Monday, December 30, 2013

Celebrating the New Year

One year ago I wrote about champagne, how one brand is just about the same as the next.  The main differences between the expensive bottles and the ordinary were the time before it went flat and the prestige, how important it was to show off or impress your friends.  Critical thinkers with perspective understand that it’s a waste of time and money to buy expensive stuff just to impress others.  Nearly on the anniversary of that advice CBS presents us with an even more outlandish example.

Featured on their Sunday Morning show the weekend before Christmas was the problem of wine counterfeiting!  It centered on a man of substantial means who had “invested” about $4.5 million in 421 bottles that were, as he described them, “definitely fake.”  (This implies he owned other bottles of wine that may also be counterfeit, but wasn't sure yet.)  Some of the bottles were inscribed to indicate that they had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  In the story he showed the reporter around his house, pointing out the rare and expensive art on the walls, and then around the wine cellar pointing out counterfeit bottles.  He is now pursuing legal action against the people who faked the bottles.

Buying rare and expensive wines is an interesting hobby if you have the means to do so, but it makes me wonder if the world has run out of better uses for the millions spent on expensive wines (and the lawyers to pursue counterfeiters).  It seems an obvious effort to impress someone – friends, neighbors, enemies, or self.  This behavior, the need to show off to such a degree, indicates a high level of personal insecurity.

It brings to mind the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  Why would some people pay tens of thousands of dollars for a single bottle of wine, no matter who previously owned it?  Why do others pay millions for paintings by impressionist artists?  A Pissarro painting will be auctioned soon for an expected $15 million, that’s almost $20,000 per square inch.  (You could visit a museum everyday for a thousand years and not spend that much.)  What makes it worth so much more, in terms of pleasure to the viewer, than a well-done painting by a local artist?  What, for that matter, makes a few squiggles on canvas by the current darling of the art world worth anything?  Art critics, wine critics and the experts, just like the emperor’s nobles, have a vested interest in the hype, their own status and maintaining the egos of those foolish enough to pay these outrageous sums.  When anyone challenges this silliness, he is ignored or belittled like the child and crowd in the story – “The Emperor…thought, ‘This procession has got to go on.’ So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all.”

As for me, counterfeit wine and fine art are not considerations.  I will exercise critical thinking and perspective by moderately indulging in a reasonably priced champagne to celebrate the New Year.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Paying More for Burgers

It’s interesting how news items often omit relevant information, expecting the readers to put it all together.  An example comes from the year-end news that beef prices are expected to rise in 2014 by 3 to 6 percent overall.

It goes on to focus on ground beef, which has risen 30% since 2010.  They give the opinion of one of the experts about future prices:  “After climbing 18 percent over a year ago, Zimmerman expects ground beef prices to rise as much as 10 percent next year.”  Hence, our burgers will cost even more and the price increase far outpaces ordinary inflation and expected pay raises.

With the costs increasing, people are eating less ground beef, but it still takes up a larger portion of their food budget.  One reason for its popularity is that it is versatile and easy to prepare.  With lower demand, the price increase must be tied to tighter supply.  Some of that can be attributed to the 2012 drought and pressure on corn prices from the diversion to alternative fuels, but is that the whole story?

What’s not mentioned is the commotion about 20 months ago when a television chef referred to finely textured beef filler as “pink slime,” a product that has been in the food supply for years with no ill effects, a product that reduces food waste and increases the beef supply.  That derogatory label and the power of Social Media drove many to join that movement to oppose its use in ground beef.  Grocery chains reacted to the pressure and changed procurement practices causing some producers to go out of business.  This public knee-jerk reaction to an unscientific and intentionally sensationalized “crusade” not only cost jobs, but now may have contributed to higher grocery prices for us all.

This is the meaning of societal behavior leading to societal consequences.  Much as some people may use conspiracy theories to place blame for unexpected price increases, the real reason behind the movements is the operation of supply and demand, and the reactions of a misinformed society often influence those factors.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Don't Be Fooled Again!

By remembering behavior, it is possible to not be fooled or surprised as often.  As I pointed out last June, when I wrote “Hear It Here First,” many of the results (consequences) that I warn of turn up in the news, in one form or another, weeks or months later.  We should have seen it coming.  Here are a few more examples.

On September 3, 2012 and May 6, 2013 (and 9 other times) I warned of and gave examples of the serious consequences of failures in parental responsibility.  When parents don’t do their job it affects education and many other areas, but worst of all, it teaches children to act the same way.  I have shown how, when responsibility is weak, people look for excuses to forgive themselves, and we as a society don’t hold them accountable.  Now we are faced with the claim that a Texas teen “was blameless for driving drunk and causing a crash that left four people dead in June.”  His excuse was that he was pampered by his affluent parents and has grown up not knowing how to act responsibly.  He was sentenced to 10 years probation and no jail time.  Many upset people saw this as a travesty.  Since when is being spoiled rotten considered a disability?  But what else should we expect in a society where people have blamed cigarettes and hot coffee and won in court; where we now consider obesity a disease; where we are willing to label any number of weaknesses as addictions; and where we blame our problems on inanimate objects like sugar, TV, and diet colas.  Blaming affluence for criminal behavior is just another such example.  Based on past observations, it shouldn’t be surprising.

Earlier this year I wrote at least twice (July 5 and September 20) about how Americans are wasting billions of dollars on multi-vitamins and that the best option is to get vitamins and minerals through a healthy diet.  Last Monday’s news reported that vitamins are not recommended for most and have been shown to be ineffective against memory loss, heart disease and other chronic diseases.  This ABC article provides a quote from Annals of Internal Medicine:  "Evidence is sufficient to advise against routine supplementation."  It is clear that the “main nutrition problem in the U.S. is too much fat and calories” not lack of vitamins.  If you think about it, the term used is "recommended daily allowance (RDA)," which is vague enough to indicate that they don’t really know the best dosage, but getting too much is dangerous and buying unneeded supplements is wasteful.

