Monday, March 19, 2018

More Problems With Bottled Water

I have never been a big fan of bottled water.  On several occasions I have pointed out that, compared to the tap water in the vast majority of municipalities, bottled water is no safer and far more expensive.  In fact, bottled water, those brands that are not just tap water repackaged, is inspected less often and less thoroughly than water delivered to our house in pipes.  Blind taste tests yield mixed results.

The only advantage is the portability, which anyone can duplicate by filling his or her own container with tap water.

So when this story about bottled water containing little bits of plastic came on the news, it should have cheered me up.  Instead I was skeptical.

The headline in Fortune reads: “Bottled Water You're Drinking May Contain Tiny Particles of Plastic.”  It goes on to tell of tests done by a group called Orb Media at the State University of New York on more than 250 bottles from 11 different brands, sold in nine countries.  They found particles in more than 90 percent of some of the most popular bottled water brands.

CBS News added that the average number of particles found was 10.4 per liter meaning that people could easily ingest thousands of these particles each year. The World Health Organization is looking into the problem.  This makes it sound very scary, but at no point in the report did CBS answer the obvious question about the danger of ingesting tiny particles of plastic.  Do they just go through the system or do they hang around and cause major problems later in life?

Fortune asked the same question:  Is this a problem? No one’s really sure, because there isn’t enough data on the health effects of ingesting plastic.”  At this time health experts think most of the micro-plastics pass through our systems.  It is possible that some very small particles may be absorbed into our organs, such as the liver and kidneys, or that even the particles that pass though may give off toxins along the way.  But not enough research has been done to confirm either of these suspicions.

It turns out the same organization has tested for and found micro-plastic, invisible to the naked eye but detectable with a standard infrared microscope, in tap water from different countries as well as in beer, honey, table salt and seafood.  Sounds like they have an ax to grind.

There is no rational explanation for the fascination Americans have developed for bottled water over the recent past.  It’s not taste, safety or purity.  Fluoridated tap water is better for children’s development.  It’s not concern for the environment since, given that the majority are not recycled, the bottles themselves are a source of pollution.  It may be a slight convenience, but how does this justify the billions spent each year for a resource that falls from the sky.

Critical thinking cannot make sense of it.  But I’d rather people go on making bad decisions than to be frightened into making the wise choice by some half-baked new report spurred by an organization that clearly has an agenda to push.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Taxes, Taxes, Taxes

With only a month until the deadline, it’s time to start thinking about taxes for those who haven’t already begun.  When I think about taxes in general, two things come to mind.  First is that the tax system is too complicated, and for all the talk in Washington late last year not much was done to make it simpler. 

The second stems from the first.  Because it is so complicated and intimidating, most people have given up preparing their own taxes, turning to professional organizations, accountants or those many on-line systems guaranteeing your maximum return.  A result of no one doing taxes or even bothering to become familiar with the process is a general misunderstanding by both citizens and politicians of how it works and the impact of proposed tax changes.

Addressing the complexity first, I ran across this website called listing all the IRS tax forms someone might need with a link to each.  As I scrolled down, eliminating duplicates and Spanish language versions, I counted over 240 unique IRS forms, 9 schedules and over 140 worksheets!  That tells a complicated and intimidating story without even going into the details.

It is no wonder people pay someone else or buy a computer program to help them through the maze of regulations and calculations, the purpose of which is to get back their own money, money that they didn't need to pay in the first place.  They paid too much and are due a refund.  But if you don’t do it correctly, you may still be subject to penalties and interest.

This complexity leads to a misunderstanding of the fact that lowering tax rates automatically favors the rich.  But this fact becomes a source of outrage to some and easily becomes a political rallying cry.  I even heard one politician say that he wants to lower taxes on the middle class without lowering taxes on the rich.  Well, good luck with that!  The system doesn’t work that way, and it would have to be completely redone – perhaps not a bad thing, but totally unrealistic.  Let me explain.

Page 90 of the Form 1040 Instructions is headed “2017 Tax Computation Worksheet – Line 44.”  This is where the rich calculate their taxes because the tax tables go up only to $100, 000.  I have reproduced the top line of Section B, the one used for the filing status of Married Filing Jointly, just to use as an example.  It may look a little scary, but the explanation is simple.

Someone making between $100,000 and $153,100 enters the amount under (a), multiplies by 25% and enters the result under (c). Next they subtract $8,522.50 to get their total tax. But where does that $8,522.50 come from?

