Monday, December 28, 2015

Happy New Year

Every year around this time, it seems I run into a story about champagne.  I don’t think it is a coincidence.

In 2012 I wrote about price deception, how the expensive bottles are not significantly better than those of average price.

In 2013 I told of people with unusual perspective who pay outrageous sums, collect and hoard bottles of “rare” vintage.

So in keeping with what has become a tradition, almost – what was I thinking last year? – here is another sample of bubbly news.

From a 2013 study: “Scientists at Reading University say that a regular dose of bubbles can help in the fight against brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.”  They did some experiments on rats.  “The rats that had no Champagne had a 50% success rate [rerunning a maze], but this went up to 70% in the rats that had Champagne in their diet.”  At the time they were looking for volunteers to participate in the three-year study to see if humans would experience similar benefits.  Critical thinkers would not be surprised at the last sentence pointing out that it was the first time such a link was found and that a lot more research is needed.

Another posting, undated unfortunately, list half a dozen benefits of champagne from an ingredient in a skin treatment to a surefire way to improve your mood – they don’t seem to be too embarrassed to state the obvious.  It also features health benefits from a study at (you guessed it!) Reading University.  “Champagne and other sparkling wines can reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke because the polyphenols (plant chemicals with antioxidant properties) in bubbly help lower your blood pressure.”  Again further study is probably needed.

So that’s the reminder of the day from a big champagne fan.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to spend the rest of the day filling out a job application to work at Reading University.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Perspective Trick

Part of the skill of perspective is the ability to slow down and evaluate what is really important, to take a deep breath and not panic over the small things.  To do that it is necessary to be able to identify the small things, to distinguish the important from the trivial.  There is no better time than Christmas, when we are reminded of the real meaning and discouraged from spending money on lots of things, instead spending money and time on the important people in our lives.  We should appreciate what we have in terms of relationships, stepping away from the competition at work and within peer groups.

So for a tip on perspective I turn to my three-year-old granddaughter.  Last weekend we were watching a movie together on DVD.  It was a musical comedy, which I thought would keep her amused.  When one of the first musical numbers came on, she said, “Get up and dance around the chair.”  Now that might not sound like much, but I think it is excellent advice.

Think about how much better off the country would be, if whenever someone was feeling a little sad, they just got up and danced around the chair.  When things aren’t going well in the office, the computer is getting fussy again or the boss is on your case, get up and dance around the chair.  Don’t be a couch potato spending all afternoon glued to consecutive professional football games or bowl games, take a break and dance around the chair!

If the practice catches on, it might even improve the overall health of the country, reducing obesity and diabetes while stimulating the brain with added blood flow.  This could be the answer to the entire healthcare crisis! – or just a way to take a break, slow down and consider whether all the fuss and anxiety are justified.

Try it right now.  I promise not to point and laugh.  It’s Christmas Day; and whether you observe it or not, there is no excuse not to have a merry one!  All you need is a chair.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Confirmation Bias

I heard a commentator recently describe Americans as living in silos.  They get their news from their favorite source, and it is their favorite source because it tells them something they already believe.  They choose their friends based on how much they agree with them.  They “un-friend” those on social media who disagree with their own world view.  They just live in the silo where everything is peaceful and calm, where there is never conflict or disagreement, but where also there is no longer any growth or learning.  The point of the comment was politics, but these days everything is politicized and the comment can easily be extended to all aspects of life and daily decisions.  This activity of believing what is comfortable and consistent with current beliefs and rejecting or ignoring what is not, is known as confirmation bias.

Here is another example of the kind of information that will be accepted by some and rejected out of hand by others.  NBC reports that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, was unlikely to cause cancer in humans.  Now policymakers in Europe must decide whether to extend the current approval period beyond the end of the year.  This comes while environmental groups have been calling for a ban and some businesses have begun to limit its use.  But the EFSA spokesman says:  "This has been an exhaustive process - a full assessment that has taken into account a wealth of new studies and data…unlikely that this substance is carcinogenic."

EFSA scientists worked with experts from EU member states and focused specifically on glyphosate, whereas the study supporting the environmentalists’ objections assessed groups of related chemicals.   Therefore, the findings of toxicity could be related to the other chemicals or some interaction. 

