Friday, July 29, 2016

A Caution And A Question

Two recent news items bear a little additional reflection.

The first is the release of a new study on dementia.  This should come as no surprise.  Each year around this time researchers meet for the Alzheimer's Association International Conference.  Hence, each year around this time we get results of the latest research as the reports and papers are presented at that meeting.

The headline from Reuters reads: “Brain Games Might Cut Alzheimer's Risk.”  Note the use of the word might.  For years companies have been trying to sell us various brain games to make us smarter and especially to help fight dementia.  They have been doing this without firm scientific support.  Now they have a might on their side, which is better than the pure skepticism they faced in the past.

The study design sounds like a good one.  The original study, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and “known as Active, examined the effects of cognitive training programs on 2,785 healthy older adults.”  They gave each of three groups a different exercise based on:  reasoning, speed of recognition or memory.  Some participants got follow-up sessions.  Reviewing progress after one, two, three, five and 10 years, they found “modest benefits” in cognitive and functional abilities for only the first two groups.

Frustrated by the lack of attention to the potential benefit of brain games, one scientist, who is also a paid consultant for a brain game company, “did a secondary analysis of the 10-year data, looking at the time it took individuals to develop dementia.”  She found “that the group that did speed training showed 33 percent less risk of dementia relative to the control group.”  This is an encouraging result, but it was presented to the conference before peer review and publication in a scientific journal.  The structure of the second analysis is not clear, and the motivation for it seems a bit suspicious.

The caution, therefore, is to watch out for a new wave of brain game advertising following on the heels of this latest, more encouraging but not definitive review.

That was the caution, now the question.

The question comes from a report about artists objecting to politicians using their music for campaign events.  Last year a Rolling Stone headline read:  “Stop Using My Song: 35 Artists Who Fought Politicians Over Their Music.”  More recently, in light of some vocal objections to music used at the Republican Convention, another report pointed out “there have been 30 instances of artists objecting to presidential candidates' use of their music since 1984.”  (Of these two were against Democrats.)

The question, especially for these left-leaning musicians is, how do those objections to using your (legally purchased/licensed) music in a way that is contrary to your conscience and values differ from the objections of a privately owned bakery to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding?  It seems that the same laws should apply in both cases and any objections should evoke the same level of outrage.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I have no problem with same-sex marriage (nor am I a republican or a democrat.)  I only question how certain principles (like we serve everybody) can be embraced on one hand, with corporations withdrawing support and public demonstrations, whereas they are ignored or overturned on the other.  Principles as a matter of convenience or personal preference are not principles at all.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Cryotherapy: Another Magic Bullet

An astute reader from Green Bay, WI brought this to my attention.  A cryotherapy service opened in the area and the local newspaper printed a glowing report.

The word comes from the Greek for cold, so using ice or any very cold material as a treatment may be considered cryotherapy. It has a long history of use for relief from athletic injuries.  Remember RICE: rest, ice, compression and elevation.  The “I” may include the application of ice, cold packs or a bag of frozen vegetables. The cold temperature reduces inflammation, but long-term benefits are not clear.

Now, Forbes tells us that instead of just icing a twisted ankle, people are opening facilities “exposing the entire body to very low (subzero) temperatures, sometimes below -200 degrees Fahrenheit, for a few minutes…Often, the person will stand in a tank or closet-like device, wear minimal clothing and be bathed in liquid nitrogen or refrigerated cold air.”  Of course they have their share of celebrity endorsements, which is always a watch-out.

The site reports that while it has been successfully used “to treat conditions such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis” in addition to injuries and muscle soreness, it is now being promoted “to lose weight, improve skin, boost mood and more – despite the fact that it's not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and isn't intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

They point out that, even if it works, which has not been proven, there are better ways to treat all of these conditions.  The newspaper article does not include weight loss as a benefit, but claims that it improves “immune system function,” which would be even harder to prove or disprove.  Forbes adds: “A closer look shows that many of these claims are not yet grounded in credible scientific evidence.”

