Friday, January 30, 2015

Modern Day Snake Oil

Critical thinking has always been important, but now more than ever.  In the past the opportunities to make hasty judgments resulting in small mistakes or losses were somewhat limited.  Today we are confronted with advertising messages, gimmicks and enticements many times an hour for most hours of the day.  Fifty years ago it was limited to newspapers, magazines, radio, television and billboards on the side of the road.  Today we have all those plus ads on every website, ads disguised as news reports, bogus cures endorsed by Facebook friends, spam e-mails, and more – and the roadside billboards are electronic videos.  Marketers continue to do research on how to make their ads more persuasive.  There is so much more stimulus, so many more opportunities to waste time and throw away money.

One example comes in this report from a medical watchdog.  “Illinois-based NourishLife LLC and its owner, Mark Nottoli have agreed to pay $200,000 and to stop making unsubstantiated claims that their dietary supplement products can help children with speech disorders, including those associated with autism.”  Parents are worried enough about autism from all the news reports, and along comes this company preying on their anxiety by boasting a cure.

The FTC complaint specifies that for the past six years they have advertised and sold "Speak" products online and through distributors via the Internet and at autism conferences. They contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and vitamins E and K and sell for $70 per bottle.  “The products falsely claimed to develop and maintain normal, healthy speech and language capabilities and improve behavior in children, including those with verbal apraxia—a motor speech disorder affecting the ability to speak clearly.”

They combined the nutritional jargon with (inaccurate) claims that they were scientifically proven to be effective by independent researchers to add an aura of credibility in order to take advantage of distraught parents.  Generally supplements are banned from making any claims that they actually cure illnesses, but some walk a fine line with slick wording while others, as shown here, just ignore the restrictions all together until caught.

This is just one of many examples of how, especially in the health business, service providers prey on desperate, unsuspecting and naive consumers with false hope for themselves or their children.

More than ever, people are trying to profit by selling us things we don’t need, that don’t work as promised, and that take advantage of the human tendency to react quickly on instinct and emotion.  As technology improves and spreads, the pressure to buy becomes more frequent and more intense; and critical thinking, the bias to be skeptical to slow down and investigate, becomes much more important.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Bottle Your Own Water

It distresses me every time I see someone pushing a cart full of bottled water around the grocery store.  I always wonder what they are thinking.  Don’t they understand that it’s much cheaper and just as healthy and convenient to buy a bottle once and fill it with tap water every day?  While there is so much publicity about Americans who are food insecure, others still choose to spend grocery money in this way.

I recently ran across this excellent posting with a good explanation for those who are not current with the science and will not choose to reject it out of hand because it doesn’t agree with their preconceived position.  (One of the wisest statements I know is Paul Simon’s old song lyric: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”)

The article begins with the different kinds of bottled water, how you can tell the source of the water, and what regulations apply.  In general, the EPA regulates tap water, whereas the FDA regulates bottled water, but only if it is shipped across state lines.  Some states regulate bottled water and the industry itself has voluntary standards.

It then goes on to address the beliefs that bottled water is purer, healthier, tastes better and is the more ecologically responsible choice.

Purity is a difficult thing to measure and prove, therefore, “the FDA prohibits bottled-water manufacturers from implying that their water is ‘safer’ or ‘purer’ than any other kind of water.”  It goes on to say:  “Bottled water sources are typically tested for harmful contaminants once a week at most. Municipal water supplies are tested hundreds of times every month. Tap water may not be perfectly clear, or it may have a slight chlorine aftertaste, but according to the Minnesota Department of Health, those are merely aesthetic qualities that do not indicate the water is unsafe.”

Purity is not as big a deal as the health benefit, but here too, bottled water falls short.  “In May 2005, the ABC news program ‘20/20’ sent five different national brands of bottled water and one sample of tap water taken from a New York City drinking fountain to a microbiologist for testing. The lab tested for contaminants that can cause illness, like E.coli. The results showed no difference whatsoever, in terms of unhealthy contaminants, between the bottled waters and the tap water.”  Other tests have shown the same thing.  The Mayo Clinic advises: “Tap water and bottled water are generally comparable in terms of safety.”  From the National Geographic website:  “Not only does bottled water contribute to excessive waste, but it costs us a thousand times more than water from our faucet at home, and it's likely no safer or cleaner.”  Finally, this CNN article from 2013 concludes:  “if you're buying it because you believe it's safer than tap, you may want to start heading to the sink to fill up your glass.”

Taste is also an issue.  Some people are willing to pay a price 500 times higher for better tasting water.  “But a couple of very non-scientific, blind taste tests have found that most people – or most people in New York City, to be more accurate – can't actually tell the difference between tap water and bottled water once they're all placed in identical containers.”