What is interesting in this case is that the EU is typically far less tolerant than the US when it comes to environmental issues, choosing to err on the side of extreme caution, for example their stance on GMOs.  Therefore, for them to make a statement exonerating (in a sense) Roundup is more significant than if it came from another source.  (This information is not inconsistent with my Master Gardener training which does not discourage the use of glyphosate, as long as it is used for the proper purpose according to the label instructions.)

Nevertheless, some groups will dismiss this report out of hand.  The great thing about confirmation bias is that it requires no evidence.  In fact when you disagree, evidence becomes a nuisance.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Buzzwords and Endorsements

Good news for advertisers!  They don’t have to present us with facts or evidence.  They don’t even have to tell us about benefits.  By just relying on buzzwords and endorsements, they get our business.  Sometimes though, it just doesn’t work out well for the advertisers or for the customers.

Buzzwords, which I have also referred to as trigger words, are those words that we have been taught through endless repetition to believe are good, wholesome and healthy.  They are words like all-natural, gluten-free, ancient wisdom, holistic, herbal, alternative, organic and others.  The objective is to create a kind of favorable, knee-jerk response among customers.

For several years Chipotle has been doing this by promoting their commitment to better ingredients—including meat raised without antibiotics, pasture-raised dairy, and local and organically grown produce.  Rather than address each of these premises, let’s turn to recent news about corporate apologies after numerous problems.  Health officials closed one location in Seattle last week, citing “repeated food safety violations within the past year.”  This came not too long after an “outbreak of norovirus at a restaurant near Boston College sickened 141 people. In addition, a widespread E. coli outbreak linked to the chain has sickened 52 people across nine states, including 27 people in Washington State.”  The Wall Street Journal reports:  “Chipotle has experienced five disease outbreaks since July, including a salmonella outbreak involving tomatoes that sickened 64 people in Minnesota.”

In this case it was the locally grown produce used as a buzzword to lure us in, but now they are moving to reduce the uses of those local sources and increase centralized preparation of some vegetables in the interest of food safety.  This centralization comes after already changing their definition of locally grown from farms within about 200 miles of its restaurants to those within 350 miles.

I know locally grown food tastes better.  That’s why I have a garden in my backyard every summer; but when I go to a restaurant, especially a fast food restaurant, I am willing to trade off the little bit better taste for uncontaminated vegetables.

But when advertisers can’t attract us with buzzwords alone, why not add celebrity endorsements?  That always works.

Wen shampoo and conditioner had all that.  Endorsements came from Brooke Shields, Angie Harmon, Ming Na-Wen and others.  CBS news explains that they were “advertised online or on TV as a type of miracle for hair, promising to make it healthier than ever. Instead, the plaintiffs [in a class action lawsuit] claim a litany of problems, ranging from scalp irritation to extreme hair loss.”

How can a miracle in a bottle cause all those problems?  Many studies have shown that the expensive beauty products are little, if at all, better than the common brands, yet people are suckers for these kinds of promises and promotions.  One customer, after learning the hard way, posted on Amazon, "Please don't be fooled by commercials and the paid actresses."

Do we really stand a chance?  As advertisers work every day with focus groups and psychological testing to determine just the right way to cut through our resistance and sometimes our common sense, how can we resist and make good, rational decisions?  Critical thinking and perspective play a role here.  Food can be natural and organic, but nicotine is natural.  We should be careful, but sometimes we go overboard trying to be so careful and correct without understanding the real benefits and dangers that it backfires.  Likewise, there is no miracle for your hair.  Who are you trying to impress?  And if they don’t like you because of your hair, are they worth the effort?

Most of life can be happily led in the middle of the extremes.  Good enough is often good enough – and a whole lot easier, less problematic and less expensive.

Monday, December 14, 2015

They're Still Out There!

Following up on last week’s discussion of fraudsters and sham artists as well as legitimate businesses trying to influence you into buying a product you may or may not need, here is some more interesting information to think about.  The first two are intentional, admitted frauds to test how gullible people can be.  The last presents a healing technique where the inventor seems to be sincere, but…

The Huffington Post reports on research based on a website called “New Age Bullshit Generator” that randomly creates phony, spiritual sayings as a kind of joke.  One Canadian PhD Candidate developed a study to test people’s ability to distinguish between a random collection of buzzwords and pithy declarations of wisdom that have become the New Age fad, often seen on social media as block lettering with a rectangular background.  He found a high correlation in profundity ratings, that is, people had a hard time telling the difference between the two, and he concludes:  with the rise of communication technology, people are likely encountering more bullshit in their everyday lives than ever before, and tells the Huffington Post they should be more skeptical about the bullshit that we presented to them.

