Monday, November 10, 2008

Research Skills for Writers: Critical Analysis Assignment

Here's another assignment I got back last week. This one was for my Research Skills for Writers class. I received a mark of 89% on this one. My best mark so far this semester.

Critical Analysis Assignment:
“Reassessing Risk Assessment” by Douglas Mulhall
If we were to flashback to the summer of 1991, we'd see a very different version of the world compared to the world we live in today. Back then I was a mere neophyte when it came to technology, and even after two years in the Microcomputer Management course at MacEwan, I was still little more than a novice with computing science. However, it was at this time that I first heard the word nanotechnology. In the early Nineties, I considered the idea of nanotechnology to be little more than scientific pipe-dream. I did not realize at the time that the world was changing in a dramatic fashion and at a incredible rate. How can we hope to understand how this new technology will reshape our world? Douglas Mulhall's research study entitled “Reassessing Risk Assessment” from the January-February 2004 issue of The Futurist might be a good place to start. Mulhall, an expert in the field of risk management, takes his audience through an in-depth look at how innovative, nanomaterial-based technologies are changing the world and how those changes might impact the environment we live in.

This analysis will look at the five main points of Mulhall's study, which includes the following: (1) nanomaterial technologies; (2) enhanced human intelligence; (3) punctuated equilibrium; (4) nanotechnology vs. nature's complexity; (5) reassessing risk assessment. In an attempt to better understand some of these concepts, I have done my own research based on these main points. I have studied the listed web site's that Mulhall provides as his sources, looked for additional materials online, and looked through several of the online databases available through the MacEwan Library. Finally, I will take a look at who Douglas Mulhall is and who his intended audience is based on The Futurist as a periodical.

Mulhall starts his article by looking at several nanomaterials prototypes such as Smart Dust and photovoltaic paint made from nanomaterials. He gives a good overview of Smart Dust and doesn't gloss over the technology's potential benefits such as environmental monitoring. He is less detailed regarding to the solar cell nanomaterial, however. I would have liked to have known more about it and its possible benefits. Instead, Mulhall takes these two examples and crossbreeds them into one intelligent nanomaterial with the ability to “multiply a trillionfold and become an integral part of the ecology.” (Mulhall, 2004, par. 9a).

This statement is misleading at best and pure fiction at worst as Holmes points out in his article entitled “Our Microtech Future” in the September-October 2004 issue of The Futurist:

“Microscopic technology has received much attention in the past few years, especially as nanotechnology has entered public consciousness. But vision at the nanotech level is generally limited to electron microscopes operating in a high vacuum, and, for the most part, nanotechnology is experimental and speculative. There are few actual working devices.” (Holmes, 2004, par. 1).

Yes, there has been progress towards useful nanomaterials since then, which can be seen through the research being conducted by Crossbow Technology ( and through the commercial applications being developed by Dust Networks ( but nothing as radical as Mr. Mulhall projects.

The next section of Mulhall's article deals with an idea he refers to as enhanced intelligence. He details how data processing is rapidly increasing and that genetic programming is outstripping humanity's ability to compute information. He gives examples that range from “a thermostat and actuator that were superior to those designed by a human” (Mulhall, par. 13a) to a theoretical microchip that could allow the blind to see light. His reasoning appears sound. However, I cannot say for certain that I agree with him.

The third section of Mulhall's article links merging nanotechnologies with a concept known as punctuated equilibrium, which was “first proposed in 1972 by Niles Eldredge and Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephan Jay Gould.” (par. 18a). He also discusses climate change, comet impacts, and volcanic eruptions, which he refers to as mega-threats. He also discusses “nanoscale organisms that are hundreds of times smaller than most bacteria.” (par. 22a). This section is quite liberal in its use of conjecture. Mulhall seems to be using the theory of punctuated equilibrium to sell his own ideas without considering the model's history. Punctuated equilibrium was never intended to be a model for microscale evolution as Gould (2004) explains in his article “Punctuated Equilibrium's Threefold History.”

“. . . we developed these implications over the years, and the theory grew accordingly. But we never proposed a radical theory for punctuations (ordinary speciation scaled into geological time), and we never linked punctuations to microevolutionary saltationism.” (par. 6).

