Monday, September 22, 2014

Special Offers

A couple of personal experiences the other day reminded me that some so-called special offers are not so special when seen under the harsh light of critical thinking.

As I filled my car with gasoline, I noticed on the pump a special deal from the gasoline credit card company.  If I used their card to buy my gas, I would get 5 cents off per gallon.  That sounded like a good deal until I remembered that the credit card I used, like several other cards in circulation, gives me 1% back every time I use it.  At a little over $3 per gallon, one percent is a little more than 3 cents per gallon, so now the gas-pump deal is down to less than 2 cents per gallon.  BUT like many other credit cards, mine gives me a special 5% bonus on gasoline purchases for one quarter of the year.  I was really getting over 15 cents per gallon back, which doesn’t make me feel good about the total I pay to fill the tank, but it does kind of blow away the gas-pump deal, doesn’t it?

If the pump could talk it might say, “Oh yeah, but what about the rest of the year.”  Well, Mr. Pump, let me tell you.  If I save 5% for a quarter of the year and 1% for the other three quarters, the annual average is 2%, that is (5+1+1+1)/4.  So, at over $3 per gallon, I still save an average of over 6 cents.  My card is free and I know of others with the same features, because they send me their promotions almost once a week in the mail.  Critical thinking certainly takes away the lure of the special offer.

As I drive away from the pump and turn on the radio, I hear a guy telling me that the stock market is bound to go down (sooner or later) and that it’s safer and wiser to send him my money to invest in precious metals.  The special deal here is that just for calling in, they will send you a gram of pure silver!  Wow, pure silver!  The problem is a gram is a very little bit.  The value of a gram of pure silver is easy to research and, though it sounds impressive, it is worth slightly more than a postage stamp.  Saved again by critical thinking!

So if these special offers are so easy to deflate with a little critical thinking and a little math that most people should be able to do in their heads, why do they persist?  The answer is clear.  There is not enough of it going on.  People don’t listen particularly closely and then they don’t do the simple math or simple research required to ensure that what is presented as a good deal really is.  When these tempting offers lure them in, they blame the advertisers or big banks or big whatever for taking advantage of them, calling for more government oversight and consumer protection instead of taking responsibility and admitting their error.  

Think of how much better off America would be if many more people thought like this, and we all taught our children to think like this.  Skeptical children picking apart their sales pitches instead of buying in and nagging their parents would be the sugary cereal, toy, and fast food companies biggest nightmare.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Shame on Us!

As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, critical thinking provides a balanced view of pride, how it can be effective as a motivator but makes no sense when applied to something you can’t control.  It’s healthy to be proud of accomplishments, but foolish and delusional to be proud of characteristics you were born with such as eye color, left-handedness, sexual orientation, height, race, or nationality.  As a left handed person, you can be proud of the accomplishments of other left handed people, but that seems like a waste of time since it has no bearing on your own accomplishments.  As we pick someone to model ourselves after, why do they have to have similar physical characteristics to us?  Wouldn’t it be wiser to model ourselves after good role models regardless of appearance?

On the other side of the coin is shame.  In today’s society, there is no place for shame, embarrassment or failure.  Kids are told they are special and unique, which is true, but they are told this to the point where it overrides the learning available from missteps and failures.  They are praised for everything they do.  They grow up to be disappointed when professors, employers and their social networks don’t pick up where their parents left off with praise and awards just for participating, regardless of results or effort.  Some parents are afraid or too involved in other activities to properly discipline their kids.  It makes a cute news story, recognized in Time magazine and other places, when a convicted drunk driver uses his creativity in a mug shot.

Here is an excerpt from Quiet:  The Power of Introverts, by Susan Cain.  “Consider the mechanism by which kids acquire their sense of right and wrong.  Many psychologists believe that children develop conscience when they do something inappropriate and are rebuked by their caregivers.  Disapproval makes them feel anxious; and since anxiety is unpleasant, they learn to steer clear of antisocial behavior.  This is known as internalizing their parents’ standards of conduct, and its core is anxiety.  But what if some kids are less prone to anxiety than others?  … Often the best way to teach these children values is to give them positive role models.”

Now look at how society functions as we are overwhelmed with messages about self-esteem, compassion, humanitarianism, respect, avoiding offending anyone and the plight of victims.  Whenever some one or some group is perceived as being disadvantaged, instead of asking what behavior led to those consequences and what lessons they need to learn to avoid them in the future, we choose to rescue them, negating the opportunity for learning and enticing others to follow the same path.

