Friday, June 28, 2013

Never Enough

In January 2012, I wrote that Americans 30 to 50 years ago lived comfortably on the equivalent of $50,000 (adjusted for inflation), today’s average income.  They did this by wanting less, buying less and being more satisfied with what they had.  Today’s culture is different.  We work more hours to make more money to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t even like.

Blame it on advertising and the media for persuading us that our wants have turned into needs.  The number of cars and house size of the average family have increased.  We take more vacations and spend money on items that didn’t even exist 30 years ago, but now have become “must haves.”  At the same time we continue to hear how bad the economy is, how everyone is just scratching to get by, with only 24% of the population not living paycheck to paycheck, while 27% have no savings at all.  

That’s why it’s shocking to read stories like this one.  Under the circumstances described above, the initial sentence seems unbelievable:  “DRINKING tap water is essentially free, but even during the economic downturn, consumers have sprung for bottled water, with sales in the United States increasing 6.7 percent in 2012, to $11.8 billion.”  That’s not enough.  It goes on to tell how Nestles is introducing a new premium bottled water called Resource, “aimed primarily at ‘a woman who is a little more on the trendy side and higher-income side’.” 

The latter part of the article that describes the advertising reads almost like a parody.  They are trying to avoid FDA interference by not directly claiming health benefits, which they must prove; but promoting the electrolyte content.  “With the exception of distilled water, all water contains some naturally occurring electrolytes,” but they state it in a way that “allows them to leave it up to the consumer to imagine the benefits that might come from electrolytes.” [emphasis added.]

Step back a minute and be amazed!  Consider that not too many years ago our main concern was whether the (free) water would bubble up high enough when we pushed the button.  Today we must carry around our own bottle (and many public places have removed drinking fountains so as not to compete with their vendors).  Marketers want us to believe that this is not yet good enough, that we must now impress others by the brand of bottled water we carry.  We are talking about water!  It falls from the sky!  What comes from the tap or a public drinking fountain is inspected and guaranteed to be safe.  Water sold in bottles is not, but the label shows how "trendy" we are.

What's next?  Will they next try to sell us bottled air that claims to be better and purer?  With critical thinking and perspective in such a sorry state, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Psychics and the Law

Last time I gave two examples to contrast good science with typical product promotion using marketing hype and anecdotal evidence.  A remedy or practice cannot be considered effective until it has been tested rigidly and without prejudice.  Some people may swear that it works for them, but never rule out the power of the placebo effect; wanting to believe it works is not proof.  In the case of prescription drugs, the FDA is required to oversee and approve testing and ensure proper warnings.  In the case of dietary supplements and some alternative medical practices, we are left on our own to distinguish between truth and myth.  The same reasoning applies to paranormal powers.

This CNN video tells about a self-proclaimed psychic who made a 911 call claiming that 32 spirits had told her the location of missing children.  The police and FBI dug up the yard behind a house greatly disrupting the lives of the family who lived there.  The publicity forced them to go into hiding.  The court now has ordered the psychic to pay $6.8 million for defamation.  The video concludes with a clip of well-known psychic Sylvia Browne appearing on a talk show in 2003 telling Amanda Berry's mother that Amanda had died.  Amada escaped from the house in Cleveland earlier this year.

Despite claims by a study in 2011 of proof of “the existence of precognition - an ability to perceive future events,” that claim was later discredited, no credible evidence exists for such power.  James Randi, a magician and investigator of psychic phenomena, has made a standing offer of $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate psychic powers under controlled conditions.  No one has yet claimed the prize.  Few even try.  They often beg off with predictable excuses of not being in it for the money, not being in the mood, or being unable to perform due to the aura of skepticism that surrounds such a test.  Apparently they prefer to rely on support from their true believers than to settle the question once and for all.  Here is a link to an interesting, but slightly long (14 minute) video of Mr. Randi explaining some of his work to expose fraud.

