Monday, July 28, 2014

Rewarding People for Playing Dumb

On January 11th of this year the Surgeon General’s Office celebrated the 50th anniversary of the initial report linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer.  Since then they have issued 32 tobacco-related reports and warnings emphasizing the dangers of smoking and tobacco use in general.  Joining them has been virtually every medical professional and fitness program.  No one advocates smoking; everyone encourages not smoking; most insurance companies, health and life, charge a penalty to tobacco users, reflecting their exposure to increased risk of sickness and death.  You would have to be living under a rock to have missed the message – or not!

The news this month includes a story about young adults who are misinformed about the dangers posed by tobacco and hookahs.  As cigarette use continues to decline, hookah smoking is on the rise.  “Hookah smoking can be just as dangerous as cigarettes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, [a new UCLA] study found that many young adults believe the water pipes are a safe alternative to cigarettes.”  More than half believed that the water or the fruit flavor filtered out the bad chemicals or that they used a different kind of tobacco. 

Computer- and Internet-savvy young adults need only take a quick trip to the CDC website to get accurate information.  “Using a hookah to smoke tobacco poses serious health risks to smokers and others exposed to the smoke from the hookah.”  Beneath this headline are more than a dozen bullet points specifying the dangers.  Is this a case of sheer laziness?  More likely it’s related to the societal habit of accepting evidence from family, friends, social media or the press when it reinforces a desirable belief and disregarding even expert advice when it challenges those beliefs .  Like resistant teens, they don’t want to hear it and turn it off.  Unfortunately society not only practices and endorses this behavior; we actively reward it.

Consider the case, also this month, of a Florida jury awarding punitive damages of over $23 billion “to the estate of Michael Johnson Sr., who died in 1996 from lung cancer after years of chain smoking [cigarettes].”  The attorneys for the family contend that this will stop Big Tobacco from lying to consumers, or at least make them think twice before they continue to lie.  They must be on guard knowing that some juries will believe any fairytale as long as it give them a chance to favor the little guy against the big, evil advertisers.

How can anyone pretend to be so stupid or uninformed as to not know that smoking, especially chain smoking is bad for you?  Cigarettes and other tobacco use causes cancer.   Remember, we have known this for over 50 years.  That smoking was not a particularly healthy choice was known for many years before that.  How can juries be convinced that people who smoke are not consciously putting themselves at risk?  It would be laughable if it were not so scary.  It’s fortunate that some big advertiser is not telling people that jumping off cliffs is perfectly safe.  We might find ourselves reading about people lying dead at the bottom of cliffs with their relatives suing (and winning) exorbitant amounts to stop the lying.  If you want to talk about victim mentality, a shortfall in responsibility, this is a good place to start.

With this mindset in our society, why should we expect those young adults who socialize in the hookah bars to make better decisions?  It is apparently not their job to investigate their assumption about the safety of this different delivery method for their tobacco.  It must be up to the Surgeon General, the CDC or the hookah bars themselves to warn them over and over, and when they choose to ignore the warnings and continue the destructive behavior, they or their survivors get to blame and even sue someone else.

Friday, July 25, 2014

What Can Violins Teach Us?

Back in 2010 researchers conducted an experiment at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.  They asked 21 violinists to play three old Italian violins and three new ones to judge which sounded better.  When the experimenters found that the violinists couldn’t tell the old from the new, and in fact showed a slight preference for the new, they searched for reasons to explain it.  After all, there were many theories about the superior craftsmanship and wood quality arguing in favor of the opposite outcome.  Perhaps they tested too few instruments, the acoustics where substandard, or the violinists had too little time to make a valid judgment, less than 30 minutes.

In response to these objections, they asked the same question again this year with a redesigned experiment.  “The researchers asked 10 world-renowned soloists to choose a violin to hypothetically replace their own from a batch of six new and six old Italian violins, five of which were Stradivarius models. In the blind study, the violinist wore dark goggles and tested the instruments in 75-minute sessions, one in a rehearsal room and a 300-seat concert hall outside of Paris. Six of the 10 soloists chose new violins as their preference, and when comparing playing qualities of their favorite new violin and favorite old violin, they rated the new violin higher on average.”  Oops!

This reminds me of my story from New Year’s Eve 2012 about experts’ inability to distinguish fine wines from ordinary, red wine from white wine with red food coloring added, or expensive champagne from the grocery store variety.

Why do we continue to be sucked in by the opinion of these “experts” on subjects that are clearly a matter of taste and personal preference?  Violins can teach us that it wouldn’t hurt to exercise a little more skepticism in all areas.

Monday, July 21, 2014

One More Time on Vaccinations

Another report this month reinforces the need for and safety of vaccinations - as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been telling us for years.  It clearly states:  “Serious complications related to vaccines are very rare, and there is no evidence that immunizations cause autism, according to an analysis of 67 research studies.”  You can’t get much clearer, much more definitive than that, yet people will continue to resist and some of those people, and especially their children, will continue to needlessly suffer – or possibly die.

Like any drug, vaccines can have serious side effects, but for some reason they are singled out.  We read stories about over-use and abuse of pain relievers and other drugs with little or no reaction from the public, but the airwaves are filled with warnings against vaccinations while reports of measles epidemics in the UK and US make the news.

The key is two-fold.  “With the rise of the Internet and the decline of print journalism, anyone can put anything on the Internet."  And they do.  The second factor is that the general public and sometimes scientists themselves act in a very unscientific manner.  Instead of holding a belief until credible and repeated tests disprove the belief, which is a key to the scientific method, they disregard any evidence contrary to their beliefs, no matter how strong and reliable, and seek out and cling to any evidence that reinforces their current stance, no matter how biased or questionable their sources.  Despite the fact that the original study linking autism to MMR vaccinations has been disproved, shown to contain falsified data and had its author banned from practicing medicine, a certain faction still holds to this myth.  Despite the fact that all reputable medical sources recommend annual flu shots for the majority of the population, there are still adamant resisters who will litter the Internet and Facebook with misinformation.

