Monday, February 19, 2018

Government: "Do It - It's Good For You!"

Here’s another bad idea drawn from the pages of the USA Today.  New Mexico’s high school juniors would be required to apply to at least one college or show they have committed to other post-high school plans as part of a new high school graduation requirement being pushed by two state lawmakers.”  Under the proposed law applying to college or presenting a personal plan to join the military, commit to a vocational program, work in an apprenticeship or become an intern will become a requirement for high school graduation.

Lawmakers are concerned about the drop in college attendance in the state and hope to adopt this approach, which is based on a program in the city of Chicago, not exactly the best place in the world to copy educational reforms from.  Note:  In Chicago high schools fewer than three out of every four students graduate over a five-year period, far worse than the national average.

One reason it’s a bad idea is that it assumes that the state is superior to parents and students in knowing what is best.  Some young people are not cut out for college, either academically or based on personal interests.   Some are not socially or emotionally ready to go to college right out of high school and would benefit from a year or two off.

Another reason it’s a bad idea is that high school students are smarter than lawmakers in the sense that they are very astute at gaming the system.  They have been living for eighteen years under the thumb of one authority figure or another and have develops skills for finding loopholes.  The obvious loophole here is to apply to a college with the lowest application fee.  Send the application in – requirement met – and then go about your business.  (Here is a list of 426 colleges with no application fee found after a two-minute Internet search.)

 Another reason it’s a bad idea is that the last thing New Mexico high school students, especially those from some of the poorer districts, need is one more hurdle to high school graduation.  For the more rebellious, instead of encouraging college attendance, it may discourage high school graduation.

College is also a huge financial commitment, one that continues to haunt the current wave of young (and not so young) college graduates.

Finally, lawmakers are notoriously poor at influencing behavior through legislation.  They write thousand-page laws to try to cover every possible contingency, yet motivated people will find ways to circumvent tax laws, immigration laws and a host of others.  In 2011 a federal law cracked down on the credit card companies, and before it became effective the credit card companies raised some fees and minimum balances to, at least partially, offset the effect of the law.

Lawmakers with good intentions try to get people to do what they see as the right thing.  In the process they don’t consider all contingencies, they try to force everyone into the same mold, they give individuals (students and parents) permission to shirk their own responsibility and they complicate life for everyone.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Throw Out Those Jeans

The word is spreading that buying jeans is stressful and we should not wear them if we are over 53 years old.  Well, that was so crazy I just had to look into it.

The first story I found came from a local TV station in Florida.  It said, “A new survey found some adults may be getting too old for jeans.”  Later they refer to the survey as a “study” adding, “the stress people experience while jean shopping is intense by age 53, with 6 percent becoming so upset they burst into tears.”  It also takes up to 8 days to find the perfect pair and “research showed women spend twice as long as men searching for the right fit.”  So in the course of the article, it has gone from a survey to a study to research, from asking people to fill out a questionnaire to scientists in lab coats with secret cameras or something.

Since it gave a link to the “new study” I thought I would go straight to the source.  The link connected me to the Daily Mail, a British Newspaper, and the article there was dated November 1, 2016 – hardly a new study.  That story told me that most people spend “up to five days looking for ideal fit” with a total average cost of over $45.  (I guess they weren’t talking about designer jeans or those trendy ones charging more for pre-worn holes.)  After all that work and expense of hunting for jeans, about one-quarter said they never found their ideal pair and almost one-third gave up looking.  Finally, the information did come from a survey, not a study, of 2000 people in England.

The Huffington Post picked up the story back in 2016 from the same Daily Mail article when it was still fresh.  They did point out, after complaining about the results, that it was “far from scientific.”  But they put an interesting spin on the information.  Despite the British newspaper having a picture of a man in jeans accompanying their piece, the Huffington Post headlines read:  “Most Annoying Study Reveals Age When Women Are Too Old For Jeans.”  (Giving some women another reason to feel victimized by society or science is a guaranteed winning headline.)

To add fuel to the fire, the Huffington article mentioned another survey putting the cutoff age at 47 based again on the opinions of another 2,000 Brits – unspecified as to whether that survey referred to men, women or both.

The same information was also presented on NBC’s Today show site just a couple of weeks ago, again as a new study, but most of their links took the reader to ads for jeans.

A takeaway should be that, despite what reporters seem to think, surveys are not the same as studies or research and deserve a lot less attention.  Even studies and research have their flaws and are very often published and reported long before we can put any faith in their findings.  This jeans survey may be a silly example, but it demonstrates how critical thinking and personal research can quickly get to the bottom of any news report on surveys, studies or research, especially ones pertaining to more serious subjects.

Another lesson is that Brits seem to obsess about how old is too old to be wearing jeans.  It’s a good thing Americans have a strong sense of perspective.  They aren’t so superficial as to get caught up in trivial subjects, stressing out over the “ideal” pair of jeans with the “perfect fit,” the pressure sometimes driving them to tears – or are they?

