Friday, March 7, 2014
A recent USA Today article tells about the latest problem that has been dubbed a national epidemic, tooth decay in children. “Tooth decay is largely preventable, but it remains one of the most common diseases of childhood — five times as common as asthma, and seven times as common as hay fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Such news is interesting for many reasons. First, the recommendation about brushing very young children’s teeth has changed. Instead of brushing with only water, they now recommend using a small smear of toothpaste.
Second, here is another epidemic where parental responsibility plays an important role. Like the obesity epidemic, parents must be informed and involved to bring this problem under control, starting when the children are young to establish proper dental hygiene habits and later to monitor what their children eat and drink, especially those energy drinks and monster drinks.
Surprisingly though, no mention is made of the bottled water mania. They do point out the importance of fluoride in cavity prevention. “There are lots of water supplies where fluoride is naturally occurring, but the majority are not, so fluoride is added to the water to help as the teeth are forming.” When parents insist on serving bottled water, for reasons of taste, convenience or supposed safety and health benefits, they are doing their children a disservice. First, there are no valid safety concerns as this article thoroughly explains.
The American Dental Association agrees that not only is fluoridated water safe and effective, they recommend the use of supplements by those who don’t have access to it. “Individuals who drink bottled water as their primary source of water could be missing the decay preventive effects of optimally fluoridated water available from their community water supply.”
Furthermore the Mother Nature Network explains that bottled water is “expensive, wasteful and — contrary to popular belief — not any healthier for you than tap water.” They don’t even mention missing out on that important nutrient, fluoride.
Yet, for some mysterious (illogical) reason, annual bottled water sales are now around 10 billion gallons and climbing. This new “epidemic” is just one more reason for people to understand the foolishness of these purchases and behave accordingly.
Monday, March 3, 2014
A couple of Sundays ago I saw a piece on CBS about hoarding, how it’s been declared a mental illness affecting about 5% of the population. Earlier that week I saw an article about a solution to homelessness being tested in Utah. Critical thinking includes the ability to compare and contrast. What do these things have in common or not?
“In 2005, Utah figured out that the annual cost of E.R. visits and jail stays for homeless people was about $16,670 per person, compared to $11,000 to provide each homeless person with an apartment and a social worker. So, the state began giving away apartments, with no strings attached.” The only requirements were that they be good stewards of their living space and that they get along with their neighbors. The program has been successful in getting people off the streets.
The story on hoarding showed pictures of houses filled with stuff: old newspapers and magazines, clothing, knick-knacks, used containers, and more. Attics, basements and living areas were full, with little room left to live. Companies can be hired to assist in sorting and hauling the junk away, but the story emphasized the need for counseling. Unless they change behavior, they just fall back into the same patterns. The hoarders must own the responsibility to fix the problem.
That was the big difference. The approach to hoarding was to change the behavior, not just work on the symptoms. A hoarder in an empty house still has the characteristics and habits of a hoarder. A homeless person who is given a house still has the characteristics and habits of a homeless person, but the Utah program seemed to give this less attention. Victory over homelessness is not people off the streets. That is only a symptom. Who holds the ownership?
See how this reasoning extends to other social programs. Providing free pre-kindergarten may give children the skills to compete with other, more fortunate 5-year-olds, but it doesn’t solve the core problem of parents unable or unwilling to get their children ready for kindergarten. Raising the minimum wage may allow people to live a little more comfortably, but it doesn’t solve the problem that these people have only minimum wage skills and, perhaps more importantly, that some of them apparently feel no obligation to be able to support a family before starting one. Free breakfast and lunch programs in school likewise gloss over underlying issues.
The contrast between the hoarder story and the homeless story shows the importance of dealing not only with the symptoms but also with the underlying behaviors and responsibility issues, the core problems. Just because you can’t see a problem today doesn’t mean that it’s been fixed or won’t recur later.
Friday, February 28, 2014
Many people look forward to the Academy Awards. They will sit glued to the TV critiquing the choice of attire, the jokes, and the speeches. Finally, after dragging on far into the night and beyond the allotted timeslot, the most prestigious awards are presented, and everyone goes to bed. The same thing happens year after year. It’s such a foolproof formula for drawing an audience that there are now 88 televised awards shows – that’s nearly two a week!
But that’s not the whole story. For weeks before the awards, movie ads will promote the fact that they have been nominated. The following day all primary news media outlets will broadcast or print the results, the best and worst in several categories, bloopers, behind-the-scenes looks, gossip, rumors, and “expert” opinions. This will all be presented to us as “news.”
Not only is this not news, it isn’t even real. It’s what Daniel Boorstin called in his 1961 book, The Image, a pseudo-event – a planned, staged, manufactured affair intended to draw and hold our attention with “a kind of counterfeit version of actual happenings” more exciting than our humdrum lives.
The truth about the Academy Awards is that, like the other 87 awards shows, it is just one big advertisement, a narcissistic orgy of people in a particular profession paying tribute to each other and to themselves as a group. The resulting awards are used in further advertising. In that sense it’s no different from political conventions, new product release ceremonies, press conferences, organized marches and demonstrations, even infomercials. It is designed to sell you the stars, the movies as well as the products featured during the many commercial breaks. The purpose of these events is to increase sales, in this case ticket and DVD sales, but in a similar case, it could be to gain votes.
Finally, they say that the movies are the best of the year as voted on by members of the Academy. If that is the case, how do you explain comments like the following from CBS: “Obviously, SAG and the Academy don't always agree…But the SAG Awards will give a window into support for Oscar favorites '12 Years a Slave' and 'American Hustle.'" Should the results of one award show, rather than the merits of the movie itself, in any way influence the outcomes of another?
