Monday, February 27, 2012

Critical Thinking

Around the time of the Civil War, John Stuart Mill wrote essays in opposition to slavery and in favor of women’s rights.  In both cases he recognized the difficulty of persuading people to change their minds when their conviction was based on feelings rather than logic – thinking with their hearts instead of their brains.  Near the beginning of “The Subjection of Women” he writes:  “So long as opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses instability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it. For if it were accepted as a result of argument, the refutation of the argument might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling, … the more persuaded adherents are that their feeling must have some deeper ground, … always throwing up fresh entrenchments of argument to repair any breach made in the old.”  In other words, it’s tough to get people to change their mind when their opinion is not based on logic.  The more you talk, the deeper they dig in to protect long-held beliefs. 

We see this behavior almost daily.  We are warned to avoid subjects of religion and politics in social conversations.  They lead to no resolution, instead causing others to dig in to protect their turf.

This is why many of my critical thinking arguments will fall on deaf ears.  Considering, though, the waste, misdirection and sometimes danger that result from individual and societal forays down these blind alleys of feeling-based decisions, I will continue.

There are two categories of critical thinking.  The first involves paying closer attention, for example, recognizing the popular advertising pitch of “save up to 50% or more” as virtually meaningless.  Literally interpreted, it means:  maybe saving some undefined amount.  Likewise, how can all car insurance companies save you (up to) $300 when you switch?  They all say so.  One even claims that  80% of those who switched saved money - but doesn't mention the 20% dumb enough to switch anyway.  These examples, and there are many of them, just take some basic questioning.

The second category of critical thinking hits on subject treated almost as religious beliefs.  When I warn of the dangers of dietary supplements, the ineffectiveness of performance bracelets, or that all-natural does not necessarily mean healthier, I know there are a certain number of readers who will dig in, ignoring examples, evidence and explanations, knowing in their hearts that they are doing the right thing, resisting rather than even considering an alternative point of view.  For some the ideas of green and sustainable are nearly sacred.  They will not bat an eye when told that a particular windmill, for example, saves enough coal-powered energy to pay for itself in 150 years, but has a life expectancy of only 50 years!  “But, but, but it’s green!  It must be good.  It’s the direction we need to be moving!”  Logic is lost in feelings and further argument leads only to increased resistance.

Nevertheless, I will continue to cite examples and drive the message of critical thinking.  Making good decisions most of the time is essential for our success, both as individuals and as a society

Friday, February 24, 2012

Calling Cleopatra!

For some reason the thought struck me that it would make an interesting reality show to gather all the people, usually women, who claim they were Cleopatra in a past life and let them fight it out for the title.  I went on line the other day to do some related research.

The first site I looked at had free readings about past lives.  Just type in your date of birth and get a few paragraphs.  I typed in a few dates and read the information.  It was consistent; type in the same date and you get the same information.  It was also much like a horoscope, very general and could apply to anyone.  The site also had a disclaimer – for your entertainment only, no guarantees.

The second site seemed more serious.  It was filled with letters from satisfied customers and case studies.  (Remember, testimonials are not evidence).  If you asked for a reading, you can only get it over the phone where “voice contact” allows the reader to get clues about the accuracy of statements and direction, or as it blatantly admits, “…as you will see conversational interaction is important in [the] process…” This has all the signs of the well-known cold-reading technique, the method used for years by fortunetellers and charlatans as they drop hints and let the client lead them in a direction that appears fruitful.  Clients then describe the information as insightful and believable, not recognizing how they were unconsciously leading the discussion.  Similar offerings using this process have been debunked many times by researchers in the field.

That was the end of my research, not wanting to shell out the $65.00 to $150.00 for a reading, but I guess some people do.  Unfortunately, these businesses, like many others, stay afloat by preying on the credulous, those who don't practice critical thinking.

Is there danger in this or just fun?  In moderation and for fun, there is probably nothing wrong with it.  Those who believe in it should apply some critical thinking, do some research, read the skeptical literature on the subject, not just the endorsements and sales pitches.  In these tough economic times, those who spend $65 or more on such entertainment should apply some perspective, asking if it isn’t money better spent on a tank of gas or something that benefits friends or family.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Good Perspective

Lest readers think I am always coming down on American society, here is an example of positive behavior in the dimension of perspective.

This article from a local newspaper asks a student from Wabash College his opinion about its location (Crawfordsville, IN) being ranked number 2 by the Princeton Review in the category of not-so-great college towns.  In part he answered:  "But that is not why we are here -- we came here for the school, to be a part of the tradition."

Now that’s a young man with appropriate expectations and good perspective about what’s important to him in terms of college and for the long term.  We need more like him!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Who's to Blame for the Great Recession?

Let’s agree first that the primary cause was the bursting of the housing bubble.  Mortgages went bad.  People moved out or were evicted from homes they could no longer pay for, leading to a housing surplus, leading to declining prices, leading to more people moving out or stopping payments on first or second homes that no longer seemed to be a good investment because they owed more than the houses were worth.  Since people had used their home equity to continue spending, a drop in value meant that people stopped spending.  Jobs that depended on that spending went away, jobs in construction, but also those associated with other expenditures, big and small.  Then the domino effect took over and unemployment soared.

