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Monday, October 4, 2010

Sustainable "Media"...

I was reading this blog the other day.  Basically its a case for why "paper" and "ink" are more environmentally friendly that, say, a cell phone add.  (Given the perspective of a "printing blog" you would expect this point of view.)

More comments in this story here as well.

So the issue boils down to whether print or "electronic media" has more environmental impact in terms of communicating.

Now one thing you will not see in these or any other articles is any sort of scientific analysis of this sort of comparison - and there is a reason for that.  None is possible - so its like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

So why is this the case?

Well, for one thing the notion of "environmental impact" is itself not definable.  Certainly we can talk about the environment and we can talk about things that impact the environment in the sense that they can change it - but that in and of itself is not science.

Science requires something that can be repeatedly and reliable measured.  (You can read about that here.)  Where "reliable measurement" comes into play in any scientific enterprise is in the area of uncertainty.

So if I am going to say something is good or bad for the environment I have to be able to say exactly in what way and how certain I am about - at least if I am going to claim that my results are based on science and not feelings.

And this is where the rub comes in.  It is often easy to say things with virtually no certainty, for example, the manufacture of a printed piece has less impact on the environment than a building full of servers.  But the statement is useless because we have a 100% lack of certainty.

So you will ask - why isn't this certain?

Well, for one thing both of these "systems" - the manufacturing of a printed piece and the room full of servers - are not measurable in any scientific sense - much less being measurable relative to the environment.  The reason is that these are open systems.

Now what do I mean by "open systems".  Let's start by defining the opposite of "open system" first.  A "closed" system is a system where there are minimal outside influences that impact the measurements relative to what we are trying to find out.

For example - suppose I have two rooms - one where all the doors and windows are closed and covered, all the vents, heaters and so forth are shut off, etc.  This will be our closed system.  Suppose the other room has open windows, open doors, the sun shining in and the A/C on.  This will be our open system.

Now let's suppose you are tasked with measuring the temperature of each room.  How would you go about it? 

Walking a around with a thermometer and writing down temperatures seems like a reasonable start.

Unfortunately, in the open system any results you record will be more consistently influenced by outside factors - the sun shining on the thermometer, the time of day and year the temperatures are measured, the thermometer located by the A/C vent and so on.

In general what you will see is that in the "closed room" there will be more consistent results because there are fewer factors like wind, sunshine and the A/C vent, affecting your readings.

So its possible to go over and over each type of room and talk about factors that make measurements more or less certain - even to the point of questioning what "temperature in a room" really means.

So just imagine systems much more complex than simple "rooms" - like the whole environment of the planet.  The complexity of measuring temperature in our "room" might be a 1 and doing so for a whole planet might be a million or billion on the same scale.  Further, print production and servers influence each other in the sense that there are probably printed materials used in the manufacturing of the servers and buildings and servers and cell phones and websites used in the manufacturing of print.

Its easy to see that any such comparison is completely silly and foolish from a scientific perspective - there isn't any way to approach such a comparison let alone produce some sort of results that have any certainty.

On the other hand, its easy to say "I feel print is more environmentally friendly than web sites" or vise versa.  But any such statements without some sort of certain results are not meaningful.

Another example was from my quote over the weekend about the average patients temperature in the hospital and what that might mean.  Now, one imagines, for example, that in the summertime you might have more injuries like broken bones and the winter more flues and illnesses that result in fevers.  But that is merely conjecture on my part.  With conducting a serious scientific investigation into this its probably completely impossible to know if there is any relationship at all between the average patients temperature and anything else (for example, a batch of faulty thermometers).

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