This is not meant to discourage anyone from watching. Check out the gowns and the hairstyles. Critique the presenters and recipients. Root for your favorites. But remember, this is not real life. It’s not news. It’s not anything but an elaborate sales pitch for the films nominated and for movie attendance in general. If we remain aware of the strategy behind this show and the others like it, political as well as entertainment, we will be better equipped to resist the imbedded hype messages and be better able to make informed, objective decisions about our authentic wants, needs and preferences.
Monday, February 24, 2014
As Black History Month draws to a close, an important question comes to mind: Will America ever be open-minded and accepting enough that there is no longer a need for such reminders?
To answer that question it’s necessary to look at behaviors and the incentives for those behaviors. Black History Month has sponsors, as do many of the other commemorations, celebrations and recognition of accomplishments by minorities or those who otherwise see themselves as victims of society. The sponsors include the NAACP and other local advocates. According to a 2011 filing, the NAACP has 157 jobs with a payroll of $11,610,417 (average about $74,000). The CEO salary is nearly $300,000. They have a vested interest in maintaining a certain level of tension for their own job security and intrinsic rewards associated with fighting for a worthy cause.
Look at the March of Dimes as an example, founded in 1938, in response to the polio epidemic. “With its original goal of eliminating polio accomplished, the March of Dimes faced a choice: to either disband or dedicate its resources to a new mission.” “In 1958 [it launched] its ‘Expanded Program’ against birth defects, arthritis, and virus diseases, seeking to become a ‘flexible force’ in the field of public health. In the mid-1960s, the organization focused its efforts on the prevention of birth defects and infant mortality” “In 2005, reducing the toll of premature birth was added as a mission objective.” These are all excellent causes, but see how the original purpose of the organization was flexed to fit the need to maintain the viability of the organization and jobs. With one problem solved they redefined themselves, switching their efforts (along with the fund raising expertise and momentum) to related causes.
Advocates for women’s rights and gay rights find themselves in a similar position. Just as some environmental groups would never admit that the air or water is clean enough, advocacy groups have little incentive to see a final end to the cause they fight for. If they do, they must modify their mission to stay in business.
It’s always easy to point to the ignorant or misguided among our fellow citizens who continue to judge others by the color of their skin, their speech patterns, sex or sexual preferences. No matter how few, they provide examples of the need to continue working. Bogus statistics, like the one about women earning 71 cents for every dollar a man earns will continue to be cited to keep such causes alive. Black History Month, Pride parades, women's events and the rest will continue as long as people can credibly maintain their victim status and point accusing fingers. Newscasters become willing accomplices with their litany of firsts that dwell on, rather than downplay differences – it gets almost to the point of parody: the first gay native-Hawaiian Catholic woman to walk in space. They also promote rather than dispel the notion that my heroes and role models must look like me – a concept that in itself is racist/sexist, but is put forth by people with a sincere interest in ending discrimination.
Powerful incentives are at play, but my hope is that such celebrations, announcements and staged events will some day become obsolete, stale remnants of the past, unable to survive thanks to changes in the attitude and behavior of all parties.
Friday, February 21, 2014
Headline News: A new study suggests that men who stand on their heads at least once a week have fewer heart attacks. This fictional headline is not unlike many breaking stories we see daily on line, in print or on TV. Someone does a study and the news releases the results no matter how wacky or unreliable. Doctors and hospitals must be more careful in reaching conclusions and making recommendations. The human body is complex and variable, and correlation does not prove causation.
Here is a real example. The FDA advisory committee “voted 16-9 that the available data don't support a conclusion that naproxen has a lower risk of cardiac problems compared with the other NSAIDs.” There may be some evidence and some excellent studies, but they are not yet definitive enough to convince the expert panel. This is, in fact, contrary to a headline that came out about a week before this clarification was published.
Another recent example comes from a Johns Hopkins bulletin. After describing studies showing an association between daily coffee consumption and a reduction in some risks related to prostate cancer, they go on to warn: “there is still not enough information to recommend that anyone start drinking coffee solely for its potential anti-cancer benefits...[because] all the studies…are observational, and these research efforts do not prove any clear cause-and-effect relationship between coffee consumption and prostate cancer protection.” Again, they need clear evidence of cause and effect, from several well-designed studies.
Likewise studies of meditation find that it can be effective in reducing stress and anxiety, but the question of positive emotional benefits is still unanswered. “Stronger study designs are needed to determine the effects of meditation programs in improving the positive dimensions of mental health and stress-related behavior.” Clinicians must know this to counsel clients appropriately.
In my fictional news story of the head standing, those who do may also practice yoga. Yoga may lead to better circulation, which may reduce heart attacks. Yoga may lead to practicing meditation to reduce stress, which may reduce heart attacks. It may just be that overweight men are less inclined to stand on their heads, so the head-standers are in better physical condition, which reduces heart attacks. Researchers may have studied, measured and compared the wrong things – as could also be the case in the coffee example.
These types of studies are happening all the time and the news media do not necessarily handle the information responsibly, preferring a big splash on the front page to the more careful approach taken by medical experts. As a result we are faced with conflicting opinions about the relative effectiveness of mammograms, PSA tests and many other items of health news. It’s important to keep in mind that medical science is more precise and careful than what a neighbor or relative reports, what the TV doctor recommends or what the latest breaking headline study suggests. This understanding helps separate the real from the hoped-for, the effective remedy from the placebo, and the tested medicine from the prescription by popular opinion.