VW Scandal: But Many Other Reasons Not to Love Cars

In 2015, consumers were stunned by revelations that both Volkwagen and Audi had used hidden software to deceive American regulators who measure pollution emissions. The cars involved burn diesel. Compared to gasoline, diesel is a petroleum distillate containing more carbon atoms per molecule. The latter is burnt at higher temperatures, leading to more fuel efficiency. Although higher temperatures lower carbon dioxide emissions, they also facilitate the reaction between nitrogen and oxygen in the engine, leading to more of the type of pollution that causes smog and acid rain. This is where the scam kicked in; the cars were programmed to meet the nitrogen oxides (NOx) limit only when they were being tested. At any other time, they emitted about 40 times as much NOx. And even without the rigging of data, the larger carbon molecules in diesel lead to the production of more fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution.

nocarThe scandal only adds to one of many preexisting reasons not to love cars. A rational family opts to buy one car, at the very most, and to use it judiciously. Here’s why:

1. Car Passenger Mortality
Cars are massive. Also kinetic energy is proportional to the square of their speed, which is part of their allure. Drive twice as fast and you need about four times the braking distance. Fail to stop and your collision will have four times the energy. Ensuing deaths seem to be an accepted fact of life which rarely raises an eyebrow unless it affects immediate family members. The truth is cars have a higher per passenger mortality rate than trains, buses and commercial aircraft. The mortality rate from car accidents in the United States is double their homicide rate. Critics will point out that the former rate has been declining since the 1970s, but this is only due to demographics. Due to aging baby boomers, there has been a decline in the proportion of inexperienced drivers (and hormone levels!) on the road. But such patterns are not present in places like India or Nigeria, and if those countries repeat our mistakes and rely heavily on driving, it will cost them many more lives annually.

2. Contribution to Climate Change
Cars using gasoline burn a mixture of heptane and octanes, compounds containing carbon and hydrogen. Oxidize such compounds and, among many other things, CO2 will be generated. Since there is no practical filter for carbon dioxide, all emissions end up in the environment, where they contribute to climate change. The U.S has about 250 million vehicles for its population of 320 million. China has 1.3 billion of the world’s 7 billion residents, but only 100 million or so vehicles. If ownership in China were to equal the U.S. rate, the Chinese would own over 1 billion vehicles, which would further amplify the greenhouse effect.

3. Contribution to Smog and Acid Rain.
We previously mentioned how cars form nitrogen oxides. These lead to nitric acid formation by reacting with hydroxyl radicals in the air. Nitric and sulfuric acids are the two major components of acid rain.
Nitrogen oxides also dissociate in sunlight to form ozone, a compound which is useful in the stratosphere. The problem is that it never gets there. Instead it remains at ground level where it is poisonous. In addition, nitrogen oxides react with hydrocarbons in the air to form peroxyacyl nitrates (PANS), constituents of smog. Although catalytic converters attempt to reverse the oxidation of nitrogen, they are not 100% efficient, so cars equipped with such gadgets continue to contribute to both acidic precipitation and smog, both of which claim the lives of those who suffer from respiratory diseases.

4. Cars Reshape the Urban Environment
As citizens become excessively dependent on automobiles, an exaggerated amount of land is devoted to those archaic 19th century inventions. The environment loses green spaces and public squares to highways and parking lots. The latter affect a city’s microclimate. Asphalt absorbs solar energy, raising already uncomfortable summer temperatures in urban centers, leading to more air conditioning, which releases more greenhouse gases.

5. Cars Contribute to Heart Disease and Type 2-Diabetes 

People over-depend on automobiles to get around. They do away with walking, cycling or cross-country skiing. This lowers their physical activity, raises blood sugars and weakens their cardiovascular system. As the number of cars in the “developing” world increases, and as non-traditional diets are adopted, the world’s half billion cases of type 2 diabetes and the frequency of heart attacks will not get any smaller.


How Everyday Substances and Habits Can Dissolve Your Teeth Away

If your mouth hosts biofilms of certain bacteria, especially Streptococcus mutans, who are feeding off sugars, the teeth will be in constant contact with acid. Such bacteria even store polysaccharides and continue to lower the pH of their environment, long after food has been swallowed. If this persists, teeth could eventually decay. But are there other sources of acids that could also inflict damage?

acid erosion from untreated acid reflux disease. Image from http://allentxdentist.com/acid-reflux-disease-may-lead-to-erosion-of-teeth/

Acid erosion from untreated acid reflux disease. Image from http://allentxdentist.com/acid-reflux-disease-may-lead-to-erosion-of-teeth/

Juice, soft drinks and vinegar-rich foods easily come to mind. Gastric juice from either bulimia or a gastro-disorder can also take its toll. Less familiar hazards include professional wine tasting, which involves keeping wine in the mouth for up to a minute, dozens of times a day. Frequent swimming in pools that are not pH-balanced also leads to tooth decay. Stabilizers in chlorine “pucks” are acidic, and the direct application of chlorine forms not only hypochlorite but hydrochloric acid.

All of this begs the question, how exactly does acid damage teeth? And why are there individual variations?

At the critical pH, a solution is just saturated with respect to one of the minerals in enamel. If the solution’s acid- level is above the critical pH, then things are safe for teeth: the solution is supersaturated relative to that mineral, and more of it will tend to precipitate out. But if the solution’s pH is below the critical value, then the solution is unsaturated, and teeth will start to dissolve.

