Friday, December 30, 2016

Easy Resolutions

It’s the end of another year; time to consider a few resolutions.  The trouble with resolutions is they take will power.  The dimension of discipline comes into play.  Why can’t there be some easy resolutions that are more about not doing something than about working hard.  That should make things considerably easier, and more rewarding in terms of that feeling of success.

A Christmas visitor directed me to this website.  The title of the article is “7 bad science and health ideas that should die with 2016.”  The authors write about how some wrong ideas just seem to stick around.  Friends tell friends.  Ideas become ingrained, and despite all the good science to the contrary, they just won’t go away.  According to the article, this particularly applies to seven myths “that were decisively debunked this year” or possibly debunked again in one more attempt to make them go away. 

This is one of my personal favorite subjects; the things people continue to believe and refuse to change their opinion despite overwhelming contrary evidence.  Instead they look to social media friends or their favorite echo-chamber news source for reassurance.  Throughout the last five and a half years I have brought up many of these subjects.  (For a few of my examples, just look to the history over the last six months where the title begins, “One More Time.”)

In this case though, since these are bad ideas, shown to be decisively incorrect, a good and easy New Year’s resolution would be simply to stop believing them.

The first myth – Exercise will help you lose weight.  Many studies show that “the extra calories you burn only account for a small part of your total energy expenditure, and that cutting your food intake is a much more efficient way to lose weight.”  

The actual myth should read "increasing exercise alone would lead to significant and lasting weight loss."  Exercise is really good.  It gets the blood pumping, which is good for the heart, and good for the bones and good for the brain.  It even helps reduce the chance of getting certain diseases.  But no one can increase exercise while maintaining the same diet and lose much weight.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  Programs led by the NFL and the First Lady are not going to impact the childhood obesity epidemic unless diets change also.  We could all start running marathons and it wouldn’t help.

The second myth – There’s been no global warming since 1998.  They present several charts and graphs to point out that the temperature has increased over that period.  There have been ups and downs – not unusual for a small data set, in this case less than 20 annual observations.  These ups and downs have led some to doubt whether the warming has persisted.  But the temperature has been increasing for the last 400 years, so the fact that we have not had a dramatic flattening or change of direction should surprise no one.

This myth misses the key questions about climate change.  Warming is not the issue.  The major questions are: first, whether actions prescribed will have any measurable effect on the warming, and second, whether the change in climate will be catastrophic.  The assumed answer to both these questions is yes.  But the large consensus about warming does not extend to these assumptions.  The danger is that if the answer to either is no, we have wasted a lot of resources, resources that will be needed to adapt to a catastrophic change if it comes or resources that will be completely wasted.  In the latter case we will have sacrificed some our standard of living and deprived third-world countries of the ability to improve theirs significantly for nothing.  Of course none of that matters because debate is closed.

The third myth - Antibiotics cure colds.  This is simple.  Antibiotics kill bacteria.  Viruses cause colds.  Bacteria and viruses are not the same.  But people take antibiotics and the cold goes away.  People also take vitamin C, Echinacea, zinc and other products and the cold goes away.  Then they all swear by the effectiveness of whatever they tried.  Of course, some people take nothing and the cold goes away.

The particular danger with antibiotics is that “the more we take antibiotics – particularly when they're not necessary – the more we increase the chances of helping develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”  A second concern is that they can wipe out good bacteria in our guts.  A third problem is that it’s a waste of money.

Some good, easy resolutions would be to drop the idea that exercise alone will be an effective weight loss program, to admit the earth is warming but not to panic over every dismal prediction, knowing that dismal predictions drive so much funding, and to lay off the antibiotics unless prescribed for a bacterial infection.

Come back Monday for a few more easy resolutions.

Monday, December 26, 2016

A Different Kind of Lobbying

Political lobbyists are the target of a lot of bad press, and deservedly so.  Big corporations, unions or other interest groups pay them to get the attention of lawmakers and to persuade them to pass laws or propose regulations that favor their particular industry or group.  Some say that these activities keep lawmakers informed on the subtleties of certain industries.  Better understanding of the dynamics can reduce the number of unintended consequences and those in Congress cannot be experts on everything.