What we have so far is a lot of placebo effect, a sugar pill clothed as a blast of frigid air at a cost of $59 a pop.  My reader concludes:  “I am thinking of advertising a similar service this winter. Instead of a man-made container, I will advertise an all-natural experience, ensuring fresh air and no exposure to leaching metal containers. I will charge people $20 and let them stand in my backyard in their bathing suit.”  I could point out that he has no medical or training background, but the same is true for the people in the newspaper article, and no one seemed to object.  So there is a market for cold in Green Bay, home of the famed NFL “Ice Bowl”!  (I wonder if heat treatments in Death Valley would also sell.)  Never underestimate the power of America's craving for another magic answer.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Changing the Mythology

Over the last two weeks I have made the case that everyone has a personal mythology.  People run stories in their heads about the what and why of everything happening around them.  To be heroes of their stories depends on following an underlying mythology that sets the rules for judging noble, moral behavior.  It is this underlying mythology that drives actions and decisions, not whether people are inherently evil, greedy or stupid.  Calling them names or shouting them down has no effect, except possibly minor, temporary victories and new enemies.

We look at ISIS or white supremacists and easily recognize their mythology.  Most Americans agree that those mythologies – one about building a caliphate to wipe out infidels as they usher in the end of the world and the other about racial superiority – are just plain wrong.  But many mythologies of our friends and neighbors are not so clear-cut in terms of morality.  There are gray areas with strong arguments on both sides, and some people don’t remain our friends long if their mythologies are too much at odds with ours as each side refuses to budge.

One problem is that some of the tenets of these modern mythologies lead individuals in the wrong direction.  They waste time and money.  They lead people to support political solutions that waste everyone’s time and money.  When confronted, they cling to their core beliefs and coalesce into camps or tribes to help them support and justify their position.

A second problem comes from the speed and reach of modern communications.  Ideas are flying everywhere and people are more interested in clinging to ideas of their liking than taking time to find out if what they are hearing is true.  Just as in casual conversation, it’s cooler to come up with a witty retort or story of your own experience than to check the facts.

The result is what we have today:  a deeply divided populace, short on meaningful debate, throwing slogans, insults and accusations back and forth, and then retreating to their own corners for support and reinforcement.

Many people use kind words about understanding, tolerance and compassion, but it doesn’t play out that way.  Even those who claim to be most tolerant and compassionate are often the first and the loudest to call someone with different ideas an idiot or a hater.  They ask everyone to be open-minded, that is, to accept their point of view; but open-minded means listening to and considering another point of view, not accepting every crazy idea that comes along.  Our politicians lead by example in an increasingly divisive and unproductive use of accusations and labels.  There must be an end to this!

Our objective should be to unify Americans around the idea of putting an end to the waste in society and to reduce the number and intensity of behavioral errors in the key dimensions.  This will get the country moving in the right direction.  Doing it through behavior is the solution and is a viable alternative to gathering into tribes and fighting.

But this will be an uphill battle.  The wasteful and dangerous behavior is so often initiated and reinforced by deep-seated modern myths.  It must be an evolution, rather than a revolution, improving choices and decisions by chipping away at the underlying myths.  These myths include:  that it’s uncool to be conscientious; that being complacent about and tolerant of bad habits is appropriate; that there really is some magic cure to all our ills but doctors and others are hiding it to protect their own interests; that "natural" or "ancient" is equivalent to good because modern science can’t be trusted; that a growing economy only benefits a few; that wanting it all and wanting it now without concern for the future is the way to live; that the government has unlimited funds to bail everyone out; and all the rest.  Take for example the housing boom/bust.  The crisis sprang from the wrong belief that everyone has a “right” to the American Dream instead of the healthy belief that success requires hard work and sacrifice.

All these faulty myths are constantly reinforced: by the media to attract an audience, by advertisers to make sales and by politicians to get re-elected.  Only a few years ago no one, except a small percentage with a specific medical condition, worried about gluten-free diets.  Now almost 20% of Americans look for it on packaging, while manufacturers are all too happy to accommodate the fad by plastering it on more and more labels, even in products where the prospect of finding any gluten is zero.  And that’s just one example.  Thanks to the rapid and widespread reach of social media, more faulty myths are being created and reinforced daily.