It’s enough to make critical thinkers, people who care enough about their health and that of their families to do a little quality research, look at the rest and quote Pete Seeger:  “When will they ever learn?”

Friday, July 18, 2014

Silicon Valley Diversity

Suppose your house is on fire and you are trapped on the second floor.  You feel the door and it’s very hot, so you know the fire is right outside the room.  You rush to the window and breath a sigh of relief as you see the rest of your family standing on the lawn and a firefighter raising a ladder to your window.  When he arrives at the window you are ready to go, but suddenly notice that your savior is a black man or a Hispanic woman or someone of Oriental descent.  Do you really care?  Your primary concern at the time is whether that particular individual and all the others fighting the fire are the most skilled for the job they are doing, carrying you down the ladder and controlling the fire.  A refusal on your part to go based on race, gender or other characteristics would be foolish and possibly fatal.

Now suppose your rescuer turns out to be a 90-pound teenager.  She has been hired by the fire department to fulfill a requirement based on under-representation of teenagers of small stature.  Of course this last is a ridiculous example, but the point of the argument is that if we are receiving services, any services whether they be exceptional or quotidian, we have a right to expect that the best-qualified people deliver these services.

This comes to mind when I read criticism or even a comment in the press about diversity in Silicon Valley, lately directed at Facebook and Yahoo.   As when the firefighter reaches the top of the ladder to carry you to safety, don’t you want the best-qualified person coding a website or videogame, don’t you want the most user-friendly experience?

Where is the evidence that racial or ethnic or gender diversity is beneficial in this industry or provides better customer service?  It’s usually justified with feelings of unfairness or feelings of some vague incompleteness rather than with hard evidence of benefit, but just say diversity and everyone jumps on board, swearing that it is better than homogeneity by race or sex.  Educators at the college level claim that students get a better education in a diverse environment, but no studies back that up.  You can’t even claim a better education unless you have a standard of measurement for education; and if they do, please share it with the others who are struggling with and fighting about tests to use as a basis of teacher and student evaluations.  Diversity is justified by the fact that everyone feels better about it and no one feels cheated – except possibly the customer or the better-qualified applicant who was excluded.

When you think about it, there is no lamer comment than, “looking around the room you can see the (lack of) diversity.”  Race and sex are so limited in their ability to differentiate people.  How can you quickly glance around a room and distinguish:  introverts from extraverts, night owls from early birds, leaders from followers, calm from quick-tempered, optimists from pessimists, patient from eager, sensitive from boorish, frugal from prodigal, those from rich families from those from poor families, or degrees of intelligence or creativity?  In 1936 Allport and Odbert published a list of 17,953 ”Terms Characterizing Personal Behavior and Personality.”  How simplistic is it to think that the entire range of experiences, attitudes and preferences can be captured by a few physical characteristics!

It’s not a bad thing to remind the Silicon Valley companies that there may be a larger pool of qualified candidates and that discrimination by race or sex is not only illegal but also detrimental to the company itself.  It’s not a bad thing to remind women and those whose race is under-represented that there are good jobs available for people with the right qualifications.  But let’s not automatically assume that the companies in question are foolishly rejecting good candidates based on personal biases or that the webpages and video games would automatically function better and be more appealing merely by adjusting the balance to meet some arbitrarily-set mix of physical attributes.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Tornado Can Kill You

I guess the word has not gotten out about how dangerous a tornado can be, or maybe it’s just a case of poor perspective.  The story was all over the Internet this morning and even made the CBS morning news.  As we hear from this report, “Some World Cup fans in areas of New York and Pennsylvania were irate at a local TV station Sunday for cutting into the last few minutes of the World Cup final to cover a tornado warning.”  They posted several examples of twitter messages, including one that could be interpreted as a veiled threat, “I hope this weatherman has life insurance.”

Is a tornado warning important enough to interrupt the World Cup, or any other sporting event for that matter?  The National Weather Service Forecast Office uses clear  definitions.  A warning “indicates that a particular weather event is imminent or occurring” and is "issued for significant weather events which will pose a risk to life and property” indicating “forecaster confidence of at least 80%.”  More specifically, a tornado warning is issued “when there is evidence based on radar or a reliable spotter report that a tornado is imminent or occurring.”  This differs from a watch, when conditions are favorable but no clear evidence is available.

Even if nothing results, how can people sit on their sofa in front of the TV and declare that watching two other countries' national teams play soccer is more important to them than an imminent risk to lives and property?  Maybe it’s not their own lives and property, only the lives and property of their neighbors or others several miles away within the station's viewing area.  No rational person should be able to look at such a scenario and become irate.  Sure it may be irritating, but it’s only a game!

Perspective should tell us that it’s only a game.  Even if it were the US playing in the World Cup or the Olympics or if it’s your favorite team playing in the Super Bowl or the final game of the World Series, it’s only a game!  Think about how privileged we are to afford to give these games as much time and importance as we do.  Think of how we must have taken that privileged position for granted to the point where we can conveniently forget that tornados can kill while we put sports and entertainment at a higher priority.  It's fine to get emotional and excited as a viewer, but we must never lose track of the facts:  it's only a game and a tornado can kill you.

(Pay no attention to those people rioting in the streets in Argentina.  Americans are not the only ones who need to improve perspective!)