Meanwhile police and the FBI spend our tax money investigating leads from so-called psychics.  This piece from 2010 lists several examples of missing persons who were found without, even in spite of, help from psychics.  It concludes with the thought, “If people are going to earn fame and fortune from claiming to be psychic, they should be held accountable for their failures.” 

With such a poor track record and no accountability for errors, how does this continue?  Law enforcement is probably too busy to prosecute every crackpot lead for wasting police time.  Citizens have short memories for failures and are encouraged to focus only on the successes.  Many want to believe in psychic powers, and apparently have trouble separating facts from the fictional accounts they see in the movies or on TV.  If the police ignore these “tips,” they may be accused of not doing everything possible. A na├»ve public puts them into a tenuous position of choosing between spending scarce resources on bogus tips or looking like they don’t care about the missing children.

In the long run, it’s not healthy for members of a society to take these psychics seriously.  It’s more money wasted in an economy where we don’t have that luxury.  It’s our time and governmental time wasted, instead of using valid information, brains and talent to analyze and solve our problems.

On the other hand, if you have questionable ethics and want to profit from the gullibility of your fellow citizens, master the art of cold reading, buy a set of tarot cards and set up a business touting your own psychic powers.  You can be wrong as often as you like.  Keep your predictions vague and general, and make sure to publicize widely those few times your guesses turned out to be right.  The rest of us must watch out for these types or pay the price.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Is It Real Science?

Consider these two articles.  The first from USA Today explains the new practice of placentophagy.  New mothers are opting to bring their placenta home from the hospital to ingest as a means of recovering from childbirth.  The second is from Johns Hopkins asking if it is safe to take beta-carotene supplements while receiving radiation treatments for prostate cancer.  On the surface the two seem unrelated, but as a contrast between real science and something else they are very informative.

To explain placentophagy, the first article uses word like “some believe it can help mothers recover from childbirth by improving mood, leveling hormones, increasing iron levels and boosting milk supply” [emphasis added].  “One process now taught nationally was developed in 2005, based on traditional Chinese medicine, said Jodi Selander, founder of Placenta Benefits LTD in Nevada.”  The reference to traditional Chinese medicine ensures automatic credibility with the science-challenged audience.  The quote comes not from an impartial source, but from someone in the business.  Finally comes the celebrity endorsement:  “Kim Kardashian recently announced she is interested in the practice, if it can maintain her youthful looks.”

See how different the second article is.  After providing the reference to the full study in a scientific journal, it goes on to explain the sample size (383 men) and the experimental method:  “The men were randomly assigned to take either beta-carotene (50 mg) or placebo every other day. At a median follow-up of 10.5 years, the researchers found no significant differences between groups in terms of prostate cancer spread to the bones or mortality.”  The summary statement explains the limitations of the findings:  “they apply to a 50-mg dose of beta-carotene taken on alternate days. The safety of larger doses or more frequent use was not examined.”

I think comparing these two stories makes it easy to see the difference between real science and promotion-by-endorsement that is so widespread in the media.  The second is clearly good science, reliable advice to follow.  The experimental conditions have been specified and the findings limited to those conditions.  It is from a known, impartial source with reference to the original study.  The first is a lot easier, though.  You don’t have to worry about any studies or sample sizes, just take the word of Kim Kardasian or the founder of a company who benefits from your decision to spend time and money on what appears to be a fad, another magical cure.  It probably won’t hurt you, but there is no evidence that it will help you either.