If you have been following this blog, you know I intend to show that this mess is related to our failure in personal behavior.  Let’s see how we get there.

Every transaction has two parties, a buyer and a seller.  This applies to every bad mortgage that contributed to the housing boom and subsequent bust.  Granted, some of the brokers and bankers were real weasels.  They issued loans with teaser rates.  They talked people into interest-only loans.  They approved borrowers without adequate proof of income.  They did everything possible to initiate loans and collect their fees without regard to the borrowers’ ability to pay.  They sold those loans to Wall Street banks to be repackaged, insured with complex derivatives and to become the subject of other unsavory activities.  Everyone wrongly assumed that prices (and incomes) would continue to rise allowing even marginal buyers to refinance (for more fees) when the teaser rates ran out.  Now everyone is sure that the bankers are the villains and the borrowers are the victims.

I beg to differ!  For every transaction there are two parties.  Someone had to sign on the bottom line, take the money and move into a house they could not afford (knowingly or unknowingly).  Are we to assume that all these people were gullible or stupid or unable to save for an adequate down payment?  Is this a fair assessment of our fellow citizens?  Assigning the victim label shows either arrogance or shame, feeling superior for having not messed up ourselves or embarrassment for having been so careless.

They weren’t victims.  (Legally questionable acts by the banks disclosed so far have been on the foreclosure side, not on the loan origination side.)  The borrowers were lured by a culture that encourages going into debt to satisfy our current cravings.  The bankers took advantage of a mindset that was already in place – buy now, pay later.  It is a culture we reinforced for years.  Every time we were given an opportunity to buy on credit (not wait and save up), we took advantage of it, rewarding with our patronage the companies that made it possible.  

There was a time when being in debt was a disgrace, an embarrassment.  Not that long ago, people expected to put money down on a house or a car and pay it off over a reasonable period.  They would celebrate burning the mortgage.  The mindset changed to putting as little down as possible to taking advantage of financial leverage, then using the equity to finance our cars, toys and vacations.  We are all paying the consequences of this foolish, risky behavior.

Where would the bankers and brokers be if the majority had acted according to traditional values and expectations?  They wouldn’t be the villains, because there would be no villains.  Remember, there is not a company or a bank that can stay in business without our support, directly or indirectly.  Their business is to get us to freely spend our money on their goods and services.  Following the traditional values may have grown the economy more slowly, but isn’t that better than the roller coaster we have been on?  Perhaps fewer people would have been able to buy houses, but isn’t that better than having millions of houses standing empty?  Is it so terrible to pay rent for a few more years?  Wouldn’t everyone be better off – with the exception of a few bank and hedge fund executives who walked away with huge bonuses based on false profits? 

Who’s to blame?  We are – for lacking the discipline to save before spending and the perspective to distinguish between wants and needs – want a house, want it now, not willing to wait!  Now we want to compound the error by denying responsibility and claiming victimhood, leaving us in a position to repeat the same types of errors (and consequences).  You can say bad things about the evil bankers with their big bonuses, but don’t forget that each of those transactions had two sides!

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Need for Speed

It’s Monday morning and I find a news story about a news story.  The news of Whitney Houston’s death was on Twitter 27 minutes before the mainstream media broke the story.  A whole 27 minutes!  That’s unbelievable!  How could people be kept waiting so long?  Shouldn’t there be some kind of law to prevent such unconscionable delays in communicating these life-changing events?

Of course I’m being sarcastic.  It is rather amazing that Twitter has such a web of interconnections.  The article goes on to cite statistics about the number of tweets and retweets, suggesting that Twitter may become the new source of breaking news.  (The power of the social media is the power we give it.)

My question is:  What’s the hurry?  Why the urgency?  It’s too bad Whitney Houston died.  It’s too bad she had all those personal problems.  She was a great entertainer, admired by many.  But what’s the big deal about finding out 27 minutes sooner?

First, we have been conditioned to expect “breaking news” as soon as it happens – even news that does not affect us directly.  Television and the Internet compete for our attention, and the way to get it seems to be to promise instant gratification for our news craving.  Details can be filled in later, but the important thing, we are told, is to find out about it now.  As implied by a series of recent smartphone ads, if you are the last to know, you are considered some kind of loser.  It’s cool to be able to respond that you already got the word.

Another part of the problem is that people place too much importance on the roles of entertainers.  They spend so much time, money and emotional energy following the output of their favorite performer, group or team that they consider them close friends.  Stars can’t go out in public without people hassling them for autographs or conversation.  Stars want privacy while fans demand their attention.

Our behavior, the importance we place both on celebrity and on instant news, is a symptom of a lack of perspective in our society that leads to problems elsewhere in our lives, poor decisions and misplaced priorities.

When my father died, my brother called to give me the news so that I could make travel arrangements to attend the funeral.  This news was important and personal to me, but if he had delayed the call for 27 minutes, it would have made no difference at all.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dietary Supplements - More Shortcuts?

