Friday, May 31, 2013

Sleeping Through Science Class

Last weekend protesters held rallies against genetically modified or genetically engineered food in 52 countries and 436 cities.  I looked into and explained the safety and acceptability of GMO foods back in January.  I urge you to review that essay.   The news article itself reinforces this stance by stating that the controversy continues, “even though the federal government and many scientists say the technology is safe.”

The protests targeting Monsanto, chief supplier of GMO seeds, arose when “founder and organizer Tami Canal created a Facebook page on Feb. 28 calling for a rally against the company's practices.”

Using the Internet, I tried to research her scientific background and credentials.  I found nothing except news of the protests and a single interview where she explains her position.  This interview tells of her fears for the longevity and fertility of her children as they are unknowingly exposed to these (assumed) harmful products.  She, along with other critics of GMO, want foods labeled so that people know what they are buying, “just in case anyone ever scientifically proves in the US that they are harmful.”  (She and the interviewer subtly imply that this will never happen, not on the basis of science, but due to some vague conspiracy.)  Later she says that Kellogg’s Froot Loops are 100% genetically modified and are marketed to children.  Although previously admitting that there is no scientific evidence, she wants everyone to “stop supporting these companies that irresponsibly put out a product that they know will cause harm.”  This leap from no evidence to companies knowing they “will cause harm” is echoed in her drive to make school lunches healthier and to stop providing “poison meals for our children.”

How do you get two million people fired up and marching? – Fear.  People who don’t understand science are being scared into action by other people who don’t understand science, on the off chance that GMOs might someday turn out to be dangerous.  How many other products can be accused of possibly being dangerous in the future?  Are we supposed to be afraid of them all and march to have them banned?  No product or action is absolutely safe.  But based on no scientific evidence, in fact evidence to the contrary, they express a firm belief in certain danger, an almost religious – not a reasoned – fervor that spreads from person to person with nothing behind it except a shared fear of some remote what-if scenario.  Soon large crowds are calling for changes.  This train of thought is too reminiscent of the witch trials of previous centuries.  In the words of Patrick Moore, who has a PhD in Ecology, became one of the first members of Greenpeace and is former president of the Greenpeace Foundation:  “I believe that the campaign of fear now waged against genetic modification is based largely on fantasy and a complete lack of respect for science and logic.”  (From “Environmentalism for the 21st Century” p. 9)

What these people should really be afraid of is the hunger, food shortages, and price increases that will follow as spineless and scientifically challenged politicians succumb to public pressure.  Even a labeling requirement will add costs to our food and will, once again, have a greater negative impact on those least able to afford it.  If we really care about our children and the future of the world, we would do two things:  protect them against the pernicious side effects of these ill-conceived and irrational movements while ensuring their generation receives (and stays awake through) a decent science education.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Health Insurance vs. Auto Insurance

Experts keep discovering problems I pointed out months ago.  It shows the need for more critical thinking.

In February I wrote about the disparity in procedure costs by location.  In April and October of last year  I cited the need for a menu of sorts to display medical costs to promote competition by not keeping patients in the dark.  On May 8 the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a report highlighting the same issues.  “The report shows a joint replacement in Ada, Okla., could cost $5,300 compared with $223,000 in Monterey Park, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles.”  Calls are coming for those very menus.  The report also pointed out, that uninsured people are the ones who usually pay the highest prices due to their lack of negotiating power.  The system is flawed.

The major problem, the design of the system, has not yet been addressed.  It arises from patient isolation.  Insurance companies deal with employers and providers.  We are left out of those discussions and become involved only when told how much we owe.  Discrepancies at that point become your headache, not that of your employer, the government or your doctor.  No one can make this ill-designed system fair and affordable, because affordability depends on cost control, and fairness doesn’t ask us to subsidize irresponsible behavior.  The current system misses on both points.  

As it is today, the payer is looking to reduce costs by simply paying less.  One example is the Medicare reductions in payments to providers.  Another is that as states develop their Affordable Care Act plans, some are allowing insurers to charge patients “a hefty share of the cost for expensive medications used to treat cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and other life-altering chronic diseases.”  An example many are familiar with is the transfer of costs from employer to employee.  Cost are shifted rather than controlled and no one is held accountable for abuses within the system due to poor management or poor consumer choices.

One suggestion for an alternative design looks to auto insurance for some answers.  You purchase and hold the insurance.  Although a repair facility might bill the insurance company directly, you deal them on all claims.  Drivers have the opportunity to change insurance companies at any time, which keeps them more competitive, forcing them to work to keep overall costs down.  You can also make better choices because people who work on your car are required by law to give an estimate and get your permission before doing initial work or any extra work that comes up.