To change people’s minds we must somehow get them to modify their mythology, not just assume that everyone else is stupid and evil. The only hope is for a significant group of Americans to become more aware of the behavior-consequences link in their lives and the lives of those close to them.  We must begin resisting impulses, thinking more carefully, understanding the economy better, taking responsibility, improving education for all, working for results instead of demanding them as rights, and being more selective.  We must begin challenging advertisers, politicians and the news media to give us straight information, instead of playing to our fears, insecurities and social fads.  Some myths are just plain wrong leading people in the wrong direction with potentially harmful results.  It is right to be intolerant of behaviors that show a lack of responsibility or make matters worse.  Tough love is still a valid response to those making bad decisions. 

Use behavior and consequences to point out problems.  Calling people stupid gets us nowhere and is probably incorrect.  They merely have a different mythology that they turn to first for direction.  Treating essential oils like a miracle drug is no crazier or stupider than thinking the sun is pulled around the sky by a god in a chariot.  It’s just a different mythology.

Behavior is in a sense infectious.  We read headlines about how your friends can make you fat and such - because we share their habits and tastes (and mythologies).  By being sensitive to the behavior-consequences link and changing our own behavior accordingly, it may be possible to "infect" others.  And as we get more Americans on board with these ideas, advertisers, politicians and the media may respond by giving us better information and joining the fight against erroneous, wasteful and harmful behavior.   One can only hope.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Critical Thinking and Perspective Mythologies

(This is a continuation of a series of postings beginning on July 8.  It would be best to start reading at that point.)

Last time I gave examples of how the personal mythology can lead us astray within the dimensions of discipline and responsibility.  The same approach applies to critical thinking and perspective.

One of the primary tenets of critical thinking is to question everything, or at least take a little time to consider.  Several experts from diverse fields have published books recently on the tendency of people to “think fast,” as one author puts it.  We have inherited from our distant ancestors the instinct to react to possible danger and not hang around to determine if that shadowy thing in the bushes is a snake or just a twig.  This instinct serves us well when crossing a busy street but can get us into a lot of trouble when shopping or making health decisions.  In most situations in modern society, we can easily find the time to make deliberate, well thought out decisions instead of knee-jerk reactions.  But that is harder work, and as in the case of discipline the path of least resistance is more appealing.  We don’t check facts; we often just decide and move on.

People who put the same value on supposed facts they hear from friends and neighbors as they do on those from doctors and other reliable authorities are particularly vulnerable to consequences of poor critical thinking.  So often we hear examples of a new scientific study that contradicts previous studies.  Instead of trying to understand why this happens, many get discouraged and disregard all studies preferring to believe slick advertising that promises a miracle cure.  When it seems to work for a friend, neighbor or celebrity, they latch on and make it part of their mythology.  That is why so much is wasted each year on dietary supplements and alternative medicine, despite a lack of evidence and reasonable warnings about possible dangers.

One reason for the confusion and rejection of science is that many scientists are as prone to cling to their own myths as anyone else.  One good example is the low fat vs. low sugar controversy among dieticians that I wrote about in May of this year.

It’s not just medicines, but Fung Shui, fortune telling, communicating with spirits, ESP, telekinesis and a host of other practices.  These become part of the mythology on the weak basis of anecdotal evidence, that is, just stories or someone’s word.  When faced with reality, they counter with other single examples, personal experience, celebrity endorsements, or merely insults against the challenger.

The list is long, and some enterprising individuals and companies make fortunes pushing these products and services.  They maintain a following, sometimes even in the face of public disgrace and arrest, because whole mythologies are built on this unscientific foundation.  And it’s not just a matter of throwing away money.  In one recent case, a Canadian couple was convicted in the meningitis death of their 19-month-old son because they relied exclusively on natural remedies and advice from a naturopathic doctor.

Critical thinking is so prevalent that nearly 40% of these essays show real-life examples from the daily news of how weakness in this area has the potential to result in unhappy consequences, money thrown away or worse.

The last of the key dimensions is perspective.  People with perspective develop an appreciation for what they have.  They feel real gratitude for how blessed they are.  A lack of gratitude turns into a kind of greed.  Similar to the greed that bankers and hedge fund managers are accused of, this greed pushes people to want more and more.  They are unsatisfied, even after a day of shopping, haunted by this deep feeling that they haven’t got enough or aren’t enough, or that things just aren’t right and the deck is stacked against them.  They feel deprived, even as the personal storage business thrives by renting extra space to store stuff that can’t fit in the houses, basements and even garages as cars in the suburbs are parked on the street.