Monday, February 12, 2018

Brief Review

As I reach the 700th posting on this site, it’s time for a brief review.

For more than 20 years Americans have been dissatisfied with the direction of the country.  When asked whether the country is headed in the right direction overall in monthly polls, the majority (often around 65%) answers “no” more than three-quarters of the time.  They look to government to fix it, so parties rotate in and out of power and nothing seems to change.  Dissatisfaction remains high.

In place of ineffective government solutions, this site offers Real Solutions based on behavior, because behavior has consequences.  As individual behaviors accumulate, they become societal trends.  And just as individual foolishness results in individual unhappiness, these societal trends result in crises, epidemics and our general dissatisfaction with the overall direction.

Behavior, though, seems elusive.  Behavior is whatever someone says or does, the decisions he makes or beliefs she professes.  How to get this myriad of choices and actions organized and understandable can be a challenge.

One way to do this is to classify behaviors by the personality traits they reflect.  I use the term dimensions for these traits and propose five as key to success:  Economic Understanding, Discipline, Responsibility, Critical Thinking and Perspective.  If behaviors in these dimensions are positive, consequences will be beneficial, the individual and society with thrive.  The opposite is also true.

So for nearly seven years on each Monday and Friday, I have scanned the news and published a critique of one or more particular decisions, actions or choices that seem to reflect popular trends and result in poor outcomes.  Sometimes people don’t see the connection between their money and tax policy or between costs and prices urging lawmakers to take actions with unforeseen consequences (Economic Understanding).  Doing the right thing is hard in terms of saving money, eating healthy and the rest, so they turn to purveyors of too-good-to-be-true formulas, diets and get-rich-quick schemes wasting time and money (Discipline).  When they fail or are injured as a result of poor choices, they look for someone else to blame or bail them out (Responsibility).  Conspiracy theories, faulty scientific studies, unproven medicine, statistical long shots, hasty decision making, gut feel and emotional responses all lead to wasted time and money and dangerous outcomes (Critical Thinking).  Finally, lack of gratitude and unrealistic expectations cause us to feel that things are worse than they really are, that we don’t have enough and must keep striving for more (Perspective).

Taken together these five key dimensions explain why there are so many problems with retirement insecurity, obesity epidemic, gun violence, opioid epidemic, helicopter parenting, college debt, fad diets, smartphone and game addictions, failing schools, teen and adult sleep deprivation, consumer fraud, scientific illiteracy, deceptive advertising, media-driven fears and hype, health and financial scams, frustration over income inequality, frivolous lawsuits, plastic in the oceans, demonization of business, failed government programs, political divisiveness and much more.

The purpose of these short essays is not to nit-pick and complain, but to show how most major problems in the news, all those crises and epidemics, result not from the lack of some new government program, but from behavioral choices.  The examples are intended to teach readers how to identify faulty behaviors for themselves and classify them into the Big Five Dimensions. 

If some critical mass of the population begins to take the five dimensions seriously in their own lives and tries to influence the behavior of others, the pull of society will get the whole country headed in the right directions.  The government can keep us secure, maintain roads, and enforce laws, etc. while we do the rest.  Without a significant change in behavior, no law or regulation, no new administration will be able to fix what we ourselves have broken.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Bambi Factor - Part 2

A few years ago I wrote an entry called The Bambi Factor, and for some unknown reason it pops up frequently as a favorite.  The gist of the message was that some people have spent so much time isolated from nature in cities and have been exposed to so many Disney movies that they have lost perspective.  It matters not if animals are pests; their cute and cuddly appearance gives them a free pass.  When someone, who is automatically labeled as cruel and heartless, suggests they be controlled, protests erupt.

When a case goes to court or through some other review process, the smart money is always on the sea otters, the deer, the Canada geese and the cute little bunnies.  Advocates tell us we must love nature and live in harmony with its creatures whose big brown eyes melt our hearts.  The government puts some wild animals on the endangered species list, and protests also erupt when they attempt to take them off or restrict protection only to those areas where they still need it.  Getting onto the list is most often a one-way street.

In all these cases, no matter how reasonable the argument might be it’s a losing battle.  Emotion wins out over logic.  Critical thinking is sidelined.  It’s like dealing with five-year-olds.  Reason takes a back seat to the impulse to protect these poor creatures from harm or distress.

Well here we are about five years after that first post, and we encounter a PETA-sponsored ad during the Super Bowl, an almost laughable display of naiveté.  There is no such thing, they claim, as humane meat production, and current industry practices are unforgivable.

They represent people that apparently think that, except for the interference of humans, bunnies and other animals would spend their lives frolicking merrily in the fields and forest with minimal concern for eating or avoiding predators.  When they reached the end of life, they would peacefully lie down and die – surrounded by tearful friends and family.