The mineral we’ve referred to is calcium hydroxyapatite, one of the enamel’s components. In aqueous solution it creates the following equilibrium:

Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2(s) =  10 Ca2+(aq) + 6 PO4 3–(aq)  + 2 OH (aq)

Normally, the mineral is highly insoluble; its Ksp is extremely small, in the order of 10-117.  But of course the solubility of enamel can increase if hydroxide ion is consumed, hampering the reverse reaction and favoring the forward reaction. (LeChatelier never rests, not even while you eat!) Phosphate’s concentration also decreases with lower pH as the presence of H+ creates H3PO4, H2PO4 , HPO4 2–  in saliva. If phosphate levels decrease, the forward reaction is favored again, increasing the solubility of hydroxyapatite. For these two reasons, acidic conditions lead to tooth erosion.

The critical pH is around 5.5, but it’s not a fixed value and can vary from one individual to the next.

Here’s why:

  • The amount of fluoroapatite, another mineral present in enamel, reduces the critical pH because fluoroapatite (Ca5(PO4)3F ) is free of hydroxide. Fluoridating teeth protects teeth against acid-erosion by displacing hydroxide with fluoride ion.
  • Impurities in enamel such as carbonate and fluoride affect enamel solubility and those ions vary in different people. If concentrations of phosphate and calcium ions in an individual’s saliva are unusually low, the critical pH may increase by a factor of 10 to 6.5.


  1. What Is the Critical pH and Why Does a Tooth Dissolve in Acid? • Colin Dawes, BSc, BDS, PhD •


  1. Microbiology of Dental Decay and Periodontal Disease


  1. Rapid and Severe Tooth Erosion from Swimming in an Improperly Chlorinated Pool: Case Report Colin Dawes, BSc, BDS, PhD; Carey L. Boroditsky, DMD http://www.cda-adc.ca/jcda/vol-74/issue-4/359.pdf May 2008, Vol. 74, No. 4
  1. The diagnosis and control of extrinsic acid erosion of tooth substance

Kevin H-K. Yip, BDS, MEd, MMedSc, PhD | Roger J. Smales, MDS, DDSc | John A. Kaidonis, BDS, BScD, PhD 2002

Horizontal Propaganda: Impact on Science and Education

Propaganda_Jacques_Ellul_1973In the book Propaganda: the Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jacques Ellul argued that although hubris may lead intellectuals to believe that they are immune to propaganda, it influences everyone. Intellectuals are more equipped than the average person to explore a variety of issues, but their curiosity exposes them to a vast volume of literature, generalizations and out-of-specialty ideas. Since they do not have the time to explore everything critically, they become at least as vulnerable to propaganda as anyone else.

How was propaganda defined by Ellul?

The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to transform an opinion but to arouse an active and mythical belief.

Ellul wrote Propaganda in 1962, identifying key sociological myths such as that of historical progress, happiness as a life-goal and the innate good nature of humanity. Three to four decades later, thanks to the world wide web and its millions of websites, blogs, Facebook accounts and other social media, propaganda has not only gone digital, but its horizontal scope has been amplified exponentially. Due to economic investments and rewards, more myths have spread recently, and they have had a huge impact on science and education. Here are examples of myths perpetuated and the action they have provoked.

Self-worth(1) Everyone can benefit from selling their image. But in reality, the pervasiveness of marketing techniques has come with a price. Blog and book publishers expect writers to provide biographies, give talks and market their work, and they comply, sacrificing time for relaxation, incubation and production itself.  Scientists, self-conscious of metrics while securing research grants, compromise on their selection of topics for research. High school students spread their talents thinly, committing themselves to an avalanche of activities because they’ve been told that it looks good on their CVs. Schools advertise and compete with others, as if their primary function is to sell a service to the consumer.

(2) Technology brings the world together. We can easily phone, email, Skype, text or chat with people across the planet. We can converse with people having similar interests. Without technology we would never have known these people existed. Yet anyone can tell you that technology cannot transmit a person’s physical presence or their body language. The ease of having multiple interactions reduces the time spent with given individuals, the latter ironically being the hallmark of friendship. Of course, every popular social media network has no real concern for bonding people. While drawing in millions by providing either the veneer of interaction or a medium for narcissism, media sites sell advertising to sponsors who can now more specifically target people. Their task is made easier and more desirable because most users volunteer information about themselves. The on-the-go usage and small format on cell phones and tablets encourages the use of images, short videos and slogans to convey ideas. People are then exposed to hundreds of such stimuli; even those linked to literature are at best quickly read without further research. What better way is there for horizontal propaganda to spread?

It is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image.

-Jacques Ellul, from Propaganda

(3) Online learning is a more powerful educational tool than traditional crafts. In essence digital media are just another set of tools that have to be complemented by a host of other methods to be effective. But currently teachers are pressured to believe that chalkboards and lectures are a thing of the past. Its popular alternative, “active learning”, a title presumptuous because it implies that previous learning was passive, relies heavily on online media. Yet learning from an experienced specialist who is in the same room; gaining from real experiments and demonstrations; and thinking and imagining quietly in the absence of any gadgets remain essential to see concepts at work in different settings.

(4) Colleges do a better job when they focus on preparing students for the job market. As William Deresiewicz argues, educational institutions have surrendered their soul to the market and neoliberalism. A century ago colleges were committed to

developing in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully ,

but now they are primarily concerned with practical fields such as business and technology and in whatever brings in money for graduates and the college, as in the billions of dollars obtained from sports TV broadcasting contracts. This has had a detrimental impact on learning for its own sake and on studying for the purpose of enriching life.

since the 1960s, the percentage majoring in the physical sciences — physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and so forth — has fallen even more (than English majors), by some 60 percent. As of 2013, only 1.5 percent of students graduated with a degree in one of those subjects, and only 1.1 percent in math.