Friday, July 31, 2015

Obituary for a Lion

Why do Americans care more about a dead lion than dead humans? 

It was all over the news, print and broadcast as well as social media.  Cecil the lion, part of an Oxford University research project, was killed in Zimbabwe by a Minnesota dentist for sport.  CBS news showed a clip of Jimmy Kimmel choking up as he spoke out against the hunter, proving that “not only is he one of the funniest men on TV, but he is also one of the most decent.”  He went on to ask for donations to support wildlife conservation.  Local residents are laying stuffed animals at the dentist’s doorstep and at his office in protest.

Though the killing of a lion tagged for research purposes is a contemptible act, does it deserve that much attention?  On that same day a remotely detonated blast in Bahrain “targeted a bus carrying policemen near a primary school for girls,” killing two police officers and wounding six.  But the bomber only killed foreign police and endangered Arab schoolgirls – not the same as Americans or a “beloved” lion.  Where is the outrage; where are the late-night tears?

About a week earlier “a suicide bomber with an ice truck lured more than 100 people to their deaths” in Iraq.  But they likewise were not Americans or a beloved lion.  Go to the CBS News website and search on “Iraq-Bombing-Ice-Truck” and the story doesn’t appear.  From that search we do find out that during the same time period “suspected Boko Haram militants have killed more than 20 people including multiple children in their latest attack on northern Cameroon.”  Did social media go crazy?  Were Americans mourning the deaths of these little (black) children in Africa with the same fervor as they were for one lion.  Remember that lion was also in Africa, so you can’t explain the apparent indifference by the remoteness of the act.

The clearest and most direct explanation of these apparent inconsistencies is the lack of perspective and critical thinking by average Americans.  No one has the time or energy to be outraged by everything.  When we react to one outrage, we automatically, though unconsciously, choose to ignore all the others.  When we let the media, politicians and late-night comedians set the agenda for us, we make no conscious decisions.  We merely bounce from one injustice to the next as they decide what counts and what doesn’t.  Our leaders show no sense of perspective and the populace follows along blindly, letting others call the shots by grabbing us emotionally and drawing us in before we have a chance to assess the relative proportions of each situation.  In this case Jimmy Kimmel and others chose to add to their reputation for decency by valuing the life of one lion above the lives of multiple humans.

How does this reflect on our core values as Americans, as human beings?  Does anyone slow down to question what is really important or weigh alternatives?  Does our short attention span coupled with a tendency to react first and think later, if at all, drive most decisions?  Lack of perspective as reflected in our behavior is making reality out of what was once a joke about Americans waking up wondering what we are going to be outraged about today.  There is no shortage of people ready to take advantage of that opening and lead us down whatever path they choose.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Responsibility and Freedom

The relationship between responsibility and freedom is one I have touched on several times in the past, but this article from the BBC really drives the point home.

It addresses the problem of obesity in the UK, so is not necessarily a good example for discipline problems in the US, although the data are scary and likely typical of 21st Century western attitudes in general.  A study included “278,982 men and women [not a small sample size] between 2004 and 2014 using electronic health records” and did not consider anyone who had weight-loss surgery.  It found that the “chance of returning to a normal weight after becoming obese is only one in 210 for men and one in 124 for women over a year.”

Those odds are outrageously poor, but also it would take an extraordinary effort (and possibly be unhealthy) to reduce from being obese to normal body weight in one year.  On a more realistic side, the chances of losing 5% of body weight over one year were one in 12 for men and one in 10 for women, “although most had regained the weight within five years.”

Now comes the real point and the real shocking viewpoint.  The researchers’ conclusion was that “weight management programmes via their GP were not working for the vast majority” and that “cutting calories and boosting physical activity aren't working for most patients.”  But if eating less and exercising more is not the answer (apparently because people don’t do it), what is?

They conclude that when people are not taking responsibility, the responsibility should be taken away from them.  In their words:  "The greatest opportunity for fighting the obesity epidemic might be in public health policies to prevent it in the first place."  What’s needed, they say is “wider-reaching public health policies to prevent obesity in the population.”

Does this mean something fairly simple, like more sidewalks and bike paths or something far more intrusive and sinister?  What I read is:  people can’t do it on their own so the government (public policy) has to intervene with rules and restrictions telling them what they can and can’t eat, and perhaps mandatory exercise.  “Prevention” implies not allowing certain practices and requiring certain others.  Those with good lifestyle habits will likely be swept up in this enthusiasm to help.  Do they want to require public weigh-ins to qualify to buy certain sweets and soft drinks or would they just take the New York City approach and start banning things?  Does the government charge a premium (or tax) on health insurance as insurers do now for smokers?  There are a bunch of very unpleasant forms this prevention could take as well-meaning people decide that we can’t or won’t take responsibility for our health and that more coercive or restrictive measures are called for.  The words “obesity epidemic” themselves imply a loss of control.  The biggest question is: do we really want to wait around to find out?

Note:  Shortly after writing this short essay, I came across an article asking, for safety reasons, "Should driverless cars be not only legal, but mandatory?"

Friday, July 24, 2015


In the last act of Comedy of Errors, William Shakespeare has a number of his characters calling on the Duke for justice.  Of course, each has something different in mind regarding this appeal.  But isn’t that the way things are in the world today?  People call for justice and their definition of justice seems to be colored by their experience, expectations and education.  Justice in this sense becomes so general as to be almost meaningless.  It joins the ranks of healthy, natural, green and sustainable as a word used to elicit automatic support from those who don’t take the time to think too hard about the specifics of the situation.