The biggest drawback to bottled water is that many organizations and researchers consider it an “environmental nightmare.”  From the production operations, to transportation, to disposal of the bottles, to the minimal recycling of bottles, the overuse of resources, the littering/landfill issues, and the associated pollution make bottled water an environmental loser.  This was the National Geographic’s primary objection.

So if you are one of the people who contribute to the over $11 billion in annual bottled water sales, please note that the industry itself does not even claim that it is healthier and safer.  They state it this way:  “Although bottled water has often been likened to tap water, bottled water actually achieved its market stature by enticing consumers away from other packaged beverages perceived as less wholesome than bottled water.”  Perhaps the best advice comes from the Readers Digest article in 2008 to “Rethink What You Drink.”

Friday, January 23, 2015

Different Kinds of Rights

Today we hear a lot of talk about rights, but rights usually imply duties for others.  If someone has a right to something, the rest have a duty not to deprive him of it.  When you think about it carefully, there seem to be two different kinds of rights that have developed in modern society, those guaranteeing non-interference and those that require an investment by others.

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, establishes certain specific rights for the citizens.  They have the right to free speech, religion and assembly.  They have a right to bear arms.  They have a right not to be forced to house soldiers or to self-incriminate.  They have a right not to be subject to unreasonable searches.

These rights are to be enforced by the government and respected by fellow citizens.  These are the first kinds of rights.  For someone to have free speech, it only requires that the government not pass laws to deprive anyone of that right.  Citizens respect that right by letting a person have his say, not necessarily agreeing, but also not coercing or physically preventing him from making his point.  The other rights are similar.  The government leaves people alone, and the people leave each other alone to exercise their rights.

Now we get to the other kind of rights.  "In a country as rich as the United States everyone should have a right to [fill in the blank]."  It is not uncommon to hear rights expressed in these terms.  Using this logic, many have argued for the right to healthcare, housing, food security, retirement, and other things.  Like any rights, these rights come with a duty for the government and fellow citizens not to deprive people of them.  Unlike those in the first example, though, they do not require a leaving alone, but a commitment of resources.  If everyone has a right to housing, and can’t afford to pay for it, someone has to provide the labor and materials to build the house.  If someone who lived paycheck to paycheck for his entire life has a right to a comfortable retirement, someone else has to provide the funds, usually through government taxation.  (My Social Security checks are funded by everyone who is still working today.)  These are not the kind of rights that we merely allow others to exercise; they are rights for others to confiscate, by means of government intervention, part of our production.  That is a big difference.

It is true that in a country as rich as the US, citizens should feel safe and secure, but the US did not become a rich country by encouraging free riders by granting rights to everyone that become the duty of someone else to provide for.  We must have compassion for our fellow citizens that are less fortunate.  But it is a short step from compassion to enabling, and the distinction between less fortunate and less motivated is often overlooked.

This is why the dimension of responsibility is so important.  Clearly, talents are not equally distributed, but if effort is not equally applied, our instinct to be compassionate, when we should be instead setting expectations will lead to degeneration of the culture and bankruptcy of the government.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Oscar Hype and Protest

There is another controversy in Hollywood!  The celebrity news from CBS reveals:  “Not a single person of color was nominated for an acting Oscar…the first time that's happened since 1998.”  Yahoo financial news tells us that as a result of this lack of appreciation, the Reverend Al Sharpton has announced that he is calling an "emergency meeting" next week to address the issue.

Looking at this from the aspect of the key dimensions, many questions come to mind.

From a perspective point of view, it reflects on the importance we place on the entertainment industry.  With recent terrorist activity in Paris and Belgium in the past few days and other real international and domestic problems, is this what CBS considers more real news?  If that is the case, they must assume that the readers and viewers of CBS are well out of touch with reality to move this Oscar hype to the top of their priority list.

From a responsibility point of view, here comes the Reverend Sharpton swooping in to create another set of victims that he can save by holding an emergency meeting.  It seems like he can’t concentrate on one problem long enough to see it through, jumping from one crisis or public slight to the next.  In the future will Black actors wonder when they become nominees or winners, was I really that good, or was I nominated just to keep the protests down and portray Hollywood as fair, open-minded and inclusive?

Critical thinking elicits a slew of questions.  If they consider 10 different movies for either Best Picture or Best Lead/Supporting Actor Male/Female and if only one stars primarily African-American actors, what is the probability that no nominations will be of African-Americans?  (That one I can answer: about 19% or roughly 1 in 5.)  In light of that answer isn’t it more unusual that this is the first time since 1998 – 16 years in a row – that it has happened?  By pure chance it would have happened less often.