I can see the connection between mega-threats and punctuated equilibrium but Mulhall takes it a step to far by trying to link punctuated equilibrium to nanotechnology and nanoscale organisms. I dislike how he “sells” his book Has Heart Disease Been Cured? as a worthy source of information without saying that he is the person who wrote it.

The next section of Mulhall's article delves into the idea that humanity's technologies might soon “match nature's complexity.” (Mulhall, par. 26a). He points out that “most of our technologies are unable to match the complexity of natural environments” (par. 27a) but that nanotechnology could change all that. He refers back to photovoltaic paint and theorizes about the possibility of molecular-based drugs that would be “so precise that they backfire only occasionally.” (par. 28a).

The section is short and to-the-point and equally realistic and speculative.

The last section of Mulhall's article appears to be a summary of the article, yet at the same time, it introduces more information not previously mentioned. Mulhall puts forth the opinion that both nanotechnology and mega-threats must become a part of future risk assessment for such assessments to be worthwhile. He lists various types of experts who should be a part of such an undertaking and goes into detail about some of the work being done by researchers regarding nanobes. He ends the article abruptly with a quote from a professor from the University of Texas named Robert Folk that doesn't seem to match Mulhall purpose.

The information he gives on nanobes seems out of place in this section. It would have been better if it had been given its own section or an earlier section of the article.

Douglas Mulhall is clearly a man with experience in the field of risk assessment. “He was Managing Director of the Hamburg Environmental Institute, a scientific assessment organization. He co-founded the first Brazilian institute, 'O Instituto Ambiental', to be devoted exclusively to water recycling” (Mulhall, 2006, par. 4b). He is obviously well informed regarding environmental issues and new technologies. “Reassessing Risk Assessment” is clearly speculative and is intended for an audience that looks to future instead of the past. It is an article for futurists by a futurist. The Futurist is the perfect medium for such an article as the magazine “takes no stand on what the future will or should be like. The magazine strives to serve as a neutral clearinghouse of ideas . . . . Each issue contains feature articles written by outstanding experts in a wide range of fields: business, creativity, education, economics, environment and resources, values, and more.” (The Futurist Magazine, 2008, “About The Futurist” par. 2-3).

In conclusion, Mulhall is clearly trying to inform his audience of the risks he perceives regarding nanotechnology and mega-threats. He wishes to sway knowledgeable experts with an interest in such ideas to come together and help redefine risk assessment for the new century. He is looking towards a future that could be dominated by nanomaterial that merges with the natural world — forever changing it. He would have his audience envisioning a future where solar cell paint covers everything and intelligent nanomaterial machines run our lives and might possibly destroy our world. His views are almost fanatical but with a quiet dose of scholarly diffusion.

RatingI consider myself a bit of a futurist so it should be no surprise that I liked this article the first time I read it. However, as I began to assess Mulhall's ideas and facts I began to question the man's logic. His biases are obvious, and he fails to delve deep into the facts he is writing about. He definitely knows how to write, and I found few errors in the article from a mechanics point-of-view. Mulhall's writing could use some polish, however. He repeats ideas and writes in a manner that makes me think he swallowed both a dictionary and a thesaurus. He uses buzzwords such as “hyperchange” and “mega-threats” and uses over-the-top adjectives and adverbs. His article is filled with “exponential growth rates,” “extraordinary developments,” and “physical manifestations.” He certainly uses style to pull the reader along and it's fun to read even if the reader doesn't understand everything. It's fluffy and fun while also being a bit scary. I have the sense that he is trying to teach and terrify at the same time.

If I had only read this article once then I would have rated it highly. However, Mulhall makes so many assumptions while twisting the facts regarding the risks of nanomaterials that I found myself questioning his integrity. He is trying to sell his ideas as future facts instead of as speculative discourse. He even tries to sell his book to me, which I found a bit insulting. Still, The Futurist is definitely not a scholarly journal, so I can forgive some of his biases. Perhaps this article would have been better as a two-part series, which would have allowed Mulhall to go into more detail regarding his need for reassessing risk assessment. However, he would more likely spin towards new tangents best left alone.

Rating = 5


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