On the other hand, most of the population has the impression that these meetings and lunches are little more than legalized bribes for the rich to disproportionately influence government, an attempt to bring “government in as a partner, looking to see what the country can do for them.”  The auto industry and banks get their bailouts.  The military is given weapons they haven’t requested and don’t want.  In short, to lobby is to try to get your way without regard to what others want or what is best overall for the country.

But there are other activities almost the same as lobbying that most people either ignore or consider healthy.  This came to mind when I came across a news story from England.  It is about behavior in a foreign country, but the type of behavior itself is certainly not foreign to Americans.  In fact it’s quite common.

The controversy arose over the new five-pound note.  When vegans and vegetarians discovered that the new tougher and more waterproof bill was made from a plastic polymer containing small amounts of tallow, derived from animal waste products, they took to social media demanding the contents be changed.  They called the use of even a small amount of animal products not cool and disgusting.  Their rights were being trampled.  Since they were not going to eat the pocket money and the contents were by-products of a food production process that would be thrown away otherwise, it’s hard to see how any harm was done.  It’s not like more animals were being slaughtered.  Yet some circulated a petition, gathering over 40,000 signatures, demanding that the contents be changed.

It’s so easy to click a box and sign an online petition.  And you get to feel good about yourself for caring about an issue that’s important to a minority.  You get to stick up for the underdogs, the victims, people whose beliefs were not even considered when the government tried to make their paper money more durable.  But 40,000 is less than one-tenth of one percent of the UK population and only about 3% report being vegetarian.  Does this even make a difference?

This behavior is repeated nearly daily in America.  People will protest slights against groups they aren’t even members of.  The protests are based on the theory that if they can get a large enough turnout and enough press coverage they can influence the national, state and local policy.  The lure is the same – be a savior, do the noble thing, defend the moral high ground. Feel good about yourself for defending the rights of the victims and the marginalized, even if those rights never existed before and even if the victims aren’t even human.  That’s how they get huge, vocal crowds or thousands of signatures when the issues affect a small minority.

We have seen this mindset recently protesting a pipeline in North Dakota, defending a mountain lion that was killing cattle in California, supporting workers who took on obligations before they could earn enough money to support those obligations, and something about solving a bathroom problem that few knew existed.  This is all about pressure on lawmakers.  They throw an organized tantrum until they either get there way or run out of energy.

It’s also so easy to vote, as the people in Massachusetts did to require that chickens and pigs live in larger cages.  Those in favor of happier chickens spent almost $5 million with small demonstrations and other means to publicize the animals' need for more comfortable accommodations.  Those arguing that such changes would raise the prices of eggs and bacon, hitting the poor especially hard, could only raise $300,000 to try to make their point.  The chickens won and the humans lost, primarily because the emotional appeal of reducing what was portrayed as suffering for the animals drowned out the appeal of helping the poor afford food.  So voters went home from the polls feeling like they had made a difference.

Some of these causes are worthy of attention; some are trivial.  But it all sounds like exactly the same dynamic as traditional lobbying to me.  Based on the theories that past behavior predicts future behavior and that behavior rewarded is behavior repeated, I predict that the future will yield more of this free lobbying compounding the problem.  Lawmakers will feel pressure from all sides, as every special interest exerts as much pressure as they can, either through monetary donations to campaigns, by button-holing at the capitol or by demonstrating in the streets and on social media, as those groups attract supporters with the promise that they will feel fulfilled, compassionate and morally superior.

Personally, I don’t think this second kind of lobbying is any healthier for the country than the first.  But we will see.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Peace On Earth?

Only a few months ago everyone, regardless of political views, seemed to be saying, “I can’t wait for this campaign to be over.”  Everyone, except for those few who really relished a good fight, was apparently thinking the same thing, that the presidential campaign was the nastiest, most tiring and most divisive in memory.  The general sentiment was how nice it would be to get back to a calmer time when most of the news was not about accusations tossed back and forth by the candidates, about fist fights breaking out after political rallies, about protests against the appearance of one of the candidates at a sight, or about leaks revealing each of the candidates prior criminal history.