Behavior has consequences.  These consequences may take the form of hard lessons, unpleasant experiences, meant to teach us to change and improve our actions or decisions in the future.  Consequences are feedback mechanisms that either punish bad behavior or reinforce positive behaviors with pleasant outcomes.  Consequences may come immediately – touch a hot stove and burn a finger; or they may evolve over time – smoke cigarettes as a teen and develop lung cancer decades later.  Delayed consequences are more difficult to connect with the behavior and tend to be less powerful.  (That’s why the wise learn from the mistakes of others.)

Often, we find ourselves in a difficult position.  We (or the government we elect) have the power to protect people from the consequences of their behavior by bailing them out (or, in the case of government, forcing everyone else to finance the bailout).  Many consider these as just actions or just laws because they keep people from suffering.  They see these actions and laws and those that promote them as caring or compassionate, but there is a fine line between compassion and enabling:  the first protects someone who is not yet able to make changes on their own; the second protects someone who is capable but, as a result of this protection, chooses not to improve behavior.  This kind of enabling takes the responsibility away from others and is neither caring nor compassionate in its results, but instead may be very destructive.

It is not necessarily caring to isolate people from the consequences of their choices.  To deprive people of earned benefits or to protect people from earned and deserved sanctions is unjust and destructive to both the individuals and to society (because we are all linked by that economic spider web).  When the emphasis shifts too far in the direction of compassion in the name of justice, the important and beneficial concept of tough love is easily lost.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Free Book on Cancer

Advertisement:  “When hundreds of perfectly, reliable people gladly testify that they have been rescued from death's door by Dr. Bye's Combination Oil Treatment for Cancer and similar dreadful diseases, It is surely worth while to Investigate the methods and results of this treatment. Any one may obtain free of charge a finely illustrated book describing this simple and efficacious treatment, simply by writing Dr. W. O. Bye, Ninth and Broad way, Kansas City, Mo.”  

Don’t send away for this book yet!  This ad appeared in April 1909.  I found it in an article from around the same time period explaining how the US Post Office was investigating the supposed doctor for using the mail for fraudulent purposes.

In conjunction with the investigation the Post Office arranged to have his claims of a miracle cancer cure with an 82 percent success rate analyzed.  They obtained addresses of 20 people who had ordered it and found only one that claimed to be cured, but he had had surgery before his order arrived and the surgeon reported that his growth was not cancerous.

Subsequently the state Attorney General’s office conducted another investigation.  They found that the magic oils and pills consisted of such ingredients as cotton oil, Vaseline, various sugars, almond oil and syrup of sarsaparilla.  In part the reports stated:  "The results of this analysis show that the treatment furnished by Dr. Bye cannot by any possibility accomplish the results claimed for it in the cure of cancer. The agents of which it is composed have long been known to the medical profession but notwithstanding this fact no reliable authority makes the claim that, taken singly or together, they can be relied on for the cure of cancer. On the contrary, the fact is generally recognized among medical authorities that there is no substance or mixture of substance known at the present time which can be relied on for this purpose.”

The good doctor also prescribed cures for other illnesses including malaria, rheumatism, dropsy, deafness, tuberculosis and influenza.  He did so by developing a diagnosis based only on letters received from his patients.

But why should we care?  The case of Dr. Bye is one of many that was published by the Journal of the American Medical Association over 100 years ago with the intention of educating the public and of keeping them from falling for these too-good-to-be-true remedies.  But oils to cure cancer and similar miracle cures sound vaguely modern and familiar.  The problem remains.  Only the methods have changed.  The purveyors of these miracle cures now use the power of television and the Internet, obtain celebrity endorsements and encourage followers to share these questionable claims with Facebook friends.  They have slicker presentations and have no need to worry about accusations of postal fraud; and when they are called before Congress to testify, all we get are weak excuses and cries of being the real victim.

Now more than ever critical thinking is of paramount importance.  Technology advances at an accelerated pace, becoming faster and more sophisticated.  It’s in our pocket or purse, always available.  At the same time society's need for such education and public credulousness have progressed so little, if at all, over the last century.

Friday, July 17, 2015

More Food for Thought

When they launch a rocket, to resupply the space station for example, the fuel is liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.  When they combine, it causes a big explosion, which provides the thrust for the rocket.  The residue of this explosion is water vapor, H2O.  When the vapor cools and condenses into drops and falls to the earth as rain, does anyone suspect that this rain is not the same as the other water falling from the sky?  Is it considered dangerous or looked on with suspicion because it is synthetic or man-made as opposed to being natural?  Do parents worry more about their children being caught in the rain near Cape Canaveral because of this possibility?   It wouldn't come as a surprise since we seem to decide what to be scared of without regard to science.

According to a Yale/Gallup poll from last month, 71 percent of Americans are personally convinced that global warming is happening.  At the same time about 40 percent “believed there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.”  They conclude, “many Americans appeared to have already made up their minds, without waiting for a perceived scientific consensus.”  Well, science is about evidence and not consensus anyway, but compare this with the GMO scare.

About 90 percent of Americans are concerned enough about GMOs to favor a requirement that they be labeled as such, despite the fact that a consensus of scientists agree that they are safe and a “large scientific study from 2013 found no significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops."  In this case, a recent Pew Research Center survey finds that “two-thirds of the Americans they interviewed think scientists themselves don't fully understand all of the ways GMOs could affect health.”

What are the long term implications when so many Americans make up their minds about scientific issues on the basis of what they think should be the answer and justify it by declaring that the scientists don’t know for sure either?

In the end it’s all about marketing.  If you frown and say “chemical fertilizer,” you will hear a chorus of boos; but if you smile and say “plant food,” they haul out the Miracle-Gro sprayers.  People will trust and believe in anything they buy at a “health food” store, despite the fact that these packages are more likely to contain contaminants or be inaccurately labeled.  To solve the GMO fear, maybe they just have to call it something like crop enrichment instead.

See how we are controlled and manipulated by marketing and social media when we let our emotional responses override our critical thinking!