This is brought home by the popularity of the word suffering, at a time when real suffering in the traditional sense is unknown to the majority of Americans.  Advertisers and the media urge us to think of the slightest discomfort or inconvenience as suffering in an attempt to get us to act or to react.  Because of the mythological belief that we deserve more and deserve better in all aspects of life, many people eagerly agree with this message.  We are suffering and need the magic pill, miracle cure or motivational program to make us pain-free, materially satisfied and to see ourselves as a success as we let the rest of the world define it.

In a sense perspective wraps everything up, as we need critical thinking to see through the hollow promises and to help separate what’s important from the trivial, discipline to make the time to reflect, and responsibility not to blame all our woes on someone else, therefore expecting someone else to fix it.  But perspective adds the calming outlook that not everything in life is a tragedy.  We struggle with perspective because many opposing messages and ideas have been adopted into our personal mythologies with no shortage of people and institutions to reinforce them with a constant stream of political and advertising hype.

So, as with the other dimensions discussed previously, problems with critical thinking and perspective arise from deep-seated assumptions in our mythologies.  They are not a matter of being stupid or unaware.  They are not a matter of being evil or greedy.  The behaviors are fully justified by underlying beliefs that each individual has not taken the time or awareness to sufficiently challenge.

Friday, July 15, 2016

More Dimensions of Mythology

(This is a continuation of a series of postings beginning on July 8.  It would be best to start reading at that point.)

Last time I gave examples of how the personal mythology can lead us astray within the dimension of economic understanding.  Now, we move on to discipline.

Discipline is the dessert dimension.  It focuses on delaying gratification and doing the hard work necessary to reap rewards.  So what if I don’t study, the test isn’t until next week.  So what if I spend all my money as I earn it, retirement is a long way off.  So what if I smoke cigarettes, I can always quit before it gets too serious.  So what if I have a drinking problem, I’ll sober up in time for work.  So what if I don’t finish high school, it’s boring and there are more exciting ways to spend my time.  And so it goes.  The consequences are remote, and people think they can afford to not take them seriously.

There is some mythology at work here, some story people are telling themselves to justify the action, to make themselves the heroes of their life stories.  It’s not cool to diet or save up for a large expenditure or practice moderation or, in some cases, abstain.  That’s hard work, and besides it’s not cool to worry about the future.  Live for today!

These bad habits don’t happen in isolation.  When millions of people buy more house than they can afford, the economy crashes.  When two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese, it has ramifications in health costs for us all.  When people reach retirement age with no savings, they look to the government, that is the rest of the taxpayers, to bail them out.  When people haven’t acquired the skills and education to get more than a minimum wage job, they expect us to help them raise their families, through artificially high pay or government support.  All these supportive actions that count in some mythologies as compassion are, in many cases, crutches for people with self-inflicted wounds.  But those who take this tough-love view are condemned as uncaring.

Responsibility follows discipline because when people fail in discipline, a natural response is to try to blame someone else.  To remain the hero of their personal mythology, they can’t admit weakness or failure, so they claim victimhood.  "It wasn’t something I did; it just happened to me."  This stance makes it easy for others, who also want to be the heroes of their own story, to step in, riding to the rescue with funds, programs, legal defense or new laws. 

Government agencies, private advocates and various programs are a natural spin-off of these pleas for help.  But what many don’t understand is that when we don’t take responsibility, we give up some freedom.  These programs and agencies don’t go away.  They have a mission.  In many cases the irresponsibility of a few results in restrictions on everyone.  When someone is careless and then claims to be a victim, passing on the (financial) liability, it affects all of society.  Every school, club, and organization in the country cannot function today without insurance and hold-harmless agreements signed in advance.  The number and sheer silliness of some product warning labels are not just a source of amusement, but a serious symptom of society gone wrong.

Some consumer protection is needed and the FTC does a good job of catching and prosecuting companies for false advertisements, but we as consumers have a responsibility to research and make reasonable decisions about our own spending and our lives in general.

This whole idea of research and reasonable decisions leads to critical thinking, which is where I’ll pick it up next time.