For a long time people were encouraged to go out of their way not to bring up politics at family gatherings or social events for fear of causing major fallout.  Comments and posts on social media were as aggressive and mean as the daily sniping between the parties or the news media’s attempts to dig up the dirt.  Instead of calmly discussing points of disagreement, so-called friends called each other vile names when they found themselves at odds over which candidate was best – or at least, the lesser evil.  All that emotion and anger were exhausting, even to those on the sidelines, not directly participating.  We just hoped Election Day would arrive soon and it would all be over.

Now that the election has come and gone, it’s not over.  The sniping, bashing and name calling continue, not between the candidates anymore, but between their advocates and a still divided population, led by a mainstream media which, despite an attempt to appear non-partisan, can’t seem to hide the fact that they obviously felt the wrong candidate won.  On social media you see that one side has gotten out their crystal balls to determine what a disaster the next four years is going to be.  They are angry and worried sick.  For a while they called for recounts or a rebellion within the Electoral College in a futile attempt to overturn the election results.

The other side, again with crystal balls in hand, predicts that we are better off, and each attempt to smear the President-elect or question the outcome is met with sneers and equally nasty comments.

The truth is that no one has a crystal ball.  No one can predict the future with any accuracy.  If that were the case, we would all be rich and not so worried about it.  We just have to take what comes and hope for the best.  I wrote on the day before the election that most people were voting against rather than for a candidate, and that the poor choices we were left with was our own fault for not demanding better from the parties and from government in general.  Perhaps those who were griping about gridlock for the last four years will be praying for it over the next four.  This is not the answer.  The real solution is to use critical thinking to continuously question politicians, the media and advertisers, not reacting to the hype and forcing them to be honest.

In any case, this is not the season for anger and hate.  It’s the season for peace and joy and goodwill.  Let’s try to leave the politics behind just for a little while.  So over the next couple of days, no matter who you are spending time with and no matter how obnoxious Uncle So-and-so gets, try to ignore the provocation.  Take a deep breath and count to ten.  It doesn’t matter what your religious affiliation is or what this end of the year means to you personally, try to find and share some of that peace, joy and goodwill – even if you have to fake it.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Something About Rights

Thinking about how people behave toward the rights of others lately can become very confusing.

About six weeks ago leading up to the election, there was quite a bit of talk about exercising your right to vote.  Public service ads appeared on TV about how important it was to vote and how your vote made a difference.  As is usually the case around election time, some volunteers worked with car pools and vans to make sure all voters were able to get to the polls.  Some continued to subscribe to the argument that requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls was a burden and discriminatory.  In short, many people came together in an effort to make it as easy as possible for everyone interested to exercise their right to vote.

We also have a right to bear arms, yet I have seen few efforts to make it as easy as possible to buy a gun.  In fact the opposite seems to be true.  Exercising this right is burdened by several requirements:  background check, waiting period, etc.  Where are the people who will drive me to the gun show or the firing range if I have trouble getting there on my own? – The idea of this seems silly.  There aren’t television ads encouraging people to exercise this right, and most comments are to the contrary.  Two rights receive opposite reactions.

We also have a right to trial by jury and to be considered innocent until proven guilty.  This seems to be a right everyone is in favor of for themselves, but objects to for others.  If law enforcement or courts do not do what citizens think they should have done, based on knowledge of the case picked up from the news or social media, the protesters begin demanding “justice.”  Sometimes they even ignore the crime victim’s or their family’s pleas for calm and patience as the process plays out. 

We also have a right to free speech.  Supposedly you can say what you want to without repercussions, particularly from the government.  But students at various universities protest against the appearance of outside speakers because what they say may be offensive or not correspond with their worldview.  Students are supposedly in college to learn.  Sometimes their ideas are wrong, and sometimes it’s just educational to understand another’s point of view.  Instead they protest demanding a cancellation of the event or attend to heckle the speaker already having made up their minds that the person is evil or offensive.  When confronted with the idea of freedom of speech, they smugly argue that the First Amendment only applies to government interference.