Here’s the catch.  The first $100,000 is not taxed at 25%. Rich people are taxed the same amount on their first dollar or their first $100,000 as anyone else would be! That $8,522.50 is the difference between paying 25% on all of it and paying middle class taxes on the first $100,000 and then paying 25% on the rest.  (It’s exactly the same for higher brackets.  Oprah pays the same amount of tax on her first $200,000 as someone making exactly $200,000.)

Therefore, lowering taxes on the middle class by lowering rates automatically lowers taxes on everyone.  It’s built into the system.  It’s easy for politicians to appeal to a stoked-up sense of unfairness, but those making claims like the one above are either not leveling with us or don’t understand the very system they are in charge of fixing.  And all it takes to detect their error is a little critical thinking.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Fake News

Last week some real news came out about fake news.  A recent study at MIT using Twitter data from 2006 to 2017 found some surprising and somewhat shocking results – and should be of interest to anyone that believes critical thinking is not a necessary part of everyday life.  False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth.”

The Washington Post reports:  “In a statistical model that kept variables like Twitter followers and account age equal, falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than the truth. The study authors hypothesized that falsehoods contain more novelty than truth.”  The theory is that new and different items are more interesting or amusing than the dull, boring truth so they spread faster and farther.

Some blame the proliferation of fake news on automated computer programs, “bots” that are built with the intention of spreading rumors or pushing certain stories to go viral.  But the MIT researchers also considered this and discounted the impact of such tactics.  “Using techniques to identify bots, they determined that software-run accounts spread falsehoods and truths equally. Put another way, only human activity could explain the preferential spread of false news.”

But this report is in a sense also misleading.  The headline read: “Fake news spreads ‘farther, faster, deeper’ than truth, study finds.”  But the original study carefully avoids calling it fake news because “the term has lost all connection to the actual veracity of the information presented, rendering it meaningless for use in academic classification. [The authors] have therefore explicitly avoided the term…and instead use the more objectively verifiable terms ‘true’ or ‘false’ news.”  They distinguished between true and false by looking for a consensus of fact-checking agencies.

Both MIT and the Washington Post see no easy solution to the spread of this false information.  Twitter, Facebook and the rest can’t and shouldn’t be expected to police the Internet.  Not only would this be an infringement on free speech but also an inordinate amount of power held by a few to define truth.

Furthermore, the study does not consider the overall failure to distinguish between news and opinion as well as the frequent attempts to disguise advertising as news.

So, as I have argued many times in the past, it’s left up to the individual ability and inclination to separate fact from fiction.  Though the study focused on fears of false news affecting elections, stock market swings and reactions to terror attacks, the dangers are closer to home and more within our personal control.

We continue to be challenged by outright false or unverified claims about health and wellbeing.  Despite advances in medical science, the presence and the reach of the “snake oil salesmen” is greater than ever.  Not only outright fraudulent products but also many so-called alternative and complementary products have no scientific basis and may be dangerous, yet many Americans are devoted to them.  A majority of Americans believe GMO foods are not safe, while most scientists strongly disagree.  The battles about chlorinated drinking water and vaccinations rage on in small segments of the population.  All these erroneous beliefs are reinforced by false stories reflecting firm opinions.  The physical and financial health of individuals and societies rise and fall on the ability to show strong behavior in the dimension of critical thinking.

As I wrote just a few weeks ago (and many other times), in this modern age as we are overwhelmed by half-truths, misrepresentations, misinterpretations and sloppy reporting; critical thinking, being skeptical and doing good research from reliable sources, is more urgently needed to protect your health and your wallet.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Various Thoughts

Here is a thought about critical thinking and advertising.  Why do companies promise to give a portion of their sales or profits to a particular charity? This may not be a charity you favor, but you are forced to support it when you buy the product. Some would rather have a lower price than money donated.  But the whole thing is not about the charity, it’s about the image of the company as socially aware, politically correct or environmentally conscious. It likely stems from the need to counter the constant attacks on corporations accusing them of being evil and greedy. Wouldn't we be better off if the companies just did what they were supposed to do environmentally and socially while operating in the most efficient manner to give their consumers the best deal? Then consumers could use the saving to support charities of their choosing.

Here’s one about economic understanding. Why does everyone want to take credit for jobs created?  When more jobs were created over the last year, the president, the governors and mayors all wanted to take credit.  They could not have all created the same jobs. The government doesn’t create jobs in the private sector, customers create jobs – that’s right, customers!  If a company can make more sales to more customers, it will need more workers.  If not, it will sit on its profits as many did in the years prior to 2017.  The best thing governments can do is get out of the way and let the economy work.  Not understanding this caused The Soviet Union to collapse.

