Friday, November 29, 2013

Secret to Good Health

As I read this information from John’s Hopkins on how to maintain good eyesight, it occurred to me that products advertised as the secret to good health must be a scam.

This article from a group of medical experts tells that other than regular checkups, to maintain good eyesight “many lifestyle factors that protect our heart health may also help keep our eyes healthy, including being active; getting enough sleep; controlling blood pressure and diabetes; not smoking; maintaining a healthy weight; and eating a diet rich in fish and leafy, green vegetables like spinach and kale.  Wow, that’s almost the same advice for every other health concern, not only heart health, but also improving the effects of arthritis, preventing chronic illness  and promoting memory and general mental health.

The real secret to good health is that there is no secret.  Health authorities have not been trying to hide anything from us.  There is no big secret "doctors don't want you to know."  In fact they have been shouting from the rooftops at every opportunity.  We are told over and over on a number of issues that if we want to avoid problems and just generally feel better we should:  get enough sleep, eat healthy, drink alcohol in moderation, stop smoking, get plenty of exercise, get enough liquids, use sunscreen, wear work gloves or protective eyewear as appropriate, learn relaxation techniques to reduce stress, brush and floss, wash your hands and get a flu shot.  This should come as a surprise to no one.  We have heard all this advice or subsets of it many times for many years.

The problem with advice like this is that no one wants to hear it.  Americans are looking for the easy way, one that requires little discipline.  So every time a new diet book is published or the doctors on TV tell us about a miracle cure or another health secret, people want to sign up for the program (and send in their money).  They can’t hold an audience by saying the same things over and over, especially when we are so desperate for secrets, so the authors and television personalities must give us secrets.

The real secret is the boring truth – that there is no secret.  Like every other endeavor in life, staying healthy requires a little luck and a lot of discipline to stick to the best course of action.  The rest is distraction.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tyranny of the Minority

I looked several places for a definition of the phrase I vaguely remember from my high school government class, tyranny of the minority, but I found, as you might expect, only references to filibusters, court decisions and politics in general.  It wasn't in that context that I thought about it when I read a couple of news articles last week.  I was thinking more in terms of individuals or small groups that don’t like what is going on and decide to protest, sue or use other means to impede progress or to guilt the rest of us into giving in to their demands.  It’s a kind of take-it-or-leave-it negotiation that should elicit resentment from the rest of us but seems to win out through shear persistence.

One example comes from a story about wild turkeys roaming the streets of Staten Island.  They are clearly pests, described as “fouling yards with droppings, devouring gardens, waking up residents with raucous pre-dawn mating sessions, and utterly disregarding dogs and other supposed deterrents.”  They are not rare or endangered.  Experts estimate that the wild turkey population has grown from 300,000 to 7 million over the past 60 years.  When the Department of Agriculture captured about 80 from a psychiatric hospital and took them to be slaughtered, with EPA approval, citizens objected.  How are authorities supposed to deal with such a problem in the face of what was characterized as “an outcry”?  An animal shelter tried to help out by taking in as many as they could, but it barely made a dent.  So we are faced with people, who think these birds/pests are cute and object to them being killed, trying to force everyone else to accept another solution, while they make no contribution except to scream about what they won’t stand for.

The recent discussion of allowing cell phones on commercial airline flights is developing into a similar situation.  It’s no longer a matter of safety, but flyers are lining up to protest.  This USA Today article quotes one woman as saying, "My answer is quite simple: Absolutely no way. Never…With all the stress of travel, silence on a plane is like music to my ears."  Others have expressed similar take-it-or-leave-it arguments.

Cell phones are common on trains, where people are likewise packed together, although the trip is usually shorter.  In fact, a recent CNN story tells of a shooting on a train in San Francisco where no one noticed the shooter waving around a .45-caliber handgun until the shots were fired, because they were so absorbed with their phones.  Some train passengers have figured out a way to deal with it.  Others have suggested a quiet car on the trains.  But the airline passengers’ answer seems to be “no way,” without considering other solutions, earplugs for example, or a headset pumping real music or perhaps white noise as music to their ears.  No, the easy answer is:  No way – you figure it out.

