 10% maybe). Coal may make that same one gallon with the CO2 emission equivalent of 2 or 3 gallons. If coal is cheap enough this might be economic. Unless there is an economic cost to those CO2 emissions, they are completely irrelevant to any business calculations. They are not irrelevant to global warming.

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