The second is from a Time article several years ago about a study of a new form of reflexology.  (Reflexology is related to acupuncture and involves the application of pressure to specific points on the feet, hands, or ears that are believed to correspond to different body organs and systems.  By pressing them the patient receives a beneficial effect on those organs.)  This researcher produced a paper claiming he had discovered similar areas located over the area of the buttocks and sent an abstract to the International Conference on Integrative Medicine.  After they reviewed it, he was invited to the conference to present his findings.  This was a complete hoax.  When sending the abstract he stated that “he would present only case histories, testimonies, and positive outcomes, since his methods did not lend themselves to randomized controlled trials; and he suggested that his ‘novel paradigm’ might lead to automatic rejection by closed minds.”  No one wants to be accused of being closed-minded. 

Finally, a local news report from Massachusetts about a “unique healing system” called Tong Ren.  They tap with a small hammer on a doll marked with energy points.  The idea is that by tapping as a group on a specific point on their individual dolls, they can tap into the collective unconscious and send healing power to an individual.  (I guess they take turns sending healing power to each other.)  Apparently this tapping clears some energy points and is capable of curing almost any disease.  Several people in the interviews are very positive about their results, but these are only testimonials.  There is nothing scientific about testimonials, and it hasn’t worked for everyone.  The session shown is free, but they do accept donations.  There is no indication what the charge is for a regular session.

So we have people who cannot distinguish between spiritual sayings of some modern guru and computer-generated buzzwords, a conference committee who will invite a presentation where the author admits having no scientific evidence and in reality made the whole thing up, and a kind of cross between voodoo and acupuncture to cure every known disease.  The big question is:  does it make a difference if someone is sincere or not, or is bullshit just bullshit?  Our only defense is critical thinking.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Asking the Right Questions

It seems that when faced with information they tend to agree with, news reporters become very sloppy or lazy.  They just lead the interviewee along allowing him or her to make the points, without asking questions to clarify the situation.

This was evident during one interview, as the CBS This Morning team were faced with a study from Consumer Reports about how using antibiotics in animals was harming the food supply.

The point being made was a good one.  Overuse of antibiotics has allowed bacteria to evolve leading to “superbugs” including MRSA and other resistant strains.  “At least 2 million Americans fall victim to antibiotic-resistant infections every year; 23,000 die.”  When antibiotics are needlessly used in healthy animals to promote growth, it merely “teases” the bacteria to mutate into more resistant varieties and these bacteria are passed along to consumers when they eat the infected meat and poultry.  This makes it more difficult to treat people who get sick.  Good farming practices mean using the drugs only for sick animals and good hygiene for the rest.

They showed a table with the results of the food they tested, comparing the amount found with superbugs.  Here is a basic reproduction.

Conventionally Grown
w/o Antibiotics
Ground Beef

One host asked, “How do you label against this?”  That was followed by another graphic with an explanation.  They concluded with a comment that you don’t have to give up meat, but just be careful where you buy it.  The representative from Consumer Reports added, “And make sure you cook it thoroughly."

Yes, we want better and safer farming practices.  We want animals (as well as humans) being given antibiotics only when necessary.  But we are left with the impression that the “non-sustainable” farming in conjunction with the restaurants and grocery stores that are less careful about their sources are the big culprits in this superbug problem.

Look again at the table above.  No one asked why the difference in chicken and turkey seemed much less significant, and what would explain any superbugs at all in the “without antibiotics” category. 

Furthermore, no one asked how many of the 23,000 deaths are attributed to this problem.  In the Consumer Reports article it says, “calculations using data from the CDC show that about 20 percent of people sickened by an antibiotic-resistant bug don’t pick it up in the hospital or from another person—they get it from their food.”  So we are talking about only 20% of the problem!  That information was never clear in the interview.  In fact it was implied that the 23,000 deaths can be attributed to those poorly managed farms who didn’t observe “sustainable” practices.

Finally, the comment about thoroughly cooking the meat ended the segment.  Would anyone venture to say how important this is in the overall problem of foodborne illnesses in general, and to this superbug issues specifically?  That might be important information, except once they heard what they wanted to hear it was time to move on to more important news (like interviewing some celebrity).

Can we trust the news media to deliver the whole story?  At the very least we need to keep a very close eye on them.