Finally, last month marked the passing of Sylvia Browne, noted psychic.  She was 77, but once predicted that she would live to be 88.  In an interesting test a number of years ago, a researcher/skeptic asked 31 fourth-grade students to guess the outcome of 11 events that Ms. Browne predicted for the year 2005.  At year's end they found that she was correct in only 3 cases.  The students fared much better as one made 8 correct predictions, and 28 out of 31 guessed made more than 3.  Perhaps we should be looking for a replacement psychic in the fourth grade, or instead use our critical thinking to dismiss any claims of so-called psychic powers.  (Also see my comments from June 24, 2013 and September 7, 2012.)

These examples each week are meant to show similarities in behavior so readers can begin to classify them by dimension and see how one particular weakness shows up in many seemingly diverse actions.  Not until we recognize the patterns, can we look for solutions.  It also keeps us from being surprised or fooled by outrageous news stories.  They are usually just another example of failures in one of the same five dimensions, failures that, if not addressed, will continue to lead us on the downward societal spiral that most Americans find so distressing.  It’s also not unusual to see references to the same problems here, months in advance.  Past behavior predicts future behavior.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

Is US Becoming a Third World Country?

Lack of science literacy, which I have commented on before, is more than knowing that gasoline explodes and should be handled with care.  Not understanding science and medicine leads to serious problems.  Children are dying.

When we look at news reports from less-developed countries about how superstition and religious zealots stand in the way of good medicine, we may feel a mixture of sadness and superiority, sadness because people, especially children are sick and dying for no good reason, superiority because Americans know better.  Reports from Nigeria tell us that gunmen “suspected of belonging to a radical Islamic sect shot and killed at least nine women who were taking part in a polio vaccination drive.”  The attack “signaled a new wave of anger targeting immunization drives in Nigeria, where clerics once claimed the vaccines were part of a Western plot to sterilize young girls.”  Elsewhere, polio vaccines find violent opposition because “some mullahs have preached against it, claiming falsely that the oral vaccine leaves Pakistani children sterile.” 

Americans would never act like that, or would they?  Fear of Autism from a long-ago-discredited report claiming a connection with MMR shots leads many parents in the US to oppose the vaccinations.  Recently this has led to a tripling of measles cases in the US, where the disease had been nearly wiped out, as it was brought in by travelers from overseas.  For the facts showing that the supposed MMR-Autism connection is untrue, see my April 19, 2013 comments.

Flu shots are wrongly associated with all kinds of bad side effects.  If that were true, it seems strange that doctors and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would recommend flu shots every year.  Conspiracy theorists will say that they are in league with the drug companies who make the vaccine, that they are willing to put the health of many people at risk just to make a profit.  Here is a link to a site addressing those concerns.  It dispels 25 of those myths that keep people away from the flu vaccines, decisions which contribute to the deaths of thousands.  The CDC lists influenza as the 9th leading cause of death in 2011 with over 50,000 cases.

Similarly, parents refuse to get their preteens HPV shots.  On December 4 Katie Couric aired a show on this.  She admitted getting her daughters vaccinated, but for the sake of good television presented both sides of the issue.  Prior to airing, the show “teaser creates the false impression that the vaccine can kill, despite the fact that no evidence supports that conclusion. It also puts forth the idea that there is a controversy around the vaccine. There is certainly a vocal minority asserting that the vaccine is dangerous, and social conservatives who vilify the vaccine due to religious beliefs, but these are not real controversies.”  Such TV shows excuse their format as presenting both sides of a controversy.  On one side we have medical evidence, on the other side opinions of non-experts.  There are not two sides, only the truth.

Finally, some parents are denying newborns Vitamin K shots for fear of Leukemia.  Again they have been giving erroneous information, as this link makes clear.

When we see stories of children dying in third world countries due to lack of vaccinations based on false assumptions, misinformation, religious prejudices and ignorance, we have every right to feel sad – but superior?  I don’t think so.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Don't Trust Opinion Polls

The information from opinion polls is unreliable.  That is not always the result of poor polling techniques, inadequate sample size or leading questions.  The primary reason opinion polls are unreliable is that opinions are unreliable.

Take, for example, the latest release from CBS News analyzing polls about guns laws in the US.  The article provides a table showing the change in opinions over the last two years.  Those who favored stricter gun laws were 46% in January 2011.  After dropping to 39%, they increased to a solid majority of 57% immediately after the Sandy Hook Elementary School incident in Connecticut.  Now, a year later that percentage is back down to 49%, almost where it began.

What facts have changed over that period?  There was a shooting in the theater in Colorado in July 2012 and in Newtown, Connecticut last December.  There were really no major incidents over the last year other than the trial last summer of George Zimmerman for the Trayvon Martin shooting, which occurred in February 2012.  It is impossible to explain such variability of opinion over that period except to say that it was based more on emotions and feelings than on facts.

Such results make it very clear why the news media, advertisers and politicians work so hard to get us feeling angry, scared, insecure, or even inspired.  They count on us to make decisions, make purchases or cast ballots, before the critical thinking kicks in.  In highly charged cases like gun control, for some people the critical thinking never kicks in, but others seem to eventually settle back to their original assessment.  In most cases there is a period, and psychologists have done many experiments to prove it, when feelings and judgments are very much influenced by recent exposure to positive or negative experiences.  These experiences may be personal, or they may be intensive news coverage or peer pressure.  Scientists have even shown that locating polling booths in a school makes voters more likely to favor school-related referendums.

Though it’s clear that opinion polls must be taken with a grain of salt, how many of our laws and election outcomes are a result of this short-lived irrational behavior?