These are not isolated instances, only examples of a behavior that is becoming more and more prevalent.  A few people protest efforts to rid runways of geese or downtown areas of roaming deer.  They offer no alternatives while expecting others to foot the bill for the additional time and resources spent to satisfy their outrage.  It has forced us to purify public areas of any religious references, no matter how well-intended or innocuous.  They demand gluten-free communion wafers, refusing suggested compromises.  This attitude is really quite common.

American society has reached a point where the battle between my rights/opinion against someone else’s rights/opinion boils down to who can make the most fuss.  If I don’t want you to kill the turkeys or allow others to use their phones, it’s not up to me to compromise or come up with a better plan.  (Note how the same behavior we condemn as disgraceful in government is quite common among everyday people around everyday issues.)  The side that wins is the one who can muster the most support by raising emotional issues like guilt and compassion, calling on general feel-good terms like justice and fairness or claiming offense.  Motherhood and apple pie arguments (the turkey as a “national symbol” or appeals against “cruelty” or the “right” to peace on the plane) trump open negotiations and logical solutions.

In these either/or confrontations, one side eventually gives in.  It may not be the best answer or even the right answer.  It calls to mind the eerily prophetic words of Douglas Adams in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy:  "And that's the deciding factor. We can't win against obsession. They care, we don't. They win."

Friday, November 22, 2013

Howling at the Moon

Last week in yoga class one of the participants arrived looking very pregnant.  The baby was almost due and someone suggested that it would be born within the week because the moon was nearly full - more babies are born under a full moon.  When I hear statements like that I like to say, “Cite your sources.”  Since the studio is located mere blocks from a major university, people knew what I meant:  you can’t just go around throwing out presumed facts without providing footnotes, references or other evidence showing studies that have verified those facts.  Anything else is just hearsay.

It was not too difficult to find information from many reliable sources on the myth of the full moon.  This ABC article interviews a research associate professor from the University of Washington who has studied “more than 100 research papers on the purported effects of the full moon on human affairs.”  His findings are that the widely held belief has no basis.  Most studies disprove the myth and those that seem to support it have design problems, including inadequate sample size, improper use of statistical tools or failure to hold other effects constant.  In summary, well-designed studies have not supported this belief.

Another source describes a study in Canada looking for possible lunar effects on the frequency of visits to two emergency rooms for psychological problems.  “The results of their analyses revealed no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases.”

The myth gained popularity with the 1978 publication of psychiatrist Arnold Lieber's bestseller Lunar Effects: Biological Tides and Human Emotions.  He explained the effect on human psychology by proposing a gravitational pull theory.  The moon causes ocean tides and should have a similar effect on the human body, which consists in large part of water.  The problem with this view is that tides occur every day, not just on those days when more sunlight is reflected in our direction.  The brightness of the moon has nothing to do with gravity.  Researchers also found that the author tended to use only data that supported his theory, omitting other findings.  (As I noted last time, popular, as in bestseller, does not equal true.)

ABC further reports: “Studies have found that cops and hospital workers are among the strongest believers in the notion that more crime and trauma occur on nights when the moon is full. One 1995 University of New Orleans study found that as many as 81 percent of mental health professionals believe the myth.”  Another study in southwestern Pennsylvania found 69 percent of surgical nurses believed that a full moon led to more chaos and more patients, while only 23 percent reported themselves as being superstitious.

Trust me, saying “Cite your sources” does not make you the most popular guy in the room, even in yoga class where folks tend to be a little more mellow.  But if no one challenges these superstitions and outright falsehoods, America will become more ignorant and misled.  This is not the kind of critical thinking populace we genuinely need.

Whether the full moon has influence is really a trivial matter, but similar instances of misinformation that are passed along in the same way and accepted on faith can have deadly consequences, as when parents forego having their children vaccinated. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Popular Means Good

Is it true that if something is popular it must be good or right?  Cicero didn’t agree when he wrote, “I am of the opinion, that though a thing be not foul in itself, it cannot help to become so when commended by the multitude.”  Wow, strong words, and even a bit snobbish, but our word vulgar is derived from the Latin word vulgaris, pertaining to the general public.