I am interested in health.  I find, however, that most health-related material in books and magazines, on the news and on the internet offer nothing new, merely repeating the familiar advice:  eat fruit and vegetables; get plenty of exercise and enough sleep, don’t smoke, drink alcohol only in moderation, etc.  We’ve heard it thousands of times, and it makes perfect sense.  If you want to live long and feel good, those are the basic requirements.  There really aren't any reliable shortcuts.

Most dietary supplements fall into this category of shortcuts, preying on our desire to avoid the discipline needed to follow such a plan.  It’s a $5 billion industry, obviously attractive to many people looking for easy answers.  Their subtle message is that by taking a pill or drinking this tea you will make up for your inability to stick with the diet or exercise program and will become more healthy and energetic.

Not only does this undermine our discipline but it calls on our critical thinking to ensure personal safety and avoid doing more harm than good.  Remember from my blog of August 8, 2011 that dietary supplements are not held to the same testing standards as pharmaceuticals in terms of both efficacy and side effects.  It’s left to consumers to ensure they are getting what they pay for.

Here are some examples.  In the first, a company was fined in California for engaging in “false and misleading advertising in connection with the marketing and sale of certain dietary supplement products.”  In the second a company reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission prohibiting (among other things):  making deceptive statements that celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey endorse their products; stating that consumer testimonials reflect typical consumer experiences; making any claim that a product can diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent any disease, including cancer, unless the claim is approved by the Food and Drug Administration; making any claim that a product can cause weight loss, unless the claim is supported by two well-controlled human clinical studies.  Finally, the FTC shut down several phony news advertisements for acai berry pills and fined six marketers saying, “The pills were a scam, and so were the 'news' sites.”

Beyond false advertising, though, there are many examples of these products containing unknown or dangerous substances or containing no beneficial ingredients at all.  Some people are adamant about using these supplements and will not be talked out of it, but they should consider how these costly shortcuts can put them at even higher risk.  A modicum of discipline is clearly the better course of action.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Soup to Nuts

The word is out that the “obesity epidemic” is not subsiding.  There were just as many overweight people last year as there were earlier in the decade.  It’s not getting worse, but it’s not getting any better either.  This is not a problem government can solve.  It’s a personal discipline issue.

The thing about discipline is that it takes work.  The programs are usually easy to understand but hard to follow.  It’s not easy to eat right or find the time to exercise, so when shortcuts come along, we find them attractive.  Why do hard work when an easier answer is at hand?  Give me a pill or a powder or a rubber suit or even surgery instead.  Just read the latest diet book to find the magic answer.  Purveyors of these easy answers serve up solutions with hype and celebrity endorsements, then rake in the money.

One faulty assumption about healthy eating is that organic or all-natural foods are better for you than regular, run-of-the-mill and, by the way, less expensive items.  At the grocery store we see many organic or all-natural alternatives in every aisle.  People spend their hard-earned money on these products to feel like they are doing the best for their families.  As I have warned in the past, it ain’t necessarily so.

That’s why this article caught my attention.  It lists (in the writer’s opinion) the six unhealthiest soups in America along with healthier alternatives.  Note that three of the six soups have somewhere in their name the word “organic” or “natural.”

The point is that discipline is discipline.  We are not going to wish our society back to a healthy size.  There are no magic answers except doing the work.  Shortcuts don’t work to get you thinner.  Some soups are good and some are not so good, and the nuts are the people who read the brand names and assume that organic or natural automatically makes it better.  (Remember, nicotine is also natural.)

By the way, I can’t take the rest of this article or related material too seriously, because at one point he promises, “instant secrets that will keep you healthy and fit all year long,” but conveniently omits the part about you having to do the hard work.  It sounds too much like more shortcuts, and if it sounds too good to be true…

Friday, February 3, 2012

Blame the Sugar

In past blogs I have warned that if we don't begin to change our behavior, especially by acting responsibly, bad consequences will continue.  This may force the government to step in, threatening our freedom.  This idea of a threat to freedom may seem like an abstract concept, perhaps a little difficult to pin down.  Now we have another concrete example.

Published Wednesday in Nature, a study by three scientists from UC San Francisco finds that sugar is as bad for us as alcohol and tobacco and should be likewise regulated.  This article from the LA Times gives the details.  The study's authors make recommendations to the Federal Government including: taxation, distribution controls, age limits, and a limit or ban on television commercials for processed foods containing any form of added sugar.  This is what I mean by loss of freedom.   Besides the alcohol and tobacco restrictions, there have been local bans on transfats.  Today it's sugar.  What next?

This article is interesting because I find the wording, " responsible" near the beginning and "sugar itself is to blame" further on.  How long are we going to let inanimate objects, like sugar, take the rap for us?  If we don't step up and take responsibility for our behavioral failures and begin to make some changes, well-intentioned people will call for government action and our freedoms will slowly erode. Meanwhile, we will be standing around wondering how it happened!