Taking action on weak, incomplete or non-existent evidence or unsupported endorsements, whether from friends, family or celebrities, is a potentially dangerous habit.  It wastes money on a host of non-value-added products and services, none of which have good science behind them, and therefore, are likely to be of little value and may easily turn out to be harmful.  A little critical thinking is all it takes.  So how do all these other folks stay in business?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Examining Fatherhood

The day after Fathers Day might be a good time to ask, what is a father?  A couple of stories in the news lately give examples of fatherhood at its worst.   The first is about a 33-year-old man who fathered 30 children by 11 women over 14 years.  He can’t make child support payments plus support himself on his minimum wage job.  The last paragraph of the same article refers to an NFL player, 5 years his junior, who runs a close second with 10 children by 8 women.  Although child support is likely no problem for him, the lack of responsibility in both cases is glaring.  Those 19 women are no less guilty.  It does take two, and they apparently fell into bed with these charming or famous men with no thought about the future consequences of their behavior, or perhaps; in the NFL case, with the intention of using the baby as a meal ticket!

That NFL player is not an isolated instance.  Another article resulting from the same Internet search asks why the NFL isn’t cracking down on this kind of player behavior and lists several others in similar situations.

Thinking about this in terms of behavior and consequences, especially societal consequences, setting aside the (NFL) role model and morality issues, such behavior shows problems in responsibility with an immediate economic burden on the whole society. 

The irresponsibility is very clear in the first case, but this is just one extreme example of the behavior of many.  A man with only a minimum wage job has not earned the right to father one child, no less 30.  We are not a society of animals where the urge to procreate trumps the resultant responsibilities.  In some species, the males mate and then leave the mother to raise the offspring.  Others lay eggs and walk away, leaving the hatchlings to fend for themselves.  Responsible humans raise children to adulthood.  Sorry, that’s the way it works – or the way Nature intended.

These men seem to think they can walk away, leaving the women to raise the children often with the government acting as the surrogate breadwinner, using taxes collected from responsible Americans.  Even if they can provide the financial support, they avoid an obligation that results in society living with the consequences.  Many studies show that “children who grow up apart from their biological fathers do less well, on average, than children who grow up with both natural parents. They are less likely to finish high school and attend college, less likely to find and keep a steady job, and more likely to become teen mothers.”  Other research concludes:  “Children in father-absent homes are almost four times more likely to be poor” and show higher levels of aggressive behavior.  We also are confronted with statistics about food insecurity among children with private and public agencies forced to provide (or subsidize) breakfasts, lunches and summer meals to keep the children nourished and relatively healthy. The fathers’ irresponsible behavior leaves their families at risk and society to pick up the pieces.

Don’t let the women off the hook.  Family instability results from the behavior of both parties.  Some women have decided to have “a child on their own rather than settle for a man who isn’t likely to be a good and loving husband or parent.”  This is not limited to those who can financially support the child.  Despite what the Single Mothers by Choice organization might imply, the US Census Bureau reports that nearly 40% of non-marital births occur in households with an annual income less than $25, 000.

The most troubling thing about the situation is that society seems to ignore and enable the situation.  The man who fathered 30 is getting attention from interviewers, and the article seems to treat the whole situation in a lighthearted way, as if this guy set some kind of record.  It’s not treated as a problem.  Perhaps he gains some notoriety, but the fact that he promised to stop four years and nine children ago shows that he feels no shame – not surprising in a society that puts so much emphasis on self-esteem that shame is a no-no.  What he has done is not against the law, and it’s pretty futile to try to legislate morality; but how do we provide all those children a means of escaping the cycle of poverty? 

A review of a recent book on the subject summarizes the dismal conclusion:  “Single parents are here to stay, and their worsening situation is tearing at the fabric of our society. It is imperative, the authors show, that we shift more of the costs of raising children from mothers to fathers and from parents to society at large. Likewise, we must develop universal assistance programs that benefit low-income two-parent families as well as single mothers.” [Emphasis added.]  In other words, the Harvard/Princeton authors, “based on four national surveys and drawing on more than a decade of research” endorse burdening society with the consequences as the only solution, thereby enabling the continuation of this reckless behavior.

It all comes down to individual responsibility.  I’ve written in the past that giving up responsibility leads to more government regulations and loss of freedom.  This issue has a different twist where other’s lack of responsibility leads to a continuing cycle of deeper government dependence for some, supported by the taxes of the rest – a bad outcome for everyone.