Although ancient Romans may not have had a high opinion of popularity and what is popular, the opposite is true in modern America.  Advertisers try to get us to buy their products, not based on their merits, but on the endorsement of our neighbors and fellow citizens.  This car is the most popular.  That television show is a surprise hit.  This brand is the best-selling toothpaste.  Another video (of cute kittens or puppies or someone dancing as if he’s riding a horse) has gone viral.  Evening network news programs sometimes close with the day’s most popular video for anyone who missed it, as if this were something wonderful and newsworthy.

Popularity is looked on so favorably that popular people are allowed, even expected to express opinions in areas where they have no expertise.  Celebrities take sides in political campaigns and on political issues like gun control and energy policy.  They tell us which animals to save and which diseases should receive more funding.  As a result, the amount spent on major diseases and conditions in the US does not come close to corresponding with the number of deaths or their overall social impact.  Stars represent products that it’s unlikely they have ever tried – do you think Henry Winkler got himself a reverse mortgage?  People who have become famous by being victims of a crime or tragedy are called upon to give their opinions regarding the situation and to recommend remediation.  Parents of kidnap victims or gunshot victims are treated like authorities on preventing kidnapping or on gun control.

Polls on scientific subjects imply that majority opinion is as good as evidence in a search for the truth.  “At least 75 percent of U.S. adults say global warming has been happening…”  A strong argument in favor of global warming was that the majority of scientists agreed that it was real.  On another topic, polls, not science, drive the decision to establish 20 weeks as a cut-off for abortion laws “based on the theory that this is the point at which a fetus can feel pain.  These are a few of many examples where, as in advertising, authorities and advocates try to substitute popular opinion for evidence.

The way these stories are presented only adds to the confusion.  Science is not a voting matter.  Back when most people, including the Pope, thought that the earth was flat and at the center of the universe, that was absolutely not the case.  Voting on a subject may make it the law, but it cannot make it true.  

Movie stars, singers and Facebook friends are no better informed about politics, science or medicine than you or I, especially if we do a little research.  Popular ideas may be right or they may be wrong, but when we start accepting opinions over evidence, the real dangers of social media become clear.  The choice between making a decision based on opinions or based on facts and evidence should be a no-brainer.  It’s OK to go along with the crowd to avoid conflicts or bad feelings about small matters, but on important issues you are more likely to find the truth if you are not persuaded by the popular appeal and think for yourself.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

Insurance and Gambling

Earlier I wrote about how most people associate investing in the stock market with gambling and how that is not necessarily an accurate analogy.  Surprisingly, gambling has more in common with insurance, and insurance is something people rarely hesitate to buy.

Consider the lottery as representative of gambling in general.  People spend money on tickets.  The money goes into a pool.  Out of that pool comes money to support the program (administrative), money paid out (prizes) with some left over (used by the states for designated projects).  A lottery always pays out less than it collects.

Insurance is very similar.  People spend money on premiums.  The money goes into a pool.  Out of that pool comes money to support the company operation (administrative), money paid out (claims) with some left over (profits).  Insurance always pays out less than it collects.

Both cases involve a gamble.  If we play the lottery, we gamble about winning against incredibly poor odds.  If we forego insurance, we gamble that we will be safe and will never need to collect.  That’s why most money managers recommend against such things as extended warrantees on appliances and electronics or life insurance for children.  The risk you are insuring against is very low relative to the cost of premiums.

There are, of course, differences.  An insurance payout comes after a loss – a house is flooded, a car crashes, someone is sick or injured, an appliance malfunctions, or someone dies.  The insurance does not and cannot make things completely right in terms of suffering or inconvenience, but it does provide some compensation to soften the monetary loss.  Given the choice, most of us would rather not be in the position to collect on an insurance claim, but would love to win a lottery. 

The important similarity that many overlook is that in both cases the total paid in (by everyone) is more than is paid out.  The very lucky come out ahead playing the lottery.  The very unlucky (or dishonest or reckless) collect more from insurance than they ever pay in premiums.  For most the lottery is a losing proposition and most pay more over time for insurance than they collect.

That’s why the complaint that I paid for insurance all these years and deserve my money back often results in disappointment.  In most cases you are not investing in insurance; you are buying peace of mind against the risk of some mishap.  It’s a gamble you hope never to win.  So don’t expect to make a killing off an insurance company.  It’s not set up that way.