They also seem to believe that farmers intentionally mistreat their livestock.  That makes less business sense than manufacturers not maintaining their machines.  Farmers’ livelihood depends on the health of their animals.  This wouldn’t have flown 100 years ago when the majority of the population lived in rural areas and were familiar with farm operations; but today farmers make up less than 2% of the population, and many farms are run by big business, so they are fair game – please forgive the hunting metaphor.

The biggest insult is that they try to use this cartoon-like concept of the world to guilt us into joining the campaign to give up eating meat – happy people, happy pigs and cows.  But take chickens as an example.  Given the choice, they would rather be inside in the cold winter months.  And according to a study a few years ago by The Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply, hen mortality in cage-free systems is higher because of the “pecking order” in flocks where the larger hens often peck to death smaller ones.  Actually, humans are more conscious of suffering and cause far less intentional and incidental suffering than the rest of nature.

Now I must apologize to the five-year-olds.  While watching an episode of the Nature series on PBS with my five-year-old granddaughter, she observed, “Nature is about survival.”  That’s a far healthier understanding than some fairytale version of how all God’s creatures live together in harmony, often heard from “mature” adults.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Deceptive Truth

Forget about fake news and alternative facts.  The truth can be used to deceive just as easily.  As Emily Dickenson wrote:

Tell the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies

This came to mind when I received the following graphic from a loyal reader forwarded from the local newspaper.

This is probably a true estimate of how many Americans (56%) believe their drinking water is unsafe.  It’s also true that they are mistaken in that belief.

According to the government Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):  The United States has one of the safest water supplies in the world.  The EPA requires every municipality to test for the presence and levels of over 90 different contaminants in public drinking water and to provide an annual report to all customers.

Wikipedia adds that in 2016, “over 90 percent of the nation's community water systems were in compliance” with those EPA standards.

A Harvard site warns about polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), saying they “exceed federally recommended safety levels in public drinking-water supplies for 6 million people in the United States, according to a new study…”  But as a fraction of over 320 million people in the US, that’s less than 2%.

Instead of reassuring, the media emphasizes disasters and calamities about safe drinking water like this example from National Geographic.  But at the end of that article, after presenting the scary stuff,  they admit, "in spite of all the good reasons to be concerned about drinking water safety, resorting to bottles is not a sensible reflex."  Quoting their expert, an environmental scientist at Duke University, "People think bottled water is safer, but there is zero evidence that is true. The quality of water in city tap water is regulated far more closely than bottled water."

So municipalities spend billions of dollars annually so we can wash our clothes and dishes and take showers in water that’s safe to drink while the majority of Americans believe it’s toxic and spend billions more on bottled water.  This newspaper could have easily looked this up, but it’s not their job to educate.  It’s their job to sell newspapers, and scary “facts” sell better.

The next day I set a ketchup bottle on the table and saw (proudly displayed) on the label:  No High Fructose Corn Syrup, No GMO Ingredients.  Although these two statements are technically true, they are mainly intended to lure uninformed shoppers.

First, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) for some reason has gotten a bad reputation among food purists; but fructose, glucose and sucrose are all sugars.  This FDA website explains the tiny chemical difference between HFCS and sugar.  They conclude:  We are not aware of any evidence…that there is a difference in safety between foods containing HFCS 42 or HFCS 55 and foods containing similar amounts of other nutritive sweeteners with approximately equal glucose and fructose content, such as sucrose, honey, or other traditional sweeteners.”

These facts of no chemical or health differences are backed up by other sources.  And even those that give reasons to avoid HFCS say it is no worse for us than sugar.

So it’s true, but slightly deceptive – the ketchup contains no HFCS; it contains sugar instead!

Second, the main ingredient in ketchup is tomato concentrate from tomatoes.  As I’ve written before, there are no GMO tomatoes!  Likewise, the label on the Non-GMO orange juice doesn’t mention that there are also no GMO oranges.  Non-GMO statements in both these cases are totally true – but meaningless – except to those incurious people who don’t care about real truth.

That brings us to a recent CBS story about a Facebook executive concerned that “the social media platform may be hurting American democracy” and that they were “too slow to recognize Russian interference in the 2016 election” intended to further divide society as the Russians weaponized information to sow discord.

How can anyone “weaponize” information?  It starts with Americans jumping to conclusions on the basis of popular opinion, weak evidence, information that reinforces their own biases and truths that “tell it slant.”  The distress here should not be over the negative aspects of Facebook or any other media but over a severe weakness in critical thinking, a skill in great demand as we cope with the every-increasing speed and breadth of dissemination coupled with a serious decrease in quality of information.  The problem is not with the Russian posters or the platform; it's with readers who don't question and research.