A thought on perspective:  In Strunk and White’s classic book Elements of Style (Third Edition, 1979) they recommend the best way for an author to revise is by “using scissors on his manuscript” to cut and rearrange pieces into a better order.  Think of how lucky we are to have computers with cut and paste capabilities.

Likewise, we have microwave ovens to heat food in a fraction of the time it takes in a conventional oven.  In addition, cleaning up is usually easier when food can be heated right on the plate, and science tells us that the food is healthier when heated more quickly (although I’ve met several non-scientist who will adamantly dispute that point based on their own personal superstition about “nuking” food).

Those are just a couple of examples of how much easier life has become in the last 50 years; so much easier in fact, that many people go to great lengths to find reasons to be offended, to introduce drama into their lives, to overreact to every so-called crisis, to imagine dangers where none exist and to become stressed over the slightest inconvenience.  Where is the perspective?

Finally, a thought on the model: The premise of this application of the behavioral model to social ills is that constructive behavior yields good results while bad behavior does the opposite.  This is generally true.  Those who take care of themselves physically through exercise and a reasonable diet, who avoid tobacco and excessive alcohol, generally live longer, healthier lives.  There are exceptions, but over the long run, bad habits usually catch up.

The power of this dynamic that good yields good is that it reinforces the same type of behavior.  If you save for minor emergencies and avoid stress when such a problem arises, you understand the wisdom of having a rainy-day fund.  Unfortunately, exceptions tend to undermine the process of improvement.  For example, this week the teachers of West Virginia were rewarded for bad behavior, something they would never condone in their own classrooms.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The More Things Change...

The old saying is true: the more things change, the more they remain the same.  But today we must be far more careful than ever when facing old-fashioned threats.

This thought came from a new book I picked up at the library.  It's called Quackery:  A brief history of the worst ways to cure everything.  It contains several short sections, each covering one of the weird and often painful or disgusting medical practices of the past.

On page 47 in the radium section, I was stunned by the familiarity of ideas.  “Despite the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, radium remained entirely unregulated because it was classified as a natural element.  (Many today still make the automatic assumption that a natural substance is always pure, useful and has no side effects.)  Because it was natural and unregulated guess what happened.  “Advertisements sprang up in newspapers touting the ability of this radioactive and sometimes deadly element as, for example, an aid to youth and beauty, health, and relief of aches and pains in joints and muscles.”

Radium is related to radon gas, and you can’t buy or sell a house without an inspection confirming safe levels, because it can cause lung cancer.  Radium in general is dangerous and anything but healthy, so this is an extreme example, but it did remind me of a couple of my comments posted at the beginning of this year about raw water, which can be dangerous, and hydrogenated water, which is expensive and backed by weak science.

 The following week I featured some of those miracle cures in newspapers that promise instant results and portray themselves as such a threat to Big Pharma that behind the scenes moves are supposedly afoot to banish them from the market.  (So you’d better act fast!)

And in December I wrote about the British National Health Service no longer paying for what they consider low value treatments including:  homeopathy and herbal medicines, fish oil, glucosamine and chondroitin combination products and lutein and antioxidant combination products.  The NHS reject these and some others as having low clinical effectiveness, with scant scientific backing while presenting significant safety concerns.

The next paragraph in the Quackery book tells how radium was so expensive that most of the so-called radioactive products “did not actually contain any radioactive ingredients at all.”  Instead of buying a dangerous product, they were buying a worthless product relying on placebo effect for its curative powers, a fact that doubtless saved lives but still emptied pocketbooks.  We see the same advertising schemes and mislabeling today.

These tactics of taking an unregulated substance and touting its supposed miraculous health benefits have been going on for years.  But the promotions today are even more insidious.  They go to the very edge of their legal boundaries, using scientific sounding words, enthusiastic endorsements and often trying to pass as news articles while burying required disclaimers at the end in small print.  The speed and breadth of communications in the modern world, as I explained last time, distributes misinformation quickly.  Particularly in the case of health issues, dangers are compounded by the fact that diseases and conditions may clear up on their own fooling users into attributing a cure to a worthless product.  That’s why listening to friends who swear by the effectiveness of this or that cure is so problematic.  Finally, as this Scientific American article on fake news points out, the more you hear an idea or opinion, the more familiar it becomes and the more you tend to believe it, even if you already know better.

Things stay the same, but in this modern age critical thinking, being skeptical and doing good research from reliable sources are much more urgently needed to protect your health and your wallet.