Second, auto insurance is behavior-driven.  Although the safest drivers do, to some extent, subsidize the rest; bad drivers generally pay more.  At least one company has a program offering special rates to drivers who are willing to have their driving monitored by a computer plugged into the car.  Another offers rebates for accident-free driving.  Likewise, to make health insurance affordable to all, healthy people must subsidize the seriously ill, but there is little recognition (other than a penalty applied to smokers) of behavioral contributions.  Is it fair to be forced to contribute to the recovery of the guy who got drunk and drove his ATV into a tree, the cost of a high-blood-pressure patient who refused to change his diet or the bills of the elderly widow who sees the doctor weekly primarily as a social outlet?  Many health issues are unavoidable, but some others are long-term consequences of faulty behavior.  What if some portion of health insurance premium reflected diet, lifestyle, bad choices and risky habits or hobbies?

If an outside entity – employer or government – wanted to assist with such insurance, they could provide a set subsidy, same for everyone.  Cost above that would fall on the insured and would be dependent on habits and behavior.  How that is measured and how intrusive it would be are open questions, but I suggest that such a system would be superior to the one we have now.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Are Gadgets Making us Dumber?

A classic plot in movies and novels is the scientist who invents a revolutionary device and is caught in a dilemma.  His discovery can be used for great good or for tremendous evil.  What should he do?  This is not only the work of fiction but happens in life.  The most striking example is atomic energy, which may be used to power large cities or as a bargaining tool by a despotic ruler of a rogue nation.  On a more mundane level, do you suppose the people at Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, Twitter or Facebook agonized over whether their technological contributions to society would cause harm to people? – Probably not, but now we find out the dangers of too many gadgets.

Beyond the danger of texting while driving and other irresponsible behavior, beyond the simple erosion of attention span, even beyond the common issue of addiction to a smartphone, new research finds that the constant distractions of our various gadgets actually impede our ability to be creative and to efficiently process information.  All these issues, of course, involve behaviors related to discipline.

It turns out that multi-tasking is not a cool and useful talent to acquire, as we have been led to believe.  It should be considered a weakness, not a strength.  "Multitasking while doing academic work — which is very, very common among young people — leads to spottier, shallower, less flexible learning." One study found that constant interruptions reduced scores on a test of cognitive abilities by 20%.  Another showed that the interruptions were, to a large extent, self-imposed.  Students observed during study time with access to computer and phone spent only 65% of the time actually working, despite knowing that they were being observed.

Further research “shows that multitasking can have long-term harmful effects on brain function.”  Contrary to the researchers expectations, multitaskers do poorly on experimental tests and “even when they focus on a single activity, frequent multitaskers use their brains less effectively.” 

For most people taking on more than two tasks at a time increases the likelihood of errors.  It reduces concentration and increases stress.  Even when you’re not driving, the phone and e-mail can wait.  It’s another area where stronger behavior in the dimension of discipline can have a long-term positive impact on your life.

Read more from one of the researchers in this transcript of a discussion on NPR.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Who's on First?

Why have we become so enamored with the idea of firsts?  Not just ordinary firsts, like the first man on the moon, but firsts by category.  Back in March there was quite a stir about the first Roman Catholic Pope from the Americas.  Shortly after that Chris Hadfield became the first Canadian to take command of the international space station, and the President named the first woman director of the secret service.  We now have the first gay to play in the NBA.  Sidney Poitier, in promoting his book on television, was referred to not as a great actor, but as the first African-American to win an Oscar.  Only yesterday Sang-Moon Bae was referred to as the first Asian-born golfer to win a PGA tournament since 2009.   It seems silly now, but I can remember the fuss about JFK being the first Catholic president.

Perhaps one explanation comes from a book by J. D. Trout called The Empathy Gap.  In it he explains how our empathy weakens as it moves from near to far, from local to remote.  Empathy, the capacity to understand emotions being experienced by others, helps us identify with them and increases our willingness to help those who may be suffering.  Humans in general are more prone to identify with and more willing to help, first their family and friends, then neighbors, then people nearby, and so on.  In addition, a number of studies suggest that we feel more attachment to those who are similar to us in personality, values, experience, and even race.  Trout goes so far as to say that we identify more with the present self than the future self, caring more about the wants of today, hence finding it difficult to save for retirement.

This natural reaction leaves us in a situation where the recent federal sequestration leads to complaints about the waste of foreign aid, “surely the most unpopular item in the federal budget,” while Americans are in need.  It drives charities to enclose pictures of suffering children in their mailings to help bring home, so to speak, their need.  It inspires those headlines about the firsts by category, in an effort to make people in that same category feel proud or inspired or included.

We should look forward to a day when there is less emphasis on categories and labels, when we can more easily identify and feel attachment, as we describe behavior independent of characteristics.  After all, “individuals from different populations can be genetically more similar than individuals from the same population.”  There is no scientific basis for this distinction by sex, color, language, or outward appearance in matters of business, attachment or identity.  As I’ve said before, the only reason for EEO laws is ignorant managers placing their own comfort above customer and shareholder needs by hiring or promoting those similar to themselves instead of those who can best do the job.  

The end of these firsts will be a sign that we’ve moved beyond judging people by their color, sex, religion or other irrelevant labels.  Heroes will be heroes; role models will be role models; and those with faulty, destructive or criminal behavior will not be defended by members of their own group based on this outdated reasoning.