Except for smokers, who for some reason have been singled out for a kind of public shunning, we hop on board when others look for an excuse.  We try to blame our problems on the big institutions that talked us into the bad behavior instead of admitting that the final decision was ours.  We blame fast food, big banks, Wall Street, the rich one-percent, drug companies, insurance companies, religious extremists, and more – yes, even big tobacco, because the smokers shouldn’t really be blamed – just isolated.  Then we look to Congress and the President expecting that they will punish the evildoers and bail us, but in reality, the government can’t fix the problems because they can’t legislate good decision-making.  They don’t tell us it’s our fault, because first, they don’t get it, second, they get the same good feelings by playing the rescuer, and third, they fear offending the voters.

Like the drug abuse problem in America, we concentrate on the supply side, pursuing and convicting the pushers while supporting the users with free needles and police trained to treat overdoses.  American society shames the wrong behavior.  We instead shame and condemn the constructive feedback or even gentle criticism aimed at people who deserve that criticism for poor judgment and erroneous behavior.  To do so is labeled offensive, uncompassionate, mean-spirited, disrespectful, uncaring – but it is very much needed!  This censure of disapproval and “caring” support of bad behavior leads inevitably to more of the same.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Perspective and Entertainment

Last week the controversy about Ray Rice, the NFL and domestic abuse got new legs when the video of the battery on the elevator was released.  Many people felt renewed shock and began calling for the resignations of the league commissioner, the coach and the team owner.  They wanted to punish everyone involved and demanded new attention on the issue of domestic violence.  Now the FBI along with the US Senate may be organizing investigations of the actions of the league – what did they know and when did they know it?

Outrage at domestic violence is understandable and efforts should be made to reduce the incidents, to educate and to punish the offenders; but using perspective calls up another question, a question ignored by media and pundits, a question that may be the most important one:  Why is Ray Rice, or any other athlete for that matter, considered a role model?

If any other ordinary individual had committed this act, it would have been equally appalling, but it would not have been front page, national news.  It would have been covered by the local news and (unfortunately) forgotten much sooner.  Because it involves a person who carries a football for 16 weekends a year it’s deemed important.  He is being a bad example to our kids who want to grow up to be like him.  The main reason they do is that he is famous and made a lot of money, tens of millions of dollars, for carrying a football.

Step back and think about it for a minute.  Our society values and honors and idolizes people who play games and who entertain us in movies, on the stage and on television.  We think they are so great that we tune in to watch them congratulate each other at awards shows.  This is upside down!  We pay lip service to teachers, firefighters, police, veterans, innovators, hard-working Americans, even parents and grandparents; but when it’s time to put down our money, we over pay and look up to baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, television and movie stars.  We buy jerseys and souvenirs, pester them for autographs, pay large amounts of money for tickets, spend inordinate amounts of our free time watching games, building fantasy teams while following the latest news about them and support the paparazzi by buying the magazines and watching TV shows that feature celebrity gossip.  (Sometimes it seems like we pay more attention to their marriages than we do to our own!)

We have so much free time and disposable income that we can afford to squander it on continual entertainment.  Whereas a few hundred years ago the main concern in life for all but a privileged few was survival, today our lives are filled with distractions and entertainment to the point where we have to carry it all with us on our phones!  People rarely stop to think how lucky we are to have such easy lives.  Entertainment has become a new subsistence, almost as important as food and air.  We feel empty and deprived without it.  We raise the best, or at least the best-hyped, entertainers to high levels of fame and fortune.  We give them power over our lives that borders on worship and continue to be shocked when some act like they translate this adoration into permission to act above the law.

In an ideal world where everyone (or even most) had perspective we would tell our kids, “This inconsequential man hit his girlfriend.  It’s wrong; don’t act that way.”  That would be the end of it.  Until then it’s important to ask why it takes a celebrity to call attention to unacceptable behavior, and why we seem disproportionately surprised and outraged when they do.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Any Diet Will Do

Apropos of my essay last time on how we put too much faith in the products that are sold with fancy scientific jargon and magic-sounding ingredients, here are two examples from this week’s news.

The first is an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) explaining a comparison of several different research studies on the effectiveness of the various popular diets, the ones people love to argue about with friends and neighbors as celebrities hype one or the other on TV talk shows.  After reviewing “59 eligible articles reporting 48 unique randomized trials (including 7286 individuals) and compared with no diet,” trials of such programs as Atkins, Zone, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and a few others, they found that low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets were most effective but with little difference from one plan to the next.  The conclusion of their research was that doctors should continue the “practice of recommending any diet that a patient will adhere to in order to lose weight.”  There is no magic in the diet itself.  If there is any magic at all, it’s in the discipline to stick to the diet – and you can’t buy that!