More questions involve the implied racism of the people who run Hollywood and who nominate and vote on actors for the awards.  Are they really racist or are they in the business of giving us, the viewing public, the kinds of shows and stars that we are willing to pay to see?  They should be getting more desperate and calculating to do this since “2014 was the worst year for movie attendance since 1995.”  If they saw a chance to make more money and increase attendance and did something else due to their prejudices, wouldn’t it be like a Black quarterback refusing to throw to a White receiver who was wide open in the end zone?

Does even the implication that the Oscars could be driven by a prejudice among the voters strongly imply that the whole thing is pretty subjective – that it’s a matter of taste?  Are the real racists the ones who look at the color of the nominees rather than at their talents, or is this again just a matter of taste with no objective criteria?

The final question is why the public can’t see through this whole Oscar business as one big promotional campaign to get everyone to tune in to a television show and to attend more movies.  All the singing, speeches and jokes are really just one three-and-a-half hour commercial.  Now, watching commercials is not necessarily bad.  Some are very amusing.  Some people watch the Super Bowl primarily for the commercials, but they know that behind the entertainment someone is trying to sell them something.  The same is true of the Oscars, but disguised as a series of genuine awards, awards with no apparent objective basis, complete with the sealed and guarded envelopes to add to the suspense – just more show biz.  But everyone takes it so seriously.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Food Fads and Crazes

I knew a woman from North Carolina who would tell those who seemed to be losing their composure to “get a grip.”  That’s what I wanted to say to no one in particular when I read this Gannet article about food trends for 2015.  Even the idea of having food trends seems to be a solution looking for a problem.

First, they tell us, we have big problems in the kitchen if we don’t have a $6,000, 34 cubic foot refrigerator with an LED temperature gauge and sparkling water spigot built into the door.  Other must-haves include same-day home grocery deliver and a special scoop to ease the drudgery of skimming the fat from the soup broth.

Alas, for 2015 we find out that quinoa is out and kaniwa, “sourced primarily from the Andes Mountain region of South America,” is this year’s super-food, “high in protein, fiber, iron and calcium” and gluten-free!  In the search for a better sweetener, “coconut sugar is making its way onto the scene.”  Actually, all things coconut are in fashion as part of the Paleo food trend.  Almonds are out and pistachios are in along with Nduja, spreadable salami.  (These food trends are so revolutionary that my spell-check doesn’t recognize many of them!)

The report goes on to talk about the latest variety of apples, new drinks and restaurant trends.  Are these foods about healthy living or are they more like the luxury handbag, the point being to be seen and to make a statement about how cool you are?  It would be laughable, except that so many people are taken in by these trends and fads, usually to the detriment of their finances with no discernable effect on their health.

Speaking of being taken in by food fads, another article appeared in researching the above trends.  Cosmopolitan Magazine published “10 Food Trends That Need to Die in 2015.”  They need to get out of the way, because (1) they were more hype than substance and (2) they must make room for the next wave of fads.  Topping the list were Juice Cleanses (“There's no evidence that the body requires or remotely benefits from random detox diets”) and Gluten-free (“Gluten-free pastas, snack foods, breads, and treats aren't necessarily lower in calories or be [sic] any healthier than gluten-free foods. They just tend to cost more.”)  The rest of the list of trends to drop is informative as well.

There’s more news on gluten-free. finds that although, 63 percent of people surveyed thought that following a gluten-free diet would improve physical or mental health, they are wasting their money.  Gluten-free is not recommended for six reasons:  not more nutritious and may be less so; probably increases exposure to arsenic; increases risk of overweight/obesity; costs more; may mask a serious medical condition; and is not always pure – may contain gluten despite what the label says.  Of course, I told you about gluten-free being a pricey fad and not a miracle discovery back in August.

Let’s get some perspective (get a grip!).  What are people trying to prove with these food fads and trends?  It may be just showing off.  It may be looking for the easy way out, a guarantee of good health without having to do the hard work of diet and exercise.  It could be a secret dread of death or illness.  It could be fear of taking any chances with the family diet and fear of the resultant guilt if “I didn’t do everything possible.” Whatever it is, it seems to be way out of proportion and based on emotional decision making, behavior weak in the dimensions of perspective and critical thinking.  It does not reflect an appreciation and gratitude for the good food, like fresh (ordinary, not exotic) fruit all year round, that was less available just 50 years ago.  It certainly doesn’t reflect the idea of moderation that is a hallmark of perspective.