It has gotten to the point where a few universities have adopted the Chicago Principle, originated at the University of Chicago.  It holds that if the speech or written statement is legal and not threatening, harassing, defamatory, or a substantial invasion of privacy, it must be considered, discussed and debated regardless of whether it may be thought by some to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.  This action tries to move the focus from some vague notion of offense or anticipated offense to one of learning.

And it’s not just students.  Society bans the use of certain words by certain people, and they can only refer to them by their initials, even when discussing the word itself.  Many people feel they must consider their word choice very carefully for fear of committing an inadvertent offense or micro-aggression.  If you refer to America as a melting pot, you are demeaning someone’s heritage and traditions.  If you refer to our Forefathers, you are subjugating half the population.  And on it goes.  Political rallies have become scenes of name-calling and accusations rather than of debate and the post-rally walk to the car features fighting in the streets.

Critical thinking leads to the conclusion that we don’t treat rights the same.  Some are encouraged, some defended, some ignored and some applied selectively.  Isn’t that worth considering?

Friday, December 16, 2016

(Mis)understanding Insurance

As I was reading the transcript of Scott Pelley’s 60 Minutes interview with House Speaker Paul Ryan, I noticed that he seemed to be not interested in hard news or in-depth information so much as he was interested in tripping up the Speaker, trying to put him in a position of disagreeing with his new boss, making one or the other of them look bad, or uncovering something potentially embarrassing.

He asked how often they speak on the phone and who initiates the conversation.  The answers were almost daily and both.  No news there.  How does he answer the phone?  He doesn’t say, ‘This is the president-elect?’”  No.  “Have you told him being president is not being CEO of the United States, that the Congress is going to have a say?”  Instead of asking how the two got together after a contentious election, he asked, “Who apologized to whom?”  It’s clear by now that Pelley has no liking or respect for Trump, thinks he is a bully and a racist, and is searching for evidence to back up his views.  Better yet, he would like to get Ryan to agree on any point that might make it seem he is of the same opinion.

The silliness and self-serving finally comes to a close, and Pelley asks a number of questions about policy issues.  Soon he gets to the details about possible changes to Obamacare and the sniping continues.  At one point Pelley says “And women will pay the same as men? That didn’t used to be the case.”  This is a question designed to bait an answer that will incite outrage.  He is trying to get some admission of bias against women, showing in the process that he does not understand how insurance works and counts on the fact that many Americans don’t either.

Insurance usually works by assessing the risk and charging premiums accordingly.  If you have homeowner’s insurance you expect a discount for having a working alarm system.  Teen drivers are generally less safe than more experienced drivers, but boys have more accidents than girls.  Auto insurance for a young man 16-25 is higher.  There is no outrage there.  It’s not unusual for companies to charge smokers more for their health insurance benefits.  Owners of cars with higher repair costs pay higher premiums.  Older cars are cheaper to insure due to the lower replacement cost.  Those who don’t drive as many miles sometimes pay lower premiums.  Costs of auto and homeowners insurance vary by what part of the country and by the size of the town or city you live in.  And since women outlive men and take fewer chances, they pay less for life insurance.  Older people pay more, as do those who participate in dangerous hobbies like skydiving or juggling chainsaws.

This all happens without a stir.  Everyone seems to understand that certain classes of people are at a higher risk for either the frequency or the size of insurance claims.  Hence they should pay more.  The ones in the classes with higher premiums don’t like it, but they pay.  So why would people be upset that some women, especially those of childbearing age, might have to pay more?  That “used to be the case” and it didn’t have anything to do with prejudice or victimization.

Apparently the government and some group of citizens have decided that now charging women more for health insurance can be justified only by prejudice.  Everyone must purchase the same insurance for the same cost or there will be an uproar.  And Scott Pelley and others in his profession are more than happy to incite and later fan the flames of that uproar, because it makes their job of reporting the news so much easier.  Their job is not to inform or to educate; their job is to attract views and clicks.  Nothing does that better than a good demonstration or protest, even those grounded in fundamental misunderstanding.

(I have often said that the problems with healthcare costs cannot be solved with insurance changes, but that’s for another discussion.)