The second example made me laugh, until I remembered that, for the reasons mentioned last time, many people take this seriously.  It’s called “5 Foods That Keep You Young.”  The slide show and related articles are crammed with those trigger words (shown in bold) that we hear every day in health-related promotions.  For example, an “Avocado and Oat Facial mask” will “hydrate and exfoliate your face” or use a “Red Wine Mask” for the wrinkles.  Next for your face they offer pumpkin seeds with “tons of zinc” to lock in moisture and increase collagen production.  For our hair we need vitamins A and C, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and more zinc.  Try some walnuts.  Don’t forget your fingernails, which require iron, beta-carotene, folate, and vitamin C from dark green vegetables.  Your eyes need plenty of lutein and zeaxanthin.  And to put a smile on that wrinkle-free face, try some “endorphin-releasing foods like chocolate and ice cream.” 

There was once a day when people could eat well and keep their weight down without mention of all these magical ingredients and programs.  Then we discovered fast food, processed foods and a sedentary lifestyle.  Before long people were eating unhealthy diets and being overweight.  Now we act like victims of the clown, the king and big business and expect to be rescued by science and technology.  As part of this over-reaction we look to the US government to dictate dos and don’ts for school menus.  For many Americans an ordinary grocery store is not good enough, and we spend billions of dollars on dietary supplements, just in case.  This is not how we managed in the past.

The solution to this problem does not come from the outside.  All we really need is a little discipline, critical thinking and perspective.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Are We Over-scienced?

In this highly technological age, it seems we have become too dependent on science to provide all the answers.  We are prone to look to and take at face value the judgments of scientists on many questions that are easily answered with common sense and experience.  Furthermore, when advertisers come up with impressive, scientific-sounding phrases or make reference to some arcane scientific concept, we are too overwhelmed and impressed to challenge the conclusions.

During my master gardener training we were given a good example.  A neighbor asks, “What’s the best time to trim my tree in front?”  The neighbor rightly understands that there are more ideal times for trimming certain trees, times of year when the tree will be less stressed.  Before answering, the master gardener wonders why the neighbor wants to trim the tree.  The neighbor responds, “Every time I mow the lawn that low branch hits me in the face.”  The right answer of when to trim the tree has moved from the realm of science into the realm of common sense.  “Trim off the branch before you mow the lawn again.”

A second example came a few weeks ago from a health report on local television news.  The essence of the story can be summed up as:  It’s summer and the grocery store has a good stock of nice, fresh fruit, which is good for you.  Buy it and eat it.  There was a lot of talk about the health benefits and antioxidants, but the main message was to eat fruit.

My grandmother was born in Eastern Europe in the 1890s.  After immigrating to the US, she lived near New York City and kept a small vegetable garden in the backyard.  She knew that fruits and vegetables were good for you.  Her mantra during meal times was, “Eat your green stuff!”  No one had to tell her about antioxidants and other exotic components of fruits and vegetables.  It was just common knowledge.  Just like most people today, Grandma didn’t know what an antioxidant was or how they were good for you, but unlike most people today, it wouldn’t have mattered to her at all.

Finally, this headline made the fluffy news recently:  “Huge Weddings Lead to Better Marriage, Says New Study.”  I read several different articles on this research report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia primarily because the headlines were so misleading.  The facts are:  they interviewed 418 couples and split them up by size of their wedding, yielding two or more smaller sampling groups.  They found that those with larger weddings, more than 150 guests reported themselves as happy more often – not that they were consistently happier.  No evidence shows that the large wedding led to happiness or the tendency to stay married.  (Correlation does not prove causation.)  More likely some conditions that led to a happy marriage were also more conducive to having a big wedding:  greater financial resources and a larger support system to name just two.  Finally, the study followed the couples for only 5 years, which is hardly a long time for a marriage, and depended on self-reporting, which has highly questionable validity.  A big wedding is not, as the headline suggests, a key to a happier marriage.

The trouble today is that we depend too much on scientific recommendations and scientific jargon and not enough on what we already know.  Advertisers constantly try to wow us or scare us with the results of research studies and trigger words like antioxidants, justice, organic, sustainable, and probiotics, or chemicals, low testosterone, mercury, quantum mechanics and carbon dioxide.  (Whatever happened to Beta-carotene?) They know we daydream about and will pay good money for magic answers to lose weight, to get rich and to stay married, all the while knowing in our hearts that all these are only achievable with hard work.